I recently had a conversation with a group of friends about the state of parishes. During the conversation, one of them said something like, “What people really need is spiritual direction. That’s what people want, and what they need. That’s what parishes need to provide for us. Imagine how things could be different.”
This corresponds to my experience working with parishes all around the country. When conversion begins to awaken a desire for intimacy with God, one of the first things people begin to desire is “spiritual direction.” Somewhere along the line they are introduced to the practice, perhaps through a friend, a book, or a speaker. More than any other kind of involvement in Church life, they desire and need guidance.
I would like to propose that individual spiritual guidance be a primary ministry, in addition to the sacraments, that parishes provide. But there are some definite obstacles to this being the reality. I would like to identify just three of them:
- Catholics tend to have an overly mystical conception of spiritual direction.
- There are not enough parish workers who have the proper formation to give guidance.
- Our parishes have inherited a structure that does not allow for the prioritization of one-on-one spiritual guidance.
I will briefly address each obstacle below.
The Overly Mystical Conception of Spiritual Direction
We tend to think that spiritual direction is such a highly specialized charism or that it requires a specialized formation and training. Only the holiest and smartest clergy or religious—the virtually canonized—can be spiritual directors. We worry that anything less than the perfect spiritual director can seriously mess someone up. The truth is actually somewhere in between the extremes. True, spiritual direction demands of the director a struggle for holiness, some experience in guidance (both giving and receiving it), and solid and deep formation. And it is true that misguiding someone can be damaging. However, most people who need guidance do not need a director who needs to help them discern, for example, whether the three signs of infused contemplation are concurrently present in one’s life. What most people actually need is some guidance in building virtue, habits of daily prayer, and regular reception of the sacraments. For example, they want to know what to do with distractions in prayer, whether it is okay to pray the rosary in the car, how to make a nightly examination of conscience, or a particular exam in order to grow in specific virtues necessary to their state in life. They want guidance in what books to read for spiritual reading and/or study, how to sanctify their family, professional, social, and civic lives, how to be more apostolic with their family, coworkers, friends, relatives, etc. And the reality is, for most Catholics who have the desire for guidance, they do not even know many of these habits even exist: they do not know what they do not know. So they need someone who can step-by-step guide them into some of these habits. If parish workers—including priests, paid staff, and other leaders—are not guiding people who desire it into practical sanctity, who is? And if spiritual guidance is of utmost importance for sanctity, as the saints and lived experience of the Church unanimously declare, how is anyone going to answer the universal call to holiness and the New Evangelization?
There Are Not Enough Qualified Parish Workers
First, doctrinal and moral fidelity is essential for this. Direction that is not grounded in solid doctrine and morals can be very damaging to someone’s life. Erroneous doctrine and moral guidance, even if only subtly erroneous, can damage jobs, relationships, interior life, and even lead someone to fall away from faith. For example, erroneous doctrine on sexual morality could either allow or lead to habitual sexual sin, which could snowball into deviance and eventually the end of a marriage, wounded children, getting fired from a job, etc. Erroneous doctrine on the nature and practice of prayer could encourage someone to engage in certain New Age practices, which could eventually lead to more and more syncretism, eventually leading someone to leave the Church or open oneself up to the demonic. Or a guide who has an overly deontological or casuistic moral outlook may omit reliance on grace and growth in virtue. This could lead the one being guided into a sort of neo-Pelagianism, causing her to see life as a complicated series of isolated, difficult decisions. The life of faith becomes cold drudgery. The Church is seen as anti-everything and irrelevant and uncompassionate. Eventually the person “quits.” Or, equally unfortunate, the one being guided becomes pharisaical and proud because he sees his progress as his own accomplishment, and through his bitter-zeal leads others away, becoming an anti-witness. Though the state of affairs with regard to the doctrinal and moral formation of those who engage in professional parish work is getting better, it is not a secret that finding parish workers with solid doctrine and morals can be difficult.
Secondly, as Sherry Weddell pointed out in Forming Intentional Disciples, and as my professional experience confirms, parish workers living lives of “intentional discipleship” are not in the majority. A lack of spiritual and human maturity, and a lack of a supernatural outlook, (oftentimes found in parish workers) renders one unable to guide others in a reliable way. A person who does not strive to live a robust interior life will not have the desire to engage someone in this way, nor will he have the capacity to, because one simply cannot give what one does not have. He will not know where to begin, how to set goals or help someone grow in a specific habit. He will not know how to listen to someone’s failures compassionately, overcome difficulties, or help someone identify, examine, and reckon with the deepest longings of their heart.
