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Group Spiritual Direction: What Is It?

BK0-8091-3598-1_medAn Online Version of The Shalem Pamphlet on Group Spiritual Direction by Rose Mary Dougherty

Group spiritual direction is a process in which people gather together on a regular basis to assist one another in an ongoing awareness of God in all of life. They are seeking support for their responsiveness to God and they agree to support others in that same responsiveness. Three conditions are essential to the life of the group. Members must agree to:

  • commit themselves to an honest relationship with God
  • to participate wholeheartedly in the group process through prayerful listening and response
  • to open their spiritual journeys for consideration by others

These conditions of themselves do not guarantee the effectiveness of group spiritual direction. They do, however, foster and reflect the willingness needed to engage in such a process. The depth of sharing necessary in group spiritual direction demands a level of trust not often found in other types of groups. This trust is not dependent upon similar personalities, mutual interests or common experiences; rather it is grounded in a trust of God’s desire for each participant individually as well as the group as a whole.

Shared Desire for God

What draws people to the group is a reciprocity of desire, God’s desire and their desire. Having been touched by God’s desire, they want to make their desire for God the determining factor of all of their choices, and they recognize that they need some help to do this. This shared desire gives the group its coherence as well as a shared commitment to be there for one another in that desire. The group’s primary task is to make the shared desire explicit and to hold one another in it.

When asked by a friend how she prayed for her, a thirteenth-century anchoress, Julian of Norwich responded “I look at God, I look at you, and I keep on looking at God.” Put simply, the group’s challenge is to keep on looking at God for each person in the group.

Yet as much as people know this faithful looking is why they are together and really want that for themselves and for the group, they may unintentionally collude to avoid it. They may become busy about many things besides spiritual direction. A process is needed that will help people do what they come to the group to do.

Dynamics of the Process

The process best happens in a group with four people, five maximum and three minimum, all of whom are seeking spiritual direction and are willing to enter into a process where spiritual direction can happen for themselves and the others in the group. Initially, this willingness as well as the rightness of the group for each person will need to be tested. Prospective members will need to pray together and then talk about their understandings of spiritual direction and what it is in their lives with God that makes them think this group would be right for them. Diversity of faith perspectives in the group can enrich the collective wisdom available through the group process. There should be sufficient time for participants to become acquainted with one another at a faith level and to become somewhat familiar with the faith language of one another before actually beginning the group direction. This time is especially important for groups comprised of friends or persons frequently together in other settings. Such groups might benefit also from the presence of an outside facilitator in the beginning. Once a group has decided that it wants to be together for spiritual direction, then it might agree to meet for ten months to a year and after a review of its time, contract for another year if it seems right.

A two-and-a-half hour meeting time allows a spaciousness for the unfolding of the process of group spiritual direction. A period longer than two-and-a-half hours seems to tax most people’s listening capacity. Four or five-week intervals between meetings honors that sacred space within each person where ultimately all discernment happens and yet allows for a continuity in the group’s life together. If a group can meet bi-weekly, six members would be optimum to allow for the participation of all members with three people sharing one week and a different three the next week.

The Process

The time begins with a silent gathering of about 20 minutes for people to gather their hearts into a common desire for God and to dedicate the evening for our world. After the silence, the facilitator invites someone to begin sharing when he or she feels ready.

Sharing by one person
(10 to 15 minutes)

While individuals are sharing, the group listens prayerfully through to the end without interruption.

Silence
(3 to 4 minutes)

This silence is simply a time for making space for God, for allowing God to cut through the limits of biases and accustomed ways of responding so that individuals might respond to the presenter from a place of freedom.

Response
(about 10 minutes)

There is a period of sharing the questions or comments that have come up on the silence. The facilitator might need to encourage trust of God’s caring love for the presenter, active in the silence and in the words. This trust is honored when individuals listen to the response of others and move with the flow of the group instead of holding onto a personal agenda for the person.

Silence
(about 5 minutes)

During this time people pray for the person who has just presented. The presenter may want to take some notes on what she has heard.

The “Sharing—Silence—Response—Silence” is repeated, with a short break midway, until all members have presented.

Prayer for absent member
(at least 10 minutes)

This prayer reflects the belief that the most important thing members can do for one another is to pray. Not only does the group pray for the person who cannot be present, members also are asked to pray for one another in whatever way is right for them outside the time of the group.

Reflection on the time together
(about 10 minutes)

This reflection is not meant to analyze the time together or to control future outcomes. Instead, it is a gentle looking and noticing, God and the group together, and an honest sharing around what is seen. The focus for this time is the sense of prayerfulness within the group and within individuals. Whatever is addressed — silence, words, the human dynamics within the group — is viewed in terms of that prayerfulness, looking at what has served it or has gotten in its way.

When a group can give itself to the process over a period of time, and when individuals take seriously the responsibility to pray for one another within and outside their times together, transformation occurs. The group becomes a spiritual community where the uniqueness of desire for God and the commonality of that desire is celebrated, and where people want to be present to God for one another in the fullness of that desire. That desire for God becomes the ground for their discernment. Together and alone they continue to examine choices for responsible love.

Additional Reading

  • Dougherty, Rose Mary. Group Spiritual Direction: Community for Discernment. (Book and Video). NY: Paulist Press.
  • Edwards, Tilden. Spiritual Friend. NY: Paulist Press.
  • Gratton, Carolyn. The Art of Spiritual Guidance. NY: Crossroad, 1992.
  • Guenther, C. Holy Listening: The Art of Spiritual Direction. MA: Cowley Publications.
  • Lindbloom, Lois. Prayerful Listening: Cultivating Discernment in Community, 2007.
  • May, Gerald. Care of Mind, Care of Spirit. NY: Harper & Row.

Purchase some of these titles through Shalem.

2 responses to “Group Spiritual Direction: What Is It?”

  1. Charles "Nick" Howard says:

    I look forward to the time with likeminded people & a common goal. The structure or “dynamic” seems to insure that all of us will stay faithful to the vision of growing our faith with less chance of straying or being distracted. My relationship with my Saviour needs this discipline & discernment. Thank you & God bless

  2. I am a 82 year old ELCA Retired minister who received my Certificate of Spiritual Direction at Aquinas Institute of Theology 2 years ago. I am very interested in starting a Group of Spiritual Direction in our church. I am involved with Spiritual Direction but not as a group. I need some help in setting it up.

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