Listen up: Participants talk about spiritual direction training

Clockwise from left: Robert Knox, Maggie Dechene, Wendy Miller, Coni Ferland, Karen Kelsey, Jana Marie Whitten and Jeanette Hicks. Click the album at right for more photos.

December 11, 2015

“Gateways to God” is training in spiritual direction and formation; it instructs participants in the
'Gateways to God' 
Sept. 12-15, 2016
Jan. 23-26, 2017
May 15-18, 2017
Sept. 18-21
Jan. 19-22, 2018
April 6-9, 2018


Retreats are at Rolling Ridge in North Andover, MA.

Applications are due by July 6, 2016 with $100 deposit.


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art of spiritual direction both for individuals and congregations. A new two-year program will begin in September 2016.

We talked to some of those who participated in the most recent “Gateways to God” about why they had undertaken the training and what they’ve learned. Listening to participants you hear a lot about listening.

In fact, that is one way that “Gateways to God” leader Rev. Wendy Miller defines spiritual direction.

“It’s learning how to be fully present no matter where a person is,” said Rev. Miller.

She talked about looking for some material she’d put together on the story of Blind Bartimaeus (Mark 10:46-52), a story, she said, that is “all about learning to listen as Jesus listens.”

“The thing that eluded me was that Jesus stood still,” Rev. Miller said.

In the story, Jesus is with a crowd when “this homeless street person” starts yelling; no one is listening to him and the crowd is trying “to shut him up, render him invisible, with no voice,” she said. “But Jesus hears, and He stands still – He’s the only person that stops.”

“Wherever we are in conversation,” she said, “we need to stand still and be there.”

Coni Ferland, a member of Barrington UMC in Rhode Island said, “It’s taught me to listen differently – even with my family. I am hearing differently now; I’m more compassionate. (Compassion is) always something felt I had, but it’s strengthen that. I understand people a little differently than I did before.”

Rev. Gary Shaw, pastor at Carter Memorial UMC in Needham, MA said, “’Gateways to God’ has made me a better spiritual listener in my visitations as a pastor, as a supervisor with interns in the Boston Theological Institute and as a spiritual director. It has revived my preaching and sense of worship, (probably because it has rekindled my love for Jesus) and my attention to God in the everyday …” Read Rev. Shaw’s comments in full

Rev. Jeanette Hicks, who most recently served East Parish UMC in Salisbury, MA, had this to say: “One thing that I do before writing a sermon, anyway, is I will often go out in the pews where particular people sit and just kind of sit. But through this journey, I hear so much more when I sit there. And I really feel, I think, I’m learning to listen more for maybe what that individual needs.

“It’s a practice I’ve done for a long time, but this experience has really enhanced my ability to be attuned more. Even though I never tell anybody ‘this sermon was for you’ or ‘I was focused on you’ – I know people have felt a connection, and that’s been very affirming ... It’s helped me feel more connected spiritually to my congregation; the distance between the pulpit and the pew has grown narrower I would say.”

Robert Knox is a full-time engineer who said he felt a call to ministry years ago. In talking to his pastor, he learned about spiritual direction. Knox said he’s used some of what he’s learned in his relationships with coworkers as well as in his healing ministry.

“The theme of presence is a big one,” he said. “Years ago, I was introduced to Brother Lawrence (“The Practice of the Presence of God”), so that’s definitely a theme. I also do a healing ministry, and it’s helped me even more tune into people as I’m sitting with them.”

Maggie Dechene is a member of Main Street UMC in Nashua, NH. She talked about listening to God’s call to spiritual direction, and how that has led her to listen to others.

“I left teaching a few years ago, and I was feeling kind of lost. And so would pray to God – actually, it was the day I was let go – I put up my hands and said ‘I am in your hands; you show me what you want me to do, I will do it. I’m putting my faith in you.’

Dechene said she didn’t hear an answer right away, and asked God to “hit her with a frying pan” so she’d get the message.
“One day, I was cleaning the house and He spoke to me. I’d never heard His voice before and He said: ‘Spiritual Adviser.’ I stopped dead. That was the frying pan,” she said.
Speaking to her pastor, Dechene learned about spiritual direction, and started “Gateways to God.”

Since then she has taken over coordinating the food pantry at her church, which distributes 100 bags of food each week. The pantry also includes a place for folks to enjoy free coffee. Now that there are enough volunteers to handle the food distribution, Dechene spends her time listening to the members of what she calls the coffee klatch, many of whom are homeless.

“I sit with those people,” she said, “and get to know them and hear their stories. That’s where I feel like my ministry is going, to those people.”
Rev. Miller also talked about the side of the conversation, the storytelling.

“I have learned as I listen, study, read and analyze what’s going on in the world that’s so fast-changing that persons are much more influenced by story than they are by logical analysis,” she said. ”And so sermons that become story gather people into the experience.”

“Then I stumbled into uncovering – which I never learned in seminary until much, much later – that the Hebrew Scriptures and Greek Scriptures in the New Testament were designed to pull the listener or the reader into the story itself,” Rev. Miller said. “And I thought, ‘Bingo. Here it is.’ This is spiritual direction: You encounter God within and behind the story, and it’s powerful.” 

About Wendy Miller 

Wendy Miller's book Come with Me: Daily Living with a New Monastic Rule of Life (April 2015) reflects on the United Methodist membership vows of prayer, presence, gifts, service and witness in order to discern what God is cultivating in our lives and neighborhoods. Other books include: Learning to Listen: A Guide for Spiritual FriendsInvitation to Presence, and Jesus, Our Spiritual Director.

She is Professor Emeritus of Spiritual Formation at Eastern Mennonite Seminary in Virginia. In addition to her seminary degree, Rev. Miller holds a post graduate degree in spiritual theology and spiritual direction from General Theological Seminary. She guides several training programs in spiritual direction around the U.S. and in Canada.