Thoughts Concerning Pastoral Leadership and Spiritual Direction

This topic raises all kinds of questions. First of all, is pastoral headship and spiritual direction the same thing? What is spiritual direction? Should church members be seeking spiritual direction in addition to pastoral headship? Are pastors called to be spiritual directors? Since husbands are called to pastor their wives, are they also called to be their wife’s spiritual director? What about seeking spiritual direction outside one’s own church? Does someone have to be ordained to be a spiritual director? The list of questions could go on.

There is a distinction between pastoral care and spiritual direction

The first distinction that has to be made is that not all pastors and not all husbands can adequately provide the level of spiritual direction that a person (or spouse) may need or desire. A helpful analogy would be the difference between a medical doctor and a medical doctor who is a surgeon. A doctor may be able to meet many, if not most of a patient’s medical needs. But if there is a particular problem that may require a specialist or a surgeon, he will gladly defer or make a referral, lest he do damage to the patient. Using this analogy, a good spiritual director is like the heart specialist or surgeon. A good pastor may also have this ability, but most of the time he is just a good medical doctor.

As we continue to take up this first point, that spiritual direction is somewhat of a “specialized ability/gift”, it would be good to try to define what spiritual direction is and should look like. Then we will define what good pastoring looks like. We will see that the two can overlap and look similar, but more often than not, do involve two different sets of abilities or gifts.

Spiritual Direction

Classically speaking, spiritual directors are well trained in the “higher” reaches of total Gospel living including infused contemplation and the conditions required to reach complete union with God. One of the aims of the spiritual director is the biblical imperative of self-surrender—helping the directee bring about a surrender of their will to God. The spiritual director needs a great deal of knowledge and keen perception to help detect those obstacles, those attachments that block our spiritual growth or keep us resistant to God. The director shows the directee how to live by faith rather than mere human norms, and by the Word of God rather than responding to personal preferences. The director helps the directee in needed formation in detecting and avoiding self-centered aims. People receiving infused prayer and other spiritual gifts need a confirming word spoken by an understanding director/guide/mentor. The general aim of spiritual direction is aiding the directee to love God with his/her whole heart, soul, and mind and neighbor as oneself (Lk.10:27), and help that person to apprehend the utter fullness of the Trinitarian beauty (Eph.3:19-20). In their particular and instrumental role, spiritual directors cooperate with the Holy Spirit in helping directees live concretely as true disciples of Jesus. The director points the way to purification and shows the person how to break the mesh of selfish clingings—most of which in a sincere person are subtle and at first unnoticed. The director helps concretize St. Paul’s admonition to do everything for the divine glory and thus avoid making little gods of our needs and preferences. The director applies the biblical purifying word to the person (IPet.1:22) advising the directee to give up all one possesses (Lk.14:33), to be content with necessities and to be rid of superfluities (ITim.6:7-8), to die like a grain of wheat in the earth (Jn.12:24), and to surrender everything that does not lead to God (Ti.2:12).

Spiritual directors are a source of comfort and strength to their directees in the face of the world’s criticism, persecution and rejection. Directors help them discern when the Holy Spirit is and is not speaking. Directors have the knowledge to help people navigate through periods of difficult and dry prayer, issues like fasting and penance, and how much. They are a major source of support and accountability. Generally speaking, being a spiritual director in the traditional sense, requires extensive learning and ongoing study. They need to know how to deal with interpersonal problems and ordinary prayer questions. They need to be experiencing contemplative prayer to adequately give advice in this area. Spiritual directors should be able to assist with vocational discernment, biblical matters and interpretation, church matters, moral questions, doctrinal issues, and how to deal with scrupulosity. The director should have a good understanding of ecumenism, an appreciation of the new movements of the Holy Spirit in our times, and have no proclivity to “fix” or “adjust” any directee’s particular faith community or faith tradition.

A spiritual director should have a good understanding of the human person and normal psychological development. When dealing with suffering and evil, they should not give “pat answers”. If they don’t have an answer, they should be competent to know where to find the answer. They should know when to make a referral to a competent counselor or when to refer for needed ministry through healing and deliverance.

A spiritual director should themselves be under spiritual direction. The directee should know that their spiritual director is spiritually accountable to their own spiritual director. This affords a certain protection for the directee, who is being guided by someone who also considers himself humbly as a fellow pilgrim on the Way of Faith.

Spiritual direction is always strictly confidential. A directee should be able to trust the spiritual director with the deep things of his soul. The chief “work” of spiritual direction should be prayerful intercession for the directee, and trust in the direct action of the Holy Spirit in the soul of the directee.

