Going to the Well: Spiritual Direction with the Nonreligious
by Karis Chi
In recent decades, spiritual direction has evolved from a practice observed primarily in the Catholic and Anglican traditions and with ordained clergy as spiritual directors to one embraced by other Christian denominations as well as other faith traditions, with laypeople and especially laywomen serving as spiritual directors. Spiritual directors are also increasingly trained and encouraged to be aware of and sensitive to cultural, gender, and other differences in how they accompany directees from diverse backgrounds.
The time is ripe for expanding spiritual direction to more fully include the participation of nonreligious spiritual directees. Nonreligious is used in this article to refer to people who identify themselves as “not religious,” as having no affiliation with any religion, or as being unattached to any formal religious institution or community. This group may include those who believe in Jesus or God or a god, and those who do not. This article explores the “why” and “how” of expanding spiritual direction to embrace more nonreligious spiritual directees.
Context for Expansion
Spiritual direction with the nonreligious is a natural outgrowth of several cultural developments in recent decades. Surveys show that more people now identify themselves as nonreligious. There is also a growing recognition that spirituality is an important component of human health and wellness in medicine and in other secular workplaces. Although the studies referenced in this section focus on spirituality within the United States, the findings may be relevant to other regions that are experiencing similar cultural shifts.
Changes in Religious Landscape
Nationwide surveys show that more people in the United States now identify themselves as nonreligious. According to Pew Research Center’s 2014 Religious Landscape Study, 22.8 percent of U.S. adults are religiously unaffiliated (“Religious Landscape Study”). A 2017 Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) survey found that nearly one in four U.S. adults identify themselves as religiously unaffiliated—as atheist, agnostic, or “nothing in particular” (Cox and Jones). Coinciding with the growth of the religiously unaffiliated is the growth of another group—the “spiritual but not religious.” Loosely defined, the “spiritual but not religious” do not consider themselves religious but still value spirituality in some form, including prayer, meditation, and a sense of connection to something larger than oneself. According to a 2017 Pew Research Center survey, 27 percent of U.S. adults considered themselves spiritual but not religious, up 8 percentage points in five years (Lipka and Gecewicz). A PPRI survey found that 18 percent of adults fall within this category (Raney et al.).
These studies and surveys show that even as more U.S. citizens identify themselves as unaffiliated with religion, many retain a value for spirituality and pursue spirituality separately from religion. For example, a 2017 survey by Barna Group found that 79 percent of U.S. adults have prayed in some way at least once in the past three months, “no matter their religious affiliation or non-affiliation” (“Silent and Solo”). Self-identification as “nonreligious” does not appear to preclude interest or engagement in spiritual practices.
Changes in Perception of Spirituality
Another change that has occurred in recent decades is the growing recognition of the importance of spirituality in health and wellness in secular contexts such as medicine and the corporate workplace.
In the medical field, there has been growing awareness of the role of spiritual care in the treatment of patients. The Joint Commission for the Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations recommends that hospitals take a spiritual assessment of patients admitted into acute care hospital settings, and the Institute of Medicine and the National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization have identified spiritual care as a key care component for dying patients and their families (Frazier et al., 320). According to a 2015 survey by the American Hospital Association, 70 percent of hospitals provide pastoral care services, up from 53 percent in 2002, often using chaplains “trained to work with people of all faiths—or no faith” (Weiner). According to a 2008 national survey of medical schools in the United States, 84–90 percent of schools have courses or content on spirituality and health (Koenig et al.). The increase in spiritual care and related training in the medical field reflects the growing recognition that spirituality is an important factor in health and medicine.
This awareness is also growing in secular workplaces outside the medical field. Workplace chaplaincies are on the rise (Green; Oppenheimer). Motivated by the possibility of greater long-term productivity, employers are beginning to offer spiritual care as one more “perk” to cater to workers’ whole selves (ibid.). Precise figures for the number of workplace chaplains employed around the country are not available, in part because some work at small or medium-sized businesses (ibid.). But the two largest workplace chaplaincy service providers in the United States both report growth in demand in recent years (ibid.). Employers are increasingly recognizing that spiritual care may help workers cope with the nonwork parts of their lives—cancer, divorces, physical injuries—that impact their work (Green).
