The pelican papers

A big bird’s eye view

Chapter 2: Introduction

What was intended in the project?

This project was designed to explore whether a diagnostic method for spiritual direction based on faith typology and autobiographical process would associate certain types of spiritual practice with specific types of faith. It was hoped that such associations would be indicated by in-depth interviews with selected clergy of the Episcopal Church and by having them respond to a brief battery of value-laden statements. It was also hoped that the process itself, primarily the interview, would be a beneficial experience for the interview subjects by way of recollection and storytelling. This researcher also hoped to refine his interview techniques and methods and to become acquainted in a general way with the past and current spiritual practices of Episcopalian clergy. Theologically, this researcher hoped for insights into the nature of conversion and ordained vocation to ministry and whether there might be discernible tendencies among interview subjects toward certain spiritual practices and how these might be informed by specific insights from Christian and Jewish scripture.

The faith typology for this project was developed from James W. Fowler’s stages of faith development. It is the view of this researcher that Fowler’s stage theory fails to establish that human faith is a mental operation, a way of knowing that develops formally as it is influenced by internal psychological dynamics and interactions with the environment. It does succeed, however, in describing types of adult faith and how faith develops in children and youth in light of cognitive-development theory.

Several researchers have observed that Fowler may have disclosed types or styles of faith rather than authentic developmental stages. Michael Barnes and Dennis Doyle of the University of Dayton and Byron Johnson of Memphis State University used Fowler’s theory in 1989 to develop categories of “faith styles” for their research regarding Catholic beliefs. These researchers didn’t debunk Fowler’s theory; indeed, they found that it was plausible, although not demonstrable without longitudinal study, which Fowler himself has acknowledged. Charles W. Green and Cindy L. Hoffman of Hope College also used Fowler’s theory in 1989 to construe a study of whether given faith stages affect perceptions of others.

Stage was an excellent predictor of the way respondents reacted to members of in-groups and out-groups. This relationship provides evidence for the construct validity of Fowler’s theory. It is important to note, however, that a cross-sectional study such as this cannot provide support for Fowler’s contention that he has identified stages of faith and not types of faith. Our data do not speak to the issue of development. Perhaps … we have measured different types of faith, not different stages of faith.

For purposes of this project, two of Fowler’s stages were jettisoned for lack of meaning. Stage 1, “Primal Faith,” is no more than a religious template laid over developmental speculation concerning primitive structures of learning in pre-verbal children. While this researcher would agree with Fowler that faith is a “way of knowing,” there’s no evidence that it’s a way babies know anything. Stage 7, “Universalizing Faith,” is little more than Fowler’s idealization of his theory. Fowler has no research upon which to base either Stage 1 or Stage 7. For purposes of this project, therefore, the only valid stages would be Stage 2 (Intuitive Projective Faith), Stage 3 (Mythic-Literal Faith), Stage 4 (Synthetic-Conventional Faith), Stage 5 (Individuative-Reflective Faith) and Stage 6 (Conjunctive Faith).

Fowler’s Intuitive-Projective stage, characteristic of early childhood, is fundamental for what this researcher would consider four types of mature faith. (There may be more, but Fowler has correctly identified at least four major categories.) It seems that healthy development of Intuitive-Projective faith must lead to some mature type – and here Fowler correctly identifies a necessary transition – due to cognitive development, in Piagetian terms, from concrete to formal mental operations.

For purposes of this study, there would be no sense of hierarchy among four types of adult faith. This study’s typology also would modify Fowler’s nomenclature to render types of faith in clearer terms: Literal faith for Mythic-Literal; Personal faith for Synthetic-Conventional, Systematic faith for Individuative-Reflective and Symbolic faith for Conjunctive. Table II.1 shows how Fowler’s faith stages have been reinterpreted as types for purposes of this study.

Table II.1
Table II.1

This researcher believes, as Fowler does, that faith develops within each of the stages he describes but not that developing faith necessarily and invariably develops into new forms at higher stages. It’s possible, in other words, that mature human faith would not necessarily become something other than the type within which such development occurs. One may spend all of one’s adult life with good effect and without contradiction in the type of faith Fowler calls Synthetic-Conventional. There is a qualitative difference between this type of faith and others but not in terms of an ascending scale of value. Synthetic-Conventional faith differs from Individuative-Reflective faith by virtue of its internal dynamics, not because it’s inferior.