Thirdly, it does take a specific type of formation in order to be able to provide spiritual guidance; and this type of formation is not commonly found in university theology programs, or in pastoral studies programs designed to train people for Church work. What I am referring to is “ascetical formation.” For example, many can teach what the Eucharist is, but not how to dispose one to receive it or grow in love of it. Many can teach what virtue is, but not how to make practical resolutions to grow in it one virtue at a time. Many teach what Confession is, but not how to make a surgical examination of conscience and confession. Moreover, most do not adequately understand the secular character of the laity—what the virtues or the “spirit of the evangelical counsels” look like specifically for the lay faithful who live in the middle of the world where the secular realities of professional work, family, social life, are essential aspects of one’s discipleship. And most do not understand or know how to form and encourage the laity to act with freedom and initiative in the apostolate in a secular way (rather than always trying to get people involved in parish activities).
Additionally, training for spiritual guidance must know the limits of spiritual guidance. In seeking to help people develop a spirituality that is engaged with the world that fosters unity of life, all aspects of one’s life—relationships, professional, health/medical, civic, financial, etc.—will be included. One must therefore know how to avoid providing marriage, financial, professional, and health counseling or advice when these things are dealt with, as they must be. Rather, one must know how to guide the other to take these things to prayer, and to see them with a supernatural outlook as opportunities for personal sanctity and apostolate. For example, it could be helpful and necessary for a spiritual guide to advise someone to exercise more and eat healthier in order to be more generous, effective, and cheerful. But a guide should avoid giving technical advice on which exercises to perform, routines to follow, or what diets to follow within the context of the spiritual guidance conversation. Such technical advice is for a completely separate conversation. Moreover, adequate formation and training for spiritual guidance must provide at least a baseline knowledge of how to identify common emotional, psychological, and personality disorders. This is necessary in order for the guide to be able to identify when he or she may be dealing with a situation or with someone who may need to be referred to a professional. In other words, one must know how to correctly distinguish between, rightly order, and synthesize the natural and the supernatural: the secular sciences and the ascetical/mystical. All of this takes not only initial formation and training, but will require it in an ongoing way.
Difficulties Arising from the Inherited Parish Structures
We have inherited structures in our parishes based on the education of children and teens in a classroom or medium to large group setting. In the last decades of the 20th Century, as the Church had begun to (re-)affirm the priority of adult catechesis/formation, some parishes began to add adult formation staff in an attempt to prioritize it. They simply plopped these staff members into the existing structure, creating the adult formation equivalent of the child formation director: one director (who may or may not be full-time adult formation), who is supposed to figure out how to reach all or most of the adults in the parish, usually by providing group classes or large events or activities to get people involved “in parish life.” Even with the turn to “evangelization and discipleship” in such adult formation, the big “event” model remains prevalent in parish life.
While addition of adult formation in parishes was and is a huge move in the right direction, it has still not translated into an actual prioritization of resources for adult formation. Even if parishes are claiming to prioritize adult formation, evangelization, and discipleship, the bulk of our parish budgets, staffing, and resources in general, are still directed toward child and youth formation. Most parish staffs include several people who are focused on child and youth formation. If these staffs have someone working in adult formation, it is normally a single person. And often enough, when there is a person for adult formation, that person has his or her role split between adult catechesis and something else in order to justify the existence of the position. Even in large suburban parishes that are typically heavily staffed, the ratio of child or youth ministers to adult ministers is typically several to few. As the saying goes, “Jesus taught the adults and blessed the children; we teach the children and bless the adults.”
But even where priorities are beginning to shift, the old structures remain; and they are inadequate if we begin prioritizing spiritual guidance. For one, the ratios are off. The current ratio is something like one director to hundreds and even thousands of parishioners. A parish structure that prioritizes spiritual guidance needs to be closer to something like one to thirty for a full-time staff. While an approximation, this number could be higher or lower, depending on factors such as personal discipline, time management, the needs of people, and demographics.
Secondly, the classroom or program structure and its corresponding staffing structure are far too impersonal for spiritual guidance to gain any kind of traction. There needs to be a structure that facilitates the building and deepening of authentic relationships between parish staff and parishioners who desire the formation and guidance, and develops them interiorly and for personal apostolate. This would demand that, above all, the pastor understand the urgent importance of prioritizing individual spiritual guidance as a ministry of the parish, and that he have the determination to make the decisions necessary to lead the parish accordingly. This structure would also likely necessitate that there be more than one adult formation staff, and/or that everyone on pastoral staff dedicate a certain percentage of their work to individual spiritual guidance of parishioners.
Thirdly, many parishes, especially large suburban parishes and parishes in more upwardly mobile communities, operate under the assumption that more programs means more people involved, and bigger means better, so we are introduced to the menu approach of adult programming. In such situations, it is not uncommon for one director to be “overseeing” twenty or more programs or ministries. These programs and ministries need people or teams to run them, so the director’s position becomes heavily administrative and managerial, turning the director into a program manager and volunteer coordinator. In this case, in order to keep their arms around all the people and ministries that are happening, they create a multiplicity of policies and committees and oversight mechanisms; and we fall right back into the scenario of maximalist ministry, which fosters minimal apostolate. Parish staff feel, and therefore work, as if the involvement of every parishioner, active or inactive, is their responsibility. Rather than patiently forming individual parishioners over a lifetime as aspiring saints with high apostolic initiative, being focused on training for fast results, they manage people and track results. They focus on multiplication rather than on sanctity, success rather than fidelity. And since the “success” of holiness does not look exactly like the empirical success of business, under pressure to perform well, they perpetually and frantically flit from one initiative to another. Overstretched, unfocused, racked with dysfunction, parish staff are just not able to swing any kind of a priority given to spiritual guidance. In all of these scenarios, the structure simply does not allow for one-on-one spiritual guidance to be the norm, because it is either not even possible, or just not seen as good stewardship of resources, because of all the other administrative tasks associated with numerous mid-to-large sized group events and programs.
