Spiritual Direction vs. Therapy: What Is the Difference?

Therapy, spiritual direction, and confession are gifts

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A new client came to me for therapy, referred by a pastor at a neighboring church. As we were going over the spirituality questionnaire, which is part of my intake form, they asked, “How will I use my spirituality in therapy? Isn’t that what spiritual direction is for?”

These are great questions which I have been asked in a variety of ways since I opened up my own private marriage and family therapy practice, in addition to serving as an Episcopal priest and spiritual director at a local parish. We were created to be in relationship with one another and, as Christians, tasked with spreading the Good News and building up the Body of Christ. We are not meant to live in isolation, and we rely on one another’s gifts for help. 

When I was in seminary, several of my professors reinforced the idea that when you take a call in a new place, in addition to finding a good mechanic and a hairdresser, you also need to find a good therapist, a good spiritual director, and, in my Episcopal tradition, a good confessor. Each of these were to be a different person functioning in a specialized way. I remember wondering how to find these people who were to play a supportive role in my life and also questioning if I truly needed them. Twelve years later, I have lived the answer to these questions in my own search for support—and in becoming all three of those roles for others. The short answer is yes. The longer answer I outline below will hopefully help you in your own discernment of what network of support you need in your current season of life.

Why would I need therapy? 

As a lay or ordained person in the church, you are working with people—both individuals and group systems. This can be both extremely rewarding and profoundly frustrating. People come to church for many different reasons. They engage in the community bringing their whole self with them, including their emotional baggage of which they may, or more likely may not, be aware. When their emotional triggers interact with yours, sparks can fly. Think of the tense vestry (church council) meetings, angry emails dashed off at 2:00 am to be opened by the unsuspecting receiver, snide and passive-aggressive comments at coffee hour, the list can go on and on. 

Without launching into a full-on lecture about family systems theory, let me put it this way: Imagine a mobile above a baby’s crib—if you move one of the hanging pieces, the rest of the mobile moves. Let’s say that the church is the mobile structure and the congregation members are the little figures that hang down. When a new pastor, staff member, or congregation member comes in, they are added to the structure and the way they move affects the rest of the mobile. If they try to move in a direction that is not the status quo (healthy or unhealthy), the system protests. It does not want to move in that new direction, and likes it just fine where it is, thank you very much. This is when conflict occurs. This is also when a therapist who can work with you on your own family-of-origin system and emotional baggage is really, really helpful in separating what is your emotional work and responsibility and what is not.

Bottom line: Pain that is not transformed is transmitted. A therapist will help you explore your thoughts, emotions, family-of-origin influences, and other mental health challenges so that you can transform the emotional pain you bear and not transmit it to others. Our spirituality can be a strength to be used in the course of therapy, but is not therapy’s objective: this is the main difference between therapy and spiritual direction. 

Finding a therapist: Ask your clergy or Bishop equivalent if they have a suggestion—they often keep a list of local therapists that they trust. You can also look for a therapist in your area in the Psychology Today Find a Therapist section and the Multicultural Counselors site. There are many other therapist finder websites you can use as well. It is also worth looking up what the abbreviated academic degrees after a therapist’s name mean, as licensing is different in each state. For example, a Licensed Clinical Mental Health Counselor (LCMHC) in North Carolina and a Licensed Mental Health Counselor (LMHC) in Washington state are equivalent, but you would not know that simply from the abbreviations. Finally, treat this as an interview process. If you do not feel like a therapist is a good fit, do not feel bad about taking the time to find the right one.

Then what is spiritual direction?

Throughout church history, there are stories of people who engaged in intentional spiritual companionship and guidance: Jesus and his disciples, desert fathers and mothers (John Cassian, Melania the Elder, et al.,) Celtic anamcharas/anam caras or soul friends (St. Brigid of Kildare and St. Patrick), medieval anchorites (Julian of Norwich, Wulfric of Haselbury and others) and Renaissance mystics (Ignatius of Loyola, Teresa of Avila, and others.). Modern trained spiritual directors follow in those traditions. 

