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Introduction, Workshop 4: Spiritual Partnerships

In "Spirit in Practice," a Tapestry of Faith program

Listening is a creative force. Something quite wonderful occurs when we are listened to fully. We expand, ideas come to life and grow, we remember who we are. Some speak of this force as a creative fountain within us that springs forth; others call it the inner spirit, intelligence, true self. Whatever this force is called, it shrivels up when we are not listened to and it thrives when we are.

—Kay Lindahl

In the majority of the world's religious traditions, spiritual aspirants seek out a teacher, a guru, a master, a guide—someone who has already traversed the spiritual terrain and who can, because of his/her own experiences, help another make the journey. In the West, the most common term for such a person is "spiritual director."

Unitarian Universalists who are not familiar with the rich history of spiritual guides or directors, or who have negative associations with the term, may not be immediately drawn to the concept.

Yet a number of Unitarian Universalists are seeking spiritual directors, and a Unitarian Universalist Spiritual Directors' Network has come into being. This workshop helps dispel common misconceptions about spiritual direction and introduces participants to the role it can play in Unitarian Universalist spiritual growth.

As practiced today, spiritual direction is helps people listen to the inner voice, the inner wisdom, the "inner director" that we all have within us. Directors, then, are not spiritual geniuses who lead the unenlightened, but sensitive companions who know something of the journey and can helpfully guide others by pointing out some of the signs and markers, the flora and the fauna, that might otherwise go unseen or unexamined. The term "spiritual director" may then be misleading, because you direct yourself more than your spiritual director directs you. Other terms to describe this relationship include "spiritual companion" and "soul friend." These terms might be more useful in the context of this workshop, because the goal is to explore an emerging model of spiritual friendship, one that draws on the example of the peer counseling movement.

Peer counseling, which has been around since at least the mid-1960s, is most commonly found in high schools and colleges. Students trained primarily in listening skills offer counseling to their peers. Boundaries are clearly established, and giving advice is discouraged. Yet simply being deeply listened to by someone who knows what it's like to be at your stage of life can be extremely powerful. Decades of experience have proven one of the foundational premises of the peer counseling movement: a great many people have a great many problems that do not require the advanced training and expertise of mental health professionals.

There can be therapeutic benefits in nonprofessional relationships that are built with something approximating professional boundaries. The relationship is clearly defined, each person can have clear expectations of the other, and the relationship as a whole has a focus and an intent.

This workshop does not train participants to be spiritual friends. It does open participants to the possibility of finding a spiritual partnership to deepen their spiritual journeys. and provides an experience of spiritual reflection, sharing, and listening that approximates the kind of discussions they might have with spiritual friends.

An alternate activity in the workshop discusses what a spiritual peer program might look like in your congregation. It could be as simple and informal as one parishioner getting together with another on a regular basis to discuss the demands and discoveries of their spiritual lives. This could be an open, mutual conversation, or each person could take turns listening and talking.

If a more formal network were to be created, once or twice a year the congregation could offer a workshop/training on both the intent of spiritual friendship and the necessary skills of active listening, boundary setting, focusing questions, and the like. People interested in the program could sign up and either pair themselves with someone else or be paired by the minister or lay leader who oversees the program. Each pair would establish their own expectations of when to meet, for how long, and how often, and whether their relationship will be for a set period of time or open ended. Then, periodically throughout the year, the person who is overseeing the program would check in with each pair of friends to see how the program is going.

This is new territory, but very exciting and in keeping with our Unitarian Universalist emphasis on shared ministry. A midway point between personal spiritual practices and communal worship experiences, spiritual friendship can be a powerful way to help keep a person "on track" with his/her journey.

For more information contact web @ uua.org.

This work is made possible by the generosity of individual donors and congregations. Please consider making a donation today.

Last updated on Thursday, October 27, 2011.

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