Changes in Spiritual Direction
Concurrent with the societal changes described above, spiritual direction has been undergoing its own transformation. In Spiritual Director, Spiritual Companion: Guide to Tending the Soul, Tilden Edwards observes that in recent decades, spiritual direction has undergone a significant expansion beyond its traditional form and population (ch. 8). Once a practice ordained clergy administered to members of mostly Roman Catholic, Anglican, and Eastern Orthodox communities, spiritual direction has broadened to include almost every Christian denomination and the greater participation of laypeople, especially laywomen, as spiritual directors and directees (ibid.). Edwards expects that “as spiritual direction spreads, it will encounter an increasing variety of cultural and religious backgrounds to which directors need to bring respect and sensitivity” (ibid.). Edwards also predicts that “spiritual direction will grow as an avenue of convergence between churched and unchurched individual seekers” (ibid.).
The changes in these three areas point to an opportunity for spiritual direction to be introduced to a segment of the population that may be open to spirituality outside of traditional religious settings. Spiritual direction, in its simplest form, is a conversation between participants who want to explore the spiritual movement in their lives. Spiritual direction does not take the form of a religious service and can occur outside of an overtly religious environment. As discussed in the next section, spiritual directors can and should take advantage of this flexibility in a form to bring spiritual direction to nonreligious contexts.
Going to the Well: Bringing Spiritual Direction to the Nonreligious
For many religious spiritual directors, spiritual direction is a response to the vague stirrings, unanswerable questions, and insatiable desires set in motion by God’s initiative, and similar activity by God in the lives of the nonreligious can be assumed. But nonreligious individuals who acknowledge their spirituality and are interested in talking about their experiences from that perspective are unlikely to be aware of spiritual direction or to independently seek out spiritual directors through church and other faith-based social networks. For spiritual direction to be an option for the nonreligious, spiritual directors must venture out and make themselves available in spaces where they may encounter nonreligious individuals.
Within the Christian tradition, Jesus modeled this reaching outward when he chose not just to go through but to stop in Samaria on his way to Galilee (Jn 4:3–4). Jesus purposefully positioned himself in an area away from the religious center of Jewish life, in a Samaritan region, by a well, which was a natural gathering place for women. Jesus did not disqualify the Samaritan woman based on her gender, personal history, or religious background, nor did he require her to travel to Judea or Galilee to find him. Instead, Jesus went to Samaria and made himself available, first to the woman at the well, then to the rest of the nearby villagers who came to investigate on the basis of her testimony (Jn 4:1–43).
Likewise, religious spiritual directors should explore ways to take the ministry of spiritual direction beyond the walls of the church. The options discussed in this section will not lead exclusively to nonreligious spiritual directees but are more likely to connect spiritual directors with nonreligious directees because these avenues lead to secular or religiously neutral contexts.
Secular Workplace Programs
Spiritual directors interested in accompanying nonreligious individuals may offer their services to existing workplace spiritual care programs or offer to establish such programs in secular workplaces.
In a 2007 article for Presence, Kenneth Nolen and Julie Harper describe their experience with establishing a workplace spiritual direction program at Orlando Regional Healthcare, a public, secular, not-for-profit healthcare organization. Nolen and Harper collaborated with Orlando Regional’s existing spiritual care department to add spiritual direction to the department’s offerings, beginning with a pilot program for employees (14). They hosted a one-day workshop to introduce spiritual direction to attendees, which included hospital staff. Based on feedback from the workshop, they developed a brochure and a program that presented spiritual direction in a religion-neutral way suitable for use in a secular hospital setting with people of different faith background and traditions (15). Nolen and Harper also describe the administrative aspects of establishing such a program in a hospital, including documentation requirements, working with hospital administrators, finding a suitable space for sessions, and drafting of policies and procedures (16–18).