The focus of spiritual direction is always on the relationship with God and the spiritual elements of the directee’s life. As in therapy, spiritual direction implies an expert and a learner. This is different than the relationship one would have with a soul friend, which is mutually supportive and vulnerable in sharing. A spiritual director has a laser beam focus on where the Holy Spirit is moving in their directee’s life and helps them to discern those patterns. Here’s another way to think of it: imagine that your life is a tree and all its aspects are represented by its branches and leaves. A therapist is going to examine a spot on a leaf or a broken branch (emotional and mental issues) and work with you on how to heal those parts, while a spiritual director is going to focus on the wind blowing through the leaves and branches (God moving in each aspect of your life, including those broken places).

Bottom line: Spiritual direction is charting God’s presence in the story of your life. Lay and ordained people alike benefit from having a spiritual director, especially if you are discerning a big question in life such as “what does God want me to do now that I’m retired?” or  “am I called to the priesthood?” or “what does God want from me in my roles as mother, wife, and daughter?”— and everything in between. A spiritual director will also pray with and for you and sometimes give spiritual homework assignments to help you deepen your relationship with God. 

Finding a spiritual director: Begin with prayer and continue praying throughout your search. Many priests and pastors were trained through seminary, apprenticeship, or other programs in the art of spiritual direction. Start by asking your clergy or Bishop equivalent if they have a list of local spiritual directors that they recommend. This article has some good suggestions on how to conduct your search. SDI and local Ignatian spirituality centers are other ways to find a spiritual director. As in therapy, if the first one you try is not a good fit, keep searching until you find the right one.

I confess my sins to God, so why would I need a confessor?

This will be a stretch for some, but I come from the Anglican tradition which has historically embraced some form of the healing rite of confession and penance, which we now call ‘The Reconciliation of a Penitent’ in our 1979 Book of Common Prayer. Contrary to what is seen in movies and on TV, this rite can be observed anytime and anywhere with a priest or a lay person called a confessor. There have been a number of studies over the past few decades about the efficacy of spiritual confession and absolution on the psychological life and its positive healing outcomes. What makes this a healing rite is that it combines intentional preparation, a compassionate listener (the confessor), confidentiality (morally absolute with normally no subsequent discussion), acknowledgment and release of patterns of sin (confession), counsel and encouragement, and a reminder of the forgiveness, grace, and mercy that we have already received from God (absolution/declaration of forgiveness) with a ritual container to hold it all.

Bottom line: Being reconciled to God, self, and community is spiritually and psychologically life giving. A confessor’s sole purpose is to hold sacred space for your confession and remind you of the love God has for you.

Finding a confessor: A confessor can be your clergy, therapist, spiritual director, or someone entirely different, such as a member of a local religious order.

Know your soul

Julian of Norwich once wrote, “We may never come to full knowing of God till we know first clearly our own Soul.” You cannot go wrong in adding any or all of these supports to your network, and hopefully, this gives you some inspiration to begin your search. 

Faith+Lead Coaching receives similar questions about spiritual direction and coaching. While there are definite areas where spiritual direction and coaching can overlap, one key difference is that coaching will always contain movement toward a stated goal. Spiritual direction helps a person to look for and see the movement of the Holy Spirit in their life and ministry. This in itself is good and holy work. Coaching then takes this a step further by partnering with the person to make a plan regarding how that knowledge will change their actions, plans, or leadership for the future.

  • Danáe Ashley

    The Rev. Danae M. Ashley, MDiv, MA, LMFT is an Episcopal priest and marriage and family therapist who has ministered with parishes in North Carolina, New York, Minnesota, and is currently a priest in Seattle and a therapist at Soul Spa Seattle, LLC (www.soulspaseattle.com). Danae uses art, music, drama, poetry, and movement in counseling, spiritual direction, and creation of ritual. Her interfaith Clergy Care Circles for therapeutic group spiritual direction directly supports diverse clergy in varied circumstances across the country. Danae's favorite past times include reading, gardening, traveling, dancing with wild abandon to Celtic music, and serious karaoke.

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