Milestones: The Center for Religious Development (1971 – 2009)

January 28, 2015


In an attempt to document the history of our field, we begin the Together in the Mystery history blog with a series of posts on developments in supervision training for spiritual directors between 1971 and the present.  Though writing an exhaustive history is beyond the current scope of our efforts, that may come in time.  For now, we begin by featuring what seem to us to be milestones – in more or less chronological order.

We assume from the outset that we will miss some important developments.  Should you have a piece of the puzzle that would give us a fuller picture, we would so appreciate it if you could email us and let us know:

Let us turn now to the work of our guest blogger and collaborator, Together in the Mystery Alumnus Paul Burgmayer, who has written today about the Center for Religious Development…


 Milestones in the History of Supervision for Spiritual Directors

The Center for Religious Development, Cambridge MA (1971 – 2009)

If there was a single place where supervision of spiritual direction as we know it today began, it would be the Center for Religious Development (CRD) in Cambridge, Massachusetts.   William Barry, William Connolly, Robert Doherty, Daniel Lusch, Joseph McCormick, and Joseph McFarlane, all Jesuit priests, started the center in the fall of 1971.

They were a diverse group.  While each[1] brought a particular gift to the Center, Barry describes Lusch and himself as those most focused on the development of supervision for spiritual directors.  Barry was a practicing clinical psychologist.  Lusch came with a background as a supervisor in Clinical Pastoral Education, a form of supervision for chaplains. Barry explained[2] that earlier in the 20th century a movement[3] arose in Protestant faith traditions for a formal Clinical Pastoral Education program.  Within the movement, the Association of Pastoral Counselors introducing supervision based on the models developed in psychology and psychiatry.


Barry writes[4], “in the model we developed (for spiritual direction supervision), we did not focus on transference and countertransference, but referred to it and how it showed itself and advised on how to handle it. The most important factor we stressed was that supervision focused on the experience of the director while doing spiritual direction. In other words, we did supervision on an analogy with how we conceived spiritual direction. In spiritual direction the director tried to focus the conversation on the experience of the directee when he or she was trying to be or was in contact with God, was engaging in the relationship with God.”


Barry stated the CRD’s goals as threefold: 1) to do writing and study on spiritual direction in the Ignatian tradition, 2) to train spiritual directors in a 9-month program they called their Associates’ Program, and 3) to offer spiritual direction to those in the area. He wrote, “In the first year we only did the first and third, but in the following year we began the training part with something like six or so associates in training. In the years that followed we increased the number of associates to between 10 and 12 each year and also began a joint degree program with Weston Jesuit School of Theology.


Barry described the Associates program as having rigorous prerequisites with candidates requiring some form of theological education, having completed had a unit of Clinical Pastoral Education, and already engaged in doing spiritual direction.  As he described it, “We wanted… people whom others had already sought out for spiritual direction.”  The requirement for some form of Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) experience such as a hospital chaplaincy is one striking feature of the application process.  In the book, Witnessing to the Fire, Madeline Birmingham and William Connolly note[5] that many Associates had completed this CPE experience just a few weeks before arriving at the center.


Despite the rigorous prerequisites and demanding schedule, Connolly states in an oral history[6] recorded for the New England Jesuit Oral History Project “I was amazed at the rapid response of so many to what we were offering (when the program was first offered). We soon realized there was an urgent need (for)… the program … We hoped a full nine months of intensive experience would enable them to share what they had learned and to serve others in this ministry.”  In the same oral history, Connolly also noted that “Almost as soon as we opened our doors for spiritual direction, we began to see a variety of people, at first a preponderance of priests, religious and those in formation, but gradually more and more lay people …. and then non-Catholics and even non-Christians.” 


The CRD founders had a strong conviction that directors needed support from other directors.  “To find their way in (the world of spiritual experience) and not grow laggard in their exploration of it, they needed support from other directors who had entered it.  For the first staff, the opportunity to talk frequently about their ministry with colleagues who had embarked on the same exploration was one of the most exhilarating features of their association with the Center.” [7]  At CRD, this came in the form of both individual and group supervision which Birmingham and Connolly described as “a hallmark of the Associates’ program.”[8]


The method developed at CRD for spiritual direction supervision was influenced not only by the CPE supervision model but also by Barry’s experience as a clinical psychologist.   In his own oral history for the New England Jesuits, Barry described[9] a long-term discernment about ways to bring together his psychological training with his religious background.  This started with his PhD work at University of Michigan at Ann Arbor.   He tells the story of a professor at Michigan, a Jewish psychoanalyst.  One of the professor’s first patients, an Orthodox Jew, told him after a few meetings that the sessions were a threat to his religion.  At first the therapist interpreted the statement as resistance to the therapy.  But later, when the psychoanalyst became more comfortable with his own religious background and less angry about it, he told Barry, “I realized that he (the Orthodox Jew patient) was right, that I was imposing my ideas unconsciously.” The Once he recognized this, the problem disappeared.  “Now, my patients and the patients of those I supervise bring up religious topics in therapy without my prompting.”


