What is a Spiritual Teacher?
Many people wonder what the role of a spiritual teacher might be in their lives. They ask: “Aren’t there enough books, audio recordings, DVDs, and other resources available for purchase?” That’s a good question. Since we also offer such resources, I suppose that Craig doesn’t believe that particular field is not yet saturated. Beyond that, however, a spiritual teacher offers us the opportunity to access the kind of one on one help that we all need along our spiritual journey.
Many people will say, “I have a pastor or a preacher. They are my teacher.” That’s very true. But your pastor or preacher has a flock of several people, many more than they could effectively deal with on a one on one basis. What’s more, while we often are not reluctant to go to our pastor when we are in crisis, people tend to be reluctant to approach their clergy with deep spiritual questions – especially those involving doubt, or questions of belief. We tend to have a certain “image” in our worship communities, and may not want to reveal what are natural parts of the journey but which we feel will harm our image in our worshiping communities. A spiritual teacher offers us the advantage of having a great deal of personal formation, including education and experience in the spiritual life, while also being able to offer a non-judgmental perspective outside our worshiping community. In other words, we can go to our teacher without worrying that doing so will harm our image in our home communities.
Another advantage of a spiritual teacher is that, unlike most pastors and preachers, is that a spiritual teacher is not limited to one particular spiritual perspective. While a respectful teacher will never lead you where you do not wish to go, the advantages of a broader perspective in addressing life’s spiritual challenges are many.
Isn’t This a New Concept?
The idea of spiritual teachers goes back thousands of years and is present in virtually every spiritual tradition, including Christianity. Historically you will find what we today call a spiritual teacher known my many names: Confessor, Spiritual Director, Spiritual Guide, Guru, Sage, Anchorite, and a host of others. Across times and traditions the names have changed, but the idea of those who have walked the spiritual journey for some time making themselves available to others on the path is quite ancient.
There are, of course, good and bad spiritual teachers. Here are some suggestions in evaluating a teacher:
They should have a teacher themselves, and be willing to allow you to contact that person and verify their relationship.
They should have an amount of formal training in spirituality and in functioning as a teacher and guide, and should be willing to openly discuss their training with you.
They should be willing to provide you an overview of their spiritual qualifications.
They should respect your views and be a good listener.
They should disclose any fees with you openly.
There should be absolute confidentiality, beyond any responsibilities with teachers that are mandatory reporters. Your teacher should discuss confidentiality with you.
They should avoid anything resembling psychotherapy with you, this is not properly the focus of spiritual teaching or guidance, although suggestions about prayer and spiritual practice is part of a spiritual teacher’s area of expertise.
It is never appropriate to be sexual with a spiritual teacher.
Of course, this is a minimal list. You should be sure that you are comfortable working with your spiritual teacher or guide – this is perhaps the most important qualification. Periodically, you should review how you are feeling about your student-teacher relationship and evaluate whether or not you wish to continue with the same teacher. Most people have several different teachers in their life – some retire or pass away, others take a person as far as they can and then the student moves on to another teacher, people move to a new city, there are many reasons and all of them are just fine!