Fold your hands; close your eyes; bow your head. This is how many Lutherans were taught to pray. As adults, people often yearn for a deeper connection with God and a more meaningful prayer life.
One way to deepen faith is through spiritual direction, a tradition of strengthening and encouraging one another to have a more personal relationship with Jesus. In this practice, people meet one-on-one with spiritual directors to discuss how God is working in their lives.
The Nebraska Synod has embraced spiritual direction and made it one of its ministries. Its Seeking the Spirit Within Institute is one of the first synod-based programs to train spiritual directors.
Celebrating its 10th anniversary, the institute has certified 60 rostered ministers and laypeople, with 13 in its current class. It’s open to all denominations.
“One of the big gifts of spiritual direction is the slowing down and making space so the Spirit can work on helping us make decisions and not be so rushed,” said Nebraska Synod Bishop Brian Maas, who goes to a spiritual director and requires his staff to do the same. The process is gaining popularity and making a difference on the synod level and in congregations, he added.
“More and more people are becoming aware of the concept and taking advantage of it. There’s a need for spiritual depth,” he said. “Any time we have one member of the congregation in spiritual direction, it affects the whole congregation.”
“One of the big gifts of spiritual direction is the slowing down and making space so the Spirit can work on helping us make decisions and not be so rushed.”
Brad Meyer, pastor of Rejoice! Lutheran Church in Omaha, Neb., was among the first group of spiritual directors to graduate from the program. He now works with four directees—two pastors and two laypeople—who meet with him for about an hour per month.
“Throughout this process of spiritual direction, you’re exposed to more types of prayer,” he said. “Sometimes it’s just being quiet and in God’s presence and being present to God.”
Other times, prayer can include coloring mandalas, using beads, meditating over a piece of Scripture, walking a labyrinth or repeating a name or phrase.
While in the spiritual direction program, Meyer said he discerned a call to return to the parish after serving in outdoor ministry.
Moved by the Spirit
Seeking the Spirit Within is directed by Connie Stover, a member of First Lutheran Church in Kearney, Neb. She said the two-year program, which includes both online and in-person courses, is successful because it’s Spirit-led.
“The fact that it even came to be is because we strive to follow the Holy Spirit guiding us in whatever we do,” Stover said. “It’s about paying attention to God. God is always present and available and we’re often not available to God. Prayer is a way for us to intentionally become quiet and centered and spend time with God.”
Shirley Knight, a legal assistant and member of Luther Memorial Lutheran Church in Omaha, became a certified spiritual director in 2012. She meets with individuals and facilitates faith formation groups at her church.
Knight was encouraged by her pastor, Carmala Aderman, to enroll in the institute to deepen her prayer life. “I had lost my mom, a sister and a dad, and [spiritual direction is] how my faith really deepened and how I came to rely on God,” she said.
Finding the type of prayer that resonates with someone helps them feel connected to God, Knight said, adding, “Stuff will bubble up. Pieces that need to be transformed and healed get exposed.”
Knight often hears directees say their prayers led them to questions and answers. “We discuss it together,” she said. “This is what drives our spiritual direction sessions—we walk on their journey together.”
Kathy Miller, a member of Faith Lutheran Church in Seward, Neb., and a sociology teacher at Concordia University, is a 2014 graduate of the institute. As a spiritual director, one of the questions she starts with is: “Where is God at in your life?”
“That question is the focal point and the starting point,” Miller said. “Some people may journal or have things written down over the month to discuss, but what a spiritual director is supposed to do is listen to what God is saying.”
Spiritual directors usually charge a nominal fee. Meyer charges $30 per session, which he usually uses to buy books on spiritual direction or donates to a food pantry. When something is paid for, it’s usually taken more seriously, he said.
“Going through this program has made me a better pastor of the people I’ve served,” he added.
In general, Maas said spiritual directors have made a difference in the synod’s spiritual culture: “They start bringing things like making prayer part of the decision-making process in churches. Those kinds of things all have an impact on how people live out their faith.”