One’s faith type may change, but such changes are not invariable and irreversible, as Fowler’s theory demands. Faith types change as a matter of personal choice and may change as often as human freedom allows without sacrificing coherence.

The central feature of field research for this project was to have been focused or guided interviews with selected Episcopalian clergy. Interviews were conceived as flowing from a standard questionnaire prepared by this researcher in order to manage time effectively and to produce material that would be pertinent to this study. It was intended from the outset that interviews not be open-ended but that the interviewer would retain permission to ask follow-up questions. The interview questionnaire would not mimic Fowler’s exhaustive questionnaire but would cover much of the same sort of material. Interviews would be summarized, not transcribed and an a spiritual profile produced by the interviewer. Summaries and profiles would be provided to interview subjects.

This researcher intended to establish faith types for interview subjects by discerning from their statements how faith operated in their thinking and autobiographical reflection and to link types by association with spiritual practices. It was hoped that interview material would disclose not only how traditional and non-traditional forms of spirituality operated in subjects’ lives but also how scripture informed their prayer and conduct of office, especially as leaders of corporate worship.

This researcher began this project hoping it would lead to further study of the spirituality of Episcopalian clergy and how such insights might be brought to bear upon the practice of spiritual direction among clergy in spiritual crisis.

What actually occurred?

This researcher was advised by the faculty adviser for this project, Dr. Doug Tracy, to consider using a typology other than one based on Fowler’s theory; specifically, Corinne Ware’s spiritual typology based on the work of Urban T. Holmes III. Ware has distilled Holmes’ theory into a method for congregations and individuals to understand their religious behavior. Despite its sound theoretical base, Ware’s book is highly programmatic and not as deeply founded in the kind of science that makes Fowler’s theory interesting. This researcher, moreover, wanted to deal with Fowler’s stages as types of faith, not spirituality, and found in Fowler’s theory a complex of ideas that, methodologically, produced a valuable survey tool. This researcher finally decided not to use Ware’s typology after discovering that Fowler’s stages had been found by scientific researchers to be somewhat typological; indeed, some researchers had converted Fowler’s stages to types for purposes of research.

While compiling questions to be sent in advance to interview subjects, this researcher decided as well to develop a “worksheet” composed of value-laden statements that would become another tool for discerning subjects’ faith types. The worksheet was drawn from Fowler’s classic definitions of faith stages. As research continued, it became clear that, methodologically, the worksheet might have been more effective had its statements been more specifically aligned with “aspects” of faith used by Fowler and his colleagues to establish faith stages.

After the first interview, it became clear that subjects wanted to know more about the interviewer. In order to keep the interview process from becoming bogged down in the researcher’s background, a brief biography was prepared and sent to each subject prior to scheduled interviews.

This researcher’s original theological interest in conversion and vocation shifted to reflections upon the interplay of faith and reason in the practice of spiritual direction. This issue became of immediate interest as this researcher drew near to completing a three-year course of study and training in spiritual direction provided to laity by the Episcopal Diocese of Texas. Portions of the curriculum for this course have partaken of what seemed to be pseudoscientific theories of personality such as the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) and the “Enneagram.” While not prepared utterly to dismiss either of these methods, this researcher has developed a modicum of skepticism concerning their use in spiritual direction. Research concerning both methods, as well as research for this project, provoked reflection on the continuous dialogue between faith and reason.

How each learning goal was (or was not) achieved?

It is not clear from the project materials whether the first learning goal of this project was achieved, viz., “to learn whether the proposed means of exploring spiritual autobiography is effective in disclosing spiritual autobiography and faith types and whether the types are of value in the practice of spiritual direction.”

The study produced clear indications of faith types that seemed to be consistent with autobiographical material. The complex interplay of faith types with autobiographical material was not expected but has served to strengthen the theory. Just as Fowler has found that many interview subjects are in “transition,” so this researcher has found that faith typologies appear not to be clear-cut. This researcher would not suggest, however, that any subject was in “transition” on the basis of these results; rather, it would appear that subjects with active spiritual lives who have engaged spiritual practices for many years are likely to present a complex faith typologies. Individual subjects were likely to express preferences across all types of faith proposed herein, but in every case – and consistent with autobiographical material – a dominant faith typologies were discerned.

As a group, these six clergy of the Episcopal Church overwhelmingly expressed preferences for Type 4 symbolic faith. Forty-two percent of all responses in the first round (A) were in Type 4, and 55 percent of all responses in the second round (B) were Type 4. No other category attracted near that level of response, although certain statements within categories attracted responses from most subjects. Sixty-six percent of first-round Type 4 responses were repeated in round two, compared with second-round response rates of 35 percent for Type 1, 48 percent for Type 2 and 30 percent for Type 3.

