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Charleston Diocese aims to bring organization to spiritual direction ministry

Nancy Stroud had been faithful to personal prayer for years. But at a certain point, the Charleston, South Carolina resident told The Pillar, she felt a need for accompaniment in her journey of faith.

So Stroud began to consider spiritual direction.

Participants at the Diocese of Charleston’s first day of prayer and reflection for spiritual directors. Photo courtesy of Deacon Tom Whalen.

Spiritual direction pairs a trained, prayerful individual — the spiritual director — with the interested directee. Through one-on-one sessions, typically at monthly intervals, the director supports the directee in understanding where God is working in his or her life.

But though spiritual direction may benefit many Catholics seeking to deepen their faith, it’s not always easy to find a spiritual director — or even to know whether to pursue one in the first place. 

In the Diocese of Charleston, however, the ministry is becoming more accessible. At the request of Bishop Jacques Fabre-Jeune, Deacon Tom Whalen last year established a diocesan Office of Spiritual Directors to oversee the practice of spiritual direction in the diocese.

In the Charleston diocese, Catholics wanting to be identified by the diocese as spiritual directors must receive diocesan approval, which requires obtaining a certificate from an approved program of study and signing a covenant outlining the diocesan expectations of conduct and confidentiality. 

Among those expectations: spiritual directors must never give advice or guidance that contradicts Church teaching, and must avoid physical contact with directees. They should “maintain clear and appropriate physical and psychological boundaries in all spiritual ministry sessions and ministry related relationships.”

The covenant is designed to give people seeking spiritual direction confidence that they are working with someone who meets certain standards of orthodoxy, training, and professionalism. 

Spiritual directors in the diocese can be priests, religious sisters, or lay people.

But official requirements aside, the most important quality of a director, Whalen told The Pillar, is a personal calling from God to the ministry.

“The education is certainly important, but the personal spiritual growth and ability to be a ‘holy listener’ is truly the blessing at the encounter and the grace flowing in the meeting,” Whalen continued.

“I believe the Holy Spirit is the true ‘spiritual director’ in the meeting with the directee. The director is a reflective passenger on the directee’s journey.”

Lay, religious, and diaconal spiritual directors and their contact information are listed on the diocesan office’s website — which is where Stroud ended up finding hers.

“I Google searched ‘spiritual direction near me’ and it led me to the diocesan website,” said Stroud. “Which was great because I wasn’t expecting it to be that organized.”

Indeed, the long list of directors initially overwhelmed her — but she felt God nudging her toward a particular name. She reached out, and has now been in spiritual direction for the past three years.

Spiritual direction, she said, has kept her more accountable to prayer, aided her in making decisions, and helped her to trust God more fully.

“I don’t need to worry about next month or six months from now,” said Stroud. “I just need to do the next thing that [God is] calling me to.”

A growing community

Some spiritual directors, like Beaufort resident Judith Gabriel, have been offering spiritual guidance since long before the diocesan office was formed.

Gabriel is grateful for the organization that the office has brought to her work, including the guidelines for conduct (which also stipulate that directors are not to accept payment).

“To be perfectly honest with you, I was glad that they did that,” Gabriel told The Pillar regarding the guidelines. “Because it made some murky things clear.”

The number of spiritual directors in the diocese is growing. As of this month, the diocese has 56 approved directors - including priests, religious sisters, and laity, Whalen told The Pillar.

Half of those have earned their spiritual direction certificates from Spring Hill College, a Jesuit institution in Mobile, Alabama with a satellite location in Atlanta, Georgia.

Whalen, a graduate of the program and a spiritual director himself, now acts as a liaison between the diocese and the college, on behalf of each year’s cohort of students. June’s graduates are the third cohort from the diocese to complete the two-year, 18-credit certificate.

Others come from different programs. Debra Dinolfo, who works with four directees, earned a spiritual direction certificate from Virginia-based Divine Mercy University’s online program.

Dinolfo met many of the diocesan spiritual directors on May 18 at the group’s first Day of Prayer and Reflection, which she told The Pillar was “informative, refreshing and nourishing.”

