Spiritual direction and counseling (or therapy) have many similarities. Both begin with desire and discontent; both encourage hope and insight; both value awareness and mindfulness; both impact choices. Spiritual directors and counselors both listen deeply to people's life stories, and hold these stories in confidence. With the understanding that there may not always be a clear distinction, the differences are in focus and function:
- The focus of counseling is usually on a problem, a stuck place or our limitations, and it functions in service to greater personal effectiveness.
- The focus of spiritual direction is on God as the integral core of your being and purpose, and its function is to help you become more attuned to God's Spirit in your spirit so that you can more freely live out of Divine Love.
Counseling or therapy usually begins with an assessment (or diagnosis, if health insurance is being used) of what the problem is then proceeds with the intention of helping that person make a change to resolve the presenting problem. Spirituality can be included in counseling but it is not the primary focus; it is generally entered into cautiously, and is thought of as a tool, or a means to an end. The counseling relationship is a contractual relationship between the individual and the therapist and, at least initially, they tend to meet weekly or biweekly.
Although a "problem" may bring a person into Spiritual Direction, spiritual direction does not focus on solving a problem; there is no assessment or diagnosing. There is likely to be a change in attitude, motivation or behavior as a result of spiritual direction, but that is not the agenda. The "agenda" is to foster a relationship with the Holy, and to engage more deeply and intentionally with one's inner life. Most spiritual directors do not draw a distinction between the sacred and the secular, so talking about the mystery & meaning of life, as well as the mundane and ordinary is expected in spiritual direction. Spiritual direction sessions are usually monthly and they typically begin with a pause to acknowledge and enter more fully into the Presence of the Divine. The primary relationship in spiritual direction is between the individual and God; the director is secondary and often thought of as a conduit for Spirit; the relationship between the director and the directee is in the form of a pledge or covenant rather than a contract.