Others have made inroads in nonmedical settings. In a 2001 article for Presence, Liz Ellmann describes her experience leading group spiritual direction programs in corporate workplaces. Ellmann emphasizes that in a secular workplace, it must be clear that the aim of spiritual direction is “not to convert participants to a particular religious tradition, but to offer tools and experiences that will aid workers in connecting their values and beliefs—from whatever tradition or from no tradition at all—with their work” (46–47). She appeals to corporate decision-makers who evaluate spiritual direction programs through a cost-benefit lens by pointing to the practical costs of ignoring workers’ spiritual well-being—such as burnout, turnover, and absenteeism—and to the increase in productivity and creativity unleashed by caring for workers’ spiritual wellness (47–48). Ellmann also addresses many practical and logistical considerations for establishing a corporate workplace spiritual direction program, including several models for approaching the sessions, marketing, funding, location, and duration (49–50).
The articles by Ellmann and by Nolen and Harper are useful resources for spiritual directors who are interested in exploring possible participation in or establishment of workplace spiritual direction programs in medical or corporate settings. Their collective experience is that there is considerable interest in and openness to spiritual direction in secular work environments.
Spiritual Direction with the Poor
There are also opportunities to accompany nonreligious spiritual directees on the opposite end of the societal spectrum: the poor. The poor often do not engender the same kind of compassion as hospital patients, and agencies providing for their needs generally do not have the same abundance of resources available in corporate settings. Based on the author’s personal anecdotal experience doing volunteer work with nonprofit service agencies, most service agencies do not limit access to services based on religious or spiritual beliefs, and their client population includes both religious and nonreligious individuals. Among the nonreligious are those who are nonreligious by choice, sometimes because the difficulties experienced in their lives have caused them to doubt or reject the notion of God, much less a good one. There are also those who are nonreligious by the decision of others, people who have been excluded from religious communities due to judgment or disapproval concerning their life choices.
In “The Poor and Spiritual Direction,” an article published in Presence in 2015, Ellen Kogstad notes that “having a safe place to speak one’s doubts and questions while affirming faith in God (or not) incorporates the mystical, hidden life of spirit into the concrete stuff of life” and is a welcomed offering among the poor and those who serve them (28). However, budget constraints limit the ability of human services organizations to provide spiritual care for its clients, and the expense of individual spiritual direction may put it out of reach for both the poor and for the often underpaid staff serving them (24). Kogstad suggests spiritual directors interested in accompanying the poor begin their exploration at “shelters and services directed specifically toward women and children” (25). The prevalence and universality of mistreatment of women mean that women will be found at social service agencies serving the homeless, refugees, and victims of violence and trafficking. Kogstad notes the aching need for the presence of people who will hear the inner stories of poor women and sees a possible answer to this need in the “accidental providence that the majority of the earth’s poor are women and girls and the majority of spiritual directors are women” (25–26).
The suggestion of exploring spiritual direction with the poor does not mean the poor are by and large nonreligious. However, because social service agencies and ministries do not differentiate between religious and nonreligious clients, spiritual directors interested in accompanying nonreligious people are more likely to encounter them in such context.
Spiritual directors who are not ready to join or establish workplace programs can take other steps to increase their visibility and accessibility to nonreligious individuals who may wish to explore spiritual direction. One option is to establish referral relationships with chaplains and others who work in predominantly secular settings. The work of hospital chaplains, for example, is very location specific. A patient may develop a new openness to spiritual conversations during a hospital stay because of interactions with a chaplain. However, chaplains may be less available to patients after they leave the hospital. Referral relationships between chaplains and spiritual directors may help former patients who wish to continue their spiritual explorations connect with spiritual directors who can accompany them outside the hospital.
Modifications for Accompanying Nonreligious Spiritual Directees
Presence, hospitality, yielding to the Spirit, supervision, and other generally applicable values and guidelines for spiritual directors apply with equal force to religious and nonreligious spiritual directees. This section highlights a few aspects of spiritual direction that may benefit from intentional adjustment with the particular needs of nonreligious spiritual directees in mind.
Ask; Don’t Assume
The nonreligious are not a monolithic group. Within their ranks exists a diversity of beliefs about God (or lack thereof), former or current religious affiliations, and spiritual practices (Thiel and Robinson). For example, Pew Research Center’s 2014 Religious Landscape Study found that within the group categorized as “spiritual but not religious,” over 90 percent have either fairly certain (24 percent) or absolutely certain (67 percent) belief about God; 69 percent of this group seldom or never attend a religious service, but 57 percent pray daily (“The Spiritual but Not Religious”).
