Providing Spiritual Direction

We do our best to maintain an active Twitter feed where we socialize with people reading our blog in real time. We regularly ask people what questions they have or what topics they would like us to address on the blog. One of our Twitter friends raised the following questions: How do you view spiritual direction? How would you counsel spiritual directors of LGBT people?

We’ll start with a brief, but hopefully helpful, definition of spiritual direction. We believe that spiritual direction is a process forged in a mutually respectful relationship where a spiritual director comes alongside a person to help that person discern how God may be calling him or her to grow ever-increasingly towards Christ-likeness. Every human being finds himself or herself negotiating complex realities where it’s not immediately clear how God might be working in and through the specific circumstances. We think spiritual directors would do well to remind themselves constantly that spiritual direction is a fearsome task that must be fully bathed in prayer. Good spiritual directors spend the vast majority of time in spiritual direction listening, both to the person seeking spiritual direction and to God.

Relative to providing spiritual direction to LGBT members of a parish community, we think it worth mentioning that LGBT people are first and foremost people. An LGBT person will bring very similar concerns to spiritual direction as a cisgender, heterosexual person. Many times, LGBT people will be talking with spiritual directors about all sorts of human issues before discussing their LGBT status. However, as soon as a person discloses his or her LGBT status, many spiritual directors truncate their usual practices and immediately start talking. For some spiritual directors, learning that a person is gay can cue an auto-tape where suddenly, the spiritual director is the font of all wisdom and the gay person cannot get a word in edgewise. If you find yourself as a spiritual director with this habit, stop that. So many LGBT people have encountered such a great number of auto-tapes that they have adopted a habit of listening politely once, and then never darkening the church’s doorstep again.

One reason spiritual directors start talking and stop listening is they make assumptions about what a person means when disclosing his or her LGBT status. The sentence “I’m gay” can conjure up all sorts of associations. As a strategy for cutting through the script, spiritual directors can ask questions like “What does being gay mean to you?” to offer reassurances that they are still listening and care about providing direction to a person. It’s also great to ask questions like “Have you discussed this with anyone else? What were their reactions?” Sentences like, “I’m glad you thought you could broach this subject with me,” can be reassuring to some people. We think it’s impossible to go wrong in telling LGBT people that they are welcome in your faith community, they are beloved by God, and you know that they bring a tremendous blessing to your community. You might be the first spiritual director from within your tradition ever to tell that LGBT person he or she is welcome in the parish.

We think there are two main ways certain auto-tapes can negatively impact members of the LGBT community. One, some spiritual directors can default into assigning someone a vocation. A reasonably common assigned vocation is, “Well, if you’re gay, then you have to be celibate.” For many LGBT people, this assignment comes like an unfunded mandate at best and a death sentence at worst. Another commonly assigned vocation is, “Well, just pray and God will enable you to live fully into a heterosexual marriage.” This latter assigned vocation can lead to false hopes and produce destroyed lives should the LGBT person feel obligated to enter a mixed-orientation marriage. Two, other spiritual directors try to emphasize guiding people towards normative gender expectations. Spiritual directors will typically start these auto-tapes with sentences like, “Your identity should be in Christ. You are a powerful, strong, and talented MAN of God!” When spiritual directors using this approach begin to pray for people, they emphasize pronouns: “God, thank you for SUSAN. Guide HER into all truth, showing HER your plans for HER life. Help HER to see HERSELF as you see HER.” They start encouraging “the guys” to join in on various athletic teams organized by the church while connecting “the girls” with opportunities to serve in the children’s ministry. For transgender and genderqueer individuals, this kind of pastoral treatment can leave them feeling invisible and discarded. For gay, lesbian, and bisexual individuals, all of a sudden gender norms have become the sole marker of their “gifts” to their community.

While some LGBT people may feel comfortable with educating their spiritual directors on matters related to sexual orientation and gender identity, many (even most) likely will not. Do not automatically expect an LGBT person to educate you. If you as a spiritual director do not have any experience offering spiritual direction to LGBT individuals, then default towards treating them like your other parishioners. Trust God to give you wisdom about how to respond to specific individuals (because everyone is different) and know that each LGBT person is likely figuring out his or her own queer calling. If you’d like us to try to track down resources that might be useful for your specific context, feel free to use the comments box or our Contact Us form. One good starting resource is a documentary called Through My Eyes that can give you some idea what it might be like to sit across the table from a young adult trying to sort questions of sexual orientation and gender identity.

Relative to your own education as a spiritual director, think about what you know about marriage and celibacy as vocations. It can be helpful for you to review what your own Christian tradition says about marriage and celibacy from a theological standpoint. Too many spiritual directors look for resources about what their tradition teaches about homosexuality. In traditions that regard homosexuality as a sin full stop, the official teaching can be focused so much on exhortations to avoid homosexual sin that it backs LGBT people into a corner. For example, it’s commonplace that spiritual directors will recommend that men do not cultivate close, intimate friendships with women unless the man intends to marry a woman. When you apply this counsel to LGBT people, it can sound like “We don’t want you to have close, intimate friendships with people of your same sex because you will be constantly facing temptation, but you still can’t have close, intimate friendships with people of the opposite sex because we don’t let heterosexual people do that unless they are planning on marrying each other.” An LGBT person trying to follow such direction can very easily find himself or herself cut off from all relationships; and, these efforts can wreak havoc on the person’s sense of well-being and acceptance. If you as a spiritual director focus on finding resources about marriage and celibacy, then you’ll have a much greater appreciation of the struggles LGBT people have applying the existing teaching to their lives… and you’ll be in a better place to help them locate information within the context of your specific Christian tradition.

Because Christian culture broadly understood is readily perceived as telling LGBT people NO!, we’d like to stress that good spiritual directors want to cut through the noise in order to find all of the yeses associated with an abundant life in Christ. Many Christian LGBT people can be so aware of what they cannot do that they lack any assurances that there are things they can do. Remember that good spiritual direction is borne out of a mutually respectful relationship that encourages a person to cultivate greater Christ-likeness. As a spiritual director, it’s important to meet people where they are so you can journey towards Christ together. Keep your focus on Christ, cultivate humility by practicing empathy, and be quick to ask for forgiveness when you make mistakes. May the light of Christ illumine the way.

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