What Spiritual Direction Is (...and What it Isn't)

Part 1 of our “What is Spiritual Direction?” Series: What spiritual direction is, how it differs from other one-to-one caring relationships, and resources for learning more.

Happy 2019 to you! 

If you’re reading this blog post, chances are you’ve explored our website a bit, and now you may be wondering…what exactly is spiritual direction? 

Truthfully, defining spiritual direction is a bit tricky, even though it is a ministry that has been around for a long, long time. To give you a full (but not exhaustive) picture of spiritual direction, we’ve created a three-part blog series (of which this post is the first):

  1. What is Spiritual Direction (...and what it isn’t)

  2. What to Expect in Spiritual Direction

  3. The Benefits of Spiritual Direction

First, we’ve found it helpful to distinguish spiritual direction from other caring relationships that may (or may not) share some similarities to spiritual direction. This handy-dandy table (adapted from Jeanette Bakke’s Holy Invitations) helps to describe these distinctions:

Adapted from Jeannette Bakke’s Holy Invitations: Exploring Spiritual Direction (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2000. Pp. 28-29).

Adapted from Jeannette Bakke’s Holy Invitations: Exploring Spiritual Direction (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2000. Pp. 28-29).

How Spiritual Direction Is Different

Pastoral counseling, discipleship, mentoring, life coaching, and therapy share some common traits with spiritual direction, but the ends differ. Most of these other caring relationships are working towards solving a particular personal or relational issue. A counselor or therapist is likely helping their client to work through mental, emotional or relational struggles, while a mentor or discipler is helping their mentee or disciple to develop skills and traits, or to pursue personal and career goals.

A spiritual director’s purpose is not to actually direct; that role belongs solely to the Holy Spirit. A spiritual director’s purpose is to prayerfully listen, to follow the movements of the Holy Spirit’s work in the directee’s life as they openly and freely share their experiences, emotions, and longings in their relationship with God. A spiritual director might help the directee to ask, “Where is God in this?” or “How am I experiencing God in this?”

Sue Pickering defines spiritual direction as “one person (the director) prayerfully supports and encourages another person (the directee) to attend and respond to God” (Spiritual Direction: A Practical Introduction. Norwich: Canterbury Press, 2008. P. 3). Simply put, spiritual direction is co-discernment

Margaret Guenther words it beautifully in her book Holy Listening:

“Spiritual direction is not psychotherapy nor is it an inexpensive substitute, although the disciplines are compatible and frequently share raw material. Spiritual direction is not pastoral counseling, nor is it to be confused with the mutuality of deep friendships, for it is unashamedly hierarchical. Not because the director is somehow ‘better’ or ‘holier’ than the directee, but because, in this covenanted relationship the director has agreed to put himself aside so that his total attention can be focused on the person sitting in the other chair. What a gift to bring to another, the gift of disinterested, loving attention!” (Guenther, Holy Listening, p. 3)

Offering an hour of my time in order to listen to another person unfold their prayer life and experience of God is indeed one of the greatest gifts. (To read both of our stories about our experience with spiritual direction, check out my post here and Bryan’s here.) Our instructors for spiritual direction training called this work “dusting for the fingerprints of God,” which conjures up the image of a museum curator dusting off works of art to uncover the beauty and complexity beneath.  I count this as a sacred privilege, to create and hold space for my directees to process their spiritual lives without fear of judgment, condemnation, or shame, and to listen carefully for God’s presence.

Resources on Spiritual Direction

A few books and links we’d recommend if you’re wanting to learn more:

  • Holy Invitations: Exploring Spiritual Direction, Jeannette Bakke

  • Holy Listening: The Art of Spiritual Direction, Margaret Guenther

  • Spiritual Direction: A Guide to Giving and Receiving Direction, Gordon Smith

  • "What Is Spiritual Direction?” - Evangelical Spiritual Director’s Association, Grafted Life Ministries

  • “Spiritual Direction, Parts 1 and 2” - Ruth Haley Barton, The Transforming Center

If you’re considering spiritual direction, we’d love to help you! Send us a message on our Contact Us page, and we’ll do all we can to help you find a spiritual director (even if you’re not in the Sacramento area!).