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Articles & Essays

The Thing(s) About Coaching and Spiritual Direction

By November 8, 2023No Comments

Before you read on, you should know something about me:

I have a Spiritual director.

And, before you read on even further, you should know something else that’s true:

Many people have been helped by the work of Spiritual Directors and coaches (life, executive, or otherwise.)

Significant pause.

Now that you know these, let me say that the past years have troubled me regarding the proliferation of coaches in one world and Spiritual direction in another. At first, I figured I was troubled only because they seemed to be taking business away from me at a time when I really could have used the income. And, to top it off, they seemed to be doing things that I’d spent years in taking prereqs, grad school, and in post-doctorate licensing learning how to do for, at times, a lot more money– a rate that still gobsmacks me when I think of it in comparison to my own already high fee. But after having given it some significant thought and comparing it to the scope and depth of work I’ve been doing for a few years now, I have some things to say– in the voice of protests against the “complex” to which I belong.

What follows is a PSA for those who might want to know. It’s admittedly a departure from my usual fare, but for years I’ve been meaning to weigh in on the hullabaloo that regularly intersects with the work I do. Many is the client who has asked me about whether they should also find a life coach or Spiritual director (usually with 5 minutes to go in the session.) As I usually wrinkle my nose and blurt out a less well-thought out response than I’d like in those conditions, let me now write what I really think, in the kind of detail this topic deserves.

So, here goes.

1) “Who says the qualification process for a psychologist protects the public? We’re all doing the same things anyway…”

I did not love the initial registration (what we call licensing in Canada) process. It was really really really hard. To wit: once you’ve finished your doctorate from a relatively selective American Psychological or Canadian Psychological Association-accredited institution (all of whom have fairly rigid criteria for training that is scrutinized every few years during re-accreditation processes), you then are asked to fill out an approximately 50-page application for registration form that includes your CV, essays, criminal checks (both RCMP and FBI if you’ve been trained in the States, the latter of which also requires fingerprinting) and descriptions of all psychology courses you’ve taken since undergrad. In addition, if you’re crossing the border between the US and Canada (such as I did), you need to write another letter/fill out another schedule that details the worthiness of your pre-doc internship and training that will allow you to be registered in that province. In addition, all transcripts from all post-secondary institutions need to be submitted. Then, after your application (with application fees, of course) has been accepted, you will officially be “allowed” to take the Examination for Professional Practice in Psychology, or the EPPP. The EPPP is a 225-item very un-straightforward exam of approximately 4 hours that covers everything in psychology, including things you learn and never touch again in private psychotherapeutic practice like post-hoc tests (statistics) and industrial/organizational psychology (e.g., did you know that the Japanese concept kaizen is one of “continual improvement?” I didn’t! But now I do.)

The EPPP took me about 6 months to study for while I was working part-time at a lower level of qualification (as a Registered Clinical Counsellor, which is generally a Masters-level qualification.) It’s the kind of exam that you take and then think, “you know what? I think I learned more studying for this than I did in grad school.”

Then, when you have passed the EPPP (despite its difficulty, most good schools will have 80% or above of its students passing the EPPP the first time people take it– but then, is that a matter of self-selection of relatively good students doing the studying or the result of the “good school”?), you get to take the jurisprudence exam for your territory. This entails your knowing the applicable statutes and laws governing mental health, family law, educational issues, and patient’s rights in addition to the Code of Conduct for Psychologists in your province. It’s only an hour long/50 items, and not too difficult compared to the EPPP, but you really can’t just blow this one off. You still need to spend a few hours poring over things meant for lawyers to understand.

Then, after passing the jurisprudence exam, you earn the right to have your oral exam, which is you sitting across from 3 registered psychologists who ask you anything they want about the practice of psychology. This, I confess, I failed the first time around as I stumbled on a question about assessment and just couldn’t recover.

The registration process pretty much broke me for its length, intensity, and difficulty.

