Confession, Guidance, Counselling

Most Orthodox clergy appear to believe that they have been, by virtue of ordination alone, endowed with the competencies necessary for hearing Confession, giving Spiritual Direction and offering Pastoral Counselling. This is about as rational as assuming that they have also been endowed with the competencies necessary for medicine and law. Many of us know of cases – ranging from the mildly inappropriate to the unbelievably tragic – in which “the assumption of competence” has resulted in disaster.
The distinctions between hearing Confessions, offering Spiritual Direction (a term – “Direction” – I loathe, and prefer “Spiritual Guidance”) and Pastoral Counselling is not easy to define, so I offer my own simple (simplistic?) definitions. Hearing Confession is essentially that – although in Orthodox Tradition, it is radically different from the Western model. It is intended to be a “Spiritual Conversation”, not merely the hearing of a recitation of sins (“I lied three times, felt lust twice, and stole once…”). It is intended to be more of a part of Spiritual Guidance, which is why it is preferable that a person retains the same Confessor. What is generally known as “Spiritual Direction” is ongoing advice regarding the leading of the Orthodox spiritual life. Therefore, an individual really needs to retain the same “Director” (remember: a term that I loathe and think is completely wrong!), who should, ideally, also be that person’s Confessor. Pastoral Counselling is very much like Counselling or Psychotherapy more generally, except that it is based in Orthodox Spirituality: it addresses specific issues or crises in the individual’s life, whether immediate or ongoing. Ideally, the same person would serve as Confessor, Spiritual Director and Pastoral Counsellor, but there are circumstances in which a separation can be helpful, or even necessary.
spiritual direction
In my view, those who work in these fields require a good basic knowledge of a range of theories and practices in counselling and psychotherapy; a sound knowledge of Patristic psychology and Orthodox psychotherapy; a sound knowledge of Orthodox ascetical theology and practice; a high level of personal insight (for example, to distinguish between “my opinion”, what is in the interests of the individual, and what is the teaching and practice of the Church); and a stable spiritual life. To which should be added a good basic knowledge of appropriate agencies to which individuals may need to be referred (for example, for drug and/or alcohol counselling) and a high level of skills in making such referrals. And then a good working knowledge of the Orthodox Canons and their application (for example, in cases of marriage and divorce). To which must be added the highest understanding and commitment to sound ethical, Canonical and spiritual practice (for example, not creating or allowing dependence, or engaging in coercion or manipulation, or breaching confidentiality) and an established reputation for unconditionally upholding such standards of practice.
spiritual direction early church
As more people outside Orthodoxy seek to find appropriate spiritual guidance and counselling, so more professional bodies are being established to offer guidance and define standards: for example, Spiritual Directors International – or The Australian Network for Spiritual Direction – or (somewhat surprisingly) The Evangelical Spiritual Directors’ Association – It is possible to undertake professional qualifications in the field: for example the Graduate Diploma in Spiritual Direction offered in Australia –
Unfortunately, within Orthodoxy standards tend to be less than optimal, although some Churches have sought or are seeking to remedy this. The Antiochian Orthodox Church publishes a good guide, “The Spiritual Director: A Guide and Mentor”: Another useful resource is which includes a bibliography and further links. An excellent, and very substantial resource (intended for a course on “Models of Spiritual Direction, Ancient and Modern”) is

Whenever we intrude into the life of another – let alone into that person’s spiritual life – whether as social worker, counsellor, psychotherapist, mediator, Priest or judge (and I have played all of those roles) – we should do so with “fear and trembling” and a great sense of our personal inadequacy and responsibility. We have, alas, as much power to harm as we do to heal.


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