Preparation for Ministry: Spiritual Direction Training compared to Seminary

The best preparation I had for ministry was the three year training program for spiritual directors I completed at Heart-Paths Dallas in 2012.  For those who do not know about or who are not familiar with spiritual direction, I offer this description from Liz Budd Ellmann, the Executive Director of Spiritual Directors International:

“Spiritual direction explores a deeper relationship with the spiritual aspect of being human. Simply put, spiritual direction is helping people tell their sacred stories everyday.” (For more in-depth descriptions see SDI here  or my own spiritual direction web site here.)

Seminary did not prepare me to accompany others on a spiritual journey. I learned this while training to be a spiritual director.  I learned most of the tools needed to practice this art from Heart Paths. Essentials such as deep listening, asking effective questions, vulnerability, and discernment,  were anchors of the spiritual direction curriculum, but not of my seminary experience.

My spiritual direction training taught me how to listen so that I was better able to hear what someone says, and what someone leaves unsaid.  I learned how to listen to the spirit, the divine, and the ineffable movement of the heart connecting to self, others, and the world.  Seminary was about theology, or God talk.  I learned a lot about the different ways human beings think about God, the holy spirit, and the human spirit.  Spiritual  director training taught me to hear and feel what these ideas look like when they come alive in someone’s heart in their daily living.  Seminary prepared me to teach others about these things, but it didn’t prepare me to hold someone’s hand while they explored them.

In seminary, the questions I learned how to ask were questions about  what wasn’t being said and who wasn’t being included and how justice was or wasn’t being served. Spiritual director training taught me that the best questions are not questions, but invitations to travel further along the path and deeper into the heart.   Seminary prepared me to ask pointed, closed, thinking questions, but it did not prepare me to ask open, inviting, feeling questions, such as “Tell me more about how you feel when you experience the holy touch your heart.”

Seminary prepared me to build walls in order to have healthy professional boundaries. Spiritual director training prepared me to be vulnerable in order to have healthy boundaries.   One can’t engage spiritual direction without being vulnerable to one’s core.

Seminary did not prepare me to help individuals or groups make difficult, painful choices.    I did learn about decision making, and I did learn about family systems, and I did learn about adaptive leadership, but I didn’t learn discernment.   Seminary did not prepare me to find that stillness where the voice of the spirit whispers its suggested route.  I had my preparation for that during my spiritual director training.

Seminary taught me that I would need to pay a lot of attention to self-care.  Seminary did not teach me how to do this.  Seminary did not prepare me for doing my own deep, ongoing spiritual work.  Nothing in seminary challenged me to to do an intensive, honest, spiritual and personal inventory.   Spiritual direction training taught me to weigh the heart and the head equally, to bring my most authentic self, and to take up the discipline of regular spiritual practice.

Spiritual director training taught me many things that I did not learn in seminary or in CPE. The most important thing I learned was that you can not be a spiritual companion for anyone else if you are not a traveler yourself.  In order to be a spiritual director, you must also have a spiritual director.   Too often, well-intentioned people go into the ministry without first doing their own deep spiritual work.  Seminary did not prepare me to do my own deep spiritual work, nor require me to do it, but spiritual director training did.

I did learn a lot in seminary.  I learned a lot of information. I learned how to think and reason better. I learned how to research and write better. I learned how to speak better.  This prepared me to be a better teacher, speaker, writer, and religious professional.

Spiritual director training taught me how to feel. Spiritual direction training taught me how to be a curious, non anxious presence.  Spiritual director training taught me how to be more authentic, less self-centered, and more empathetic.  Spiritual direction training taught me how to feel comfortable in my own skin and in my own faith. Spiritual direction training made me a learner, a listener, a preacher, and a pastor.


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