Group spiritual direction is very similar to individual direction. A small group of people meet together to provide spiritual direction for each other. Members of the group are given the opportunity, one at a time, to be the directee, and the group responds prayerfully to whatever the directee chooses to present.
The format is simple. The group starts with a time of silence or a short meditation. After that the group invites one person to talk for five or ten minutes about whatever they'd like. Then there is another time of prayerful silence. Out of the silence, the group begins to ask questions, responding to whatever the directee is presenting. At the close of the person's presentation and the group's response, there is another time of prayerful silence during which each person in the group prays silently for the individual who presented. The group may choose to allow time for two people to present in one session, but in any case, over the course of several months, everyone will have the opportunity to be the directee.
The purpose of these groups is not counseling or therapy. Nor are they intended to be places where we can engage in aimless, self-absorbed conversations. The purpose of spiritual direction groups is formation. Spiritual formation is "a process of being conformed to the image of Christ for the sake of others." The intentional goal of group spiritual direction is to help each participant become more aware of God in their lives, for thesake of others. In other words, it leads to an awakening of the soul. This awakening then leads to a life that is purposeful and intentional. Group spiritual direction helps individuals grow in their faith, love others more fully, and participate in the mission of the church more effectively.
Leadership of the Group
A group like this—which invites people to share their own spiritual journeys, be personal and authentic, and seek transformation for the sake of others—is very unusual. You won't hear the average after-dinner conversation when they meet. For this reason, spiritual direction groups need informed facilitators to lead, ideally people who have been trained as spiritual directors.
This, however, is not always possible. Spiritual direction is a ministry that's just being rediscovered in the Protestant church. Most churches don't have people who have already been through spiritual direction training programs. Yet people are seeing the benefits of spiritual direction and looking for ways to engage in the experience. When this is the case, group spiritual direction can be especially valuable, and it can be effective even without a trained spiritual director. One way to begin is to have a study group about spiritual direction so that everyone understands how unique, and yet how familiar, spiritual direction can be.
Whether you have a trained spiritual director in your church or not, what is essential is for each individual in the group to be committed to the spiritual direction process, and for someone who has proven skills in group leadership to be given the responsibility to facilitate the group process.
After the facilitator guides the group through the time of silence, he or she invites the assigned presenter to share from their life. Sometimes this means that the facilitator needs to encourage the presenter with a few open questions. Other times the facilitator needs to gently keep the presenter on track and within the time frame. The facilitator also needs to provide leadership for the group in their response, encouraging questions and discouraging advice. The job of facilitating group spiritual direction is not an easy one, but if the group shares the leader's commitment to the process, it works well.
In some groups, the facilitator also takes a turn as presenter. When that happens, he or she asks someone else to facilitate that session. In other groups, the facilitator is there only as a director and does not take a turn as directee. This is usually the case when the facilitator is a trained spiritual director.
Several ingredients are essential for group spiritual direction. Absolute confidentiality is on the top of the list. The group will be a place where personal soul-work happens. This kind of intimacy requires the confidence that nothing shared in the group will be shared outside the group. It is a good idea to reiterate the group's commitment to confidentiality from time to time.
Regular attendance is another essential ingredient. Group members need to commit to coming to each meeting if at all possible. Sporadic attendance is not an option if the group is to establish the trust and camaraderie necessary for authentic personal sharing.
It's also a good idea to schedule brief times of evaluation for the group. Usually, groups make a commitment to meet biweekly or once a month for three to six months, but some groups meet for years. Whatever the initial commitment, be sure to set aside occasional times for people to comment on how they feel the group is doing.
Models for Group Spiritual Direction
Groups meeting for spiritual direction come in many shapes and sizes. Not all spiritual direction groups happen within a church setting. Some groups are defined by church membership or attendance, but other groups are made up of friends from several churches. Some groups are cross-generational; some are age-specific. Some are made up of men and women; some are just one or the other. There are several models that can be followed for group direction.
- Church groups. Churches are finding that group spiritual direction is a good way to introduce people to spiritual direction itself, providing an opportunity for them to begin experiencing this way of relating to others and to God.
- A group of friends. I have been meeting with a group of friends for seven years. We call our group a lectio group because we are reading very, very slowly through the Gospel of Luke. Though we don't call ourselves a spiritual direction group, we function in a spiritual direction manner. We have accompanied each other through many seasons of life, helping each other see God's loving work in our lives.
- Groups led by a spiritual director. Groups are often facilitated and coordinated by spiritual directors. In this situation, the people in the group may not know each other beforehand. They are gathered together by the spiritual director and usually pay the director for the sessions. These groups work well because they meet together only for spiritual direction and are often very focused, much like individual spiritual direction.
- A two-person group. Another creative way to experience spiritual direction is to meet with one other person and take turns being the director and the directee.
- Groups of young people. Young people are particularly inclined to process things with their friends, so group spiritual direction is a good fit. They may not, however, have the maturity and life experiences to function effectively in the traditional model of spiritual direction. Those who have offered spiritual direction to younger people report that they often need to be a little more directive than they are with adults. The qualities of leadership that are important in offering group direction to young people are similar to those for leading groups of older people. But one spiritual director emphasized the special need for "openness and genuineness about my own life," and "unconditional love" for the students.
The Fruit of Spiritual Direction
The fruit of both group and individual spiritual direction is life-giving. Tara said that when she first began in spiritual direction, she thought, What a wonderful luxury, to spend time each month just on my journey, my issues, examining my relationship with God. Now Tara says, "It wasn't long before I felt like spiritual direction was no longer a luxury, but a necessity."
Someone else said that spiritual direction "helps me refocus my attention on what God is doing and the evidence of that in my life. It helps me to recall the main events over the past month, to bring them into focus and see where God has been at work."
Speaking specifically about group spiritual direction, Erin told me, "I never had a safe place to talk like that—to be affirmed in my relationship with God"
Offering the opportunity for people to gather in groups for spiritual direction is offering them the wonderful experience of focusing attention on their ever-growing relationship with God, in whatever life situations they're facing. Jesus said that we must be "born again"; spiritual direction is about noticing that birth, which happens on a daily basis. Each day Jesus is born in us. Just as the wise men traveled together to find Jesus in the manger, so we travel together to find Jesus born in our souls.
When we meet together—whether as a group, as twosomes, or as individuals in spiritual direction—we give each other the gift of listening in the name of Jesus. This kind of loving listening bears fruit in our own lives, in our fellowship with those we love, and in our church communities.
Alice Fryling a spiritual director, a retreat leader, and the other of nine books, including The Art of Spiritual Listening.