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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16 thoughts on “Providing Spiritual Direction

  1. Would you say you have to tell a gay person as a spiritual director to not have sex ever? Don’t you think it’s a sin? If your celibate don’t you see gay as a sin?

    • Hi Kay. As we’ve said before in our comments to you, the purpose of this blog is not to make a theological argument for or against the morality of sexually active same-sex relationships, but to share from our experience as a celibate, LGBT couple. We’ve also stated in our 7 Misconceptions about Celibacy post that being celibate, in and of itself, does not necessarily mean that one is making a particular judgment about another person’s sexually active relationship. You can read that piece here: http://aqueercalling.wordpress.com/2014/01/27/7-misconceptions-about-celibacy/. We would encourage spiritual directors to listen carefully to God and to their directees when deciding what counsel to offer.

    • Kay, you seem to be really focused on the sexual activity part of being gay. I find it completely disrespectful of Lindsey and Sarah that you keep bringing this up. I find it disrespectful of me and other readers who are part of the LGBT community. Your comments have reduced us to sexual beings only. Sorry, but that’s the least of my worries…I’m usually spending more time figuring out how to pay my bills, do my laundry and get to work on time. Boring, huh? Yeah, that’s my big lesbian life.

      • Thanks for weighing in with your perspective. We think that many people have a tendency to zoom in on the sexual aspects of being gay. That’s part of the reason why spiritual directors sometimes default to discussing particular sexual actions. However, LGBT people have plenty of other concerns. Thanks for sharing some of your everyday concerns with us, even if they are seemingly very boring.

    • Thanks for dropping by! Yes, it is so often forgotten by spiritual directors and church leaders in general that LGBT people are indeed *people.* We hope to see you back here again, and we hope you are enjoying reading. 🙂

  2. Thank you so much, you have no idea how helpful this is. I especially like the more practical advice you give about cutting through the script. The few times people have come out to me I had no idea what to say, so thinking in these terms is helpful to get past the awkwardness (then again I am pretty awkward most of the time).

    I think it’s easy to confuse spiritual direction with counseling or therapy (for both spiritual directors and directees). The heart of spiritual direction is as you said, becoming Christ-like and discovering the workings of God in our lives. When a spiritual director begins to tell someone how they should live, or what they should think then you know they aren’t doing their job. It seems to me that in many of the examples you gave of bad direction, the director was trying to fix what they thought was a problem in the LGBT person. Spiritual directors aren’t there to fix anything, but to pray and listen first, then to offer whatever wisdom or insights they have for the good of the directee.

    Another area that I think a spiritual director could focus on, though it can be tricky, is the reality of sin within our lives. Once we get past the notion that being LGBT is inherently sinful, we can focus on the real cause of evil in our lives. In this sense LGBT individuals are no different than cisgender (btw I had no idea what this word meant before today) and heterosexual individuals. We all have sinned and fallen short of the grace of God, and we are all trying to pick up the pieces. In this way, people can focus on areas in their life where they need God’s grace the most (with body image, addictions, guilt, fears, lack of faith, etc.).

    • Hi Brother Jude. We are so glad this was helpful to you. This is a topic we care a lot about too because both of us see spiritual direction as playing an important role in our lives, and unfortunately, both of us have had negative experiences of spiritual direction in the past. We can empathize with how tricky it can be to address the reality of sin when engaging an LGBT person in spiritual direction. We certainly hope that our spiritual fathers will not be hesitant to call us out when we are in need of redirection related to *any* sins with which we may be struggling, and we appreciate that it can be difficult to show the appropriate level of sensitivity in any person’s circumstances. However, both of us have approached spiritual direction fearfully at different points in the past because at times, the person doing the listening has given the following message: “If you would turn away from homosexuality, you wouldn’t be struggling with (insert sin here).” For example, I (Sarah) have struggled with an eating disorder and addictions, and spiritual direction has been crucial as I’ve been in the process of healing from those issues. But there have been times in the past when spiritual directors have told me that if only I would “become straight,” I wouldn’t be dealing with those other problems. That might be a direction for another post in the future, but yes, acknowledging the reality of sin while also showing empathy must be challenging for spiritual directors. Lindsey and I will be praying for you! -Sarah

  3. I too thought your reflection was quite helpful and pragmatic. I found the advice about meeting a LGBT person where they are at and not using the “audiotape or script” especially insightful. As a Catholic studying for the priesthood, there is the temptation to move right into the “what you can’t do” category as opposed to moving into the “what you can do” category. I will remember that in the future. I pray it will help to give me the courage to focus on the LGBT people I meet as children of God and to fully communicate that they are welcome in my future ministry sites, etc.

