Academic journal article Journal of Psychology and Theology

Integrating Spiritual Direction Functions in the Practice of Psychotherapy

Academic journal article Journal of Psychology and Theology

Integrating Spiritual Direction Functions in the Practice of Psychotherapy

Article excerpt

Recent research and clinical experience suggest that clients are increasingly expecting that psychotherapists will deal with their spiritual concerns that are traditionally addressed in spiritual direction. This expectation has already begun to impact the practice of psychotherapy by increasing interest in the "spiritually-oriented-psychotherapies." This article proposes that psychotherapy can become more receptive and effective in dealing with spiritual concerns by appropriately incorporating some or many of the functions of spiritual direction. The practice of spiritual direction is first described and compared to pastoral counseling and spiritually-oriented psychotherapy. Then eight functions of spiritual direction are presented and compared to similar "functions" in psychotherapy. Finally, specific recommendations for incorporating these functions into the practice of psychotherapy are discussed.


Believing that spirituality is vital for growth and essential for dealing with life's problems, many individuals are pursuing a journey of spiritual growth. Pursuing this journey typically involves a commitment to engaging in spiritual practices such as prayer and meditation. As a result of this pursuit, some are finding their lives are more centered and fulfilling, whereas others are finding themselves trapped in old feelings, attitudes, and habits that appear to undo their progress. Even those who have made progress on the journey often encounter spiritual and psychological roadblocks to growth.

But fewer are approaching the institutional church for help with these concerns. Why is this? Presumably because of "spiritual homelessness," that is, the experience of no longer feeling 'at home' in one's religious traditions or with ministry personnel (Steere, 1997). Similarly, Jean Stairs (2000, p. 3) describes this phenomenon as "(t)he world is crying out for the church to be more the like the church, to represent the space and place where holiness, meaning, and God can be found, experienced, understood, and reimagined." Because of the extent of spiritual homelessness, it should not be surprising that many are turning to psychotherapy rather than to ministers for spiritual advice. It should also be noted that those who are already in psychotherapy expect that therapy will focus on their spiritual concerns (Westfeld, 2001).

These observations raise a number of questions. Are spiritual concerns appropriate and proper for psychotherapy? Shouldn't these individuals be seeking spiritual direction or pastoral counseling instead? Can psychotherapy become more receptive to these spiritual concerns? If so, how?

The article attempts to address these questions. It begins by differentiating psychotherapy from spiritual direction and pastoral counseling. It then describes eight process functions in spiritual direction and compares them with similar functions in psychotherapy. Next, the discussion turns to ways of integrating the spiritual direction functions into the practice of psychotherapy. Finally, three perspectives and two strategies for integrating the spiritual direction functions are discussed.


Like spiritual direction, pastoral counseling and spiritually-oriented psychotherapy can and do address spiritual concerns and issues. Beyond this shared commonality, these three modalities differ with regard to type of clientele served, goals and purposes, the nature of the relationship with the professional, and the type of interventions utilized. A brief description of the practice of spiritual direction, pastoral counseling, and spiritually-oriented psychotherapy is provided in this section. Each of the three modalities will be discussed in terms of likely clientele, goals, type of relationship, and preferred interventions. Also included is a description of the training and professional organizations supporting each modality. …

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