Group Spiritual Direction? Possibilities for Parish Life

Note: I wrote this in March 2011, as a short research assignment on spiritual direction. Looking back today, in light of books such as Sherry Weddell’s “Forming Intentional Disciples,” I see challenges and potential in the role greater accessibility to spiritual direction might play in regard to a culture of discipleship. Also, this short paper didn’t really touch on how to find people with the right charisms for this type of ministry–but the Catherine of Siena Institute’s “Called and Gifted” workshops might be a place to start for those who are interested.

Throughout the past half-century, lay Catholic Christians have entered into the ancient practice of spiritual direction, both as directors and directees, in increasing numbers, allowing the Holy Spirit to bring forth significant fruit and closeness to God in the lives of many. As beneficial as this increase is, the majority of these lay Christians seek spiritual direction from a position of intense desire to grow in faith, as a disciple of Jesus Christ who has already made a personal, interior conversion of the heart towards God. Spiritual direction is often perceived as an “advanced” stage of faith formation or discipleship for those who are “serious about their faith” or “actively discerning,” rather than a pathway or invitation for the ordinary person in the pew or person who has just recently started attending mass. Martin Thornton notes that “spiritual direction was never a clerical preserve, neither was it traditionally reserved for the especially advanced or gifted.”[1] In this spirit, we must seek to extend the invitation of spiritual direction, in tangible and practical ways, to entire parish communities, so that both the devout and unbelieving alike may be drawn closer to the Lord and to deeper relationship with God. In this way, the practices and methods of spiritual direction can be employed as instruments of evangelization, discipleship, and the call to Christian holiness.

A focus on the parish has been chosen because parishes are the ordinary and primary setting of most Catholic Christians. Parishes include members who only occasionally attend mass, faithful volunteers who instruct youth, devout, yet isolated individuals, and even non-believers who attend for cultural or habitual reasons. While it is commendable that many of the lay faithful attend retreats, conferences, and small faith-sharing groups in addition to participating in parish life, one should not have to look outside the parish for opportunities for spiritual direction. Notably, according to the 2008 Pew Forum “Religious Landscape” survey, 71 percent of Catholics who now self-identify as Protestant cite “spiritual needs” not being “met” as the reason for leaving.[2] This is a cry for spiritual direction as an easily accessible, essential aspect of parish life that enlivens worship, evangelism, catechesis, and works of charity within a local community of believers.

While we as the People of God are hungry for spiritual direction, the question remains, how to provide this through an ordinary parish? I will explore this question across a spectrum, starting with parish plans for individual spiritual direction, and then moving to explore programs of group spiritual direction. At the most passive end of the spectrum, a parish simply does nothing to explain spiritual direction to parishioners or provide resources for finding individual directors. At the next level of engagement, a parish offers insight into the history and practice of spiritual direction through bulletin announcements, adult faith formation, or electronic communication. A parish could even post a list of local spiritual directors accepting new directees on their website.[3]

A significant step forward beyond these more passive approaches is to offer individual spiritual direction through the parish. Some parishes compensate a spiritual director to serve this role and provide a space and designated block of time for parishioners to make appointments.[4] Parishes that employ a part-time spiritual director can also use this individual to help raise awareness and help unfamiliar parishioners understand what spiritual direction is through ordinary engagement with parishioners after mass or other parish events. Employing a spiritual director demonstrates the seriousness of the parish’s commitment to fostering spiritual direction and at the same time greatly increases the number of people receiving spiritual direction since it will no longer be seen as an “extra” that must be sought outside the parish, but instead as a vital form of spiritual growth provided through and within the parish. The parish’s act of compensating the spiritual director in a corporate, not individual payment system, serves as an additional encouragement for parishioners to use the opportunity and prevents the spiritual director from facing the difficult question of asking a directee for compensation in order to be able to continue the practice.

Parish efforts to offer and encourage more widespread use of individual spiritual direction are inherently limited by the practical reality that in many parishes additional funds are not available to compensate a spiritual director, nor would a single individual already employed in another position have the time to devote prayer and attention to a large number of directees. A viable alternative method, with many positive auxiliary effects, is a group spiritual direction program within the parish community. In developing a sample plan for group spiritual direction in a parish, I have combined Rev. James Knox Yeary’s parish spiritual director discernment and preparation program and Meg Greeley’s chapter on implementing a small-group parish spiritual direction program. This particular plan is not intended to be the exclusive way a parish could foster group spiritual direction; Yeary reminds his readers that “if this [his] project is used in a parish setting it is important that it not be merely applied to or superimposed on a parish, but rather it must be ‘translated’ into the life and situation of that particular parish.”[5] With this in mind the concept described in this paper can be a framework, skeletal structure, or brainstorming tool for starting the process of developing individualized programs in diverse parishes.

