How do you ‘find’ a spiritual director? A reflection on experience

Sound II by Anthony Gormley, in The Crypt of Winchester Cathedral, 23rd November 2012

I was asked recently (via Twitter) if I would be prepared to write about my experiences of seeking and finding a spiritual director. It would be for some work Revd Mark Godson, who is Director of the London Centre for Spirituality, is doing to write a guide for those new to spiritual direction.

The official route to a spiritual director in my diocese is via our Ministry Department who maintain and support a list of spiritual directors. If you ask them they will put you in touch with someone who has the space and time, with reference to any particular requirements or interests you have at the time of requesting direction.

But I’ve not yet managed to do it that way; trust me to be different.

When it was first suggested to me that I ought to have a spiritual director, it was as part of my rather ad hoc journey into Reader Training. To be honest I can’t remember who suggested it, but at the time I was a Trustee for Mothers’ Union in Winchester Diocese (MU), and my calling to a ministry that included preaching and teaching was growing out of that role.

I was fortunate to come by the wisdom of the wife of our Diocesan Bishop of the time, who suggested I spoke to one particular lady about spiritual direction. The lady in question was a long-standing MU member, but also one of the first women to have been licensed to Reader Ministry in the 1970s as a young mother – something I needed to juggle into the ministry equation.

Having a spiritual director who has some connecting points to my own journey in ministry became important, and is a pattern I have repeated since. It gave us some ‘touching points’ on which to build a growing relationship, a sense of empathy which bred respect (hopefully mutual), and gave me the confidence to take seriously and try the ‘new’ approaches to building and improving a pattern of prayer into my life.

Right from our first meeting, informally in a Debenham’s coffee shop, we agreed how our relationship was to work; the regularity with which we would meet, and the overall length of time she would ‘walk with me’.  This was important for her in her semi-retirement, and for me to know that as I progressed through to another stage in my own ministry I would require different expertise and insights to those I required through Reader Training.

It turned out this my first ‘director’ was actually on the ‘approved’ list maintained by the diocese, but I didn’t know that at the time. She was also very open about her own spiritual support, not that she wanted me to imitate her spirituality as a Third Order Franciscan, but so that I knew she had built in the support she required to help others, and was ‘practising what she preached’ as it were.

Ministry as a Reader took more than one unexpected turn for me, which is documented elsewhere on this blog. Part of that journey including a niggling sense of calling to the priesthood that I sort to ignore initially but which was highlighted through the circumstances of a parish vacancy in which I took responsibility for occasional offices. A brief lapse in my pattern of spiritual direction couldn’t possibly be allowed to continue.

As I finally took seriously the question of why on earth several priests of my acquaintance thought I was called to that ministry rather than continuing as a Reader, it was one of these priests that suggested another, as my companion for the next leg of my ministerial journey.

My new spiritual director and I had spent a year as colleagues and friends in ministry, so much of my ‘back-plot’ didn’t need to be sketched in when we met to discuss the idea of changing a relationship of friendship. Some of our initial agreements were much the same as last time were repeated (frequency, and over-all length of direction) but we had to be clear about different things: particularly that I wasn’t going to be pushed into the priesthood, and that we would maintain our conversations of friendship each meeting over lunch, before making a specific ‘candle-lit’ change of focus to my spiritual journey. It was a relationship that works well; even now that period of our lives is now concluded, we have maintained and grown a friendship that is built to a large degree on mutual trust and the need for confidentiality regarding each other’s circumstances.

In the process of discernment of a vocation to the priesthood, I found it particularly helpful to have someone totally outside the process, and in fact the diocese through which that process was being managed, though she had experienced it elsewhere. It enabled my director to help me ask questions of the system and myself, that I’m not sure would have been asked if we had been closer to my diocesan staff and systems.

This year, that leg of my journey concluded, I have with the encouragement of both that spiritual companion and my DDO, started to build a relationship with a new spiritual companion, or ‘soul friend’ as he prefers to be called. Known to, suggested and approved by all concerned, and someone with whom I had already started a significant acquaintance through my developing pattern of retreat days, we again have a regular pattern of meeting, but with a more open-ended time-scale of involvement.  Conversations are less focused on the needs of ‘what I need to do next’ and have a more serendipitous nature, but at the moment as I struggle to engage with the highly academic context of my ordination training, they’re best focused on where the most difficulties are at the time, and so doing the job of keeping me moving forward in my spiritual life quiet nicely.

And it’s not escaped my notice that as my own journey moves on, I find I have others approaching me not yet for spiritual direction, but for insights I can offer from my experience into their own questions about faith and ministry. The one thing I have told them categorically from my own experience, is that if you are to support yourself, a ministry and a family of loved ones, all at the same time, then some regular pattern of spiritual direction and companionship is vital to keep your relationship with God grounded on common sense, as well as filled with the deep wells of spiritual resources you need to even attempt the journey!

Pressing the pause button – intermissio

There are all sorts of reasons why people need to pause, take time out to think and re-assess (the past, present or future – usually the connection between all three). For Christian’s that process involves holding ourselves before God, and often working with a guide or spiritual director of some sort so that we look at what we’re considering through the clearest lens possible.

I am now meeting monthly with a spiritual director or guide, who is both challenging and encouraging of my journey in ministry. This has been immensely valuable especially a ministry helping to support my church through a period of vacancy. I am fortunate to also count her a friend – this week when we met, I appeared to receive spiritual direction in a ‘swap’ for a little light furniture moving and horticultural encouragement 🙂

Churches need these sorts of times too. I’m not suggesting they need to get outside help for their furniture and horticultural decisions; I believe that is what a Diocesan Advisory Committee is for?! What I am saying is that it is very valuable to take time to review and re-evaluate the focus of our church activities and how they are carried out.

In St. Peter’s we started this process in early 2010 working with Laurence Gamlen focusing on our “values”, which because of his work with us I remember as being the things that drive our behaviours, the way we do whatever it is we do as a church. I blogged rather a lot about it last year, and you can track back through our experiences here.

My own view is that the work is only partially complete, and needs to be re-visited once our new vicar has their ‘feet under the table’ so that our values are even more clearly defined, and much more firmly part of natural behaviour as individuals and as a church, but that isn’t for me to decide, and I guess God’s got a plan!

The ‘values’ work with Laurence was helped by the mission agency he worked for, but it seems that in these times of austerity, even mission agencies are cutting back, and whilst remaining a part-time parish priest, Laurence is now ‘going it alone’ as a ministry coach and consultant from his new website – intermissio.

If you’re in ministry and think you, or your church, could do with pressing the pause button, I would thoroughly recommend Laurence to work with. He is one of life’s encourager’s, insightful, firm and gentle (yes, all at the same time!) With great good humour and open to the Holy Spirit at work, Laurence will help you to dig deep within yourself/your church to find what it is that God is really seeking to do within and through you, so that you come to a place that is re-invigourated and re-inspired to carry out God’s work… perhaps you may even find a whole new ministry lying in wait.

I was meant to just act as ‘secretary’ to our little church group that worked with Laurence… what I hope he knows is that experience has fed some significant changes in the way I view ministry, and what I think God is calling me to do! I can’t recommend him enough and wish him God’s blessing in his own new adventure in ministry.