Wearing the Spiritual Director's Hat

As a leader, the role of spiritual director is one you must have and refine.

Years ago at Willow Creek, we realized that our small group leaders wear many hats—vision caster, encourager, disciplinarian, discussion leader, and shepherd, to name a few. We agreed that one hat leaders must wear to help people grow is the Spiritual Director hat, but this raises several questions in a leader's mind: "What exactly is spiritual direction?" "What role can the leader play to foster it?" "How much responsibility does a leader take for group members' growth?"

What is Spiritual Direction?

John Ortberg has often taught that spiritual direction is setting aside time with another person to pay full attention to what God is doing. This idea is based on a few assumptions: First…that God is always speaking and acting among us. Second…that each person is unique and requires personal attention. And third…that the goal is to help people listen to God and obey his voice, not to always tell them what to do. But how do leaders do this?

I am accountable to help people grow as a shepherd of the flock, at least at some level (Heb. 13:17). It is easy to feel overwhelmed by this responsibility. But we need to remember that this is spiritual direction. That means it is the work of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 2:6-16) and we rely on Him. We want people to hear the voice of the Spirit and then obey, or take a step of faith. Any wisdom we offer is rooted in Christ's work and the Spirit's power, and we faithfully and diligently plant and water the seed. God causes the growth…so the pressure is off.

The Leader's Role in Providing direction

Spiritual direction is analogous to being a doctor, a coach, and a parent. As a doctor, we diagnose someone's condition and suggest the next steps. As a coach, we encourage and exhort, because we believe people really can change. As a parent, we nurture and teach, providing safety and truth in the relationship. In order to function in these roles, there are a couple areas to develop: Discernment and knowledge.

Practice Discernment

This begins with prayer. "If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God…" said James. Therefore, we ask God for wisdom and discernment in prayer, for spiritual eyes and ears. When I meet with a member of my group, I ask God to help me see what my pride, sin, and lack of wisdom keeps me from seeing. And then I make the best assessment I can of a person's obstacles and opportunities for growth. Then we pray together, asking God to show us where we need to focus our time and energy.

To discern someone's spiritual condition, ask questions, listen, and then respond. Ask questions such as: "In what areas do you sense growth and progress in your faith?" "In what areas do you struggle or feel you need help?" "What spiritual practices—like prayer, reading, silence, service, and worship—are you currently using to connect with God and His people?" These questions will prompt self-examination and self-disclosure. This will be fruitful if the person trusts you as a leader.

Next, listen to what is said and how it is communicated. What longings or disappointments are expressed? Is there a willingness to grow? Is there fear or anxiety in their voice? Does the person feel like a failure or do they have a strong view of their identity in Christ? Mirror back to them what you hear them saying and feeling. "It seems, Mike, that you feel very close to God now, but that you also are concerned about your struggle with outbursts of anger. Is that your primary challenge right now?" Active listening provides an environment that communicates care and respect.

Then you can respond, focusing on the next step in the person's growth. I like to keep using questions (instead of telling them what to do) because it is important that the person owns the process. "What do you believe God would want you to do with that anger as you feel it rising within? Do you have a sense of what triggers it? If possible, how might you avoid the trigger? Do you hear how pleased God is that you are facing this? And how much joy he finds when you draw near to Him, even in your anger?" The goal is to connect people with God.

Gain Knowledge

To become better at helping others pursue spiritual growth, small group leaders must gain knowledge of people, scripture, and spiritual practices. The more we know about how people think, act, and feel, the better we will be at understanding them. We are strange and wonderful creatures. Become a student of people in your group Know their love language, their dreams, fears, and struggles. Read books about relationships and interpersonal skills. Watch others who are good with people.

Study and reflect on Scripture. I always have a reading plan because I need the discipline. I try to read a gospel passage and one or two Psalms every day. And then I study a particular text I am working on. The more you reflect on Scripture and apply it to your own life, the better you will be at pointing others to God's truth. Finally, learn the spiritual practices that Christians have used through the ages to foster growth and maturity. Time spent in prayer and solitude, in humble service and worship, and in confession and celebration, will keep your own connection with Christ fresh and vital.

The Group's Role

Spiritual direction is not something leaders do alone—it should involve others in the group. We must not foster dependence on leaders, or we may be tempted to envision ourselves as spiritually superior. Henri Nouwen often exhorted pastors to practice the ministry of absence, so that people would depend on God. When the pastor—or small group leader—is unavailable (because of time spent in prayer, study, or a personal retreat) members must turn to God, the true source of strength and hope. That's a good reminder.

The Quakers used groups to gain discernment—they called them Clearness Committees. Whenever someone faced a decision or needed to discover God's will in some area, they would request such a meeting. People were not allowed to give advice, only ask questions and make observations. Responsibility for decision-making always fell to the individual; the group provided honest feedback and posed direct questions.

My small group functions in a similar way. We rely heavily on one another. We invite members to share spiritual growth plans with other members, gaining insights, clarifications, and checking motives. Those with gifts of wisdom and discernment provide insight; those with knowledge and skills suggest next steps for growth. In so doing we engage the wisdom, spiritual gifts and experiences of all members. "Plans fail for lack of counsel, but with many advisers they succeed (Prov. 15:22)."

God's will is best discerned and confirmed in community. If you understand your role, and how to lean into the power of Christ at work in your group, people will grow—right before your eyes!

Free Newsletter

Sign up for our Weekly newsletter: Regular access to innovative training resources, Bible-based curriculum, and practical articles.


Conducting a Spiritual Self-Audit

Twelve questions to keep your personal accounts in order.
9 Ways to Help Group Members Take Ownership of Problems

9 Ways to Help Group Members Take Ownership of Problems

The struggle is real—and we have to own it if we want to change.
How Is the Bible Changing You?

How Is the Bible Changing You?

Assess how you've grown after completing a Bible study.
Easter Reminds Us God Offers New Life

Easter Reminds Us God Offers New Life

Post-Easter icebreaker--reflect on the new life God has given you this past year.
The Four-Step Discussion Method that Works for Any Study

The Four-Step Discussion Method that Works for Any Study

This simple small-group format teaches disciples to obey God.
Four Keys to Transformational Discussions

Four Keys to Transformational Discussions

Create an environment for life change with these simple tips.