Spiritual Direction In The Ministry Of The Church

by Rick Eitzen

The church is the bride of Christ, his body made beautiful, holy and accessible to the world, the redeemed people of God reaching out with him, displaying his love, grace and forgiveness. There is nothing more beautiful than the presence of Christ in the midst of his chosen people – the poor are served, the defenseless are defended, the guilty are forgiven, the lost and lonely are found and comforted. Grace is poured out and love covers all. Like all things, the practice of the church at certain times and in certain places does not recognise nor live up to God’s intention for her. She loses her way and even in the midst of good intentions and efforts, forgets the face of her Lord and imagines it to be other than he has revealed. These false images of God can spring from or lead to false expectations about what it means to be a follower and lover of Jesus so that we settle for fear, obligation and duty when God offers friendship and intimacy. As a result, we need spiritual direction to explore where we are open and resistant to the presence of Jesus and move in ever increasing glory toward our Lord while discovering whom we have been made to be.

My hope is that true experience and reality drives this exploration of spiritual direction in the ministry of the church. Providing leadership and pastoral care at Southside Community Church in Surrey frames my experience and perceived challenges, opportunities, dangers and benefits of direction in this context. At Southside, we are highly committed to each other, unafraid of sharing deeply or holding one another accountable to faithfulness to Jesus in our everyday lives. We rally behind God’s call to reach and transform our neighbourhood with the love and service of Christ. We work and play hard; our relationships are deep. At the same time, I struggle with our emphasis and preoccupation on behaviour conformity. Our love for each other and for ourselves is often motivated by how well we judge we are behaving – merit earned by works rather than grace. Our desire to control, manage and perform is subtle and exhausting. In more honest moments, I feel the expectation to draw resources from Christ for others that I do not have, to be something I am not and to respond by pretending all is well. In the midst of expectations and activity, we find ourselves longing for yet afraid of intimacy with Christ and what that might mean, what we may be asked to let go of and where in our lives we are being invited to deeper trust. How might we explore these fears and yearnings of our hearts and what would the ministry of the church look like if we did? Surely relationship with the living God means more than believing and behaving! In the depths of our hearts we long to pray yet fear and misunderstand what prayer is.

When I was first introduced to Theresa of Avila’s writings on prayer, I realised that there are depths to prayer and intimacy with God which I have never imagined. Of the seven mansions mentioned (stages through which the soul passes on the journey toward union with God), most Christians likely do not move past the third where prayer continues to be self-centered and focused on personal morality (Houston 135). In church gatherings, this is often demonstrated by fear of praying in public due to what others might think or when prayer is used to teach/move along an agenda or worse, to show off. Most often, prayer is practiced as the token in God’s vending machine to dispense personal or corporate fulfillment. We do not listen well to the Spirit or to one another. In order to move into the fourth mansion where quiet, contemplative, attentive prayer develops and one begins to encounter the living God personally, Theresa suggests that humility & spiritual direction from one acquainted with suffering is required (Houston 143-144).

Few of us make the transition from duty to desire in our prayer lives, restricted to the third mansion by our false images of God (Theresa prescribes humility) and a lack of experienced guides (Theresa proposes spiritual directors). Addressing our false images of God will require great humility and honesty. How do we perceive God to be? Is God experienced as a parent, judge, or employer? How do these images affect how I respond to God? Are we able to bring all of our emotions and experiences into the Lord’s presence or do we sanitize them and insist on appearing as we would like to appear? Can we have the courage to let God be who God is rather than our projection of him and be our real selves before him (Barry & Connolly 51)? These questions are best explored with another since Christianity is relational at its core and our hearts are easily shaped by cultural influences rather than biblical truth (Imbach & Kiemele, Unit 1).

To this end, Father Green has suggested that spiritual direction is the single greatest need in church today which has spent too much energy keeping people out of hell (behaviour management) and too little helping souls to grow (120-121). What is spiritual direction and how does it differ from support groups, counseling, discipleship or other pastoral care ministries? What would it look like in the ministry of the church which is so often frenetically busy with other programs? First, spiritual direction is an ancient and mature practice of the church with centuries of history, typically practiced among Catholic clergy but more recently explored by lay Christians of all denominations as well. Its primary concern is fostering the relationship between God and another and is exercised as a three-way conversation between God, director and directee with the assumption that alone we are prone to deception as we pursue God. It is “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” (Barry & Connolly 8). It is “the simple gift of sacred presence, offering the gentle and tenacious encouragement to open fully to God’s presence and to co-discern God’s activity in every aspect of life” (Imbach & Kiemele, Unit 2).

God is ultimately the director of our souls. Therefore, spiritual directors do not create relationship between God and the directee but rather foster the relationship that already exists (Barry & Connolly 31), helping the directee to notice God’s communication with her and to notice how she responds to him. This is a fundamental shift in conviction for many Christians, perhaps especially for pastors and missionaries who in practice engage people with the assumption that God is not present and must be brought into their lives and contexts. What a heavy burden of responsibility! What a relief to recognise that God is present, that one’s growth and decisions do not depend on me and that God is speaking to the heart if we would only learn to listen and respond!

