By: Mary T. Van Andel

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As they settled into the old chair surrounded by shelves of books and the jungle of plants that filled my office, my parishioners told me about their kids and their jobs, their love affairs and loneliness, their losses and hopes. I listened carefully, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that they were trying to tell me far more than the content of their lives. I ‘got it’ intuitively, and responded out of that intuitive understanding. But I didn’t truly understand, intellectually at least, what it was I was ‘getting.’ They kept coming back.

Those early pastoral conversations long ago launched me on a search to more fully comprehend what people were really saying. I wanted to understand more deeply the precious gifts that were being laid before me as people spoke of their lives—the questions their experiences raised that brought them near despair, as well as the longings that pulled them forward in spite of their darkness. Through my search to understand, I discovered—much to my surprise and though I had never heard of it then—that I was giving spiritual direction.

Over time, I came to learn that spiritual direction is an ancient ministry the church has valued for millennia—a ministry practiced by people who were deeply attentive to their own experience of God and who had been given a gift for deep listening, spiritual companionship, and the ability to guide others. People who ministered as spiritual directors were men and women whose spiritual acuity was recognized by others; who were spiritual pilgrims themselves, trained by their experience of life with God.

Spiritual direction was completely foreign to me as a Protestant–or so I thought. The closest parallel in my experience was the pastoral care I had received, usually offered through teaching and guidance. Another parallel, of course, taking its cue more directly from psychology, is care offered through sensitive listening, but with an ear to pathology and behavioral function, and with the aim of changing a situation or behavior to make things better. While the healthful function and social adaptation psychology seeks to nurture is also important and certainly directly related to a person’s spiritual state, spiritual direction is more about transformation, which in a psychologically healthy person sometimes means mal-adaptation. God’s people are rarely called to conform to this world, but to be transformed—and in turn, to transform the world.

What I neglected to recognize as a parallel were the people in my life who, though they had no identified role or specialized training, loved me so deeply I felt sure of it. They walked beside me, held a light for me to walk toward in my darkness, taught me what I needed to know when I needed to know it, and asked questions that fanned my curiosity. They liberated me to respond and advanced my spiritual maturation. These people served as my informal spiritual directors and gave me bread for the journey.

As I learned about spiritual direction and recognized my own history with it, I also learned that a spiritual director listens to a person with one ear and the Spirit with the other. I began to understand intellectually what was going on when I ‘got it,’ intuitively. Without realizing it or being able to name it, I was listening to two voices. The stories people told were the vehicles through which deeper movements of the Spirit flowed.

In the decades since, spiritual direction has become very popular. Training programs have arisen, and more people now search out spiritual direction.  Whether the popularity of spiritual direction indicates a fierce spiritual hunger, points to the inadequacies of the church, or is simply a religious fad is unclear. Regardless of the impetus, spiritual direction can be a rich tool for spiritual enrichment, clarifying and sustaining a sense of call, nurturing spiritual maturation, and sustaining sanity in people who serve others in the name of God.

While there are libraries of books that define spiritual direction and many ways to practice it, I appreciate Father Maurice Proulx’s description of spiritual direction as “sculpting in smoke.” To be sure, it is an imprecise art/practice/ministry, with endless potential for living out love. Sadly, there is also potential for the director’s misuse of the role. The role is misused if the director insists on controlling the directee, is afraid to speak honestly, or is too harsh under the guise of ‘speaking the truth in love.’

I would describe a spiritual director as a person who always remembers that he or she is the riverbed through which the Spirit’s direction flows, and who truly knows that he or she is also a spiritual pilgrim. As such, the director accompanies another; attends to patterns in the directee’s life and relationships; listens deeply to his/her words, body, and presence, in order to help the directee recognize his/her experience of God. A solid knowledge of human psychology is invaluable, as is knowledge of addiction. A director discerns what blocks or opens the directee’s way to God, offers and teaches spiritual practices appropriate for the directee, and helps her/him attend to and explore directions God may be beckoning. A well-anchored spiritual director can be expected to serve as a trusted confidant, sometimes as counselor, often as teacher and guide.

In my view, spiritual direction is invaluable for church workers. We are vulnerable mortals doing challenging, spiritually demanding work. We are involved in complex relationships that will typically include issues of power, authority, approval and disapproval, sexuality and gender—all in complex organizations or churches with histories, cultures, and spirits of their own. Engaging in spiritual direction as a spiritual practice lends integrity to ministry and sustains strength for ministry. I see spiritual direction as essential for those who give spiritual direction and pastoral care. If we are not willing to make ourselves vulnerable to the love and guidance of others, how dare we allow others to entrust us with their care?

Especially for church workers, it is typically wise to find someone who is theologically trained, who has availed her/himself of training for spiritual direction (which comes in many different models, so do ask about the director’s training and judge for yourself), and who is in ongoing spiritual direction him/herself. Beyond those basics, it is wise to meet initially, take 10 days to discern whether the ‘fit’ is right, and proceed or back away as needed. I found it helpful to conduct the first session free, asking the directee to pay for it only if we both discern that the relationship is appropriate.

Finding a formal director does not mean we cannot get a great deal of spiritual wisdom, insight, and guidance from people we see every day. One of the best theologians and spiritual guides I know patches roads for a living, has a sixth-grade education, and cuts through blather with kindness and wisdom.  He might be a perfect spiritual director for you if you are prone to getting lost in ideas, worship being smart, and tend to talk too much.

That said, most of us will need a person who has the gift, and who also has knowledge of the Scriptures, church history, and systematic theology, as well as refined listening skills and personal maturity. Look for a person whom you trust and whose life and relationships show consistency between faith and lived reality (not perfection or an affected sense of being ‘spiritual’). Ask people you respect and trust for references for spiritual directors, and keep your eyes and heart open for people in whose presence you feel accepted, safe, and understood (which is not the same as people who agree with you). Look for someone who, though he or she may be of a quiet nature, is open and fully alive; who knows joy and sorrow, fear and courage, failure and celebration, beauty and horror.

As for the practical things—though it’s not always possible, it is best to meet by appointment for a prescribed time and in a private place. The director should work out with you what to expect regarding when, where, and how often you meet, and what payment is expected for the director’s time. A fee is important. A fee helps to avoid resentment on the director’s part or obligation on your part; acknowledges his/her time, skill, and training; helps distinguish the relationship from a friendship, and the time from a social engagement. At the beginning of the relationship, talk about how you might end the relationship when and if the time comes.

Finally, know that you are in good company. Moses had Miriam and Aaron; Ruth had Naomi; Esther had Mordecai; Mary had Elizabeth; Jesus had Mary Magdalene; Paul had Timothy. You will never be sorry for creating a relationship with the companion and guide God has prepared for you.

Mary T. Van Andel holds a Bachelor of Arts from Hope College, a Master of Divinity from Western Theological Seminary, both in Holland, Michigan, and a Master of Theological Studies in spirituality and psychology from Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, Illinois. Ordained in the Reformed Church in America in 1980, and now a Presbyterian pastor, Mary serves as associate pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Her life is enriched by walking and biking, her cherished friends, music, cooking and other domestic arts, reading, the good earth, and quiet times alone with pen in hand. Mary and her marriage partner, Ben Sikkink, are founders and hosts at Bethabara in Saugatuck, Michigan, a place for prayer and retreat.