There are times when, as theological educators, we have the rare privilege of not only contributing to a discipline, but we also get a front row seat to historic change.
The practice of spiritual direction has entered one of those history-making chapters.
Spiritual direction is a structured effort to listen for the voice of God with the assistance of a one-on-one relationship with a spiritual director or companion who provides space for that effort and asks questions that prompt the directee to listen for God's voice.
Originating in the deserts of Egypt, for much of its history spiritual direction was, with some rare exceptions, largely confined to the Orthodox, Catholic, and Anglican traditions. Even in those churches, more often than not, it was clergy who entered into those dedicated relationships and, for that reason, the practice of spiritual direction was largely unknown in other parts of the church.
Beginning in the mid-sixties and the seventies, as the language of spirituality, spiritual formation, and spiritual direction became more common, things began to change. Jesuits in Ontario (including John English and John Veltry); free-standing institutions, like the Shalem Institute in Washington, DC; and academic institutions, including Fordham and Creighton began offering training in spiritual direction.
More recently, other academic institutions, including my own, Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, followed suite.
As a result, today, clergy and laypeople with training in spiritual direction hail from far beyond the traditions that originally nurtured the practice. The membership of Spiritual Directors International (SDI) which began in 1990 with 400 members had 1200 members in 1995, 6000 by 2005, and has over 10,000 members today. People with training in spiritual direction also include Black and Southern Baptists; the African Methodist Episcopal Church and United Methodists; members of the United Church of Christ, the Church of Christ, and the Disciples of Christ; Lutherans, Presbyterians, and Pentecostals - among others.
These developments create four new possibilities for the church across those varied traditions:
Spiritual direction provides a means of inviting laypeople into active discernment of God's movement in their lives.
It provides churches with a means of prayerful discernment that transcends business as usual.
It serves as a powerful reminder that life in the church is centrally about an encounter with God.
And it serves as one means of reconnecting the "spiritual" and "religious" in ways that speaks to the deeper purposes of both ways of being in the world.
How much things will continue to change is difficult to say.
The open-ended work of the Holy Spirit has always frightened a certain kind of leadership that prefers control over the unpredictability of God's work in the world. Its practice is grounded in the conviction that God has an agenda with us that we do not and cannot control.
To make matters more difficult, these are anxious days in the life of the church. It is easy to be seduced by a quick, bureaucratic fix and spiritual direction emphasizes the importance of patient listening.
And, by nature, the practice of spiritual direction has a de-centering effect that invites people to consider what they can see and hear, as they contemplate how and where God is at work in the world.
On more than one occasion in the church's history those tensions have led to retrenchment that crowded out the fresh and vital work that God has sought to do through those who were willing to pay attention.
Taking the long view, the only faithful response that people who are engaged in this kind of work can offer is to persist in listening for God's creative prompting.