While this story stuck with Barry, he never thought to ask himself a similar question about his own psychology practice, “None of my patients ever talk about religion. Why is that?”  Even after he began practicing psychotherapy at Weston College[10] in Massachusetts with Jesuits in training for the priesthood, he still found that “no one talked to me about religion in those sessions either. I never questioned why this was so.”  Until the fall of 1970, it never dawned on him that was giving the unconscious signal to his clients that “we don’t talk about religion in counseling sessions.”


While he was studying in Ann Arbor, major changes were occurring in Canada for the Jesuits and for spiritual direction.  There, in the late 1960’s, David Asselin, SJ began giving the Spiritual Exercises to individuals and training others to do the same.  Prior to Asselin’s work, retreats were preached[11] to groups, very different from the original Ignatian one-on-one model described in The Autobiography of St. Ignatius[12] and the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola[13] themselves. They were also compressed in time from thirty days to eight days or even a weekend.


Asselin’s work led to the development of individually-directed retreats at Guelph, Ontario by John English, John Veltri and other Canadian Jesuits.  ­ Dominic Marucca of the Maryland Jesuit Province, had gone to Canada to learn the one-on-one method.  In the fall of 1970, he was asked to facilitate four weekend tutorials on it in North Andover, MA.


At the first meeting with Murucca, Barry made two important discoveries.  First like his former professor, he realized that he unconsciously sent signals to patients not to talk about religion.  And second, he realized he could integrate one-on-one retreats with psychotherapy.  Barry writes[14], “The penny dropped for me when I realized that I could use the skills I had acquired to do counseling and psychotherapy to help people talk about their relationship with God. I became a more integrated Jesuit as a result, no longer a psychologist who happened to be a Jesuit, but a Jesuit with psychological training.”


Spiritual direction as we practice it today owes much to Barry’s insight.  In addition, his experience points to the critical importance of supervision which directors can use to uncover unconscious biases that, influence their work with directees.  In his Campion Lecture, Barry writes[15] this about how those at the CRD viewed the value of supervision:


The most important way we helped new spiritual directors to become good spiritual directors was through supervision, a practice developed in the field of psychotherapy. Supervision is different from consultation. In consultation you ask a more experienced therapist or spiritual director what he or she would do in a certain case. Your focus is on the person who came for therapy or for spiritual direction. In supervision you tell a more experienced therapist or spiritual director what happened to you as you were doing therapy or spiritual direction with another. The focus is on you and what your experience was when you were doing spiritual direction. This is very important.


The only way you can become a good therapist or spiritual director is by personal transformation, transformation from a neophyte to a professional or artist in the field. You don’t become a professional or an artist by book learning or by consultation alone.  They help, but the most important way is by giving spiritual direction and by being very honest about what is happening in you as you give spiritual direction. In supervision you face your own demons, your own insecurities, your own lack of faith in God, your own resistance to getting into a more intimate friendship with God.


I believe that the introduction of supervision into the training of spiritual directors and directors of the Spiritual Exercises, after the stress on the experienced relationship with God and the contemplative stance, was the most innovative and far-reaching effect of our program at CRD. I’m not sure that this kind of supervision is what actually happens everywhere the word ‘supervision’ is used, but I do know that this kind of supervision has been truly grace-filled where it has been practiced.”


Others have also provided a detailed description of the process and goals of supervision at CRD.  In the book, Witnessing to the Fire, Madeline Birmingham and William Connolly describe[16] how each full-time staff member was responsible for supervising two or three associates weekly.  While supervision included practical advice about direction, Birmingham and Connolly explain that it “moved a long step beyond” with an emphasis on “dealing with (directors’) own lives, their own prayer, and their own deepest feelings.”[17]


Some of the topics discussed in that chapter include recognizing and responding to God’s presence in the directee’s life, the director’s feelings about what the directee shares, and exploring the director’s expectations of directees, and how a director’s preconceptions of ideas and values can influence and control these reactions.  The chapter also describes the use of what the CRD called a “focusing paper” (also known as a “verbatim” or Contemplative Reflection Form), containing a partial description of a conversation with a directee that “raises issues about the quality of his or her work in the particular situation” or focuses on more general issues around the partial description.


