When I went through my spiritual direction training, I had two hats that I needed to let go of to learn how to listen differently. The first was my therapist’s hat. You see, spiritual direction has no agenda other to sit with a person in the presence of the Holy. A spiritual director listens to a person, horizontally and to God vertically. On the other hand, a therapist is listening to guide, direct, influence, and heal. A therapist has a list of therapeutic goals for you to reach. This was a hard hat to pry off, but it was also a relief. One of the most liberating things about being a spiritual director is not having an agenda and just trusting the process.
The other hat I had to take off was that of my thirty years in para-church pastoral care. Pastors listen with an agenda, too. We want to move people closer to God. Often, we will advise, recommend and exhort. It’s not that a spiritual director has no interest in a person’s spiritual growth. To the contrary, that growth is precisely the hope of spiritual direction. But we don’t press people toward any particular goal or destination. We companion them. Our goal is to journey alongside a pilgrim, pointing out things that they might not stop to notice.
My training program was through a large denomination, and therefore there were many pastors in my cohort. They brought in past graduates to sit with us in our first year of spiritual direction training. One man I sat with was a pastor, and I had a hard time because he kept pulling out scriptures to share with me. I did not find his advice-giving helpful and let him know. I think it’s hard when you are trained as a pastor, not to fall back into advice-giving, but, in my experience, it does not leave room for Spirit to lead.
Once I was able to remove these two hats, I became a purist in practicing the method I’d been trained in: listening, asking thoughtful questions and noticing themes. I learned to let the directee lead. I found it very helpful. After that year, I felt more comfortable switching hats as necessary. My therapist hat helps me be aware of when someone needs to be referred to a counselor. My pastor’s hat knows when to offer spiritual insight, but mostly I see those skills as tools in a toolbelt that I only pull out on rare occasions, and only as needed.
There is something beautiful about sitting with another person with a third chair in mind.* Aware that there is no pressure for us to perform, no goals to reach, and no agenda we need to accomplish, we can relax and enjoy the journey – hatless and unafraid.
* Editor: To some spiritual directors, this third chair represents God’s presence in any spiritual direction session. And some spiritual directors actually leave a chair empty in the room. See below for a related poem by SDI Poetry Editor Jennifer Jinks Hoffman.
The Third Chair
You are a spiritual director.
I sit in my chair
you in yours.
I have come to see you
with a longing
that mystifies me.
You draw my attention
to the third chair
in the room:
You invite me to see
with the eye of my heart
of my longing:
the Eternal, invisible, loving, guiding,
in the third chair.
– Jennifer Jinks Hoffmann
Note: Spiritual direction – and spiritual companionship in general – can be practiced in any faith tradition – no tradition at all – and can serve anyone, no matter what spiritual inclination they hold in their heart. The key elements of this nonjudgmental companionship are: deep listening, deep respect for the agency of the other, contemplative practice and open-ended questions and conversation designed to help people discover the questions and practices that authentically resonate with them. Above, Jacci Turner has kindly offered a compelling insight to spiritual direction in the Christian tradition. We are grateful to share it with you all. – Editor
Jacci Turner is the director/president of Christian Formation & Direction Ministry for Nevada. She also works as a therapist and is the author of many books. Her novel, The Retreat: A Tale of Spiritual Awakening offers contemplative prayer practices to try – as does her blog Spiritual Practices 101: https://jacciturner.wordpress.com/