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Ethics & Good Practice in Spiritual Direction

I have been involved in a UK project developing an ethical framework for spiritual direction work, which also relates to spiritual accompaniment, spiritual mentoring and spiritual guidance. It was put together in consultation with many other publications of guidelines of good practice and ethics from across the world, and across spiritual disciplines, as you can see detailed in the appendix. The project has paused for a while. So, I post here the work I have done on ethics and good practice in spiritual direction for anyone who might find it helpful.

There is a summary of the framework below and a link to view and download the full document at the bottom of the page. If anyone would like to discuss ethics and good practice guidelines in spiritual direction work further, I am always open to that conversation and can be reached through my contacts page.

Why have an Ethical Framework?

In all helping professions, standards which protect the client are now the norm. Being ethically minded and willing to be accountable for the ethical basis of practice are considered essential requirements.

An ethical framework sets out the expected ethical principles, values and good practice standards for spiritual directors which safeguards and promotes the spiritual health and well-being of those in their care. It also lays some foundation of clarity in expectations between the person and practitioner. An ethical framework also forms the material not only for conduct, but for training and on-going professional development.

When spiritual directors face ethical dilemmas in their work, it is helpful to have some framework in which to consider the issues individually, in supervision and in some broader sense with the wider spiritual direction community represented by the acceptance of these standards of ethical guidance. It also provides a bench-mark of accountability and a framework for the examining and resolving of complaints. Directees are also informed as to the norms of a spiritual director’s standards, allowing for a sense of more open public accountability.

We are aware of some people’s reluctance to become legislative about a ministry of love, so have adopted an ethical framework approach rather than a more prescriptive code of practice. An ethical framework recognises underlying principles of behaviour that form the foundation of ethics in the work, but is less prescriptive, acknowledging that sometimes practitioners can find themselves in ethical dilemmas. It acts as a resource for a practitioner to help face any ethical challenges and issues as they arise and creates a shared structure, but with the flexibility to respond to the needs of different contexts and clients.

The framework also recognises that these core principles are not mutually independent but act in an interdependent way. For example, is it an act of compassionate care, integrity or responsibility to be clear with directees at the onset on how the working relationship may be terminated? Clearly, there is something of all of these ethical imperatives in the need to be clear and open with clients about such issues in the initial conversation and contract. So, in some ways, it is a matter of choice, and a little arbitrary, as to where to detail specific issues of practice, but this is done to help practitioners reflect on how a particular ethical principle may underpin working practices and decisions.

While spiritual directors clearly draw ethics from their own rich spiritual traditions, we live in a world where it has become sadly all too apparent that those from any spiritual or religious tradition may not necessarily act in accordance with, or can distort, the ethical foundation of that tradition. As Spiritual Directors International recognise: ‘Ethical conduct flows from lived reverence for all of Life, self and others, but is not inevitably the reality of every spiritual direction relationship.’ The reality is spiritual direction relationships can go wrong and there is the potential to be damaging and harmful. Spiritual care is both a privilege and a responsibility, and we need always to work in ways that enable trust and safeguard those with whom we work. So, an explicit ethical framework is important.

Structure of the Ethical Framework:

1. Summary of Core Values and Principles

2. Personal Qualities to which Members are Encouraged to Aspire

3. Making Ethical Decisions

4. Good Practice Guidelines Exploring Each of the Core Values and Principles:

(i) Compassionate Care & Respect

(ii) Competence

(iii) Integrity

(iv) Responsibility

1. Summary of Core Values and Principles

There are 4 key ethical principles which can inform practitioners in their consideration of ethical practice, guiding ethical reasoning, decision-making and behaviour. These are:

  • Compassionate Care & Respect – We respect and care for the well-being of those we work with, committed to avoiding harm and acting in their best interests with kindness and compassion.

  • Competence – We are informed by professional education, knowledge, training and experience, and work within the known limits of our competence. We engage with activities that develop and maintain our competence.

  • Integrity – We are honest and trustworthy, and our practices are transparent.

  • Responsibility – We value our responsibilities to our directees, faith communities, to colleagues, the wider community of spiritual directors and to society. This includes professional accountability and responsibility in the use of our skills, respecting the welfare of others.

2. Personal qualities

to which members are encouraged to aspire and be committed to in their continuing development.

These are drawn from a number of contemporary and historical sources including, with grateful acknowledgment, the initial work done by a group of spiritual directors for ‘Spiritual Direction Guidelines’ developed with The UK Retreat Association in 2016, British Association of Counselling Professionals research on the qualities needed in supporting 1:1 helping relationships and Lynette Harborne’s 2017 DProf research ‘What constitutes good practice in spiritual direction and what is the contribution of supervision to that practice?’

