Photo by Sarah Whiting
Photo by Sarah Whiting
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By profession, they're Catholic nuns, chaplains, psychotherapists, college professors, meditation teachers, even ordained clergy. How are these "spiritual directors" different from therapists, life coaches and clergy?

They're Christian, Jewish, and Buddhist. They are also overwhelmingly female. What spiritual directors have in common is a deep commitment to accompanying people on their spiritual journeys and a passion for spirituality that transcends dollars and cents.

"Most spiritual directors charge an hourly fee, and many offer a sliding-fee scale," said spiritual director Pam Winthrop Lauer. "It's not a full-time living."

Roots and seeds
Spiritual direction has its traditional roots in the Roman Catholic and Orthodox traditions. Over the past couple of decades, Protestant Christian denominations have begun to adopt the practice, as have Jews and Buddhists. Not all organized religions have fully embraced spiritual direction; for example, of the approximately 4,900 USA members of Spiritual Directors International, a membership organization, just three identify as Muslim (none in Minnesota), said SDI Office Manager Trevor Slocom.

In Minnesota, the Cenacle Sisters, who formerly had a community in Wayzata, pioneered the concept of spiritual direction by lay people (traditionally, only ordained priests were spiritual directors). "The Cenacle Sisters' whole mission is spiritual direction," said St. Paul-based spiritual director Thérèse Jacobs-Stewart. "Their vision was to pass on the spiritual director technology to unordained people." Today, there are four Twin Cities training programs for spiritual directors.

Seeking... what?
Why does someone seek spiritual direction? According to Merle Harlan, executive director of the Sacred Ground training program for spiritual directors and a spiritual director herself, "The purpose of spiritual direction is to sit with someone who is a very good trained listener. The directee, through this active listening, comes to feel and reflect on God's presence in their life."

Lisa Lillemoen, who graduated from the three-year Integrated Kabbalistic Healing program of A Society of Souls in New Jersey, thinks that people seek spiritual direction for a variety of reasons. "Some are going through a divorce or other big life change. Others are seeking the truth, some are experiencing depression or anxiety." Lillemoen, who prefers the term "spiritual mentor" or "spiritual guide," also guides "leaders in the community who [want to] see the world a bit more broadly, who are leading other people." While some traditional Christian spiritual directors pray with their directees or talk about the presence of the Holy Spirit, Lillemoen, who draws mainly from the Judaic mysticism of Kabbalah, and to a lesser degree, Buddhist and Native American spirituality, is more likely to meditate with those she guides. "I don't use 'God,' per se, as a word," Lillemoen said. "It's a charged word."

Paula Hirschboeck, a former Twin Cities resident who trained at St. Paul's Center for Spiritual Guidance Training Program who now lives in Madison, Wis., said, "The women [directees] I work with are wanting to find their own path that's authentic to them." Asked why the framework of spiritual direction is a helpful way to do that, Hirschboeck responded, "Men have had the leadership in keeping people within the traditional religious practices. The one-to-one support of unique [spiritual] journeys [by women] is very congruent with how women, sitting around with a cup of coffee, change the world."

The formal relationship
Spiritual Directors International recommends that all directors and directees sign a document spelling out the relationship, confidentiality, fees and how often meetings will take place (the minimum frequency is generally monthly for an hour; meetings may be more frequent, if the directee desires, and spiritual direction groups often meet for a specific period of time, such as nine months, for two hours or so per session).

Harlan says that it's the responsibility of the spiritual director to "Keep very clear boundaries. Don't go to lunch. Don't have a dual relationship, like sitting on a school board or church committee [with a directee]."

It's also up to the spiritual director to recognize when the directee needs help beyond spiritual guidance - for example, mental illness issues. Harlan commented, "Sometimes the spiritual director needs to say, 'Some of the needs you have are beyond my scope,' and make referrals, strongly encourage them to seek [appropriate help]. They need to keep in mind what is spiritual direction, what is not."

Local spiritual director training programs
Roseann Giguere, a prominent local spiritual director, thinks although training programs often give out certificates of completion, it's important for people to know that there is no actual certification in spiritual direction. "There's no certifying board," she pointed out. Should there be one? She's ambivalent about that. "It might be of value to ensure the number of [classroom and internship] hours," she said, "But you wouldn't want to have the content certified."

Local programs include:
The Center for Spiritual Guidance Training Program, housed at Women Well, was founded by Giguere, a sister of St. Joseph of Carondelet, Elizabeth Toohey, a Dominican nun, and Priscilla Braun, a Protestant. "We wanted a training program that would be based on a positive view of creation and a positive view of the human condition. We were searching for a feminist model for how to train spiritual directors," said Giguere.

The Christos Center for Spiritual Formation takes an ecumenical Christian approach to spiritual direction, with an emphasis on "preparing Christian women and men for the ministry of spiritual direction." The 22-year-old organization offers a two-year program in spiritual direction.

The College of St. Catherine offers a certificate program that is both academic and spiritual in its approach. Those who complete the program earn 24 graduate-level credits and are required to complete a 150-hour internship that includes both ongoing spiritual direction and supervised service as a spiritual director.

Sacred Ground is "Ignation-spirituality based; we're Christian and welcome people of all faiths," said executive director Merle Harlan. Like the other programs, Sacred Ground offers a combination of classroom learning and what is referred to as "peer supervision"-working with other spiritual directors on an ongoing basis.