Featuring Mass, talks, and fellowship, the gathering offered a chance for the spiritual directors to get to know one another as they prayed together about their ministry. Whalen intends to hold the event annually.

“We got to meet, form bonds and break bread together,” said Dinolfo.

During the rest of the year, spiritual directors — who are scattered across the state — may participate in peer supervision groups. Meeting via video calls every six to eight weeks, the groups help participants continue to grow in their ministry after their studies are finished.

An open door

Many Catholics are unaware of what spiritual direction is, Stroud told The Pillar.

“I think a lot of people still tend to think of it as more of a counseling type thing, or a problem-solving type thing,” said Stroud. “You know — ‘I don’t have a problem. I don’t need a spiritual director.’”

Spiritual direction is distinct from mental health care, explained Dinolfo, who is also a licensed professional counselor (though, she clarified, she would not see the same person for both counseling and spiritual direction).

For example, said Dinolfo: If a person has trouble maintaining stable romantic relationships, they may need to address harmful patterns of behavior or thinking — perhaps rooted in historical relationships with parents or other close adults — with the help of a mental health professional.

That’s a different issue from discerning a vocation to marriage or a relationship, which the person could bring to spiritual direction.

Sometimes a person may need to pause or delay spiritual direction to address a mental health concern, said Dinolfo, while someone else may seek both spiritual direction and counseling at the same time.

Another misconception is believing spiritual direction to be a practice only for the most pious of Catholics.

“I always thought you kind of had to be a saint to have a spiritual director,” Stroud recalled. “The only time I ever read about them was reading about the lives of the saints.”

Indeed, opinions vary on whether the average Catholic would benefit from spiritual direction, Dr. Anthony Lilles, professor of spiritual theology at St. Patrick Seminary in Menlo Park, California, told The Pillar.

One extreme, Lilles explained, believes that “you’re not really living the spiritual life unless you’re in spiritual direction” (often with a strong preference for a particular style of direction). 

“There’s something a little bit magical about that that’s dangerous,” said Lilles.

“On the other hand, if that’s the magical, the other are the disenchanted,” he continued. “The disenchanted extreme would be, ‘There’s so much to do, and I don’t have time to listen to people moan about their spiritual life.’”

Practical realities aside, there is also the rare person, said Lilles, who believes that lay people ought never need spiritual direction, as long as they are going to Mass, saying the Rosary and living morally.

In the middle are the Catholics whose needs for spiritual direction are well met by confession and by participating in the life of the Church, and those who — like Stroud — desire additional personal accompaniment. 

Lilles also noted that not every individual offering spiritual direction has the requisite training, maturity and charism for the ministry.

“A bad spiritual director can do a lot of harm,” he said. 

But the spiritual directors who spoke to The Pillar emphasized that the bar for entry in seeking spiritual direction is low. Whalen told The Pillar that he spends his first session with a directee explaining what spiritual direction is and is not. And there is often further teaching and structure: learning different ways to pray, for example, or reading spiritual texts together.

“It is a personalized process for the directee,” wrote Whalen. “There is no cookbook or checklist approach, but trying some proven tools to see if they help the directee move closer to God.”

Many of those tools come from St. Ignatius, whose writings are heavily represented in the Spring Hill College curriculum and the ministry in general. Gabriel noted that she hopes that more Catholics will pray with his Spiritual Exercises — four weeks of prayers and meditations written by the saint — whether at a silent retreat or over the course of several months at home.

Dinolfo urges Catholics who are unsure about it just to give it a try. Many spiritual directors - including her and others in the diocese - offer sessions via video call, to reduce the logistical hassle.

“Come to two or three sessions, once a month, and see how it feels to you,” she said. “And see if you don’t come away with some practices that make you feel more understanding of how God is working in your life.”

“I think people don’t know what they’re missing,” said Stroud. She is now pursuing her own spiritual direction certificate at Spring Hill.

“God has so much more for them than they even dare to ask for.”

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This report is part of The Pillar's solutions-oriented series highlighting parishes across the U.S. You can read more from this series here.

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