A "Quote/Unquote" Conversation to #ReimagineDISCIPLESHIP…


Phil Miglioratti and Adam Shields Talk About Spiritual Direction



“I had been to seminary and graduate school. I was ordained and had served with churches helping develop their ministries,

but I also knew there was more to the Christian life.”

{ Quotes by Adam Shields }

PHIL>>> Adam what was your “Aha!” moment that prompted you to pursue Spiritual Direction?

There are two parts to that answer. The easiest is that I didn’t know what spiritual direction was until I ran across a series of fiction books by Susan Howatch that a friend recommended, and I read mostly over the week of my 40th birthday on vacation. The historical fiction series is about British Anglican clergy from the 1930s until the 1960s. Each book is about a different person having a crisis of one sort or another. In each case, a formal spiritual director or a person acting informally as a spiritual director helped walk with the person through the crisis. The series is fiction and a bit melodramatic, but it introduced me to the concept of spiritual direction. I asked around to see if anyone I knew locally could refer me to a spiritual director without any success. After a few weeks, I googled and found a spiritual director a couple of miles from me, and I have been meeting with him for ten years now.



The second part is a long-term grappling with feeling like there was more to the Christian life and frustrations with particular parts of my church and spiritual life. I was primed when I read about the concept of spiritual direction. I was already convinced of the need for discipleship and was frustrated with the status quo, so when I saw a path to something different, I was ready to take it.


“In simple terms, Spiritual Direction is from an ancient practice of younger Christians seeking out older Christians

to walk with them and together to listen for God’s work in their lives.”

PHIL>>> “Spiritual Direction” can feel mystical or uncomfortable if it has not been part of a person’s discipleship experience…

Most people are comfortable sitting down with a friend over a cup of coffee and having a discussion. Sometimes that discussion has a very particular purpose. Sometimes it is more wide-ranging. A normal spiritual direction session is very much like sitting down over a cup of coffee. That is not particularly mystical or uncomfortable. There is a discussion about whether the term “spiritual direction” is helpful or harmful in spiritual direction circles. There is a very long history to the term in many streams of Christianity. But it is completely unknown in other streams. Some have started using the terms “spiritual friendship” or “spiritual companionship,” and I am okay with those options, but I tend to prefer to keep spiritual direction as a term and explain what it means. The main problem with the term is that it can connote a very human-directed or authoritarian model. Historically, that has been true for some, but it is not true of the modern form of spiritual direction that has been around since the 1970-80s when it started to take on a new life.

The origins of spiritual direction go back to the early desert mothers and fathers. When a person decided to become a hermit, they tended to form in geographical proximity but live as hermits. Eventually, those became more formal monastic communities, and spiritual direction is the name that we now give the older monks mentoring the younger monks into the community. There have been a lot of movements in what we now call spiritual direction, but Ignatius was a 15th-16th century minor noble that over time felt a mystical calling to serve God. The shape of that calling took time to develop but part of what he began to do was see that people needed to concentrate on developing their spiritual life to understand the importance of the Christian life as a relationship with God. He eventually wrote a series of spiritual exercises and was authorized to create the Jesuits, who are now known primarily as a monastic order focused on education and missions but were originally created to do spiritual direction. In the 1960-80s there was a reformation movement to rediscover the role of individual spiritual direction in response to the second Vatican Council. And while spiritual direction has long been an important part of the Anglican/Episcopal care of the clergy, both Protestants and Catholics started to expand spiritual direction more toward lay people. Today there are dozens if not hundreds of small spiritual direction training programs and thousands of spiritual directors. Most do spiritual direction on the side of their clergy or counseling work or are retired, but there are some who are full-time spiritual directors.

I do not want to minimize that there is a mystical aspect of spiritual direction. Part of what is happening is sitting together, paying attention to God, and through prayer and discussion, seeking to understand how God, through the Holy Spirit is directing the individual. But in most cases, trained spiritual directors seek to test what we think of as works of the spirit to not inappropriately attribute the “woo-woo” spiritual “I heard the voice of God, and I must now drop everything and follow it.” That series of books from Susan Howatch has a spin-off trilogy about an exorcist who says (my paraphrase), “The first thing we do is try to eliminate all of the natural explanations and solutions so that we can see if there is something spiritual that remains.”


“I started a spiritual direction training program to help others find the deeper spiritual life that spiritual direction had helped me to find as well.”

PHIL>>> What do you say to someone concerned a Spiritual Direction journey will be too self-focused; too introspective?