Before moving off the defining of spiritual direction and looking at pastoring, we will look at a list (not exhaustive) of the types of topics a director and the directee should be discussing – of course keeping in mind the individuality of each person and that no relationship will fit a generalization exactly. This list is included in Fr. Thomas Dubay’s book entitled, Seeking Spiritual Direction:

Sample Topics for Discussion

  • Does my way of going about meditative or contemplative prayer seem to be working? Am I profiting from it? Am I making progress? And how do I determine that? Where am I in prayer development? Am I hitting any snags? Do I have problems I don’t know how to handle? Am I faithful to giving adequate time to prayerful solitude? Is it my top priority, the “one thing” in my life?
  • Am I prayerful during the day—without neglecting others or my work? How can I grow in this recollection?
  • Do I waste time? Engage in idle gossip? Indulge in an abundance of “needless toys” or in excessive amusements?
  • What have I been selecting for spiritual reading? What books, CDs and DVDs? Am I going about this exercise in the best way for me? Am I growing in and through it? Do I read or listen in a prayerful manner? What books should I read now? What should I avoid altogether or read with caution?
  • Am I improving in humility, patience, love for neighbor, obedience, frugality, indeed, in all the Gospel virtues? What are my weak points that need focused attention?
  • In my daily round of duties is my motivation mixed, that is, are unworthy motives mingled with my worthy ones? Am I even aware of this problem? What can I do about it?
  • Is my mind in accord with Scripture and the teaching of my church?
  • How am I using or misusing the mass media? Am I wasting time in my use of them?
  • Have I been chaste in thought and reading and speaking and looking (TV, internet and actual life) and in my actions? In practice, am I trying to serve both God and mammon?
  • Do I suffer daily crosses like a disciple of the crucified Master, with love and in union with Him? Do I welcome these opportunities to unite myself with my Lord on his cross?
  • How things are going with your wife and children
  • Household changes
  • Have I been warm and cordial toward everyone, even toward unattractive people, including those who are cold and indifferent toward me?
  • Is my emotional life balanced? Are my responses of joy or sorrow or fear excessive? Am I oversensitive? Do I live more by feelings than by will? Am I insensitive?
  • Am I concerned for the poor, both the materially poor and the spiritually poor? Do I come to their aid? Do I live frugally so as to share more with the needy?
  • Am I handling my time pressure problems properly, so that first things come first?
  • Where is my center of gravity: earth or heaven (Col.3:1-2)? Do I seek things for themselves or as a means of leading me and others to God?

People who exercise pastoral care could have some of the same attributes as spiritual directors. It seems in comparison, however, that most people who pastor do not have the same gifts and that they exercise a much broader area of responsibility. The following seem to be areas suitable as topics for pastoring (of course, for a husband heading his wife, the headship topics and approach might be much different.

Pastoral Care

Pastoral care should include transparency about and discernment in:

  • commitment to the church or fellowship
  • relationships in the family, in the workplace, in the church
  • significant budget changes and use of time and money
  • job changes
  • awareness of major commitments
  • temptations (major) and sins (major)
  • spirituality: scripture use, study, reading and media habits
  • when one is considering moving

One can quickly see from this list that there isn’t necessarily an expectation that pastoral care would provide the kind of in-depth spiritual direction that was discussed above.

As one set in place by the Holy Spirit, the pastor is one who brings truth to a person’s life. The pastor helps a person come to know themselves better by helping the person discover their weaknesses and strengths, as well as their gifts. The pastor helps a person have a vision of their state in life, as well as a clear vision of community and church life and any short or long-term promises or agreements involved. They are champions and advocates for those in their care. They have real moral authority in a person’s life (as does a spiritual director). They leave a person’s freedom intact but do have the authority to call to holiness and accountability those they pastor to live out the vision of their state in life and any agreements they have made. Pastors (as with spiritual directors) are called to work at being skilled listeners both to the Holy Spirit and to the person they are caring for. Pastors need wisdom to know when it is time to refer to others more expert than they for help in areas beyond their level of competence—for example emotional or psychological issues, demonic oppression or the obvious need for spiritual direction.

Having gone into depth trying to explain the differences between spiritual direction and pastoring, there is also a very critical and important distinction that must be made. The two roles are not normally taken by the same person. Pastoring, as exercised in the family or church, is a form of real authority given in the Bible or passed down from the governance polity of the person’s particular church. First of all, spiritual direction is always freely chosen whereas in the family and church, the pastor is a given, and he may or may not be freely chosen. Also, getting spiritual direction is not a requirement of being in a family or a church; it is optional. A person could choose their pastor (or husband) to be their spiritual director, but this would be more uncommon than common. Bottom line for church members is: they may or may not choose to get spiritual direction as we have described it, it is optional; and if they choose to do so, they must have the freedom to choose whom they desire for a spiritual director.

Secondly, in regards spiritual direction, the impetus for direction is always on the shoulders of the directee. Spiritual directors do not usually call up their directees asking to get together. In the case of a pastor, if a person is avoiding or neglecting contact, it is the responsibility ultimately of the pastor to make a connection.