I mention the registration process when speaking about regulation because that’s how my legal governing body, the College of Psychologists of British Columbia, helps determine competency in the practitioners who would take on the title of “psychologist” in this province. Not everyone can call themselves “psychologist” because not everyone has had the training, education, and experience (the holy trinity of competency!) that psychologists are supposed to have, as shown by the rigorous vetting of candidates to join the guild. It makes me feel fancy when I write that, but it’s the truth. And as time has passed I believe the qualification process has made a difference for me in the way I work. I’m more mindful of the ethics and responsibilities of taking on a certain title, and I’m perhaps able to access a breadth of information I might not have if I didn’t have extra years of training.

Sometimes I feel guilty about my fee. But then, when I write down what it’s taken to get to this point, I feel less so. Dear reader, it was an ordeal for me. My professional time isn’t cheap in part because it was costly, both financially and psychologically (for all the ways the latter word can be interpreted) for me to be trained for the work.

Now that I’m a fully Registered Psychologist, I adhere to the practice guidelines set out for me by the College. It sounds mechanical when I write that down, but most of the psychologists I know speak the same way because we understand why things are set up the way they are– to protect the public. I had a conversation the other day with a client who has had experience with Biblical Counselling (what’s Biblical Counselling, you ask? Another post for another time) and they remarked that I seemed “more systematic” and “deliberate” in my approach. Damn straight I am, because this is what training helps you become.

But coaches and Spiritual directors? Aside from completely voluntary associations, anyone can have any level of training or experience and can call themselves that. Not to mention the title of “counsellor” itself is a largely non-legally-protected term in most places I’m aware of. That means anyone can call themselves a coach, Spiritual director, or counsel(l)or and there’s not a thing you can do about it if you go see one of these for some help and find yourself being harmed in the process of receiving that “help.”

Are some coaches and Spiritual directors helpful? Absolutely, yes! But as a “consumer” (i.e., someone who uses their services), you don’t know anything about their base level of competency as a practitioner. Credentials from voluntary associations don’t count because you don’t have to have any credentials to do the things these people say they’re doing. Do they know what they’re doing or why they’re doing it? Not necessarily, because there isn’t any process that may tell you that other people have looked in on what they’re doing and have externally validated according to research that this is good practice in being helpful. Now, I do know a little about the replication crisis in the sciences, but let’s assume for now that there is more peer-reviewed evidence for the way psychologists try to work than there is for how people with much less training do it. I’m aware that some training programs do have external validation processes for its trainees, but then you need to ask: who watches the watchmen? It’s not that the field of counselling lives without fear of poor supervisors/gatekeepers. But there are mechanisms in place, on pain of legal action, that provide opportunities to have bad actors removed.

As far as I know, there aren’t any such mechanisms in place for bad Spiritual directors or coaches.

2) “Who says psychotherapy/counselling can only be performed by the educated? Priests, pastors, mentors and sages have been doing the same thing for millennia. Training? Education? Experience? Just give me Scripture and/or a (generic) wise person and I’m good.”

To which I say, yes! But as the saying goes, even a broken clock is right two times per day. What is wisdom, and what helps one become wise?

This can lead to a bit of a rabbit hole with respect to the legitimacy of the field of psychology and its applications, but one of the struggles implicit in the italicized sentiment above is one of suspicion of post-Enlightenment scientific method as having actually improved anything related to the human condition. “The old ways are the best ways,” rasp Yoda-like sages as they look askance at the scientist in her lab. “We do not need proof.

But if that’s your argument, you’re also not likely to care if someone projects wisdom rather than actually embodying it. We are all much more susceptible to charm and charisma, even from shrivelled green puppets, than we think ourselves to be. You are more likely to be sucked in by pleasant alliteration and snappy acronyms than you are by a bookish nerd pushing informed consent forms for treatment.