The goal of spiritual direction is a focus on spiritual formation. My favorite definition of spiritual formation is from M Robert Mulholland Jr, which I read in his book Invitation to a Journey. He defines spiritual formation as “a process of being formed in the image of Christ for the sake of others.” I think it is possible to become too self-focused or introspective, but that is a danger with many forms of discipleship. Discipleship can often be very instrumental. We do it not to build a relationship with Christ but to make us better people or give us more credibility, power, or prestige. The second part of Mulholland’s definition is important because it counters that instrumental orientation that uses others for our benefit and instead orients our growth to be for others’ benefit. Henri Nouwen speaks in several places about the need for everyone to be intentionally involved in solitude, community, and service. None of those three are ends points, but solitude empowers us to be in community, which gives us relational strengths to act in service to others, which should draw us back to solitude again to refresh and orient us toward healthy ways of being in both community and in service. Our personality will mean that we need different amounts of those three, but each of us needs some level of those three to be healthy spiritually.


“Spiritual maturity is not about the biblical or theological knowledge we can recite;
it is about living the life God created us to live, finding God’s path for us, and living an integrated life.”

PHIL>>> If a church has a discipleship program, how could the concepts of Spiritual Direction be integrated?

I think that most churches want to see their members become healthy, mature Christians. But our culture has oriented us toward thinking about creating a program to do that. Evangelicalism has long used new modes of communication and technology for evangelism. And there has been much that is positive about that. But one of the negative aspects of that orientation toward technology and innovation is that it has oriented us to think about discipleship as a mass-marketed possibility. We take everyone through a book study or a program or class. There can be good in large group discipleship efforts. But God has created us as individuals. Without some aspect of discipleship that is individualized, it becomes a cookie-cutter process. When you make cookies with a cookie cutter, you cut off the excess and shape everyone into identical shapes. That flattens discipleship to being oriented toward the majority culture and often the personality of those that are leading. Without intention, we can easily work to form people into replicas of ourselves and not into the image of Christ.

I am a big reader. I have long believed that the best way to encourage reading is to personalize recommendations to the person, not assume that everyone should read (and love) the same books. Encouraging people to read something that fits their interests and God-given skills and gifts recognizes that they are individuals created in the image of God and have different needs and gifts that need to be developed for the health of the body as a whole.


“The spiritual life is not something we do in a morning devotion or at church each week;

the spiritual life is what motivates all of our existence.”

PHIL>>> How is this statement a threat to the ministry mindset of many who design and direct teaching and preaching in the Church?

There is a long history of Christians emphasizing the amorphous relationship with Jesus or the emphasizing building the structure of the church. That dichotomy is a false one. “True Religion” is done within the context of a church community. But the goal is not organizational structure; it is the relationship with Christ and those made in the image of God. People who work in formalized ministry settings often unintentionally prioritize their work and calling to build the local body of Christ. But I think that the role of the church leadership should be to build Christians to pursue their callings together and individually. Walking with people in situations we may not be experienced in is hard. I have never worked as a computer programmer or teacher, or artist, but I meet with people for spiritual direction who have those jobs. I cannot tell them what the “right thing to do” is, but we can pray together, listen together for God's direction, and explore their emotions, leadings, hesitancies, and relational connections.

I do not think that most pastors and church leaders want to ignore people’s needs, gifts, and contexts, but the incentives within professional ministry are often oriented toward organizational structure. Our more executive-style ministry orientations mean that many church leaders are encouraged to be “leading” something. A spiritual direction model isn’t a directive leadership model but an empowering mentor. There can be a problem with spiritual direction being thought of as a type of therapy because we are in a therapeutic world. But the original idea of spiritual direction was about attention. Simply paying attention to the spiritual life is more than what many Christians do. We may read a brief devotional or pray in times of crisis, but we do not tend to orient discipleship to integrating our full lives to living as if our Christianity impacted all areas.

There is a structural problem with Christian ministry. Many people have explored this robustly but very briefly, pastors are often evaluated based on tangible things that can be counted. The number of people in seats, the number of dollars in the bank, the size of the building, etc. Evaluating a pastor on how healthy their congregation is outside of the church worship space is almost impossible. I am not sure it is better to try to change church cultures to evaluate pastors on abstract ideas of “are the people loving God more” or “can we see the love of Christ reflected in the congregation.” But the average ministry mindset can’t do what they want to do in part because those who help to set organizational culture have incentives that do not prioritize what the church (universal) is designed to do.


“Spiritual direction emphasizes seeing God in all things, learning discernment to bring our faith into everyday life, and developing an intimate relationship with God.”

PHIL>>> If Spiritual Direction is the answer, what’ the question? ... What are the consequences of ignoring or using programmatic methods?

I do not think that spiritual direction is a silver bullet that will solve all the ills of the modern church. There are plenty of examples of people who have been in spiritual direction, and still committed grievous sin, or taught theological errors. But I think spiritual direction is one tool that will help refocus the need for deep relational connection with God and other Christians, which is part of the solution to weak discipleship. I do not think that the most important problem with the church is bad theology, but it is a lagging indicator of misunderstanding what it means to be a Christian.

