“Spiritual friendship” is a term for a type of listening prayer, pursued in small groups of people. It is closely related to Christian spiritual direction. If those sentences don’t make much sense to you, I wrote this article for you to read first! It will give you at least some context to make sense of this.
This cheat sheet gives you a basic format, and a few simple ideas and questions, to help you get started as a listener or director in a spiritual friendship group.
The practices of spiritual friendship and spiritual direction are easy to learn, but impossible to master. What I’m offering here isn’t a magical formula or required liturgy, but a basic format to help get you going.
Growing as a facilitator or director involves drawing closer to God in your own life, and receiving good things from God so that you have more to share. Don’t worry, you’ll never run out of opportunities to grow. My personal recommendation, if you’re interested in starting to read about spiritual direction and spiritual friendship, is Margaret Guenther’s book, Holy Listening.
Here’s a Basic meeting format
Three or four people meet in a quiet, private place.
The group is facilitated by someone who has some training and experience with spiritual direction.
The facilitator extends hospitality, maybe with a cup of tea or coffee.
I. Check in
After everyone has arrived and had a chance to relax, everyone checks in a bit.
The basic question is very simple and open, like “How’s life?”
Each person takes a turn describing what is going on for 2 to 5 minutes or so.
Everyone takes a little time to pray silently, settling their thoughts and trying to listen to God.
If the group hasn’t decided who will receive direction before the meeting, now they decide on who the listeners, or directors, will spend the next hour listening to.
II. Remember why you’re meeting
Especially if the group is relatively new to spiritual friendship, the facilitator will remind everyone of the group’s basic hopes, ground rules and practices.
We are here for the person we are listening to, the directee.
Our job as listeners isn’t to direct their lives, but to help them direct their attention to God, and how God relates to the details of life for them now.
Everything is private, unless legal issues are involved.
We aren’t here to give advice, but to listen, describe, and pray.
We don’t explore anything without the directee’s permission.
We give the directee space and our gentle attention, including plenty of room for silence.
We can ask generous, open-ended questions that help the directee notice and describe what is going on, spiritually and practically.
We can describe what we’ve heard them say, sometimes synthesizing it and asking them if we have understood them.
We can invite them to pray, if they would like to, while we pray silently alongside them. They can pray or reflect out loud, silently, or however they like.
Toward the end of the time, we might ask the directee for permission to describe something we noticed or experienced, which they might find useful. We might also ask if they’d like us to pray for them in any way. These are generally best saved for the very end of the time, maybe the last 5 to 10 minutes or so, if they are done at all. Those who listened use “I-statements”, framing any feedback in terms of their own impressions or thoughts, rather than “you-statements” that directly characterize the person they listened to. Finally, the person who received the listening chooses how they would like to end the time.
After reviewing the ground rules, pray again, with a simple introductory prayer. For example, “God, please help us deeply pay attention to each other, and to you.”
The directee is silent for as long as they like, while the listeners pray and listen silently.
Even if the directee wants to sit and pray and think silently for the whole hour, that is okay.
Once the directee starts to share, the listeners do what the facilitator described, with the facilitator participating as one of the listeners. They also help the group of listeners understand and live into the ground rules.
At the end of this time, the listeners might ask for permission from the directee to share what they experienced while listening. Usually, they wait until at least the last 15 minutes of the meeting to share this sort of thing.
IV. Schedule or Confirm the Next Meeting
After listening for about an hour, if the group wants to meet again they can schedule or confirm the time of their next meeting, and may also identify who they will listen to so that the person can prepare. Groups can also use this format as one of several meeting formats they can move between. For example, groups might also want to have a more freeform visit at times, or they might want to engage in other kinds of training, like Bible studies.
The group keeps doing this for as long as they all feel invited and called to do it.
V. Here’s Some Bonus Stuff: Great questions
A big part of the job of a director or listener involves asking great questions. The art of asking questions fundamentally involves caring for the person, and asking questions that they will find helpful to explore. If you think you already know the answer to a question, it might be a perfectly good question … but it probably isn’t great.
Here are three great questions that can carry you to wonderful places:
How does that relate to God, for you?
Would you like to describe that event/situation more?
(After the directee has been given an opportunity to pray, out loud or silently, while you pray silently alongside them:) Would you like to describe what just happened?