Adult Discipleship Blog: What Spiritual Direction Is Not


In my last blog posting I wrote concerning the question: What is spiritual direction? I quoted William Barry’s and William Connolly’s book, The Practice of Spiritual Direction: “Help given by one Christian to another, which enables that person to pay attention to God’s personal communication to him or her, to respond to this personally communicating God, to grow in intimacy with this God, and to live out the consequences of the relationship.” I expanded on that definition, and I shared some of my personal experience with spiritual direction ministries. In this blog posting I contrast spiritual direction with other helping relationships that are not the same as spiritual direction.

Spiritual direction is not psychotherapy. In psychotherapy the agenda for the relationship is set by the seeker’s dysfunction. The process of psychotherapy involves treatment, often with seeker and therapist meeting weekly for an extended length of time. The therapist helps the seeker through the dynamics of relationship with the seeker. The goal of psychotherapy is the seeker’s health.

Spiritual direction is not pastoral counseling. It is not mentoring, nor is it discipling. Jeannette A. Bakke characterizes each of these relationships in her book, Holy Invitations, as follows: In pastoral counseling the agenda is set by the counselee. The process of pastoral counseling involves problem-solving, crisis management, and/or healing past wounds. Typically, pastoral counseling is limited to no more than six sessions. The pastoral counselor helps by facilitating; and the goal of pastoral counseling is the counselee’s well-being.

Spiritual direction is not mentoring. According to Bakke, in mentoring the agenda is set both by the mentor and by the mentee within a particular context. For example, one employee might seek out another employee for mentoring within the context of the workplace they share. The process of mentoring involves development of the mentee. The mentor helps by coaching the mentee; and the goal of the mentee is improvement within the context shared by the mentor and mentee.

Spiritual direction is not the same as discipling. Paraphrasing Bakke again, in discipling, the agenda is set by the discipler. The process of discipling involves teaching. The discipler helps by transmitting information or instruction. The goal of the disciple is to incorporate learning in his or her life, as the discipler has incorporated it in her or his life.

Contrast the characteristics of all the relationships listed above with the agenda, process, method, and goal of the relationship between the spiritual director and directee. According to Bakke’s view, within spiritual direction the agenda is set by the Holy Spirit. The process of spiritual direction involves noticing, paying attention, and praying. The spiritual director helps by listening and praying. And the goal of spiritual direction is transformation of the directee into the image of God.

These descriptions have helped me to understand spiritual direction ministries in depth, and I share them with you, hoping they will help you gain depth of understanding, too. But my hope for you goes beyond mastery of understanding. Ultimately, I pray that you will experience union with God through our Lord Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. Engaging in spiritual direction has propelled me toward that kind of union. Who knows? Perhaps spiritual direction would do even more for you!

As the North Alabama Conference Spiritual Formation Team’s chairperson, I maintain a list of spiritual directors. Call me at 205-478- 8214 to inquire.




Rev. Roger Short

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