True, there is a clunky element to psychotherapy that bows to the dictates of a litigious capitalistic society. But maybe, just maybe, we’ve learned something in the process of creating and propagating science. Is it all perfect? No, of course not, but that is the very hope of the performance of science: that peers have the freedom to sharpen the work of others. As much as I don’t care for the Academy, in a most positivistic and charitable light, it has for decades tried to help humanity by turning curiosity into knowledge and, in the end, benefit for all.

The problem with coaching and Spiritual Direction for the average consumer is that there can be the appearance of helpfulness without much substance to back it up. True, both coaches and directors can draw on principles from the social sciences, but then, why go with a handful of brackish water when you might drink from something more plentiful and pure?

Debatable, I know, to say that psychotherapy from a trained counsellor is “more plentiful and pure” than otherwise. But my admitting this is a net positive for my point: application of the scientific method opens one to the possibility of being wrong. The very best scientists and clinicians are also the most humble about their work, and most of us are always looking for ways to grow by staying current in the field. As much as I’ve yet to find Continuing Education courses that really spark my imagination and reinvigorate me for my work, I do think they’re valuable in helping me be aware of bad habits I might be forming and in being challenged to “think again” about how I work with people.

It may be that many Spiritual Directors and coaches also have a similar humility when approaching their work, but my guess is that this is largely a characterological humility. That is, people who are careful about what they know and how they know it are people who might continue to look for improvements on what they’re doing. But the cynic in me thinks that if left alone and without external pressures to continue to train or grow, we mostly just end up digging our rut even deeper. Why fix what isn’t broken? Because even if you don’t think it’s broken, it may well be, and it sometimes takes external forces or critiques to help you realize it.

For example, psychoanalytic training absolutely dominated the field of psychotherapy and counselling for decades. It was seen as the only way, and was only open for psychiatrists to be trained in it. However, one of the internal/external forces that led to greater fruitfulness and avoidance of stagnation for the field was the advent of behaviorism, which sought a less arcane and secretive approach to psychological work. Now, I’m not a fan of behaviorism or its therapeutic modalities, but I’ll admit that it has some good stuff that’s actually helpful for symptom relief. But without this wave, followed by humanism, then followed (perhaps) by greater awareness of cultural factors in psychological presentation, there wouldn’t be the kind of careful and sensitive work that is going on all over the place now. Sure, it took years for some of these walls to be torn down, but I’ll posit that a scientist’s approach to honouring data and good analysis were instrumental in change.

Can Spiritual direction or coaching avail themselves of the same? It seems less likely. Spiritual directors are by definition there to help a person listen to the living God, who at times seems to defy scientific method. Coaches are largely responding to the public’s desire to have someone look in on them regularly and to tell them what to do.

3) “Spiritual Directors are speaking truth that the psychologist knows not of.”

Most psychologists I know willingly limit the scope of their practice because they are aware that some aspects of human experience are best left to those who have– what’s that again?– education, training, and experience in working with certain kinds of issues. So, that leaves a great number of people who will be unsatisfied with counselling because it doesn’t address or evoke their spirituality as much as they were hoping. This also leaves them looking for a closer connection to God by way of speaking with someone who, ideally, co-creates conditions for hearing from God.

I’ve had a number of Christian clients stop seeing me because I seem to have disappointed them in my approach. My guess is that I am perhaps asking too many questions about how they came to be who they are and what they are feeling in the moment and not spending enough time asking about or invoking the presence of God for them in their distress. If that’s the case, I’d heartily recommend making a coffee appointment with a pastor to sort through it.

It’s worth saying here that it is my experience that pastors often make good Spiritual directors, but not every pastor should be involved in it. This is because pastors, like all of us, have strengths and weaknesses. Some pastors I know are brilliant preachers, but are pretty weird and awkward when talking with people. Some pastors are the reverse– great when sitting with people over coffee, but dull as dishwater on a Sunday morning. No one person has all the gifts, though it is my belief that one who presumes the title of pastor should have some competency in each of the areas to which they are called.

