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Accreditation for Spiritual Directors?

At the moment, in England, Wales and Scotland, there is no form of accreditation for spiritual directors. Other countries such as Australia, New Zealand and Ireland do have accrediting bodies that can set standards and offer some form of public accountability. In Canada spiritual directors have a path of certification by a state regulating body.

In England, however, anyone can call themselves a spiritual director, whether they have received some form of training or not. Although regional networks often have local standards of good practice, there are no nationally agreed standards in training or practice, and many directors work independently without any reference to these networks.

As a tutor on two spiritual direction training courses, I have for the last 7 years been actively involved in introducing students to standards of ethics and good practice, and to some of the psychological dynamics of regular 1:1 work that they need to understand to be able to hold the working relationship safely. I have the privilege of observing much wonderful work done to the highest standards. However, I have also through this work sadly met people who have stories to tell of less than acceptable experience of spiritual direction that has left them at best confused and at worse feeling hurt. Usually, these issues have revolved around lack of appropriate boundaries (physical, psychological, emotional) by the director, no real understanding of the dynamics of regular 1:1 work with the issues of transference & counter-transference, or lack of self-awareness in working with otherness in spirituality, even within the one Christian tradition.

Since writing my articles on spiritual abuse, I have also been contacted by those who felt that their experience of spiritual direction was even verging on this, with a director being unable to relate to, and even being dismissive of, their particular way of relating to the Holy. As I say in my article, spiritual abuse, defined as: 'mistreatment of a person who is in need of help and support or increased spiritual empowerment with the result of weakening, undermining or decreasing that spiritual empowerment,' can happen in any context where there are spiritual seekers and those designated to help them. This includes spiritually-orientated psychotherapy and spiritual direction, not just spiritual communities such as churches, synagogues or sanghas. There is grave danger in this work of the spiritual director consciously, or unconsciously, seeking to subtly coerce or 'shape' the directee towards the director's particular ways of understanding and relating to God, rather than having the theological and inner openness to seek to support the person to explore and follow their spiritual direction in life. To me, theologically, this can be seen as falling into seeking to create in our own image. Ethically this may be expressed as the requirement in our work for ‘openness to otherness in spirituality’ and ‘respect for freedom of individual conscience’ by acting in a way that respects the integrity (including sexual orientation, ethnicity, religion, disability or gender) and well-being of the directee.

There are those in the spiritual direction community, however, who feel some resistance to ideas of forms of accreditation, often expressing a fear of 'over professionalization'. There is a concern that in adopting standards of training and ethical practice adhered to in other 1:1 professions, such as counselling, spiritual direction work may lose something of its essential nature; it may somehow constrain the freedom of the practitioner to respond to the Holy Spirit in the exercise of their charism.

I can appreciate the concerns of fellow spiritual directors to not constrain God's inspiration in their work. However, I can't really see that adopting guidelines for ethical practice and accountability restricts this freedom. For me, a clear ethical framework helps create the safe space for the work within which God's creative spirit can flow. Other recognised charisms such as teaching, preaching and healing require people to engage in serious formation and accountability, and it is seen as unethical and even dangerous for teachers and medical practitioners to be 'unqualified' and unaccountable. I would hope that in the charism of spiritual direction/ accompaniment work, its practitioners would also want to hold themselves to the highest standards in the service of their directees. I have never felt in my calling as a Psychologist that the formulated training, clear structure and ethical boundaries I am required to adhere to have ever undermined my work but only helped it adhere to transparent Kingdom values.

Overall, I agree with Lynette Harborne when she puts spiritual direction in dialogue with standards in counselling and psychotherapy, and challenges: 'I would like to suggest that raising the standards of knowledge and practice to meet the needs of Christians in the twenty-first century need not deny or negate any of the strengths that are linked with the ancient tradition of spiritual direction. However, to stay locked in the historical past without being willing to appreciate wisdom and insights from other traditions does, perhaps, encourage a ghetto mentality.'*

Whatever your views, I do commend to you a recent move by Lynette Harborne from the Oxford/ Berks/ Beds Network, who has recently completed her Doctoral thesis with the Cambridge Theological Foundation: What constitutes good practice in spiritual direction and what is the contribution of supervision to that practice? And by Elizabeth White, a spiritual director and coordinator of the adult learning programme for the Diocese of Edinburgh, to engage the spiritual direction community in England, Scotland and Wales in dialogue and consultation about the possibility of forming a voluntary national accreditation pathway. You can register your interest, download an information flier and find out what consultation meetings are happening in your area, through their website - There will also be a survey available where spiritual directors can express their views, and also any directees who may wish to have a voice in the process.

* Lynette Harborne ' Psychotherapy and Spiritual Direction: Two Languages, One Voice?'

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