Spirituality: Commitment to deepening one’s own spiritual journey and on-going life of spiritual practice and prayer.

Sincerity: Consistency between what is professed and what is done.

Discernment: The ability to practice good discernment in our own spiritual life.

Empathy: The ability to communicate understanding of another person’s experience from that person’s perspective.

Humility: The ability to recognise our own strengths and limitations, while also aware of our own self-worth.

Care: Benevolent, responsible and competent attentiveness to someone’s needs, well-being and personal agency.

Courage: The capacity to act in spite of known fears, risks and uncertainty.

Respect: Showing appropriate esteem for people and their understanding of themselves and their spiritual path. Able to be with variety, uniqueness and difference; prepared to work at understanding another’s life and experience, respecting the dignity, worth and uniqueness of all and affirming their autonomy to make decisions contrary to our beliefs, practices or advice.

Diligence: The conscientious and consistent deployment of skills and time to those we seek to serve.

Resilience: The capacity to accompany others through difficult times in their life and spiritual journey, and in any ways that a person may be ‘other’ to the director, without being personally diminished.

Not-knowing: Able to hold oneself and particular views back, acknowledging our own ignorance and ‘not-knowing’, to enable the holding of a safe, welcoming, open and hospitable space for others.

Integrity: Commitment to being ethical in dealings with others, including transparency, honesty and consistency.

Wisdom: In possession of sound judgment, insight and discernment that informs our practice in spiritual direction and life.

Learner: A person who never stops being a learner (beginner’s mind) and is open to new perspectives and on-going growth and development.

Openness: Open to the surprise of the Divine, the freedom of the Spirit, who blows wherever (she wills).

Accountability: Valuing and modelling accountability and transparency by making our work accountable to supervision and professional standards.

Self-respect: Caring for our own self well-being and health, and valuing what we have to offer.

3. Making Ethical Decisions

The challenge of working ethically means that spiritual directors may need to make decisions in difficult, changing and unclear situations. It is hoped this Ethical Framework can provide a context for considering ethical questions with the core values and principles guiding ethical reasoning and discernment, directing attention to the variety of ethical factors that may need to be taken into consideration.

Ethical principles are suited to examining justification for particular decisions and actions. However, reliance on principles alone may detract from the importance of practitioner’s own personal qualities as explored above. A practitioner’s obligation is to consider all the relevant circumstances with as much care as possible and be appropriately accountable for decisions made.

No statement of ethics can eliminate the difficulty of making judgments in circumstances that may be changing and full of uncertainties. By accepting this ethical framework, members and practitioners are committing themselves to engaging with the challenge of striving to be ethical, even when doing so involves making difficult decisions or acting courageously.

4. Good Practice Guidelines Exploring Each of the Core Values and Principles:

Under each principle we highlight specific issues and considerations that spiritual directors should be aware of in applying the principles in their work. However, these are not the limit of how the ethical principles work out in practice, but are listed to indicate key areas. They are also aspirational rather than legislative in nature, continually inspiring and moving a practitioner towards best practice in their work.

(i) Compassionate Care & Respect

We, as spiritual directors, care for our clients and colleagues; we want them to feel respected and safe. We value the dignity and worth of all persons and seek to offer compassionate care.

In particular:

  • We speak and act in ways that honour the dignity, value and uniqueness of every individual

  • We respect the cultural, ethnic, gender identity and expression, racial, sexual orientation, marital status, political belief, mental or physical disability, and any other form of diversity of those we serve, affirming the dignity and value of each individual

  • In particular, we demonstrate respect for the values, conscience, theology and spirituality of others, even when these are different from our own, and refrain from imposing our own values and beliefs on those we serve

  • We are respectful of the faith traditions and spiritual communities to which our directees belong

  • We work in open-minded ways that understand and respect the directee’s right to self-determination and autonomy

  • We avoid judgmental and defensive stances in the clear awareness of our own beliefs and convictions, and the capacity these have to create bias and prejudice

  • We avoid any form of spiritual abuse that may be caused by using our own spiritual insights, experience and beliefs to manipulate or control the directee

  • We recognise the imbalance of power in the spiritual direction relationship and take care not to exploit this through behaviours such as sexual harassment, financial exploitation, bullying and spiritual abuse

  • We do not enter into sexual intimacy with or make any specific or implied sexual proposition to clients

  • We are also sensitive to the dynamics of power and idealisation that may occur between directee and director, and to the implicit power difference. We do not exploit this situation for personal or professional gain, aware of the potential impact of our words and actions on the client

  • We establish and maintain appropriate physical and psychological boundaries with our directee

  • We act with compassionate loving action, including empathy, generosity, openness, fairness, humility, sincerity, distress tolerance, commitment and courage

(ii) Competence

Competence refers to the spiritual director’s ability to provide their specific services to a proficient standard. Our competence is informed by many sources - experience, professional education, knowledge and training. We value continuing development and the maintenance of competence, recognising the limits of our knowledge, skill, training, education and experience.

