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Spiritual direction nurturing the journey toward God

The quest for spiritual direction is as old as the need of sojourners struggling to find someone to walk alongside them.

The term "spiritual direction," according to the Rev. Dwight Judy, draws from the rich legacy of ecumenical Christian tradition. It particularly focuses on the men and women of the 1st through 5th centuries who left their homes for monastic life in the desert. Other Christians saw them as individuals with particular wisdom and some informally sought out these abbas and ammas for advice.

"One can readily see the 18th-century Methodist movement as a form of what we might today call small group spiritual direction or, in the language of their day, small group Christian conferencing," Judy, professor emeritus of spiritual formation at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, added.


The focus of spiritual direction is intimacy with God, not solving of clinically identified psychological problems. A spiritual director is not a therapist or counselor, but a mature Christian who helps the directee both to discern what the Holy Spirit is doing and saying and to act on that discernment, drawing nearer to God in Christ.

Spiritual direction falls under the umbrella of spiritual formation, said the Rev. Cynthia Good, chair of the board of directors of Hearts on Fire, the Fellowship of United Methodist Spiritual Directors and Retreat Leaders. An elder in the New England Conference, she serves in an extension ministry of spiritual direction and retreat leadership.

The goal of Hearts on Fire is to provide formational leaders with opportunities for connection, networking, resourcing and support. They advocate and educate about the ministries of spiritual direction and retreat leadership at every level of The United Methodist Church.

Deep listening

Good defines spiritual direction as deep listening to stories of the heart.

"The core of the direction is listening," she said. "The director's role is to hear the directee's story. One of my directees said, ‘You hold my story.' I think part of what we do is we listen over time. We see the threads. Sometimes the directees don't remember they have said the same things over and over. But we (directors) do."

Directors see their role as, metaphorically, occupying one of three chairs in the direction relationship: one each for the director, directee and God. Each speaks and each listens.

Good pointed to the Hearts on Fire website as a place for those seeking a spiritual director.

"There is a list of members and their particular specialties," she said. "First, you can look and see if there is someone nearby. You can call someone and see if you feel a connection, and if you might be a fit. We will all give you a sample of what we do and how we do it. You can discern when a director feels right and the director can discern if the directee is a good match. Try it for three months and then both of you reevaluate if the relationship is working. Does this person get you? If you realize it isn't working, it probably isn't that either of you is doing something wrong. You just need to find a better fit."

Dr. Christine McHenry, now a retired physician, began to sense God's call to a different kind of ministry. She stepped out in faith, sought out a spiritual director and spent several years with her director discerning what God was calling her to do.

"That process led me to the point of deciding to retire from medicine and go to seminary," she said. She enrolled at United Theological Seminary and pursued a master of theology. After that, she became an ethics professor. One class she taught to young seminarians was on medical ethics.

"I grew up in a Christian home so I was a woman of faith," she said. "I always had a sense that spirituality couldn't be ignored in the medical field. I knew that to ignore that was to the detriment of the patient."

Given that, she knew many of the students had no background in medicine, but most of them would face ethical issues regarding health – their own or someone else's.

Walking with others

Guiding the students helped her recognize her desire to go alongside others on a journey, to travel with them as they sought answers to questions about where they were in relationship to God and God's path for them.

"I have been a spiritual director for 14 years now," she said, "and have worked with people from Millennials to their 80s. But regardless of the age, it's more about listening than talking. It's not a leading, but more of a walking beside. Paul writes in Galatians in The Message. ‘Thank you for coming alongside of me during this time.' That's what we do. We (spiritual directors) are privileged to come alongside someone who wants to see more deeply."

For the Rev. Im Jung, her own life-changing time of being with a spiritual director also forged her path to becoming a spiritual director.

Jung, regional coordinator for Program/International Ministries/Asia-Pacific with Upper Room Ministries and faculty member of The Upper Room's Academy for Spiritual Formation, said, "Spiritual direction, to me, is a non-judgmental, yet comfortable place to be vulnerable.

"During the 1980s and ‘90s and even the 2000s, spiritual direction wasn't poplar in United Methodist settings," she said. "During that time I was searching for where I could go to share what was in my heart with someone who would listen. I was not seeking advice and counseling, but I needed to share with someone that something in me was not satisfied."

Jung wanted the kind of relationship she knew she would find with a spiritual director

"I wanted that type of companionship and relationship," she said. "I went to the Center for Spirituality in Green Bay, Wisconsin. I was looking for a spiritual friend. I was a pastor; my husband was a pastor. My kids were in school and doing well, but there was a dryness in me. Even though I worked in church and ministered, I felt this desert."

Being an Elizabeth

Part of Jung's direction led her to look at Bible passages, specifically at those about Mary, the mother of Jesus.

"She had a fear when the angel appeared and told her she would be pregnant," Jung said. "She had to have been questioning ‘What can this mean?' This was something in her that she could not share with anyone else. She went to Elizabeth. Elizabeth doesn't say a lot in the Bible, but she hugged Mary and gave a listening ear and support. My spiritual director was just like Elizabeth to me. I read Mary's story in a different way, and I just fell in love with Elizabeth. Because of my relationship with my spiritual director, I began to read the Bible with fresh eyes. I thought ‘What if God called me to be an Elizabeth?'"

She said, "My spiritual director didn't give me a prescription (‘Take two Tylenol and call me in the morning.'). He asked me questions. I thought about them. He said to call him when I had thought through them, maybe in one or two weeks, and then come back when I was ready. After this time with my spiritual director, I read the Bible differently. I went through the gospels and marked how Jesus related to us. More questions than answers. I read the New Testament over again.

"Jesus always challenged people with questions. These questions helped me process who I am, where I am going and why I'm going there. My spiritual director was my provider – a place, a presence and a listening ear. Open-ended questions. We talked about what was in my life and God's place in it. It changed my life."

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