Spiritual direction in the nonconformist tradition

There has been a recent, and welcome, tradition of the various Principals of our Baptist colleges in the UK publishing jointly-authored books (something of the story of how this came to be is told in a chapter in Fiddes, et al., Doing Theology in A Baptist Way (Whitley, 2000)); the most recent contribution is in the Regent’s Study Guides series, Fiddes (ed.), Under the Rule of Christ: Dimensions of Baptist Spirituality (Smyth & Helwys, 2008). The various chapters in the book treat various themes, not including spiritual direction: Paul Fiddes and Steve Finnamore look at ‘Baptists and Spirituality’; Richard Kidd looks at suffering; Nigel Wright at ‘Spirituality as Discipleship: the Anabaptist heritage’; Jim Gordon treats Scripture; John Weaver the Eucharist; and Chris Ellis Mission.

There are many good things in the book; one of the repeated emphases, however, perhaps more powerful because it is apparently unconscious, is the assumption that, for Baptists, spirituality happens in gathered community – the local church congregation. Of course, there are those (Christopher Jamieson, Abbot of Worth, for one) who would claim that the classical spiritual disciplines only make sense in community, but the recent emphasis of the retreat movement has been on personal spirituality.

This is perhaps particularly the case when it comes to spiritual direction – a quintessentially personal relationship, one-to-one, confidential, and ideally removed at some level from broader life (the advice I have seen seems to suggest that a spiritual director should be someone you never otherwise encounter in your life). I began to wonder, where is there a history of spiritual direction in our Baptist (and broader evangelical and nonconformist) traditions?

We can find examples of ‘soul friendships’ from various points in history, which can be mapped onto the concept of spiritual direction, certainly – and I do not want to minimise or decry that; but it is not something natural to us. But if we understand spiritual direction as a process where the disciple is able to give an account of her walk with Christ, and to receive guidance, wisdom, encouragement, and prayer in furthering that walk, then, it struck me, reading the Principals’ book, it is something that is native, and central, to various Baptist, evangelical, and nonconformist traditions. It is just that we do it corporately, not individually.

The purest example is perhaps Wesley’s vision for the Methodist class meeting; this was precisely spiritual direction, but in community – members sharing with and supporting each other. There is at least something of this vision in the theory, if less often in the practice, of Baptist church meeting, however, and the recent proliferation of small group ministry in evangelical churches, whilst usually ill-thought out (small group meetings are too often held to be a Good Thing in themselves, which rather obviously they are not – no meeting is, ever – they have value to the extent that they are useful means directed towards valuable ends), introduces something of this into church life when, by accident or design, it works.

What to say about this? I want to support it – it is native to my tradition, and I believe in the notion of the body of Christ, the local church, being the basic agent of discipleship (and of course of mission) in the world. But I wonder about the practicality of it; in just over twenty years, now, of Christian discipleship, I have been a member of two small groups that have worked on this level, and one church fellowship – places where there were sufficient levels of trust, maturity, and openness to enable honesty about doubts, struggles, fears, joys, and hopes. Easier, far easier, to find a spiritual director who one can trust…

…but ease is never a good criterion for gospel faithfulness.


  1. Mark L
    Jul 4, 2009

    Some interesting observations here Steve. A question that has been lurking in my mind for some time now that connects to this is to wonder how possible (practical to use your word) it is, for the pastor of a local congregation to act as spiritual director on a personal level to some/all members of the church? Instinctively, it seems like it should be possible, indeed highly desirable, and you could argue would “flesh out” the corporate role of the church in this area…but it’s not without its difficulties either.

  2. craig gardiner
    Jul 5, 2009

    Good points here Steve, i feel it is never about either/or but both/and in this arena. I have a Spiritual Director who is outwith my immediate geography and denomination, but I also value some small groups of which I am a part. These would include my church deacons, the Iona Community in various parts, and a Renovare group we have started recently with seven / eight of us meeting one a month to reflect on various streams of Christan Disicpleship.

    I have also been struck recently by the emphasis given by many minority ethnic church leaders on mentoring the next generation of leaders … often one to one stuff. Of course BUGB pastors we do something of this in NAMS and there are plans afoot to offer a BUGB endorsed scheme of a type of Peer Review between ministers to continue to NAMS approach into later ministry.

    Spiritual Direction adn these other ‘one to ones’ is fine and i feel to be encouraged but it is not the same dynamic or purpose as belonging to a group in which we are mutually accountable … bearing one another, and where we encounter the other in difference and indeed where we meet the ‘difference of difference’ in the third or more members. There is something analogical to the Trinity in all of this, something church is called to incarnate in its relationships and something I think which can be missing from the one on one, good as it is.

    We need (or at least I need) both

  3. Steve H
    Jul 7, 2009

    @Mark: Thanks for commenting. My instinct is that it’s a bad idea, given the current understanding of ‘spiritual direction,’ which encourages people to be very open and honest about their difficulties and doubts with the faith. If one of my difficulties is ‘the worship in my local congregation leaves me cold, and the preaching just bores me,’ then I am going to struggle to tell the pastor that, and she is going to need impressive levels of sanctification to respond appropriately to being told. In business terms, it is rather like conflating the roles of line manager and mentor – there are just inevitable conflicts.

    That said, people like Richard Baxter clearly did it, and very successfully.

  4. Steve H
    Jul 7, 2009

    @Craig: yes to all of that, although you hint that (for you) different groups serve different purposes; I wonder whether there is value in teasing that out, particularly if it is more general? One of my gripes about so much in the area of Christian discipleship (and ministerial formation) is our sheer lack of intentionality: those of us who have some measure of responsibility should be asking what we are trying to achieve, and then thinking about how that can best be done, not setting up schemes and groups and hoping that somehow they will accomplish something useful. (I realise it is not that clear-cut, but…)

  5. Mark L
    Jul 7, 2009

    Thanks Steve again – agree with your reply, and can see there is genuine benefit (as well as “safety”) in seeking direction outside the local congregation, and outside of the tradition that is most familiar too. That said, as a Pastor, I have a nagging question – if I’m not here to deal with this kind of stuff, what am I here for? But maybe that’s another conversation…

  6. Steve H
    Jul 7, 2009

    Well, in one tradition, your task is to be the ‘minister of word and sacrament’; in another to ‘lead’ the church, whatever that means. In the tradition you work in, I guess I would take it as your task to ensure that proper pastoral care (which necessarily includes spiritual direction) happens, but not to deliver it all, just as it is your task to ensure the church is always about its business of mission/evangelisation, but you’re not expected to do all of it…

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