Academic journal article Journal of Psychology and Theology

Nurturing Spiritual Growth

Academic journal article Journal of Psychology and Theology

Nurturing Spiritual Growth

Article excerpt

This article is a response to the preceding articles. It begins by reflecting on the recent rise of interest in spirituality in society and the mental health professions and then examines the diversity of ways of understanding and practicing spiritual direction. It also discusses the opportunities for an enhanced understanding of spiritual transformation that this diversity provides, and investigates the overlapping and permeable nature of the boundaries between spiritual direction and other relationships of soul care. It concludes with some observations about the future.


The recent spate of books on spiritual direction, and the more general rise of interest in spirituality that forms the context for this, has come as a surprise to many of us. In large sectors of the church few would have ever even heard of the concepts of spiritual formation or direction until recently. And yet the seminaries and colleges of many of those traditions are now busy refashioning departments of Christian education into programs in spiritual formation, while clergy and laity alike seek opportunities to learn about spiritual direction.

The parallel development of interest in spirituality among mental health professionals has also been remarkable. For a century counselors and psychotherapists have held their privileged positions in soul care with remarkable lack of awareness of the spiritual guidance tradition out of which their roles developed. Even Christian therapists have, by and large, practiced their calling with little attention to spirituality. Theories of the Divine (theology) have seemed of more interest than experience of the Divine (spirituality) as Christian mental health professionals focused on the integration of psychology and theology. How easily we seemed to have missed the fact that the integration that is most essential is the integration that occurs within the individual--an integration that optimally occurs when it is grounded in an ever deepening experience of the Divine.

I think it is still too early to determine the significance of this recent rise of interest in spirituality. I'd like to believe that it represents a fresh breath of the Spirit of God, a revival of hunger for deep personal engagement and transforming surrender to the Divine. But it is also clear that these developments contain faddish elements. How easily the church--some sectors of it being notably more vulnerable than others--becomes caught up with current fashion. And how clearly the history of counseling and psychotherapy betrays the same formative influence of the fads of practice.

This makes it essential that those of us who seek to nurture spiritual growth in others ground our practice in an understanding of our extraordinarily rich tradition of Christian spiritual formation and direction. The articles in this special issue provide wonderful help in doing so. Editing them-and now rereading them in their completed form-leaves me with three overall impressions: (a) the diversity of understandings of the best ways to nurture spiritual growth, (b) the opportunity that current interest in spiritual direction provides for reflection on the process of spiritual transformation, and (c) the overlapping and permeable nature of the boundaries between spiritual direction and psychotherapy. I will organize my response around these three thoughts.


Quite clearly the language of "spiritual direction" fits better within some Christian traditions than others. But, as Shakespeare reminds us, "What's in a name? That which we call a rose, by any other name would smell as sweet" (1968, p. 912). So too it is with spiritual direction. Regardless of what it is called, the nurture of spiritual growth is central to all Christian traditions and its importance is in no way tied to one particular set of nomenclature.

Whether the activity is called discipling, mentoring, or offering spiritual counsel; whether the one offering the service is considered an authority figure, a peer, or family member; and whether the process is structured or informal, mutual or one-directional, no Christian tradition relies wholly on the individual soul connecting with God in a manner that is unsupported by others. …

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