Today we have many examples of Christian leaders overtly rejecting traditional Christian concerns about care for the marginalized, rejecting the teaching of Jesus around the sermon on the mount as outdated, or suggesting that we no longer need to love. Many of these are structural problems that need to be addressed structurally. But at the same time, this has to be worked out with real depth relationally. I got into spiritual direction partly because I work with people in ministry who are trying to change the world using human tools and burning out. The other day, Mike Erre said on a podcast, “The church's role in the world is to be faithful, not effective. The goal isn’t impact; the goal is fidelity.” And I think that this is one of the important factors in understanding what the question is. If we view the world as a problem to be solved, we will use whatever tools are at hand. If we see our role as being faithful to Christ, then our effectiveness is in the fidelity to Christ and his teachings, not in our worldly success.

I am not against programs, but we cannot simply work harder or organize better to solve the world's problems. If we view this as a race with culture, then culture will always win because culture has fewer constraints and more tools. But the race has already been run and won by Christ. We are simply part of the after-party of that race, celebrating the victory already won.

The other problem with programmatic methods is that it is oriented toward teaching people all of the right answers. Spiritual direction is oriented toward asking questions and teaching discernment. Discernment is a skill that you mentor people into; you cannot just give people information about discernment and have it work. Teaching discernment requires people to make mistakes so that they can learn. And standard church programs do not encourage people to be free to make mistakes. Standard church programs encourage people to give simple fill-in-the-blank answers. We will never make mature disciples if we are only asking questions where “Jesus” is always the answer.


PHIL>>> One more insight you can share to help us rethink and redesign our approach to making disciples of Jesus?

Karen Swallow Prior, in her recent book The Evangelical Imagination, makes the case that many Evangelical distinctives are a result of Victorian culture because it was that era in which Evangelicals first arose as a theological category/movement. She is a specialist in Victorian literature and explores evangelical culture today by looking at Victorian literature and culture. Similarly, several historians have looked at the business culture of the 1950-60s that gave rise to the Neo-Evangelical movement that people like Carl Henry and Billy Graham championed. These two examples are helpful for us because whatever movement and culture we are in is impacted by the time, geography, and culture we are in. We have enough distance from the Victorian Era or the 1950s to see where people confused cultural norms with Christianity. By exploring other times or other cultures, we can better see our own time and culture and better disentangle culture from Christianity.

One of the benefits of our communication and technology is that we have better access to resources that introduce us to how other Christians in other times and places have differently understood what it means to be a disciple of Jesus. Spending time understanding other Christians at other times and places can help us better understand ourselves and where we may be blind to errors in confusing our cultural expression of Christianity with historic Christianity. As Karen Swallow Prior suggests, Victorian culture was good in many ways, and Evangelicals who grew out of that Victorian culture have positively impacted the world for good. But when we follow a path without fully understanding the roots and reasons for that path, we can mistake our inclinations for God’s direction.


I was trained in the Ignatian stream of spiritual direction, and Ignatius was well known for his rules of discernment. Those rules of discernment are not perfect, but they hint at the types of questions we ask that can help us separate our inclinations from God’s direction. I think most helpful for me from his work on discernment was that mature and new Christians often face different types of temptation. Overly simplistically, newer Christians often are tempted by satan, suggesting that it is too hard not to sin or that the pleasures of sin are greater than the benefits of holiness. But more mature Christians are tempted by thinking that God needs them and only them among the Christians around them. They can have the tendency to take on too much and not be in direct sin but be weakened as a Christian through overwork, pride, and spiritual dryness because of the overwork. Discipleship that pays attention to the individual can help develop gifts of maturity in ways that programs will never be able to do. Maturity is a reslt of experience. And you cannot be spoon-fed maturity. In the end, if the goal is mature Christians, then we need to work in small groups and with individuals and then bless people as they mature and God moves them into new and different settings instead of evaluating our ministry based on organizational development or growth.


“In Spiritual Direction, it is not the other human but God that is the director.

The other human is simply an additional set of ears and eyes that listen for God’s work in your life and helps to watch for where God is moving.

And someone that is regularly in prayer for you.”

PHIL>>> Adam, write a prayer as our (me and those reading) Spiritual Director…

Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on us. Draw us closer to you. Open our eyes to the ways that you are at work around us. Give us a heart for what you love and care for. Make us aware of the ways that we hinder others from finding you. Help us to see you and love you more. I pray in Jesus' name. Amen.


•For More Spiritual Direction, Adam Reccommends We Read>>>

There are many definitions and introductions to Spiritual Direction.
Two helpful ones are this one by Richard Foster that was published in Christianity Today

And this one that was published at Ignatian Spirituality.

There are several directories if you are interested in finding a spiritual director near you. Spiritual direction is increasingly (but not always) online via video chat. In those cases, geography matters less. Spiritual Companions International is the largest and oldest spiritual direction directory I know. It is open to spiritual directors of other faiths, so you want to be aware of that, but many Christians are part of the group, including myself. A smaller directory of about a thousand spiritual directors that are all Christians and lean toward Evangelical theology is hosted by Grafted Life Ministries. Again, this is a group that I belong to.

I will also link to my reading blog, where I blog through most books I read as a spiritual practice. And my spiritual direction website.

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