To be involved in Spiritual direction is to be able to discern well the differences between what we fabricate based on our image of God, who God reveals himself to be, and how we might apprehend the difference. That first thing– our image of God– gets far too little play when it comes to Spiritual direction. As the old quip goes, God made us in his image and we’ve been returning the favour ever since by way of thinking of him in all the ways we’ve been failed by our fellow human beings. For some, he feels like the best iteration of the emotionally-present father we’ve never had. For others, he’s the protector and provider we’ve never had. He’s a lover; he’s a lapdog; he’s a she and she’s a he– or not? He’s everything and everyone we wish we had, except perhaps for God in God’s self.

This is where having theological training might be a really good thing when looking for a Spiritual director. You’d be well-served to sit with someone who would gently call you on your bullshit when you say stuff like “I just feel like my particular enemies are God’s particular enemies, and he’s going to eradicate them all some day.” (Because, isn’t that so convenient? And God is nothing if not convenient.) But someone who’s spent the time and effort to wrestle with these kinds of things is perhaps better able to temper your excitement in God’s wrath being poured out on the people you don’t like because that’s what a good education does for you: it humbles you and keeps you from leaping into what you think you know. That is, it’s what I hope a good education might do for you, because otherwise you’re just another monkey with a piece of paper that tells people you graduated from somewhere.

A Spiritual director may well have an outstanding ability to discern the spirits, but how do you know this? Based on your subjective experience of their wisdom? I’d argue that leaders of successful cults often project wisdom and discernment. How do you know you’re not just being taken hook, line and sinker? On the other hand, could it be that their ability is in part founded in their ability to read and interpret Scripture while holding onto tradition, reason, and experience (yes, the Wesleyan quadrilateral!) on your behalf? Could it be that putting work in to become helpful to others is a helpful thing after all?

To say that a counsellor doesn’t know about any of the tenets of good spiritual discernment may be true, but a counsellor does know a fair amount about holding your history in mind while understanding what is going on for you in the present. No matter how you practice or what theoretical orientation you have, all of us want to know how it is you came to be this way, because it’s more than likely that a key to helping is going to be found in story of your self. Or to put it another way, your clinical history matters because it tells a helper how they might help. Even the most hardened of behaviorists wants to know how it all began because that’s an intervention point for exposure therapy. In this way, you can kind of see that counsellors generally have a deep concern for tradition (by way your your background), reason (by way of education), and experience (by way of what you report.) Tell me, then, how apart from knowledge of Scripture, a good counsellor does not have access to some of what also makes a good Spiritual director?

Scripture is no small thing. But as someone who actually does have theological training and perspectives on the category of “Scripture”, it’s worth mentioning that the myriad ways in which we read and interpret the Bible matter as much, if not more, than the “plain sense” of the text itself. It may be that a Spiritual director could have memorized the entire Second Testament (an admirable feat that some people I know have accomplished), but can they tell you what it means? Or, even more, help you take a balanced view of how to let yourself be located by its immense scope?

It’s not enough for a presumed “teacher” to “know” the Bible by way of its letters and words. If you’re going to put yourself in a position to be an authority– even a “co-sojourner” authority– you absolutely need to know what you might be diving into when you handle Scripture. And that means being opened to different perspectives, being able to weigh them, and then choosing an (ortho-hetero)doxy based on the evidence presented.

I’m aware that chaplains are sometimes called “Spiritual directors” in their places of work. But here’s the thing: if you’re working in a hospital, an airport, or the armed forces, you’ve been vetted at a fairly high level because these “secular” environments know they could get their pants sued off if an unqualified person were to be found working in their midst. All of the chaplains I know have advanced theological degrees, and I’d trust any one of them to be my personal Spiritual director.

All this to say, finding a Spiritual director is a fraught process that needs more than just word-of-mouth to verify the competence of the director. Can they teach Scripture? What qualifies them to teach it? If you can answer these, then you’re on your way to a better evaluation of their worth as your Spiritual director.