Listening and responding are the key competencies of prayer that must be developed to foster greater intimacy with the Lord. So often our listening is skewed by our assumptions of who God is and whom we are expected to be – assumptions that shape how we look for and respond to our Lord in life. Prayer is so often feared and avoided by deeply committed Christians because it is misunderstood. Prayer is much more than a reverent posture or ritual of obligation but touches on all things we experience – those things we love and enjoy, hope for and fear. It is incredibly validating to have one’s feelings recognised, to be used as the foodstuff for prayer and response to the living God. It is a great relief to realise that the Lord truly cares for who we are, all of our experiences, and not just what we can do or be for him.

We are invited to know God on his terms and for this reason, spiritual direction is necessarily subversive and somewhat counterintuitive. God can pull out the pegs of our theological tent which can surprise and prove terribly uncomfortable. We get used to certain pictures of God and feel violated when God exposes them and presents himself in ways and places we do not expect. We are invited into risky places with no idea of what rule God is going to break next. For this reason, the process of direction is somewhat unpredictable, focusing on inner reorientation rather than external conformity (Imbach & Kiemele, Unit 2). It is “the radical reorientation of the whole person, down to the roots of one’s being…to be suspicious of every aspect of the motivation, and to be willing to explore and reorient this motivation” (Green 15-16). God invites us to contemplative living – awareness of his communication and willingness to listen and respond on his terms, no matter how surprising and unpredictable our Lord may appear. Contemplative living is not isolation or solitude but being aware of and responding to the presence of Jesus every day and then living out of that awareness. When we pray, do we really listen to the Lord and do we then tell God how listening makes us feel (Barry & Connolly 69)? Are we aware of God’s voice and our reactions throughout our mundane daily activities? Do we notice little pleasures and bring these to the Lord in prayer? Do we bring disturbing events as well or do we ignore them, assuming God expects us to be perpetually cheerful? How do we deal with anger and disappointment? Desire and willingness to let feelings emerge are necessary to begin to share feelings in prayer (Barry & Connolly 75). Real relationships experience tension and the presence of resistance in our responses to the Lord is a good sign of deepening relationship. This is the foodstuff of prayer and of direction.

Barry & Connolly note that idolatry is unwillingness to let God be other than one’s present image of him (88). There is a lot of idolatry among followers of Jesus and within his church. But there is also a deep desire and fear of closeness with God (Barry & Connolly 98). How do we move beyond our idolatry and explore these desires and fears? What does spiritual direction look like within the context of church ministry? Barry & Connolly insist that spiritual direction is a form of pastoral care whose basic direct purpose is to assist “individuals in developing and cultivating their personal relationship with God” (ix). Direction differs from counseling and other forms of pastoral care in that it is primarily an act of holy listening, of presence and attentiveness (Guenther 1). The director does not seek to fix people or problems, give advice, teach, coach or counsel but assist the directee to discover the presence of God in the midst of difficulty (Green 47). It is completely Christ centered – Christ is the initiator and director of the relationship and the directee is the primary discerner and responder. The director’s role is not professional but rather as a midwife, present to encourage and assist as God births new life in the directee as she relates to her Lord. Midwives are content to wait and watch while present with the labourer (Guenther 87-88).

Peterson discerns well the difference between the role of pastor and spiritual director in the ministry of the church. When it comes to running the church, pastors seize the initiative, take responsibility for motivation and recruitment, show the way and getting things started (60). But when it comes to curing souls, God already initiates and we respond while considering, “What has God been doing here? What traces of grace can I discern in this life? What history of love can I read in this group? What has God set in motion that I can get in on?” (61). The primary language of running the church is description and motivation while the primary language of the cure of souls is conversation and prayer. It is personal language, expression, conversation (“to” and “with” language) in relationship (62). The pastoral task of running the church will also always involve problem solving but when engaged in the task of curing souls, problems are mysteries to be explored (64). It is possible that the primary culprit of impoverished souls in a congregation is a pastor who constantly operates in “running the church” mode and approaches people as objects to be motivated or problems to be solved. One of the best steps forward in congregational soul care would be for leaders to learn how to operate in the “curing of souls” mode when dealing with people, to walk together and discern the voice of God and explore our responses to God’s Presence.

Another helpful pastoral perspective that Peterson provides is the difference between seeing people in human and moral versus theological terms. Most people see within themselves personal “needs that need fulfilling and moral deficiencies that need correcting” (118) while pastors must see people as sinners, separated from God who need to be restored in Christ (the term sinner does not connote moral judgment, for both wicked and virtuous people are sinners). If a pastor begins to resent and be disappointed with people, she likely no longer sees them as sinners “who bring ‘nothing in themselves of worth’ (but) has secretly invested them with divine attributes of love, strength, compassion, and joy” (119). However, if we insist on seeing people in theological terms, we can “be prepared to share grief, shortcomings, pain, failure, and have plenty of time left over to watch for the signs of God’s grace operating in the wilderness, and then fill the air with praises for what (we discover)” (119). This is the task of spiritual direction, to enter into the wreckage of people’s lives and participate (not fix!), pointing out the presence of God along the way (136).