In particular:

  • We consider our possession or otherwise of appropriate and sufficient skills, underpinning knowledge and practice needed to serve our clients effectively

  • We know the limits of our competence and when to suggest the need of additional or alternative support from others eg counsellors or differently experienced directors

  • We take responsibility for, and are committed to, the on-going personal and professional development of our skills through attending workshops, training days and courses

  • We are committed to on-going growth of our knowledge and awareness through studying sacred texts, theology, spirituality, psychology and other disciplines related to spiritual direction

  • Especially, we read books, articles, journals and other writings or view electronic sources on spiritual direction work and spirituality, and remain abreast of developments in the field of spiritual direction

  • We receive regular supervision so as to enable reflection, development and accountability in our practice

  • We continually monitor our own practice and ability to work with a particular directee, noticing when our effectiveness is impaired. We take action to serve the best interests of our client

  • We are committed to developing and maintaining our knowledge, skills and capabilities to practice safely, ethically and legally

  • We communicate clearly with directees what they can expect from us, setting clear expectations regarding the nature of spiritual direction, our responsibilities, appointment frequency and scheduling, reviews and termination process, confidentiality (and its limits) and data protection issues

  • We agree with clients how we will work together: stating clearly terms and conditions, fees (if any) and methods of practice

  • We keep up to date with the law, regulations and any other requirements relevant to our work

  • We keep accurate and appropriate records

(iii) Integrity

Spiritual directors seek to be honest, open and truthful, behaving in a trustworthy manner where our practices are transparent.

In particular:

  • We are committed to and maintain our own personal and communal spiritual practices, seeing our commitment to our own spiritual development as a life-long process

  • We are committed to our own spiritual direction process in regular sessions with our own director

  • When communicating our competencies, education, training and experience in relation to our practice of spiritual direction, we do so accurately and honestly

  • We are open, honest and accurate in representing affiliations and methods of working, and do not make unjustifiable claims about competence

  • We work ethically and with careful consideration of how we fulfil our legal and ethical obligations

  • We maintain professional and personal boundaries between our work with clients and what lies outside that work

  • We avoid any conflict of interests

  • We address differences with our client such as issues of complaint and take action where we cannot resolve them

  • We nurture self-knowledge

  • We strive to be trustworthy, honouring the trust placed in the practitioner

  • We are also open and honest with our colleagues and relevant organisations

  • We distinguish between spiritual direction and other forms of 1:1 helping relationships such as counselling, and ensure clients understand the type of support we are offering

  • We model a way of living that contributes to the faith life and spiritual development of all people

(iv) Responsibility

Spiritual directors value their responsibilities to their directees, faith communities, to colleagues, the wider community of spiritual directors and to society. This includes professional accountability and responsibility in the use of their skills, respecting the welfare of others. Awareness of responsibility ensures that the trust of others is not abused.

In particular:

  • We commit to follow a framework of ethical behaviour

  • We have insurance to protect our clients

  • We protect client confidentiality and privacy – addressing legal exemptions

  • We keep confidential all oral, electronic, and written matters arising from sessions

  • We do not record unwarranted personal information and ensure all such (personal) information is held in strict confidentiality

  • We allow clients access to all personal data kept in electronic and written form in compliance with GDPR

  • We take all reasonable precautions available to ensure spiritual direction via electronic means is as secure as possible

  • We safeguard the confidentiality of clients when using materials for educational or written purposes

  • We make ourselves accountable to an accrediting body and/ or the guidelines of any local network to which we belong

  • We hold periodic reviews to hear how clients are experiencing our working together

  • We ensure our own well-being sufficient to sustain our quality of work. This includes exercising self-care to maintain our own physical, psychological and spiritual health and keeping a healthy balance between our work and other aspects of life

  • We recognise and address with the client, and take to supervision, any multiple roles or relationships that pose difficulties to the effectiveness and clarity of the spiritual direction relationship

  • We cultivate insight into the influences of culture, socio-historical context, environmental setting and institutions in relation to our work

  • We seek consultation with other appropriately qualified professionals where necessary

  • We respect the opinions, beliefs and professional endeavours of colleagues and other professionals

  • We endeavour to inform directees well in advance of approaching endings and be sensitive to their expectations and concerns when we are nearing the end of our work together

  • We try to be open to opportunities to offer our work to the underserved and those on low incomes who cannot afford remuneration.

Ethical Framework for Spiritual Directors
Download DOCX • 36KB


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