Strong preferences across all categories seem to be expressed as a group by first- and second-round responses totaling five or more. Six statements in Type 4, three in Type 2, two in Type 1 and one in Type 3 meet this criterion. Table II.2 (p. II.9) shows, in order of preference, the relative strength of preferences for statements that received more than five of 12 possible responses.

Table II.2

Table II.2

Table II.3

Table II.3

How these typologies are associated with spiritual practices remained unclear. There seemed to be general tendencies among the sample, but only further study and refinement would produce a diagnostic tool for individual spiritual direction. Sorting spiritual practices turned out to be more difficult than expected. There was no checklist to which subjects responded; instead, they were asked during interviews to describe their spiritual practices at various points in their lives. They had a wide variety of ways of describing these practices. The scope of the task of sorting through this variety did not emerge until this researcher began evaluating interview summaries in order to write spiritual profiles. This researcher made a list of the various types of spiritual practices then ranked the practices according to the strength of response from the group. About 40 distinct types of spiritual practices were put into 13 categories. Table II.4 shows spiritual practices by category and subcategory and which subjects, by number, expressed the preference.

Table II.4

Table II.4

This researcher would conclude that among this small sample, which expresses a preference for Type 4 faith with slight variations, also expresses strong preferences for spiritual practices associated with meditation and various ways of adapting the daily offices of the Book of Common Prayer. Surprising, perhaps, is the sample’s preference for small group prayer. Contemplative techniques also figure prominently in this sample, but there is a surprisingly weak preference for Eucharistic piety. Several subjects complained that it’s difficult for them to pray during most Eucharistic celebrations because, as chief liturgical officers, they are preoccupied with liturgical details. In general, all subjects seem to find their greatest spiritual satisfactions in private and small-group prayer.

This researcher would conclude that a failure of method not theory produced ambiguous results regarding the association of spiritual practices with faith types. It is encouraging that the broad outlines of spiritual practices preferred by this group of clergy seems to be consonant with a type of faith that would be open to experimental and unconventional forms. What is missing from this data is any sense of comparison with a random baseline sample; moreover, there is no way to know from this study whether the spiritual practices of these clergy are due as much to education as to faith type.

This researcher has reached a tentative conclusion, however, that it would be at least as helpful to know a faith type as it would be to know a personality type when embarking upon a relationship of spiritual direction. It is possible, moreover, that given the general conclusions of this study, institutional denominations may be able to generalize regarding the spiritual needs of clergy as a class and be able to develop strategies for dealing with difficulties.

This researcher hoped for a deeper critique of this project from those who participated in order to learn “whether this process of exploring spiritual autobiography provides helpful insights to the subjects of the study.”

Feedback from subjects interviewed for this study was sporadic but encouraging. Just three provided blind feedback to the project’s field supervisor, the Rev. Nicolas R.D. Dyke. This researcher originally planned to meet twice with interview subjects, the second time to share results and obtain feedback on the process. Time did not permit two visits with each subject; moreover, the subjects had not received spiritual profiles generated by this study before they were asked to provide blind feedback.

Dyke reported that three subjects said in written comments that they were comfortable with the interview process and that, even though some of their reminiscences were painful, they did not regret having agreed to the interviews. Confidentiality was necessary for these clergy to disclose some of what was said in the interviews. They felt confident of the researcher and appreciated a brief biography of the researcher provided before the interviews. There was no doubt that they wouldn’t have disclosed as much in a written questionnaire.

“They enjoyed the visit, but sometimes felt uncomfortable in the sense of having to look at themselves at the way they were asked to,” Dyke said in an interview with this researcher. “They definitely didn’t mind the interview, the way it was conducted.”

Dyke said he sensed from the subjects’ comments that they had had few opportunities to disclose their spiritual autobiographies and that they felt it was beneficial to do so, especially regarding aspects of their spiritual lives they had not examined for a long time. (It did not occur to this researcher until his interview with Dyke that this project did not pose an obvious question to subjects: Are you currently in spiritual direction?)