4) “I’m a coach/Spiritual director and I know how to pass clients off to a licensed mental health professional once things go beyond my depth.

Well at least there’s that. But what qualifies as “beyond one’s depth?” Is it just the sequelae of abuse, or maybe some fear of harm to self or others?

The vast majority of my clients are not currently struggling with suicidal ideation, but all too many have been abused at one time or another. The former is urgent/emergent, and yes, I have some idea (based on training, education, and experience!) about how to work with it. The latter is usually less emergent/urgent, but given how common abuse is and how much it affects someone’s daily functioning even decades after it happens, I’m a little surprised that there’s a market for life coaches at all.

The trouble with people who only have brief training wanting to help other people is that very often, there isn’t the necessary depth to consider the situation from a number of different angles.

The truth is, I constantly think about my clients. I think about what we discussed, whether I missed something with respect to my ethical responsibilities, and whether the reason for referral is being sufficiently addressed (even though every counsellor I know will tell you that the reason for referral is just that, and should not necessarily be a “counselling goal.”) Every single person I meet with echoes on in my mind, not just because I care, but because I am thinking about how to help by drawing on all the resources I’ve been given. Not that coaches and the like don’t also care and use what they’ve been given in attempts to help, but too much emphasis is put on the experience of the coach to provide good coaching. The problem with this is that you may have a ton of life or job experience, but you may have learned diddly squat from it except to be able to say, “I’ve been through something like that.”

If your well isn’t very deep, you’re not going to be able to draw as much water as you want. If you then refer people that are “out of your depth”… who are you not referring?

I wasn’t sure where to stick a brief side note about the cultural moment of “coaching”, but here it is: for the past decade or so, “coaching” has entered the popular vernacular as a way of accessing aspects of counselling or psychotherapy without necessarily accessing all of it. It’s a term that’s been picked up by the business world (executive coaching!), denominations (church planting coaching!), and been instituted by multitudes of organizations as a way for more experienced employees to help newer hires get accustomed to the work they’re doing. It’s another way of calling yourself a consultant, but maybe with slightly more involvement, and without the stickiness that may come from saying that you’re seeing a counsellor or (*gasp!*) a psychologist.

5) “So now what? How do I choose a coach or Spiritual director (and not a counsellor) if I’m sure that’s what I want?

Well, if that’s what you’re sure you want, here’s a brief list:

  • Be sure that you know what seeking a coach or Spiritual director is for. If you want someone to “cheaply” hold you accountable for certain actions/inactions, then sure. If you want someone to remind you of what the Bible says about things, then go for it. But if you’re looking to tell your life’s story and have someone help you make sense of it, be really really careful.
  • Don’t believe credentials. Coaching and Spiritual direction institutes may not be accredited– and I don’t even know who does the accreditation for this kind of training! (It seems like something they are trying to figure out.) As calling yourself a “coach” or “Spiritual director” is not a legally-protected term, anyone can print out a certificate, put it on their wall, and call it macaroni. Even calling yourself a “counsellor” is not a legally protected term, so if you’re in the market for one of those, look for education and licensure as at least a “Registered Clinical Counsellor” to ensure some level of competence.
  • If you’re looking for a (Christian) Spiritual director, err on the side of someone with a sound education. That means someone who has, hopefully, a Master’s degree from a seminary accredited by the Association of Theological Schools. Oh look! Here’s a list to help you get started. Again, the idea is that you’d like to be with someone who is intellectually curious and committed enough to take the time to study. Oh, and someone who has “decades of experience in ministry” isn’t necessarily an indicator of a good choice. They could have spent those decades repeating the same heresies without anyone to tell them they’re wrong. Experience doesn’t always count!

Whew. This is a lot to digest, and it’s likely to offend/alarm friends who are coaches and Spiritual directors. But if you’re looking for my perspective on occupations that directly intersect with the work I do (but would never claim to do the work I do, and yet sometimes they still do!), here it was. As ever, I hope it raises your critical consciousness and makes you a more informed consumer.

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