spiritual direction

What Pastors Need to Know about Spiritual Directors

by Teresa Blythe

There was a time when ordained ministers served mostly as local church pastors. That is no longer the case. As churches shrink, specialized ministry becomes the first choice for many of us.

Although specialized ministry encompasses a wide range of “outside the church” professions such as chaplaincy and non-profit work, I am writing today about spiritual direction. At a recent convocation of specialized ministers of the Southwest Conference UCC we talked at length about how local pastors and specialized ministers could better understand one another.

I am aware that many local pastors are familiar with spiritual direction from either having a director of their own or feeling guilty because they haven’t gotten around to finding one! But pastors may not know all you need to know about the care and education of the spiritual director. Here are five things I think you should know:

  1. We are educated for this ministry.  Anyone who does spiritual direction for a living or as a “side hustle” should have graduated from a training program. (I say should have because the profession is not regulated nor does it have any standard certification process that all spiritual directors must complete.) If we are ordained to the ministry of spiritual direction, as I am, we have the requisite M.Div. plus the extra training it takes to learn how to do the most highly regarded form of spiritual direction—the evocative method (you share, we mostly listen and draw your attention to where the Spirit may be at work in you). If we are ordained you can be sure we have gone through our denomination’s sometimes rigorous process of becoming ordained to specialized ministry with all the accountability and standard of ethics that goes along with that. One does not have to be ordained to be an excellent spiritual director, but training is essential. I will go out on a limb and say that unless you are a quite elderly religious professional who became a director before there were training programs, you must go through a training program to be any good at the ministry. These programs vary greatly, and frankly that is a problem for the profession, but a certificate of completion usually guarantees that the person has learned the basics. By the way, lots of local pastors attend these training programs and become spiritual directors. They find it gives them a new and helpful lens in which to work pastorally with their congregation.

  1. We are usually contemplatives by nature. While pastors vary widely in temperament—from the jolly extrovert to the pensive thinker-types—most spiritual directors are gentle, quiet and contemplative. The practice of spiritual direction demands patience and stillness of heart in the director. We spend a considerable amount of time listening to our directees share their sacred stories. Good spiritual directors always listen more than they talk. Because of our contemplative nature, we are good at helping activist pastors and churches calm down and savor the slow work of God. If you have a spiritual director in your midst, I hope you are calling on their special gifts for pastoral care, education and showing up as the “non-anxious presence” in times of conflict.

  1. We want to have a collegial relationship with you. Spiritual directors suffer when we live and work in isolation. We need contact with you for fellowship and camaraderie. We can offer you a listening ear when you need to share about a confidential matter (even if you are not one of our directees—we usually don’t mind informally putting on the director hat for you now and then). We are especially aware of issues of boundaries in ministry. Because the spiritual direction relationship is unique and highly confidential, we are usually pretty strict about boundaries. Many pastors have appreciated bouncing ideas concerning the personal limits they set with parishioners off me. And I’m glad to help.

  1. We sometimes need your help. Since many of us are introverts and contemplatives, we are (as a group) not great at marketing ourselves and our work. Any marketing we do is of the “soft sell” variety. If you respect our work, then please talk about it with your clergy friends, parishioners and staff. Encourage us to contribute to your church newsletters, offer classes or show up at some business meetings to observe and reflect what we notice. I know I have benefitted greatly from the support I get from the local church where I now am on staff part-time. In fact, if you need help with pastoral care and visitation you might consider hiring a spiritual director. It’s not exactly the same work we do in direction sessions but it translates well.

Another way you can help us is by understanding the nature of the work we do. Spiritual directors are responsible for staying deeply in touch with the Spirit so that we can be of service in our one-hour sessions.  So if we don’t take you up on all those great suggestions I just mentioned, it’s because spiritual direction work can be emotionally taxing. And we are taught to know our limits and not become overwhelmed with busywork, so we guard our work time carefully. It’s nothing personal. Pastors could learn some things from us about taking charge of one’s work schedule.

The best way you can help a spiritual director that you know and like is by finding out if we are taking on new directees and if we want referrals from you. Most of the clients we receive are from word-of-mouth. Let us drop off a set of brochures or business cards with our contact information so that when you encounter someone who wants or needs spiritual direction, you can offer them a name.

  1. We want to be your spiritual director. Provided we are not working for you or are close friends with you (or your family), we’d like to work with you in direction. Religious professionals make up a lot of our clientele and they tell us it’s the best $60 – $80 dollars a month they spend. We know your special needs and have heard a lot of stories about life as an employee for a volunteer organization! We hold a great deal of compassion for pastors and the peaks and valleys you encounter. If you are not in spiritual direction, I highly recommend you check it out. The history of spiritual direction dates back over 1500 years when it began in Catholic religious orders. For hundreds of years it was a practice that priests enjoyed. It’s now a practice for all, but especially for clergy!

These are just a few thoughts about how the specialized ministry of spiritual direction can work hand-in-hand with traditional parish ministry. You may have questions or some creative ideas of your own to share. I’d love to hear from you. Contact me at teresa@teresablythe.net and let’s talk.