More Distinctions

It is clear that pastoral leadership does involve spiritual direction at its most basic level. A parent who is guiding their child in how to say his/her prayers, guiding what media to view, reading bible stories, etc., etc., is providing spiritual direction---and good spiritual direction.

A husband who helps his wife make a space for prayer in her daily routine, who makes a place for prayer together in their marriage and family, who encourages her to exercise faith, hope and love in the daily difficulties, etc, is providing spiritual direction.

A pastor who is asking a church member about their prayer life, what they are doing for study, how they are serving their family, the community, the congregation, who encourages them to faith in the trials of life, who exhorts them to die to egoism in favor of their spouse, etc., is providing good spiritual direction.

But most pastors do not have the time, the spiritual gifts or the training to provide the level of spiritual direction that a member of their congregation may need or desire in order to “cast out into the deep.” (Lk 5:4) And the person being pastored needs to have complete freedom in seeking out spiritual direction whenever and with whomever they desire.

Also, just because someone happens to be ordained does not automatically make them a good spiritual director. The spiritual direction gift/ability/charism can be bestowed on and developed by the Holy Spirit in any non-ordained Christian.

In actuality, gifts for spiritual direction are relatively scarce. It requires people who are very mature in their own prayer life and with strong gifts of discernment and wisdom. It is the fruit of a person’s prayer life and experience of the Holy Spirit. It also necessitates good knowledge of human development and being rooted in scripture. Knowledge of theology and the spiritual classics is also quite important.

If we put spiritual direction in the job description for a pastor and they don’t have the gifts for spiritual direction, people who go to their pastors seeking spiritual direction can be greatly disappointed. And the pastor who attempts to go beyond his giftedness could be harmed as well, for example by a sense of failure when he can’t fulfill someone’s expectations.

One other area, not yet discussed, could be termed “soul companion”. This is a “first cousin” to spiritual direction and is best exemplified by the many small groups of brothers and sisters who gather regularly for prayer and sharing. A soul companion is one with whom you share informally about one’s journey toward God. As this mutual sharing occurs, much enlightenment, encouragement, accountability and correction takes place in a person’s spiritual walk. There can be solid discernment and spiritual direction in these types of groups.

A New Outpouring of Grace

With all this being said, it is important to recognize what the Holy Spirit is currently doing in the whole Body of Christ in our present time. There is a move of the Holy Spirit which is touching many believers throughout the world and across many churches and denominations; and one distinctive part of this new movement is the Lord’s invitation to deeper prayer. Dubay states in his book, Seeking Spiritual Direction, that in his experience of providing spiritual direction to thousands of people over many years, “the central concern of most people seeking guidance in their pursuit of God is contemplative prayer.” Richard Foster in his book, Prayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home, has some very pertinent remarks to make about contemplative prayer. We will quote only a small section of his comments. He says, “Contemplative prayer is not for the novice. I do not say this about any other form of prayer. All are welcome, regardless of proficiency or expertise, to enter freely into adoration and meditation and intercession and a host of other approaches to prayer. But contemplation is different. While we are all equally precious in the eyes of God, we are not all equally ready to listen to ‘God’s speech in his wondrous, terrible, gentle, loving, all embracing silence’. A baby is given milk rather than steak because steak will do the baby no good. An apprentice electrician is not allowed to do the tasks of a journeyman because he is not ready for those tasks, and for him to undertake them could, in fact, be dangerous. So it is in the spiritual life. We must learn our multiplication tables before we attempt calculus, so to speak. This is simply a fact of the spiritual realm, and it would be wrong of me not to tell you about it.”

There is in our day an eruption of the Lord’s love: pouring out contemplative graces in our midst. Assuming that this is not for the novice, (as Richard Foster says) and assuming that it is the reason most people seek out spiritual direction (as Fr. Dubay says), then it is clear why more and more Christians are interested in having spiritual direction. It is also a significant reason why the office of pastor cannot always provide the kind of spiritual direction that a number of people are finding they need. Many Christians are thirsting and hungering for intimacy with the Father, Son and Holy Spirit; and receiving an outpouring of grace from God to be intentional in satisfying their longing.


What are we to finally conclude from all this? Perhaps most important is that pastoring is a tremendous gift in the Body of Christ that the Lord has given us for many years and which is critical and essential to our life. But also that the Christian longing for and seeking the Face of God needs good spiritual direction, and that relatively few in pastoral leadership will be able to meet the needs of those they pastor in this area. The small group “soul companioning” is a very good ad hoc tool to use in spiritual direction with each other. But also, we should be open to the Lord developing specific gifts of spiritual direction for us who have already been called into deeper prayer and intimacy with God, to meet the needs of people who are experiencing a new “fire within.” This should not be seen in any way as competition with pastoral leadership for brothers and sisters who are looking for spiritual direction.

This essay was originally composed by Mr. Dan Almeter, an Elder of The Alleluia Community in Augusta, Georgia, and has been edited with his permission by Michael Firmin.