Moreover, and this obstacle is perhaps even trickier, the vast majority of parish workers work during the day: 8am – 4pm, Monday through Friday. But this is precisely when most people who work are not available. If spiritual guidance is to be the primary ministry parishes provide, those who engage in it will need to be available when those they serve are available, which for most communities, will be evenings and weekends. This will likely provide a serious staffing challenge if parishes desire to shift current 8-4 weekday positions to 2nd shift/weekend positions. In order for this structural shift to take place, there would have to be a cultural shift among Church professionals, which could result in at least a temporary shift or even a narrowing of the field of Church professionals: it is likely that fewer people, or a different demographic, such as single people, will be open to evenings and weekends being their normal work times.
Finally, and perhaps the trickiest structural obstacle of all, there is the financial challenge that this ministry would introduce to parishes. It is no secret that parish work is typically very modest in its pay. It is often difficult for parishes to meet the long-term financial needs of their employees, especially when the employees are married, trying to support growing families. Spiritual guidance as the norm would potentially require more staff in order to meet the above suggested ratio, and staff of a different, perhaps higher caliber, due to the level of formation, training, focus, and flexibility required to do this kind of ministry. Initially, this could introduce a whole new level of financial strain to our already financially challenged parishes: potentially more staff requiring higher pay and a budget for ongoing education and formation for them. Yet, at the same time, this structure could put some ease on parish finances, due to more clarity and alignment among leadership, less money having to be spent on numerous, expensive, large initiatives to try to cajole people into involvement (parish resources will be focused on the few who actually desire it), and people’s giving likely increasing over time as they grow more spiritually and humanly mature.
A full treatment of how to overcome these obstacles a) exceeds the scope of this article, and b) admits of many customizations pertaining to individual parishes. However, I would like to briefly lay out a series of considerations that could set forth a trajectory for establishing spiritual guidance as the primary parish ministry.
Assuming that there is at least one person in pastoral leadership that has mature faith and is striving to obtain formation for giving guidance, a parish can begin to prioritize. Ideally, this person is the pastor, or at least one person in addition to the pastor. Rather than draining our time, energy, and resources (and therefore morale) on trying to reach people with little to no desire for spiritual growth, we need to find those parishioners who already have a high level of desire for spiritual growth and apostolate. Every parish has plenty of them. You just have to prayerfully discern who they are. Propose to each of them a vision for deep spiritual growth and adventurous mission. Gather them together for regular small group formation into deeper interior life and more intense mission. At the same time, in addition to the regular small group formation, meet with each for regular spiritual guidance in order to help them appropriate the concepts learned in the small group formation to their own life and apostolate. Then, encourage them to reach out to the people in their circles of influence (their friends, coworkers, neighbors, people from school, sports, etc.) to begin more intentional apostolate with them through small groups and/or developing deeper friendships where they accompany their friends through life and can be a light for them. Then, continue to provide ongoing, individual spiritual guidance for them. Then, repeat the process with new people, adding to the number of apostles and building momentum.
This will provide a firm foundation for a focused ministry of spiritual guidance. Repeating this process in a cycle-like fashion over the years creates a growing movement that brings more and more people into the movement. It gradually creates a demand that the parish has to reckon with, as more and more people look to the parish for ongoing guidance and deeper formation, because the parish has already provided the base formation and guidance that the people desired in the first place. Done well and scaled in the right way, this provides 1) a systematic process of providing the base formation that people need for spiritual guidance, 2) the relational investment that builds the trust and connections needed for ongoing spiritual guidance, and 3) just enough confidence for people to set out more intentionally in their own apostolate in a more fruitful and consistent way. Though it begins with only a few people, over time, it grows in both intensity and breadth, just as a fire increases its heat and spreads as the wind blows it. Eventually, the parish needs and wants to restructure to meet the demand that the movement is creating. What begins as a mustard seed, over years, perhaps decades, becomes “the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches” (Mt 13:32).
Featured Image: Caspar David Friedrich, The Cross on Top of the Rocks, 1811; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100.
 See: CCC §89.
 Cf. Congregation for the Clergy, The Priest, Minister of Divine Mercy, 1.
 See the CLJ article: Where Does the Ministry End and the Apostolate Begin?
 The pastoral worker who leads this movement will grow in his ability to guide along with his own spiritual growth that he has experienced as a result of the guidance that he’s already begun to provide for them.