So what does spiritual direction look like in the context of local church ministry? There are strong arguments for spiritual direction outside of the local church. One of the strongest is that it allows for healthy detachment where director and directee can clearly focus on God’s voice in the midst of potentially dark and complicated circumstances that would be more difficult to discern if the relationship between director and directee occurred on several different levels. If, for example, the director was a pastor, the directee may focus on trying to please his or her pastor rather than God or try and fit within assumed expectations. The possibility of dependence or interference would certainly hinder the relationship. I suspect that direction within the church would be more difficult, complicated and messy. However, it may prove surprisingly rich and intense as director and directee are in close proximity, sharing daily life and ministry together along with all of the joy, fear and pain that accompany such life together. Giving direction to one you love deeply, whose decisions directly affect you personally would certainly cause more joy and pain than if the relationship was objective.

What flavour would direction hold if, rather than serving a directee from a detached and unbiased perspective, the director was waist deep in shared life with the directee? More humility and vulnerability would be required by both parties if they not only shared holy moments of listening and response before the Lord but also recreation, service, victories, failures, and worship. The possibility of direction within the context of the local church sounds wonderful and frightening at the same time: to stand exposed before the Lord and his people, fully known and fully accepted with the love of Christ covering over the failures and disappointments of directors and directees alike would be a true testimony of the community of Christ, known by their love for each other (Jn 13:35). Practically speaking, how would this work? Do we propose adding direction as another fringe activity jammed into an overfull church program?

If we are called by Jesus to follow him, to be conformed to his image and sent out to make disciples, then spiritual direction becomes the focus and not the periphery of the church’s ministry. As a church, we may be full of zeal and eager to please but without a contemplative lifestyle, desire quickly turns to duty and duty eventually leads to burnout and disillusionment. Jesus helped his followers pay attention to the work of God, invited them into risky places and challenged them to look at themselves, to understand their own perceptions and skewed judgments (Guenther 49) and respond to his promptings. Without contemplation, prayer, service, worship, witness, preaching and any other activity done in the name of Christ becomes an unbearable burden executed out of self-dependence. But to see Christ in all we experience, to hear his voice and respond in love, to be set afire by love and grace in our responsibilities and relationships – ah! this is the glory of God in the midst of his people. This is the infectious Spirit of God, contagious to all who brush up against one of his contemplative sons or daughters.

In order for spiritual direction to be central to the ministry of the church it would have to flow out of a lifestyle where we learn to listen and respond to the voice of Jesus personally and corporately. This would take place in various circles from one on one direction to small group exercises and experiences to entire congregational participation in listening and responding. It would have to start small and be modeled through example but by faithfulness and tenacity, spiritual direction could infuse and transform the DNA of a community. Imagine God’s people unhindered by false images, perceptions and expectations of God, free to love and respond in love, transformed by grace and able to extend grace to one another! I desperately long for greater depth in our community, to see my friends freed from the barriers they erect before God’s presence, to move toward greater intimacy and union with their loving and gracious Lord. That we would live personally and corporately as chosen people of God unleashed in the world, loving and beloved. Having considered the opportunity for spiritual direction in the ministry of the church, I pray first for humility and courage to engage the Lord and each other in honesty and second for the Lord to raise up directors in our midst who will help facilitate the new life God desires for us as dear children. May our Lord remove those things that keep us from his presence and fill us with the Spirit to live contemplative, intentional lives of contagious intimacy.

Works Cited

Barry, William A. and Connolly, William J. The Practice of Spiritual Direction.  NY:

Harper and Row, 1982.

Green, Fr. Thomas H. The Friend of the Bridegroom: Spiritual Direction and the

Encounter with Christ. Notre Dame: Ave Maria Press, 2000.

Guenther, Margaret. Holy Listening: The Art of Spiritual Direction. Boston:

Cowley Publications, 1992.

Housten, James M. ed. A Life of Prayer by St. Teresa of Avila. Vancouver, BC:

Regent College Publishing, 1998.

Imbach, Steve and Kiemele, John. “Why is Spiritual Direction Important?” Intro to

Spiritual Direction Class. Carey Theological College, Spring 2008.

Peterson, Eugene. The Contemplative Pastor. Grand Rapids: Wm B. Eerdmans,


(1996). New International Version Bible. Third Edition, Grand Rapids: Zondervan.


Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

  1. I am so blessed by this article today. It is an answer to some nagging questions i have had of recent. This is quite challenging in view of our current posture of seeing things from the perspective of conquering, instaed of from the perspective of what God is doing and we responding.