Spiritual directors meeting with directees who describe themselves as “nonreligious” or an equivalent term should resist ascribing meaning to the label or reducing these directees to preconceived notions about nonreligious people. The spiritual director should not assume that a nonreligious directee is familiar or unfamiliar with scripture, is comfortable or uncomfortable with audible prayer, or holds positive or negative views about God or church. Instead, the spiritual director should ask questions that clarify understanding and open a space for nonreligious directees to talk about their beliefs and preferences.
Speak Their Language
Nonreligious spiritual directees should feel free to speak about their spiritual experiences in their own words and be encouraged to use whatever language or imagery most meaningfully describes their spiritual experiences and the thoughts and feelings those experiences engender. Secular terms and expressions used by the spiritual directees should be echoed rather than rephrased by the directors. For example, spiritual directors working with directees who speak of “destiny,” “meaning,” or “transcendence” should adopt that language rather than speak in terms of God’s sovereignty, will, or purpose. Adjusting the language of spiritual direction may be challenging for directors accustomed to working exclusively with directees of the same religious orientation because “like the water that is invisible to the swimming fish, so often religious culture and language can be invisible to the [director] who is immersed in them” (Thiel and Robinson, 3). But even amongst people of the same faith background, certain religious language can be more or less helpful in spiritual direction depending on the directee’s particular background and experience. For example, calling God “Father” may conjure intimacy and safety for some but create distance and fear in others. Believers of certain cultures may prefer “Lord Jesus” or “Jesus Christ” to addressing “Jesus” on a first-name basis.
Speaking in a different vernacular, or code switching, is an act of hospitality. Within the Christian tradition, for example, Jesus regularly code switched depending on his audience. When Jesus was in the temple or among religious elites, he spoke their language and referenced the Law and the Prophets (Mk 7:6–13; Lk 4:16–27). When he was among common people in the streets and fields, he used parables and metaphors relating to agriculture (Mt 7:15–20; Mk 4:3–8, 26-29), fishing (Mt 13:47–50), animal husbandry (Lk 15:4–7; Jn 10:1–18), food preparation (Lk 13:20), social events (Mt 22:1–14; Lk 14:8–11), and family relationships (Mt 21:28–32; Lk 15:11–32). Jesus used language and concepts that were familiar and meaningful to his audience.
The same hospitality should be extended to spiritual directees who prefer nonreligious language. This is especially important during the beginning stages of a potential spiritual direction relationship. A spiritual director’s insistence on religious language in the context of the directee’s stated nonreligious values may be a counterproductive distraction or, worse, a microaggression that undermines trust (Boileau and Theriault, 5; Thiel and Robinson, 3). Spiritual directors can also explore (or invite nonreligious directees to identify) secular alternatives to Scripture or religious images typically used for centering and meditation. There is an abundance of secular art, literature, and popular music that wrestles with suffering and purpose or gives expression to hope, gratitude, and sacrificial love. Indeed, religious spiritual directors may find that “there is something refreshing about exploring the reality of spiritual activity beyond the limitations of [their] own linguistic conventions” (Boileau and Theriault, 5).
For religious spiritual directors who believe that humans are spiritual beings and that God continuously initiates with and moves within and about them, these beliefs can be expressed in either religious or secular language and is often beyond expression. Religious spiritual directors who are attentive to the substance of what is being shared should be able to observe the working of the Holy Spirit and be mindful of what is happening at a spiritual level even while echoing the directee’s secular terms and expressions (6). Thus, nonreligious spiritual directees should not be required to learn and adopt a new set of vocabulary in order to gain entry into spiritual direction. Other potential barriers to entry are discussed next.
Space, Time, and Money
A typical setup for spiritual direction involves a prescheduled, one-on-one meeting between director and directee in a private and quiet space with comfortable seating, a display of calming objects or images, and a candle. There may be the additional expectation that the spiritual directee would provide payment to the director. Spiritual direction in this form is a luxury that requires time, money, and often transportation. It requires a nonreligious person to make a significant investment of resources into an unfamiliar process, and it may function as a psychological or practical barrier to entry, especially for the poor. Aspects of this familiar setup may require adjustment or elimination to make spiritual direction more accessible to the nonreligious.
