Spiritual Direction in the Reformed Tradition

By Mark Argent

Direction ReformedWhat does spiritual direction look like in a Reformed context?

It’s usually thought of as an ecumenical activity, helping people to appreciate and benefit from other traditions. Whilst this can be a very powerful experience, there are also profound concepts, ideas and traditions within denominations which are worth their own members exploring further.

Both as director and directee, there are always influences of heritage in play as the stories of those who have influenced us personally merge with the bigger picture of the churches where those stories have been nourished.

The actual term ‘spiritual direction’ tends to be heard most often in Roman Catholic and Anglican contexts. In that sense, it sound, as if it is something being imported from elsewhere. Astute historians might want to question that, however.

On the one hand, I remember an elderly Jesuit, now a very respected spiritual director, remembering the days when ‘If someone was no good at anything else they made him a spiritual director’ and ‘you went to see your director once a month and talked about the football’. He was thinking of the 1950s, before the second Vatican Council. One of the consequences of that revolution was the re-exploring of the individually-guided retreat in and beyond Roman Catholic circles since the 1970s. By that stage, the worlds of psychoanalysis and counselling were well-established so it’s no great surprise that they should have had an impact on the one-to-one engagement of spiritual direction, with directors indebted to analysts, and analysts to directors.

But this is far from being the whole story. There’s a much wider and older tradition of spiritual nurturing to explore, whether it’s John Henry Newman helping the young Gerald Manley Hopkins along his path into Catholicism, or the individual experiences of Anglican journeys during the Oxford movement, or the George Herbert model of an Anglican with the ‘cure of souls’. It seems quite natural to add to that list the territory explored by Richard Baxter in The Reformed Pastor. Baxter’s language belongs to another age, and its earnest tone might sit less easily on modern lips, but it is clearly espousing a model of pastoral care which is about deepening people’s spiritual lives, or perhaps it is about being with people in the deepest parts of their humanity, and enabling the spiritual to be nourished there.

I wonder how far pastoral care, notably that offered by ministers and elders, encourages the practice of spiritual direction in the URC? The addressing of specific problems in a person’s life is clearly part of the story in these engagements, but the underlying focus must be one of listening, engaging and nurturing. I remember a wise minister asking ‘How can I preach to people on Sunday morning if I am not willing to sit down with them and listen on Monday?’

In terms of ministerial time management, I suspect that URC ministers spend less time actually leading public worship than their Anglican or Catholic counterparts, who live with the expectation of a more set pattern of services and daily prayers. However, whilst these traditions focus on the unity and discipline of following patterns, the Reformed tradition encourages a stronger emphasis on engaging people where they are in ways which are tailored for the work of the Spirit within them. This happens to be a classic phrase to describe the experience of spiritual direction.

The one-to-one conversation which is part of Baxter’s bread-and-butter and is in the story of pastoral visiting seems also to be about engaging with people where they are, engaging with them as people with real stories and facilitating an encounter with the Divine. It’s less grand than the term ‘spiritual direction’, but I wonder how big the difference is. People in the URC who have undertaken in-depth training in spiritual direction are relatively few, but I don’t struggle to think of people with whom I’ve had conversations which have enriched me and my journey.

This Reformed focus on a pastoral care model of spiritual direction has interesting implications for training in spiritual direction. It seems important to recognise the value of what the Reformed world brings. That is not to say that it is better or worse than other traditions, but rather to point out that, in an ecumenical context, we would short-change others if we didn’t share this contribution.