Spiritual Direction – Formal v. Informal: Do I need a friend or do I need Professional help?

Historically, spiritual direction has been offered as a ministry of the church, and those offering it were supported financially by the church as well i.e. bishops, priests, anchorites. The evolution of spiritual direction has emerged in its modern form through Individual Practices by “professionals” specifically trained in the art of listening, discernment and compassion and who have studied to some degree the science of Theology, Psychology or Sociology i.e. Seminarians, Cenobites and Pastoral Counselors. Both traditions of Spiritual Direction exist today for those who are called and gifted toward this ministry. Some choose to continue in the tradition of the “one another” ministry while others make themselves available to the wider community of the wandering “spiritual pilgrims.”

As someone who has formal training in direction as well as someone who is part of a small intimate house-church community I feel called to have both my feet firmly planted in both camps. As part of a small community that meets regularly in a house it is impossible, or at least very difficult, to not use your spiritual gifts in a “one another” ministry on a regular basis. At the same time I have studied Developmental Spirituality, Pneumatology and Sanctification at the postgraduate level and have been trained in the different facets and schools of spiritual direction under Supervision in a Practicum-structured program.

I believe both of these traditions are two expressions of the same Charismatic Gift – two sides of one coin – and both can be edifying to the Church and advance the Kingdom of God in their own way. One tradition does not offer more or less value than the other. But differences do exist and should be examined in order to appreciate their distinctions fully. There are four immediate differences I see between Spiritual Direction as a ministry of the local church (done informally in community) and Spiritual Direction as an intentional and intense focus on one’s relationship with God (done in a formal relationship with regular intervals for a distinct predetermined period of time). The obvious differences between “informal” and “formal” Spiritual Direction relate to: Defined Role, Relational Permission, Language/Discourse, and Environmental Context.

Defined Role

One of the first and most obvious distinctions between these ministries is the formality of title and status in one each other’s life. In a formal relationship, there is a Director (or Guide, or Soul Friend) and there is a Directee, or Counselee. This bit of formality can be off-putting but it can also be very helpful in drawing constructive and containing boundaries.


The next difference between a formal and an informal relationship is the sound, style and pace of the Language and Discourse. Much like any other profession, a doctor, or mechanic, or midwife, or artist will possess a set of techniques unique and available to call upon in each unique situation, so a Spiritual Director in a formal relationship will call upon certain techniques to lovingly prompt a reaction or discover movements of the Spirit in the other’s heart. In a friendship this pace would seem forced and unnatural, but allows for a Director to monitor and manage pitfalls or hurdles.

Relational Permission

Along with the differences between defined roles and language style come a set of spoken and unspoken relational permissions. In a formal relationship the directee is giving permission to the Spiritual Director to pursue him to the point of uncomfortable intimacy. These permissions are not lightly granted. In exchange for permission to ask probing questions and travel with another in their most sacred places, the Director is offering a safe relationship. He is agreeing to contain, in love, whatever unsightly pockets of the heart that may be revealed. (Sin: Anger, Fear, Unwanted Emotions, Outbursts, Transference, Projection, Accusations, Infant/Immature Expression, Demonic manifestations). These permissions should not be taken for granted in a good friendship, but are fortified within the context of two contracted parties.

Environmental Context

Along the same lines of creating an internal safe haven, among a formal direction relationship the Director is responsible for ensuring an externally safe atmosphere. This includes a space free of interruptions. Calming. Conducive. Prayerful. Prayed-Over. Anointed. The downside of this type of space is there is typically no barista to make you your favorite comfort-drink.

For most issues in life, I think we really just need a good friend to listen. But if you think you could benefit from intentionalizing a more formal relationship for a specific season of your life to discuss your spiritual journey, meeting with a trained Director may be right for you: Learn More About Personal Spiritual Direction

Posted in Church History, Spiritual Direction.