Ellmann and Kogstad worked with participants from two very different contexts—the corporate workplace and social service settings, respectively. Even though participants in their programs differed greatly in wealth and life circumstances, there were several similarities in their spiritual direction offerings. Both Ellmann and Kogstad facilitated group direction during which participants took turns sharing and listening (Ellmann, 49; Kogstad, 28). Group direction participants did not have to pay to participate; the spiritual directors were compensated by the employer or the social service agency, or they provided the service free of charge (Ellmann, 50; Kogstad, 29). Group direction took place in office conference rooms at a central location near where participants work or normally gather for other purposes (Ellmann, 50; Kogstad, 26). Ellmann’s workplace group direction occurred during a midday hour to accommodate participant’s lunch break (Ellmann, 50); Kogstad’s group direction lasted for 30 minutes and may have been unscheduled or spontaneously occurring (Kogstad, 26–28).
The group direction setup described by Ellmann and Kogstad greatly reduces the commitment and resources required of nonreligious spiritual directees who may be new to spiritual direction and unfamiliar with its potential benefits. This alternative setup functions as a “trial period” for individuals (or employers) who want to first investigate spiritual direction before making a more substantial investment of time and money. This setup may also be the only way some individuals can afford spiritual direction. Spiritual directors interested in engaging in spiritual direction in secular contexts can seek funding from employers or social service agencies, or fundraise from churches and religious communities interested in supporting the ministry of spiritual direction.
In general, spiritual directors should be focused on helping directees become more attuned to the truth, love, and spiritual movements within them, and not on converting directees to a particular religion or tradition. Spiritual directors must be especially on guard against the temptation to proselytize or “help” nonreligious directees attribute their spiritual experiences to God. Supervision is both a resource and safeguard for spiritual directors accompanying nonreligious directees, as it provides an arena for directors to honestly and fully examine their own response to the direction sessions. Spiritual directors who find themselves unable to accompany a nonreligious directee with sufficient indifference or neutrality despite best efforts should make a referral to a director who can.
For many religious spiritual directors, accompanying nonreligious directees will require modification of existing practices and implementation of new practices. It will likely take these spiritual directors out of their comfort zone and into awkward interactions that may feel like failures. But the effort is a sensible response to societal changes and in keeping with the continual expansion of spiritual direction. As religious spiritual directors venture into less familiar territory, they can take comfort in knowing that theirs is not to create interest in spiritual direction, but to respond to interest that already exists—nonreligious directees become open to spiritual direction (by whatever name) because they have heard a call or felt a nudge within their spirit. They do not know how to respond, nor to whom. A willing spiritual director can help them with both the hearing and the response.
The inconvenience and discomfort that religious spiritual directors encounter will bear fruit for them and for the ministry of spiritual direction. In the absence of shared vocabulary, spiritual directors will have to ask more questions using plain and simple language; new contexts will require new skills and force spiritual directors to rely all the more on the Holy Spirit for help and guidance. Accompanying nonreligious spiritual directees may also bring fresh insight into God’s love and patience and inform the accompaniment of religious directees who are struggling with doubt or losing faith. As is the case with any spiritual directee, accompanying another is a privilege and sacred journey that is its own reward.
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Weiner, Stacy. “Is There a Chaplain in the House? Hospitals Integrate Spiritual Care.” AAMC: News & Insights, November 21, 2017. https://news.aamc.org/patient-care/article/hospitals-integrate-spiritual-care-chaplains.
Karis Chi completed the Art of Spiritual Direction program with the Sisters of Saint Joseph of Orange in Orange, California, USA, in 2018. She grew up in Taiwan and California and currently lives in Los Angeles, California. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Linda James lives and teaches in Seattle, Washington, USA. Her watercolors have always been influenced and inspired by the unseen vibrational aspects of all living things. Exploring the emotional and spiritual vibration of color is of particular interest. Learn more at lindajamesart.com.