Establishing the practice of group spiritual direction within a parish involves intimacy, trust, commitment, and shared understanding well beyond simply scheduling an “organizational meeting” on the parish calendar. Yeary’s approach to preparation uses the liturgical calendar as a framework for helping parishioners discern and prepare for roles as facilitators. Leading into the start of Advent, he placed information on the opportunity to learn more about spiritual direction and discern a parish plan in the parish newsletter and congregational announcements. Starting on the first Sunday of Advent, during the “regular adult class period” in the morning, the group met and Yeary provided instruction on the background for the idea of parish spiritual direction and an introduction to spiritual direction centered on the Advent themes of “anticipation and expectation with invitation to explore spiritual direction as a possible call into new life.”[6] After a short break for the Christmas season, the weekly, one-hour classes continued, with an emphasis on the “scriptural, historical, and practical aspects of spiritual direction” and a study of popular traditional methods of individual spiritual direction.[7] During the last few weeks of the Easter season, the class used scholarship and personal reflection to develop lists of characteristics of good spiritual directors.[8] On Pentecost Sunday, this initial class concluded with Yeary asking each member of the class for a list of persons in the parish “who meet or almost meet the characteristics of a spiritual director.”[9] Twenty-four persons were identified and the parish’s rector contacted each to explain how they had been identified and asked them to prayerfully consider discerning their gifts further.[10] After a break in Adult Sunday morning classes for the summer, Yeary began Phase Two, “validating the gifts,” of those identified.[11] Thirteen of the twenty-four did decide to join him for Sunday morning class throughout the fall to receive training and continue to prayerful discern their gifts, though in retrospect, Yeary recommends that this phase include the summer to enable a slower pace of preparation and to prevent loss of enthusiasm and momentum among the group. With this extra time, I recommend adding a practical phase of the preparation, where the group spiritual director facilitators function in various small-groups in order to grow comfortable and confident in facilitating such groups. On the feast of Christ the King, the entire parish received explanation of spiritual direction and the rector formally commissioned the spiritual directors.[12] Yeary’s plan could be incorporated into the faith life of many Catholic parishes, the deliberate discernment of gifts from within the parish community and long-term prayerfulness are strengths of this approach because they work to gradually increase knowledge and awareness of spiritual direction within the parish.

After an initial group of facilitators has been identified, trained, and commissioned, the next stage is implementing regular small-group spiritual direction for the parish community. Greeley recommends organizing groups for a set time period, i.e. a group that will meet for six months, so the parish can communicate a specific “open-enrollment” period to join a spiritual direction group, and so that members understand that they are not committing for years to a particular group.[13] Greeley’s pastor published a letter of encouragement to parishioners in the bulletin and sent personal letters to parishioners he thought could particularly benefit from spiritual direction.[14] Greeley emphasizes that group spiritual direction is not a prayer group (though prayer is involved), support group, problem solving group, or topical faith sharing group; instead “the defining element of group spiritual direction is intercessory prayer, as all members hold one another in prayer throughout the meeting, listening to God with and for each other. The Holy Spirit is thus the real director, and both sharing and responses have their source in God rather than in personal agendas or concerns.”[15] In order to quickly build trust and sense of belonging, groups consisting of four to five people, including the facilitator, could meet once every two weeks for a two-month period, each meeting lasting approximately two hours. Then, after this introductory building phase, the group could meet once a month, for a session of similar length. Following the structure used by Greeley, meetings would begin with a time of silence, lasting approximately fifteen to twenty minutes, followed by a person sharing anything God has been placing into their spiritual life, challenges in prayer, experiences in growth, etc.[16] Sharing is followed by a three to four minute period of silence, followed by approximately ten minutes of probing and exploration of the Spirit’s leading the individual and the group.[17] The cycle repeats itself as a new person shares, and then concluding at the end with a ten-minute period of silence.

The programs of Yeary and Greeley demonstrate a tangible starting point for a parish minister considering offering a group experience of spiritual direction. Parishes should prayerfully consider the role spiritual direction plays within the parish community because the effects of a closer listening to the Holy Spirit have the power to transform lives of individuals and the corporate body. Chase Randall describes spiritual direction as having an “integrating function” within a parish that enables all other aspects of the spiritual life, including worship, prayer, and disciplines, to be approached with a deeper awareness of God’s movement, and as a shared parish experience “facilitate a movement towards a higher degree of relatedness between the members of the parish community.”[18] Greeley notes that in the long term, those who participate in spiritual direction begin to “bring elements of group spiritual direction into other community gatherings…they may become prayer support for governing bodies such as vestries or parish councils.”[19] The questions and longings of God’s people at this particular time in history ask that we as ministers take a closer look at developing innovative ways to expand or translate the traditional methods of individual spiritual direction into offerings for the entire parish community, so that spiritual direction is a typical, not exceptional, practice for ordinary baptized believers.


[1] Martin Thornton, Spiritual Direction (Cambridge, MA: Cowley Publications, 1984), 19.

[2] John Allen Jr., “In America’s religious marketplace, the real Catholic problem is new sales,” National Catholic Reporter, http://ncronline.org/blogs/all-things-catholic/americas-religious-marketplace-real-catholic-problem-new-sales (11 Feb 2011).

[3] St. Mary’s Catholic Church, College Station, Texas provides an example of this (http://www.aggiecatholic.org/index.cfm?load=page&page=209&category=3).

[4] Our Lady of Victory Parish, Centerville, Massachusetts (http://www.olvparish.org/spiritualdirection.html) and St. Francis of Assisi Parish in Sacramento, California (http://www.stfrancisparish.com/spiritual_direction.htm) provide examples of this.

[5] James K. Yeary, “Spiritual Direction and Its Place within the Regular Life of the Parish: A Model for Education and Testing Spiritual Direction as a Viable Spiritual Gift in a Parish Setting” (D.Min. thesis, University of the South, 1989) 101.

[6] Yeary 25.

[7] Yeary 70.

[8] Yeary 70.

[9] Yeary 70.

[10] Yeary 71.

[11] Yeary 71.

[12] Yeary 94-95.

[13] Rose Mary Dougherty, Monica Maxon, and Lynne Smith, The Lived Experience of Group Spiritual Direction (New York: Paulist Press, 2003), 69.

[14] Dougherty 97.

[15] Dougherty 69.

[16] Dougherty 97.

[17] Dougherty 97.

[18] Chase Randall, “Spiritual Direction: An Integrating Function for Ministry in the Parish,” (D.Min. thesis, Boston University, 1979), 22.

[19] Dougherty 63.

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