From time to time the suggestion is made that clergy should not only encourage members of their congregations to seek a spiritual director but offer themselves in that role. As someone said: ‘There is no magic, no expertise, just sister and brother sinners on the Way.' However, there is a long tradition that clergy should not act as director to parishioners: as Madeleine de Saint-Joseph wrote to ‘A Cleric’:
‘First, then, I tell you this, sir, about the direction of souls. It is very dangerous to meddle in it. One must be constrained and called to it by God …’ 1
Whilst it’s true that clergy need to help parishioners deepen their relationship with God, there are dangers and pitfalls in directing them. It’s one thing to be asked to preach and another to be a preacher – most benefit from proper training, and a few are simply not gifted in that way. Just so with Spiritual Direction. To offer that ministry requires a certain calling and the humility to seek some formation – it doesn’t come as part of the grace of ordination, any more than does the ability to be an effective preacher or teacher. It’s also clear that some should not be offering this ministry, and several bishops are rightly concerned when they learn of directors who are not supervised in what they do.
This ministry needs approaching with great sensitivity, for one is involved in dealing with another’s soul: the place where we stand is holy ground. Whoever is prepared to offer this ministry needs to realise the primary importance of their own conversatio morum though their ongoing, deepening relationship with God. Whoever offers direction must come to terms with the:
• temptation to want to ‘rescue’ people or to focus into ‘problem solving’;
• urge to be too directive;
• need for a broad understanding of the Christian spiritual tradition;
• need to trust in the ‘slow work of God’ in a directee’s life;
• importance of insights from other therapeutic disciplines, especially in the areas of transference, counter-transference and projection and the dangers of rejecting these insights;
• legal issues surrounding the ministry (aspects of confidentiality, safeguarding etc…);
• importance of knowing how to listen contemplatively, and the danger of not properly listening;
• temptation to ‘go it alone’ and think we don’t need help (supervision).
The dynamic between priest and parishioner can be complex – unlike the boundaried relationship between confessor and penitent, this relationship can confuse matters. Spiritual Direction requires both to feel they are free to bring to the relationship what needs addressing, and there needs to be a certain distance between director and directee. But the proximity between priest and parishioner in weekly services etc. leave both vulnerable to becoming inappropriately close in a variety of ways, and this can be a problem where, consciously or not, levels of attraction begin to emerge.
For all these reasons, not least the many psycho-spiritual dynamics involved, it’s held that clergy ought not to direct members of their congregations.
1 William M. Thomson, ed, Berulle and the French School, The Classics of Western Spirituality, Paulist Press, 1989, p.208