Updated: Aug 21
They go by many names: anamcara, seelsorger, spiritual director. Present since the earliest days of the Christian community, whatever their title, the ministry of spiritual directors has experienced a resurgence in popularity and visibility in recent years, and has expanded beyond the confines of those churches who had long maintained this particular charism. A spiritual director can be useful in all aspects of intentional Christian living, and particularly in what has concerned these articles of late: helping us develop and maintain a working and practical Rule of Life as we take the steps necessary to becoming a “regular” Christian. The current fascination with this ministry means that this article may in some ways be superfluous, and yet it is nonetheless worthwhile to spend a bit of time considering the value a “soul friend” may bring to our faith journey.
Do we really need spiritual direction?
The answer is both no and yes. “No,” in the sense that there is no way in which we can say that formal spiritual direction is necessary. One of the key insights of the Reformation is that Christ needs no mediator standing between him and his people. The regular instruction and care we receive in church, the Word and Sacraments, and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit are more than sufficient for living a meaningful Christian life.
Ironically, that gets us to the “Yes” pretty quickly, however. The changes in our society, in cultural patterns and expectations of church attendance, and our pervasive isolation and loneliness mean that the regular patterns of care, insight, and instruction of earlier eras are sometimes no longer present in our lives. We may not be able to be with a Christian fellowship regularly due to work, or simply don’t see the value. Our instruction may come from books and online sermons, but we lack the attention, care and oversight of a traditional pastor. We take our hurts and confusions to therapists or physicians, but no one speaks into our lives from a specifically Christian standpoint. We live our life of Christian discipleship largely as “sole proprietors,” and our basic formation is often too eclectic and piecemeal. Our Rule of Life, should we have one, is driven by our individualism and affinities, rather than by the ancient ways the community has always understood as regular Christian living. When we consider this, while it is true that spiritual direction is not mandatory, we can certainly see how it could prove to be beneficial.
What Spiritual Direction is not
Many types of people serve as spiritual directors: clergy, those trained as coaches or counselors, members of religious communities and lay people from many walks of life. This is as it should be, but it can result in some confusion. Whatever other training a soul friend may have, the practice is a historic one that belongs properly to and within the Christian community. Kim Olstad puts it this way:
Spiritual direction is distinctly different from pastoral counseling and psychotherapy. Prompted by soul hunger rather than crisis or disorder, spiritual direction pursues holistic transformation by bringing one’s thoughts, feelings, and actions before God.
As our society has secularized, other disciplines arose that have performed similar but not identical functions. This means that, often, spiritual direction is often conflated or confused with coaching or therapy. No less a psychoanalyst than Carl Jung thought this unwise. He wrote, “We cannot expect the doctor to have anything to say about the ultimate questions of the soul.” I thank God for the therapists, coaches, and physicians- both Christian and not- who minister to us. Spiritual direction, however, is something different- it’s a relationship that enables the individual’s deliberate attempt to live both in a regular way and in sustained communion with Christ.
The Apostle James says the following about the Christian way of life:
Those who hear and don’t act are like those who glance in the mirror, walk away, and two minutes later have no idea who they are, what they look like. But whoever catches a glimpse of the revealed counsel of God—the free life!—even out of the corner of his eye, and sticks with it, is no distracted scatterbrain but a man or woman of action. That person will find delight and affirmation in the action.
This is what we are after in intentional Christian living: letting God’s word both show us the truth and reflect who we are, so that we can shape our lives appropriately. Sounds good, but it is often not so easy. Our sight isn’t always clear- whether of what God is saying, or of ourselves. As Paul says, “Now we see things imperfectly, like puzzling reflections in a mirror…” What we see in the mirror can be confusing, partial, or even in error. We often don’t understand what we see, or know how to proceed. To quote the Ethiopian eunuch, “‘How can I without someone to guide me?’” And that is precisely where spiritual direction comes in.
In the Christian life, we need three things reflected back to us: the truth of God’s revelation in Christ, the truth of our redeemed identity in him, and a picture of “what we look like”- how we are living out our walk in the midst of our life right now. God gives us all three. The role of a soul friend is to help us listen and to make sense of what we see and hear, to help us discern where we are and what the way forward is. When it comes to a Rule of Life, specifically, they can help us find the rule that is right for us- taking into consideration our vocation, personality, failings and strengths. It’s both a companioning and an interpretative function, so that we don’t have to figure out what we see in the mirror all on our own.
Qualities and Cautions
A good spiritual director can be our pastor, a Christian friend, or someone else we meet specifically for that purpose. They may be trained, which is certainly good, but it is more of a gifting than some kind of licensed professional work- a trend that is sadly reshaping this charism along the lines of professional counseling today. Whoever they are, whatever their resume, certain attributes matter a lot:
- Feeling comfortable and safe with them. A “good fit” in terms of the relationship.
- Deep and longstanding knowledge of Christian faith and practice, as well as a commitment to it.
- A compassionate, listening presence.
- Ability to be both kind and firm. We need both patience and sometimes loving challenge.
- Not a “one size fits all” approach, but someone who can apply “treasures old and new” to your life situation.
- One who recognizes this as a holy and sacred calling.
As to cautions, the usual ones apply: we need to be wary of those who seem excessively controlling, people who are unbalanced, abusive, or unethical, or those who make us feel unsafe in any way. This is where a certified director or someone with clear accountability and supervision structures can prove useful, but even then it can be like finding a good doctor: we may have to keep at it for awhile before we find the right fit.
Where Do I Look?
David Robinson puts it well:
…consider the people you currently know who are living examples of some of the qualities above. If no one comes to mind, ask the wisest people you know in your circle of friends for referrals. Ask your local pastor or priest for spiritual direction. Also, consider going on a monastic retreat, and seeking spiritual direction from a monastic.
On the web, you can find spiritual directors at both the Evangelical Spiritual Directors Association and Spiritual Directors International. Church associations often have a weblink to local or denomination-specific directors as well.
Les Martin is a participant in the A300 program and a long-term missionary in Nigeria. An Anglican priest, he is an Archdeacon and serves in the office of Canon Theologian for the Anglican Diocese of Pankshin, while lecturing at Archbishop Vining College of Theology, Akure. He lives in Lagos with his wife Kate, and he believes that his marriage to her is far more important than anything else mentioned above.
 - Kim Olstad, “Direction, Spiritual,” ed. Glen G. Scorgie, Dictionary of Christian Spirituality (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011), 403.  - Wil Hernandez, “Care of Souls,” ed. Glen G. Scorgie, Dictionary of Christian Spirituality (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011), 334.  - Eugene H. Peterson, The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2005), Jas 1:23–25.  - Tyndale House Publishers, Holy Bible: New Living Translation (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 2015), 1 Co 13:12.  - The Revised English Bible (Cambridge; New York; Melbourne; Madrid; Cape Town; Singapore; São Paulo; Delhi; Dubai; Tokyo: Cambridge University Press, 1996), Ac 8:31.  - see Matthew 13:52  - Robinson, D. (2010). Ancient Paths: Discover Christian Formation the Benedictine Way (pp. 70-71). Paraclete Press.  - https://www.graftedlife.org/spiritual-direction/find-a-spiritual-director , https://www.sdicompanions.org/find-a-spiritual-director-companion/