    Building off of that, have you heard about the priest in the KC-St Joe’s Diocese who has been taking heat for denying a women in a long-term, committed, same-sex relationship communion (http://www.lifesitenews.com/news/missouri-priest-under-fire-for-denying-communion-to-lesbian-couple), at her mother’s funeral no less. I would be interested to know your thoughts. It seems to me, the little I know of all the circumstances and details, that he acted earnestly but imprudently.

    Thanks again for all your wonderful work in this area.

    • Oh merciful kittens, I actually know Fr. Benjamin from my time at Conception Abbey. I would have expected more from him.

    • Hi Brother Wes. We are glad you found some helpful information here. If there is any way we can help more in terms of resources or other questions, please let us know. Lindsey and I will certainly be praying for you as you continue preparing for ministry.

      I hadn’t heard about this particular instance in the Kansas City-St. Joseph Diocese, but I had heard about the other case the article references: the one that happened in the Archdiocese of Washington. Based on the information provided, I’d be inclined to agree with you that the priest acted earnestly, but not prudently. Any news source can sensationalize a story, and as I search Google, I’m seeing a lot of that, so I’m not sure about the exact facts of the situation. But I must say that I’m disappointed in the LifeSite News article for stating that the priest is being criticized simply for defending Church teaching. My personal opinion, which really doesn’t count for much, is that a person’s acknowledgement that he/she is in a same-sex relationship should not be a reason for a priest to assume automatically that the person is sexually active. These situations bother me intensely because Lindsey and I have encountered clergy who have made these kinds of assumptions about us. I believe that the decision to deny communion should (when possible) be made only after having a detailed conversation with the person who wishes to commune. There are lots of issues a priest might need to clarify before deciding to commune an individual, regardless of sexual orientation. Now, maybe that happened in this situation. Maybe it didn’t. It’s possible that the priest just found out that the relationship existed and decided from there to deny communion with no further conversation. If that was the case, I would say that probably wasn’t the best course of action. I know some people would argue that even living together in the same residence with a same-sex partner is sinful, or at least gives the “appearance of evil.” I would disagree with that, but I’ll not specify why here. Lindsey and I plan to address that issue at some point in the near future in a blog post.

      Hoping you are well this evening.

      Sarah

      • Sarah,

        Great response. I too was disappointed with the LifeSiteNews for portraying his actions as “black and white” as it were. Anyway, I look forward to further in depth dialogue with the two of you on the matter ministering to LGBT people in the Church, and out of the Church for that matter.

        Christ’s peace be with you,

        Br Wes, OP

  4. Thank you so much for your openness and honesty. I learn so much from your writings.

    “Trust God to give you wisdom about how to respond to specific individuals (because everyone is different).”

    It’s just that simple. Thanks again and God bless!

  5. I’m almost hesitant to comment here, since the way I understand my faith and my Christianity is so far from that of most here who call themselves Christian. But despite being not just a lesbian but a married not-at-all celibate lesbian and a professional lesbian journalist, I do think quite a bit about sin, myself as a sinner, and about the need for repentance, humility, and guidance from God.

    Unlike many mainstream LGBT people, I see sin as a very relevant concept in my life (this might be in part because I was brought up atheist, so I never got all the negative associations others seem to have with being taught that they’re sinful). Resonating with the idea of myself as a sinner who needed to repent in order to be redeemed was very much a part of my journey as I moved away from the liberal atheism I was brought up with towards (still very liberal) Christianity. I tend to think about sin mostly in terms of how I miss opportunities to reach out to my fellow human beings, how often I act self servingly instead of charitably, how quick I am to feel proud and put myself above other people, and how I’m willing ignore others’ suffering out of fear, or out of a feeling of not knowing how to help. I guess my point is that I’d encourage people working with members of the LGBT community not to see the sorts of sinning LGBT people do as necessarily different or removed from the sorts of sinning everybody else is doing, even if they believe in a stronger relationship between sexuality and sin than I do.

    (Hopefully my near total ignorance of theology isn’t too much on display here. I’m afraid I can’t really quote bible verses, and I’m probably not so good on the trad Xtian lingo, so apologies if all this sounds dumber than my usual).

    • Your comment shows that there are many different ways to talk about sin, and talking about sin can indeed be helpful. This part of your comment resonated with us most of all: “I tend to think about sin mostly in terms of how I miss opportunities to reach out to my fellow human beings, how often I act self servingly instead of charitably, how quick I am to feel proud and put myself above other people, and how I’m willing ignore others’ suffering out of fear, or out of a feeling of not knowing how to help.” We tend to think of sin in this way too! We see it as being much more about harming relationship with God and other human beings than about doing things on a list of taboos.

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