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Listening for the Soul: Pastoral Care and Spiritual Direction

By Jean Stairs
Fortress. 2000. 213 pp. Pb. $20.
ISBN 0-8006-3239-7

Reviewed by William V. Arnold, Bryn Mawr, Pa.

In clear language, with no appeals to academic jargon, Jean Stairs undertakes a balancing act that brings pastoral care and spiritual direction into collaboration with each other. She wisely makes no attempt to have one discipline subsume the other. Rather, she recognizes and describes the gifts of each and the need of each for the perspective of the other.

Perhaps most important, she does this with a clear eye for the needs of the congregation, rather than fussing with fine distinctions that are of interest only to the more tedious among us. Her aim is to have both pastoral care and spiritual direction strengthening and undergirding the life of a congregation without competition or confusion.

In seven readable chapters she first offers useful and clear definitions of spiritual direction and pastoral care, followed by a valuable exploration of the need for intentional incorporation of the contemplative dimension into our lives. Chapter 3 then uses the theme of death and resurrection to describe the rhythm of the soul, to which we need to attend. Chapter 4 then offers descriptions of a number of spiritual practices, followed by a chapter on the importance of the “companion” dimension in both pastoral care and spiritual direction. Chapter 6 is one of the most helpful approaches to the nurture and inclusion of children in the community of faith that I have seen. The final chapter again addresses the differences and complementarity found in pastoral care and spiritual direction.

Each chapter concludes with reflection questions, spiritual exercises and other suggestions for personal “inquiry.” The author has an obvious understanding of the workings of a congregation and of the pastoral issues that face all of us.

That insight, combined with theological sensitivity, offers the reader an opportunity to identify and reflect helpfully on areas of congregational life that may deserve strengthening. Then, she offers concrete suggestions for responding. Further, she demonstrates the substance to be found in spiritual direction and the critical questions it can pose for us as we seek to be faithful pastoral practitioners, whether we happen to be ministers or lay people.

The author is a minister in the United Church of Canada, an associate professor of the practice of ministry and field education and chair of theological studies at Queens Theological College.