The chapter also describes supervision as a collaborative venture with the supervisor helping the director to see blind spots in his or her work with a directee through the lens of the focusing paper.  Staff at CRD also practiced a form of group supervision that Barry describes as “a case conference, where one of the associates (in training) presented his or her work with one directee to the whole group, staff and associates, and got feedback on the work.”[18]  According to Birmingham and Connolly, an associate had the opportunity to do this two or three times in the nine months of training. [19]  Compared to current supervision practices, the process is intriguing because it first involved group supervision with the director’s supervisor present and participating.  Later, the director and supervisor processed the group’s observations.


The authors note[20] that the group process supported the director’s growth even as it allowed other participants to learn from the director’s experience.  “What they hear expands their horizons, gives color and shape to new possibilities, and gradually helps them become more receptive to the situations that they will encounter.”  The process also taught Associates how to talk objectively to their colleagues and get help from them.


The group process enriched the subsequent individual supervision session.  While supervisors may point out some difficult part of a director/directee relationship, a director may not comprehend the implications in that session.  Then the director may bring a similar situation to their next group supervision and through the group process, the director suddenly understands the point.  Or the supervisor may just have missed an important aspect of the relationship that needs to be brought to light in the supervision process.  Later in another group session, the supervisor, as only one of many in the group, now can listen with less pressure and perhaps more freedom to the director and perhaps see something new.


CRD encouraged supervision to continue beyond completion of the program but noted that often directors cannot find someone who has both the ability and time for supervision.  While they recognized this need for able supervisors, training supervisor’s was never part of CRD’s ministry.


However, though CRD did not develop its own supervision program, its approach to supervising Associates paved the way for supervisor training programs that emerged elsewhere.  For example, Janet Ruffing attended[21] a workshop in the late 1970’s sponsored by the Western Association of Spiritual Directors. There, Ann Harvey, at that time one of the supervisors at CRD, gave a workshop on supervision describing the CRD method of group supervision as case presentation and questioning.  While Ruffing earned her PhD in Christian Spirituality, she convened a group of spiritual directors to do group supervision using that model.


Ruffing also describes how CRD pressed for post-training supervision that went beyond what others were encouraging at the time.  For example, while the Institute for Spirituality and Worship at the Jesuit School of convened spiritual directors monthly for in-service instruction that included “topics” arising in spiritual direction, their process did not include anything close to shared reflection case-work.   She also notes that when she began work with others in 1984 at the Mercy Center in California on an internship program in the art of supervision, two or three of the team members had been associated with or trained at CRD.  Working closely with them, she learned the CRD process for supervision more deeply, both group and individual supervision allowing directors to learn how to function in a peer group.


Stay tuned for more Milestones in Supervision Training for Spiritual Directors. 

Up Next:  Mercy Center, Burlingame, CA.

[1]  Oral histories for Barry, Connolly, and Doherty can be found at

[2] E-mail to Paul Burgmayer, August 2014


[4] E-mail to Paul Burgmayer, August 2014

[5] Witnessing to the Fire, Madeline Birmingham and William Connolly, Sheed and Ward, pub (1994) p. 109


[7] Witnessing to the Fire, Madeline Birmingham and William Connolly, Sheed and Ward, pub (1994) p. 98

[8] Ibid, p. 155

[9] Campion Lecture,

[10] Now “Weston School of Theology”

[11] Preached Retreats, also called Conference Retreats or Group Retreats are still offered today at various retreat centers.  Google “preached retreats” to see a list.

[12] The Autobiography of St. Ignatius Loyola Fordham University Press(1993), ed. John C. Olin

[13] The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola Press (1968) Ignatius of Loyola and Louis J. Puhl

[14] Campion Lecture,

[15] ibid

[16] In Chapter 7, full of quotes and specific examples, one can get a very good feel for both the processes used (individual and group) and goals.  If you are interested in knowing more about supervision at CRD, this would be an excellent place to start.  Although the book is out of print, you can find inexpensive copies for sale at online booksellers.

[17] Witnessing to the Fire, p. 160

[18] E-mail from William Barry to Paul Burgmayer on 8-30-14

[19] Witnessing to the Fire, p. 158

[20] Witnessing to the Fire, p. 184-185

[21] E-mail to Paul Burgmayer


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