rarely write an informational column, but lately I have felt confused by the
titles which people are giving me, others, and themselves about what we do in
life. In my life, I have spiritual friends and my spiritual partner, but not a
spiritual counselor. I may need one at some point in my life, but not at the
I love having my spiritual friends and spiritual partners and have had several over the decades. They are both wonderful, but very different. My spiritual friends care about me deeply. They worry about me, especially when I am going through, but they have a hard time being neutral or not expressing their opinion about the choices I am facing. While I love my spiritual friends, there are times that in my own journey, I need to share with someone who does not feel in vested in me making one choice over another.
That is why I have always loved my relationship with my own spiritual partners. They do not try to fix or mend me, nor do I try to fix or mend those with whom I am journeying. In this relationship, one has the freedom to feel what one feels and choose das one feels God is leading them. Sometimes my spiritual friends are helpful in that way, but because they are also my friends, they may have trouble resisting the urge to give me advice. With my spiritual partner, I have the neutrality, which comes from the boundaries inherent in the spiritual partnership relationship.
My spiritual friends are my friends, they are people I can pray with and with whom I can talk about spirituality. They did not need to go through any special training to be my spiritual friends. I love them dearly because they are exactly that my friends. They are the ones with whom I can share dinner, life, laughter, and have deep spiritual conversations
My relationship with my spiritual partner, however, is not a peer relationship. It is hoped that the spiritual partner relationship is friendly, but that person is not my friend. The Code of Ethics for Spiritual Directors (aka Spiritual Partners) makes it clear that there is a power dynamic in spiritual partnership that cannot be ignored. The spiritual partner is responsible for keeping boundaries in the relationship safe and clear. Also, most spiritual partners have training in the art of spiritual guidance. They have spent time and money learning how to be in a healthy working relationship with their partners. They have been schooled in the importance of confidentiality.
Because of the clear boundaries, emphasis on confidentiality and training, I prefer the relationship with my spiritual partner to my spiritual friends for my more difficult and complicated questions. There will always be a place in my life for my spiritual friends. But I wouldn’t replace my spiritual partner with one.
Nor would I replace my spiritual partner with spiritual counseling/therapy. One thing I learned in spiritual partnership training is that spiritual partnership can be therapeutic but that doesn’t mean it is therapy! Just like therapy can be spiritually enriching without being spiritual partnership. So it’s important to know the differences.
One obvious difference is that counseling/therapy generally takes place once a week or twice a month while most spiritual partners only see their partners once a month. Yes, this makes spiritual partnership a little less expensive than counseling/therapy, however it would be foolish to substitute one for the other in order to save money! Most spiritual partners are not trained to work with your personal problems in a goal-oriented or “fixing” mode. So if you have a crisis or a life issue in which you need help once a week—definitely seek out therapy. Spiritual partners encourage the once-a-month model so that our time together is a gentle “check-in” around experiences that have either drawn you closer to God or felt more like obstacles on your path.
Beyond that basic difference, spiritual partners are trained to focus on your spiritual questions—your deep longings, sacred experiences and your response to what is holy and meaningful in your life. While spiritual counselors/therapists may bring a spiritual component to their work, counseling/therapy is designed to help you work on thoughts, emotions, and behaviors that affect your life and relationships. You may explore your past to see how it has influenced who you are today. Therapy/counseling may be problem solving, goal-oriented and, at times, confrontational. If you need to dig into a personal problem in your life, counseling/therapy is exactly what you need. The National Interfaith Seminary, in St. Paul, Minnesota, defines spiritual counseling, as “a ministerial approach that apparently embraces chakra therapy (chakra healing), inner child work, and "Totem Psychology."
Both fields require training. There are a few universities which provide formal training in spiritual counseling and/or transpersonal psychology which integrate mind, body, and soul. It can take 4 years to acquire your bachelor's degree and an additional few years to earn your masters in this area. There are a number of spiritual direction/partnership programs which vary in length (on average 3 years), but all encourage ongoing spiritual development.
If you need therapy, spiritual partnership alone is inadequate. We are not trained to help you change behaviors or understand your psyche. Good spiritual partners know a bit about psychology but just enough to know when we are out of our league. You will only be discouraged if you try to substitute spiritual partnership for counseling/therapy. Then again, if you choose counseling/therapy alone in order to explore your spiritual path you might also be disappointed.
Some people are in both therapy and spiritual partnership. If you have a counselor/therapist who is interested in spirituality and willing to work in connection with your spiritual partner, then you have the ideal situation. You can work on your psychological health with the counselor/therapist and connect that work with where you are on your spiritual path by sharing that with your spiritual partner. There are a few spiritual partners who are also trained spiritual counselors/therapists.
For more about spiritual partnership as I practice it, check out my website