Formation / Theology

Spiritual Direction: Why We Need It

When I took a two-year training course in spiritual direction in 1992, I didn’t really know what it was. At the time, I was exploring how best to prepare seminarians to thrive in ministry over the long haul of their calling. The seminary where I worked had asked me to research that very question and then to come up with models for accomplishing that goal. Even in 1992, the statistics for pastors thriving in ministry for the long haul were grim. Today, 30 years later, the long-term health and success of spiritual leaders is even less likely.[1]

For that reason, I was very earnest to figure out how best to change those statistics. I read extensively on the history and development of theological education, Christian spiritual formation[2], leadership development, and the needs of pastors and spiritual leaders.

Early on, I discovered that the way Jesus and the early church prepared people for ministry was quite different from how it was being done in most theological schools. In theological schools, biblical, theological, and historical training and the development of skills such as preaching and pastoral counseling were consistently important. But there was a critical missing factor—spiritual mentoring from a wise and mature guide in a confidential setting over a period of time. In theological education we had exchanged listening, accountability, and companionship for desks, lectures, and grades.

In theological education we had exchanged listening, accountability, and companionship for desks, lectures, and grades. Click To Tweet

Grounded in History

Throughout the Scriptures and the history of the church, seeking the wisdom and input of a spiritually mature person was normal. In the fourth century, the theologian John Cassian even developed guidelines for spiritual direction. From the first century church to today, spiritual direction was a real thing—though not always widely used by the institutional church. Usually, it was reserved for persons in ministry, but other spiritually hungry individuals could also seek out spiritual guides.

In the first centuries of the church, those gifted in discernment, listening to the Holy Spirit, and guiding others were called spiritual directors. Today, spiritual directors are also called and specifically trained to be spiritual listening companions and guides for anyone who wants to become more like Christ.[3] The church isn’t usually set up to provide confidential space for individual journeys, and many churches have a set worldview with a theological and social agenda. Spiritual direction is a relational journey rather than a purely theological one.[4]

Spiritual direction is a relational journey rather than a purely theological one. Click To Tweet

Spiritual directors focus on a person’s relationship with God and the practices that nourish that relationship.[5] It is normal during one’s spiritual development to want to reflect on one’s story and deepest spiritual desires. This is especially natural when a person experiences a crisis or disruption, and they feel confused or stuck. They want to process, to tell their story, and to have the input of someone who is listening to God on their behalf. Others have a yearning for more of Christ, and the usual avenues are not helping them. Then some have a need for discernment about life direction, and they desire more support and guidance.

A Listening Process You Direct

If you are one of those persons interested in finding a spiritual director, what might you expect?

Primarily, a spiritual director isn’t there to “direct” you but to companion you, which is why many spiritual directors today refer to themselves as spiritual companions. A spiritual director’s primary responsibility is to hold you in prayer and listen deeply with you. Not only would they listen as you share whatever is stirring in your heart, they would listen on your behalf to the Holy Spirit. A spiritual director is trained to put aside his or her own agenda and assumptions, distractions, and thoughts in order to fully listen on several planes to you and the Spirit.

A spiritual director isn’t there to “direct” you but to companion you. Their primary responsibility is to hold you in prayer and listen deeply with you and listen on your behalf to the Holy Spirit. Click To Tweet

An hour with a spiritual director has its own process. Before the time, the director would have prepared by sitting quietly with Christ so that she or he is ready to bring their full attention to you. You, the directee, would have prepared by reviewing your journals or thoughts and by praying to discern what you would like to bring into the listening sanctuary of the director’s space. The actual hour usually begins with centering prayer to prepare you both to listen without distractions.

The responsibility for how the time is used is yours as the directee. The director, on the other hand, might ask questions, refer to previous conversations or insights, or offer guidance to help with your spiritual development. However, their primary role is to give you the opportunity to tell your story without shame or fear. The sanctuary space of spiritual direction invites you to bring your real self to someone who will accept what you bring as a holy opportunity to experience the love of God and to grow. Everything is one hundred percent confidential and sacred within the spiritual direction space.[6]

The sanctuary space of spiritual direction invites you to bring your real self to someone who will accept what you bring as a holy opportunity to experience the love of God and to grow. Click To Tweet

Spiritual direction can take many forms. Traditionally, it is done one on one with a guide and the directee. There is also group spiritual direction where a trained group spiritual director might lead a specific type of group such as church planters or parents of small children. Group spiritual direction can also be simply a gathering of people who commit to listen and share even when they might not know each other.

Finding Your Own Spiritual Director

Ask persons you trust for suggestions. When I started this journey back in the early nineties, finding an evangelical spiritual director was very difficult, even in a large city. Today there are Christian spiritual directors almost everywhere. Even better, spiritual direction no longer needs to be local. With the experience of connection and deep conversation in virtual spaces during COVID, most spiritual directors have in-person and virtual appointment times.

Search online. There are directories of spiritual directors such as Spiritual Directors International (a multifaith site, so pay attention to their credentials and how they describe their practice), the Spiritual Directors of Color Network, or the Evangelical Spiritual Directors Association. There are also many smaller centers such as the Companioning Center and  Restoration Ministries. Individual directors often set up websites, so if you get a recommendation, do some research first. Usually your first meeting is to discern if this is a mutual calling and fit. Spiritual directors are professionals called to offer this service. Therefore, there is a fee, often on a sliding scale or negotiable, but nevertheless, it is their ministry and they should be paid for their labor.

Check theological schools near you. At Portland Seminary we’ve been training spiritual directors since 2004. Many other seminaries do as well and could recommend spiritual directors. Also, if you’re thinking perhaps God is calling you to prepare as a spiritual director, you can explore a school’s spiritual direction training programs.

Today, I am a spiritual director who has companioned pastors and Christian leaders for almost thirty years. Now more than ever in our confusing times, spiritual direction is a necessary spiritual resource. I am grateful to the Holy Spirit for igniting interest in this holy and forgotten profession. Every spiritual leader should have a director. Every faithful soul who wants to become more like Christ would benefit from having a spiritual companion to walk with them and listen.


[1] Robert Elkington, “Adversity in pastoral leadership: Are pastors leaving the ministry in record numbers, and if so, why?Verbum et Ecclesia 34(1), Art. #821
[2] “Spiritual formation is our continuing response to the reality of God’s grace shaping us into the likeness of Jesus Christ, through the work of the Holy Spirit, in the community of faith, for the sake of the world.” (Jeffrey Greenman, Life in the Spirit, p. 24)
[3] Having a theological and biblical understanding of one’s faith is fundamental. Spiritual direction does not replace the responsibility to develop a robust and maturing formational and theological discipleship unto Christ within a faith community.
[5] Here are three varied descriptions of spiritual direction provided by evangelical training programs:
[6] The exception is that if you are threatening harm to yourself or others or are abusing in any way children or the elderly, the spiritual director is required ethically and professionally to inform the appropriate authorities.

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