Spiritual advising can fill a basic human need. Connection and spiritual guidance are essential for continuing along a spiritual journey.
Josephine Robertson is an ordained Episcopal priest who offers spiritual direction to clients. She says we’ve always searched for connection and spiritual guidance from wise elders. While this desire hasn’t left us, this type of intimate relationship often has. “We don’t necessarily have an older, wiser person in the community who would sit with younger folks and offer wisdom when they need it. We’re so mobile and separate from older generations that we’re related to.”
What Is a Spiritual Advisor?
A quick Internet search will reveal everything from psychics and tarot readers to people who hold positions at universities. Kyle Kaplan, a Buddhist spiritual advisor at Northeastern University, explains that he has an official job title with specific responsibilities distinct to a university setting.
Kaplan says that a spiritual advisor can be defined as “someone who speaks to your soul and guides you to lead an ethical life, nurturing the deepest parts of you, and someone who facilitates the process of questioning the deeper structures of meaning.” A friend, he says, could easily fulfill this need for spiritual advising.
Robertson has a different perspective, saying her clients seek spiritual direction and pay for these sessions because they are looking to be understood by a nonjudgmental person without the drama of a friendship. “There are no expectations and you come and bring whatever you have that day.” Unlike other types of relationships, she says, “It isn’t reciprocal. I don’t need anything from my directees. … This is for folks who are exhausted from taking care of their kids and their aging parents. They can come here to be taken care of.”
According to Kelly Wendorf, a founding partner at leadership development organization EQUUS, author of Flying Lead Change-56 Million Years of Wisdom for Leading and Living, and spiritual mentor, it’s important to differentiate between an advisor, which “implies giving advice and a little bit of teaching, and a spiritual mentor ... who holds space for a person’s innate wisdom and spiritual unfoldment to happen. The question is what are you looking for? Are you looking for someone to give you advice and teachings and suggestions or are you looking for someone who is going to hand you a flashlight and walk alongside of you with unconditional positive regard? Do you want to be directed, or held and listened to? They are two different processes.”
Episcopal priest, Robertson uses the term spiritual director and spiritual advisor interchangeably. She says both involve “someone who is listening to what’s happening to you, listening where God’s call is in whatever tradition you’re a part of. I know Spiritual Directors who are Jewish, Christian, Buddhist. As human beings there is work for us to be doing internally. And so, for anyone who has that desire to help someone grow their spiritual practice, deepen their spirituality, and looking to help discern where they should be going and what they should be doing is in the realm of spiritual director or advisor.”
There may be different ways to describe spiritual advisor, but as S&H contributing editor Rabbi Rami Shapiro says, “Regardless of the term one prefers, a spiritual advisor is someone who helps you identify and erase the delusions that prevent you from seeing your interconnectedness with all beings in the greater nondual reality ‘in whom we live and move and have our being’ (Acts 17:28).”
Finding a Spiritual Advisor
Hiring a spiritual advisor can be challenging since there are no certifications or governing bodies that can hold spiritual advisors accountable. That said, you can search for organizations that license spiritual directors. Robertson says, “Most of them fall within a religious tradition. Most spiritual directors go through some kind of training.”
But Kaplan says education may be less important than someone who has experience. “I don’t think a person needs a degree from a fancy divinity school. What they need to have realized on a personal level are the things they are talking about with the other person. I think it’s actually dangerous to have an advisor who reads a lot but has not experienced a lot.”
This is why Wendorf suggests that “speaking with friends and colleagues who may know someone is very important. If they have a public profile really listen to what their clients are saying about them and trust your gut if something doesn’t feel right to you and move on.” When interviewing possible candidates, Wendorf recommends asking about some of their professional and personal mistakes and what they learned from that. “Are they humble? Are they accountable? Are they responsible? Do they take ownership? These are important attributes. Have they learned from their mistakes?”
Another tip is to start local. Kaplan says, “There’s a degree of intuition when we’re in someone’s presence. For me, a spiritual journey should happen in tangible terms. Even in COVID times, I would recommend staying local. The advantage is once the pandemic ends, they already have a relationship in place that will deepen in physical presence.” He suggests researching online for organizations in your area. Robertson and Shapiro recommend Spiritual Directors International (SDI), which has an online directory.
Shapiro says to make sure to ask these three questions to any advisor before committing yourself to them: “1) What is your goal as a spiritual advisor?, 2) What is your daily spiritual practice, and why do you do it?, and 3) Do you have a spiritual advisor with whom you work regularly?”
In general, Wendorf says, “A good spiritual mentor should inform all aspects of your life. It’s really about being the best human we can be.”
Red Flags to Look for When Seeking a Spiritual Advisor
Individuals under the cloak of spiritual advisor or mentor could be dangerous personality types like narcissists who can harm rather than help. To protect yourself, go slowly and do your homework.
Robertson says, “The key thing I look out for and avoid are anyone where they want to show you the truth and they have something to sell, essentially. They want you to get saved. They want you to follow a certain way of their religious teaching instead of listening to you. They already have in their heads, ‘This is the way you’re going to get things done.’ Anyone who calls themselves a guru, I would run the other way.”
Shapiro echoes the sentiment, “As for things to be on the lookout for and warning signs, I think the major one is ego. Beware of any spiritual director (whatever term they use) who is trying to sell you something: peace, serenity, enlightenment, career success, etc. If the director is all about their ego—run! If the director is all about your ego—run! If the director is all about moving beyond ego—theirs and yours—learn more.”
Read more about taking a spiritual approach to healing: “When God Goes to Therapy”