This researcher came into this project with considerable experience in interviewing for the purpose of recapitulating and evaluating received information. Twenty years of journalistic writing and editing required developing such skills, which were put to good use in this project. Interviews for this project, however, were qualitatively different from most of this researcher’s journalistic interviewing, especially regarding the breadth and depth of interest. In-depth interviewing is a journalistic skill, but it is not as common as the highly focused “news interviewing” that seeks specific information for limited purposes. This researcher expected that this project would take his well-developed journalistic reporting skills into a new area and, perhaps, to a new level. Subjects of this study were provided interview summaries and reported no errors of fact to this researcher or to the field supervisor. Blind feedback forms, moreover, reported that this researcher was regarded as sensitive and trustworthy, as well as competent. To the extent that these interviews produced profiles that may be of value in the spiritual direction of clergy in general, and perhaps in particular, this researcher would conclude that the third learning goal of this project “to develop practical skills in the acquisition of information and insights helpful to providing spiritual direction” had been achieved.

What were the results of the project for others involved, including the on-site adviser?

This project resulted in subjects’ being provided with two documents of value to them in reflecting on their spiritual development. The summaries of their spiritual-autobiography interviews are perspectival documents that put into concrete terms and narrative form the stories of their self-told spiritual lives. The summaries enable subjects to hear themselves as others hear them speak of their spiritual lives, and it was clear from the blind feedback that these subjects appreciated the opportunity to do so. Some remembered things they had not thought about in years, especially regarding their childhoods, while others reported that, even though the interviews drew them into painful recollections, it was constructive, even remedial, to engage those memories. In three cases, the clergy subjects were at turning points in their careers and gave every indication of having experienced the interviews as a kind of summing up, given the freedom that confidentiality provided.

Spiritual profiles provided to these subjects satisfy intellectual curiosity about the findings of this study, but they also provide another perspectival document regarding the overall contours of subjects’ spiritual lives. It is not just a matter of telling subjects what they already know about themselves, but of providing the perspective of an observer who is theologically trained and spiritually sensitive.

The on-site adviser for this project served as president of the Standing Committee of the Diocese of Texas from 1997-1999 and is a former chief judge of the diocese’s ecclesiastical court, to which, among other things, cases of clergy misconduct may be appealed and adjudicated. Supervising this project provided him with further insights into the dynamics and maintenance of clergy spirituality, especially during the major transition from seminary to parish ministry. He told this researcher that the project indicated to him the extent to which clergy, and, by extension, clergy aspirants, may be willing to disclose personal history interpreted spiritually. The field supervisor also was reminded, personally, that his own spiritual journey might be something he should review from time to time and that such a process would help him articulate his spiritual values more effectively in ministry. He said he looks forward to this researcher’s fall presentation of insights from this study to an adult Christian education class insofar as it might provoke more effective faith sharing among his parishioners. He said, “One way we’re able to share and bear witness is to be very honest with people about our spiritual development.”

How did this project contribute to the researcher’s personal, professional and spiritual growth as a minister?

It was personally gratifying for this researcher to interview subjects who are remarkable in many ways but especially with regard to the breadth and depth of their life experience and spiritual awareness. As a group and as individuals, these are intelligent, sensitive, highly trained, articulate Christian clergy whose willingness to give of themselves to this project bespeaks their commitment to give of themselves to the church in parish ministry. The clergy are often the butt of jokes; indeed, they often make jokes of themselves with self-deprecating humor that belies their considerable gifts and the rigors of their profession. Perhaps it would not be possible to be a proficient ordained minister without the ironic perspective and ego strength that makes self-deprecating humor possible. Laity, however, seldom fully appreciate their ordained leaders’ articulate intelligence and spiritual depth, let alone their personal strength and courage in dealing with the vicissitudes of life as a pastor in place. Which is not to say laity don’t appreciate their clergy leaders, but it seems to this researcher that few laity or even clergy colleagues have the opportunity to know ordained leaders at any appreciable depth. This project has taken but a sounding of such depth, and this researcher is personally encouraged by the quality of women and men who were willing to be subjects of this study. It gives the overall impression that the church is in capable hands.

Professionally, this study confirmed this researcher’s interest in deposed clergy, which is, to some extent, predicated on the assumption that clergy who misbehave are of value to the Christian community despite their having been removed from office, and that it is incumbent on the church to respond to clergy misconduct not only with sanction and psychotherapy but also with spiritual direction toward remedying whatever breach or loss of faith may have occurred and restoring a sense of vocation that, in all probability, was not lost. This study also has provoked in this researcher a general interest in the spirituality of clergy, especially as this may indicate needs for reform that would prevent clergy misconduct by providing the kind of spiritual support clergy need from their congregations and denominational leaders. It was clear from subjects interviewed for this study that such support tends to be insufficient and that clergy usually are left to fend for themselves for spiritual sustenance.

