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Being a spiritual director is so often misunderstood that those who do it often find themselves with a lot of explaining to do.

One of the goals of Spiritual Directors International (SDI), the Washington-state based membership organization of spiritual directors, is getting the word out about what spiritual directors do and are. According to Executive Director Liz Budd Ellman, MDiv, "We are all about reaching out, letting ordinary, everyday people know that spiritual direction-there was a time when it was for the priestly class, only for the religious, pure and pious-is really available for all of us."

The journey
So why would a woman want to invest a good chunk of her time (local training programs take two years or more to complete) and money (they're not free) in becoming something that many people just don't get? There are a variety of rewards, according to those in the field. For many spiritual directors, the experience of "active listening" is a transforming one, said spiritual director Merle Harlan, who defined the practice as "listening, not giving advice, but giving feedback and asking clarifying questions." Harlan is relatively new to the field-she completed a five-year training program at Sacred Ground, one of four local programs for spiritual directors, in 2004-but has a unique vantage point as executive director of the St. Paul community of 120 spiritual directors. Part of the process, said Harlan, is the deepening of the spiritual director's own spirituality. "Very often, as a director myself, I'll [realize] oh my gosh, I never thought of that, never knew what I was feeling, maybe this is an answer for me."

Spiritual director Paula Hirschboeck's feminist worldview is very much a part of her motivation as a spiritual director. She sees the process of spiritual direction as a combination of personal growth and societal change. "I'm very aware that participating in a woman's awakening to her own goodness and the longings of her soul isn't a private matter-it's transforming the collective consciousness," said Hirschboeck, a former Twin Cities resident who trained at St. Paul's Center for Spiritual Guidance Training Program and now lives in Madison, Wis. Most of the directees Hirschboeck works with are women, which is typical, she says. "The more women are spiritually aware, and honor their inner wise woman and release the power of compassion for themselves and others, the better the world will be," she said. Hirschboeck, a former Dominican nun, is a Zen Buddhist lay practitioner.

For Thérèse Jacobs-Stewart, becoming a spiritual director was a step in her own mystical journey, which has included a year living in silence in a monastery, studying with Mother Teresa in India, and founding the Mind Roads meditation center in St. Paul. Jacobs Stewart studied with the Roman Catholic Cenacle sisters, who formerly had a community in Wayzata and whose mission is spiritual direction. "Their vision was to pass on the spiritual direction [knowledge] to unordained people," she explained.

The process
Most spiritual director training programs last about two years, though many have an ongoing supervision component that lasts for several more years. The words used to describe the training programs are often used interchangeably but can vary depending on an individual's faith tradition, Ellman noted. "Protestants call the process 'training,' Catholics and Sufis use the term 'formation' and 'enrichment' is the Buddhist term." The process involves classroom learning, practicums, reading and discussion, and a process of supervision wherein students bring concerns and issues from their clients to a group for discussion and input. Of key importance: learning the art of listening deeply.

Finding a spiritual director
One way to find a spiritual director is to call one of the local spiritual director training programs for recommendations; they can refer you to a current student or a graduate of their program. You can also ask a clergy member. Spiritual Directors International maintains a large database of spiritual directors on its website, www.sdiworld.org.

Unless you feel strongly otherwise, it isn't always necessary to find a spiritual director whose beliefs are an exact match with yours. Many spiritual directors use terms like nondenominational, interfaith or something similar to denote their willingness to be open to directees' beliefs. A large number of Minnesota's spiritual directors identify as Catholics, the religion in which spiritual direction has deep roots, but most spiritual directors believe that openness to their directees' own spirituality is a must. Jacobs-Stewart, for example, draws on both Christian and Buddhist beliefs. Asked if she's a Buddhist, she remarked, "I try not to be any kind of 'ist.' I have Christian roots and I love Buddhism too. I'm both."

Why seek a spiritual director?
According to Spiritual Directors International, you might seek spiritual direction for a variety of reasons, including to:
Identify and trust your own experiences of God
Integrate spirituality into your daily life
Discern and make difficult choices
Share your hopes, struggles, and losses
Develop a sensitivity for justice and concern for the poor
Live the essence of your spiritual affiliation with integrity

In addition to asking questions about a prospective spiritual director's training and ongoing education, Spiritual Directors International advises you to ask prospective members if they are supervised in their ministry; if they've ever been denied liability insurance due to sexual misconduct; or if they've been barred from any professional organizations due to ethics violations. They suggest you interview at least two spiritual directors and ask them the following questions:

What enrichment, spiritual formation, and theological education do you have in spiritual direction?
What is your personal experience tending your own prayer, meditation and contemplative life?
What is your experience as a spiritual director? How many years? In what environments? What are you most interested in spiritually?
How do you continue your education and supervision for your spiritual direction ministry?
What ethical guidelines do you abide by, such as those published by Spiritual Directors International?
What type of engagement agreement will we establish to clarify roles and responsibilities in our spiritual direction relationship, such as samples provided to members of Spiritual Directors International?
Courtesy of Spiritual Directors International