This is the first of a series of articles that will be exploring the ministry of spiritual direction. It is important to note that we will use the term “spiritual direction” broadly to encompass the ideas of mentoring and spiritual friendship. Spiritual direction can also be used to talk about a specific kind of soul care that requires a basic training in the history of spirituality, dynamics of spiritual development and object relations theory. With this in mind, I hope to cast a vision for the value of spiritual direction within the church today, but in order to do so we need to begin by asking what spiritual direction is.
Several years ago when I met with my spiritual director for the first time I wasn’t sure what to expect. Based on previous relationships with mentors I decided I would ask him for advice. Looking back, I just wanted him to solve my problems. I will never forget the paradigm shift that occurred when my spiritual director responded with a question rather than an answer. It was a simple question and yet incredibly profound. “Have you asked God for advice?” The honest answer was, “no.” That began a dialogue that moved beyond my desire to fix problems in my life into an exploration of my relationship with God.
This first meeting birthed a new kind of relationship I had never experienced prior. My spiritual director was not merely an advice-giver or a problem-solver, but was rather a companion seeking to discern, along with me, what God was doing in my life. He did offer guidance, but that guidance was born out of attentive listening to the Holy Spirit and attentive listening to my heart. His questions and feedback were birthed from prayer, and consequently were focused less on fixing my problems and more on pushing me into prayer. He had his sight set on the long process of spiritual growth, rather than on quick answers to life’s challenges.
This was a novel kind of relationship to me, but the practice of spiritual direction is certainly not new. If we survey the history of the church we find that spiritual direction is a common practice embraced by those who take seriously the call to be spiritually formed in Christ (Galatians 4:19). In fact, we can go all the way back to the beginning, to the Apostle Paul, and find a model for spiritual direction. In Paul we get a clear picture of the practice and purpose of spiritual direction in the church.
Paul makes it very clear that above all we are called to know Christ and be conformed to His image (Philippians 3:7-11). Consequently, Paul understands his role as coming alongside brothers and sisters in Christ that they may come to full maturity in faith (Colossians 2:6-7, 1 Thessalonians 4:1-7). Paul was a man profoundly concerned with the spiritual development of his congregations. From his “paternal” relationship with Timothy, to his ongoing apostolic relationship with communities of faith, Paul was not merely committed to sharing the gospel, but seeing the gospel lived out.
Through Paul’s letters we witness his ongoing companionship with fellow believers. He is continually praying for, exhorting and encouraging these believers to continue on in the faith. He gives them a vision of the Christian life as a process of training like an athlete (1 Corinthians 9:24-27). In the book of Acts and throughout Paul’s letters, we discover that he is not merely a distant observer of his fellow believers in their training in righteousness, but he is a present friend. He has cultivated intimate relationships with them (1 Thessalonians 2:7-8). As a result, the guidance he offers is born out of a personal acquaintance with their unique place on the journey of faith, and a keen ear to what God has been doing in their midst. It also means that he is able to serve as a direct model in running the race well (1 Corinthians 4:15-16, 1 Thessalonians 1:6). Paul does not encourage them to follow his example as an end in itself, but rather as a means of pointing them to Christ who is the true exemplar of faith.
Because spiritual direction has become a more professionalized practice in recent years there are many definitions available. However, if we simply look to Paul we discover a definition that is fundamentally Christ-centered and undoubtedly informative for us today. In light of Paul’s example, we can say that a spiritual director is one who serves as a faithful companion and guide to fellow believers as they journey into deeper communion with Christ. Paul makes it clear that he is not the only one that is called to engage in this kind of ministry, but rather those within the church who have matured in the faith are to offer spiritual direction to those who are younger in the faith (Titus 2:3-5).
We often look to Paul as our model for missions and for evangelism. Interestingly, we rarely look to Paul as our model for spiritual direction. We have a vision of the Apostle’s ministry that has been blind to his ongoing care of pastors and churches. Amidst an unquestionably busy ministry schedule, and faced with daunting ministry goals and initiatives, Paul continued to dedicate time to pray for, be with and write letters to those whom He had brought the gospel, so that they would “know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge” (Ephesians 3:19, NASB). Rather than being an interruption to “real ministry” or a side-project, spiritual direction was central to Paul’s vocation.
In conclusion, according to Paul, spiritual direction involves…
- Modeling a life of faithfulness
- Offering the gift of presence (being with people)
- Maintaining an ongoing relationship of spiritual care
- Offering guidance from a posture of listening to God and others
- Pointing to Christ
In the next two articles we will explore how the ministry of spiritual direction can be infused into the DNA of our churches. First, we will start with pastors, because like Paul we are called to set an example. Second, we will explore how spiritual direction can become a vital ministry within the life of our church.