This researcher has been called to a deeper sense of vocation regarding deposed clergy. What began as an intellectual idea has begun to form itself as a ministry of spiritual direction with all its attendant prayerful concern. This researcher has felt called to remember the subjects of this study in prayer and with some specificity to live in hope that particular issues operating in their vocational lives are resolved to the greater glory of God and the benefit of the church. As a deposed clergyman, this researcher has long sought guidance and counsel as to how he might fulfill a vocation to ministry that continues to operate in his life. To some extent, this project has been another step along a hopeful path that may bring God’s grace and healing to some who may wonder how they might once again serve in God’s house having squandered their inherited gift.

How could this project have been improved or modified?

As stated above, the faith typology worksheet probably would have produced clearer individual results had it been constructed more in keeping with “aspects” of faith used in the Fowler method to establish faith stages. That would make the worksheet more applicable, perhaps, to individual subjects.

This researcher remains in a quandary about how best to associate spiritual practices with faith types. The qualitative approach of categorizing interview material provoked such a wide array of practices that it’s not clear, except in the most obvious ways, what this sample’s spiritual preferences are. Approximation may well be as close as a study of this type can get, and that only a broadened sample would establish valid associations.

It would have been more productive had faith profiles to been produced sooner in the course of this project. This researcher chose to send them all at once rather than in the course of having completed each interview summary. This was a mistake, because subjects’ responses to these documents would have been important to evaluating their overall appreciation of the project and their participation in it.

What further areas of learning are indicated as a result of the work done on this project?

The pivotal methodological issue in this study has been whether Fowler’s stages of faith are not actually types and whether these can be associated with discrete spiritual practices. As discussed below, however, repudiating the idea of faith development does not necessarily lead to the conclusion that religious behavior does not develop, at least within discrete categories if not strict developmental stages. Anecdotal evidence for such development may be found in this study. For example, the spirituality of Subject #1 seems to have grown from an intense experience of God in nature, for which she maintains an affinity in adult life as well. Whether it is meditative or contemplative, the substance of Subject #1’s interpretation of her spiritual experience has changed but not its basic form. Has it deepened from that of a child to that of an adult? If so, in what ways and what was it in the mind of the child that gave rise to that initial spiritual intuition? Can her passage from less to more formal mental operations be discerned in her religious behavior from early experience to later years? Such an inquiry is beyond the current competence of this researcher, but it appears that amending Fowler’s faith-stage theory to reflect how spirituality develops would be a fruitful path of theoretical research.

This researcher would like to know more about aspects of developmental psychology cited elsewhere in this project that seem applicable to spiritual practices such as meditation and contemplation. Understanding how such things work, not just whether they work, might demystify the general category of prayer to the extent that the church would rethink this aspect of practical theology and render it more accessible, perhaps more relevant, to contemporary life.

One stage of Fowler’s theory appears to be a true developmental stage, viz., “intuitive-projective faith,” which seems necessarily to change with the development of Piagetian formal operations. This researcher holds above that this stage develops into one of three types of faith. Testing this theory might be a fruitful revision of Fowler’s theory.

Interviews with subjects of this study suggest that qualitative differences in types of spirituality may be correlated with types of childhood experience. For example, Subject #1 stood out from the sample for having had a childhood marked by violence done to her brother by her father. She seems to have a type of faith that is markedly different from her clergy colleagues, even though her array of spiritual practices varies little from the preferences of this sample. Subjects #4 and #5 were reared in what might be called cultural religious settings – Roman Catholic – that made them feel secure in childhood. Of all subjects in this study, #4 and #5 have the most pronounced preference for Type 4 faith, accounting for more than 40 percent of all such responses. While such a study would be beyond the current capabilities of this researcher, such an insight would be invaluable in the practice of spiritual direction.

This researcher neglected an important aspect of clergy spirituality in this study by not inquiring of all subjects how what might be called the “ontology of ordination” affected their sense of themselves in prayer, especially as this might relate to Eucharistic piety. This topic will become more significant in later stages of this researcher’s doctoral work, as he tests the theory that displacement from ordained duties in the community of faith causes a kind of spiritual disorientation that is, perhaps, more profound than is usually acknowledged by either ecclesiastical authorities or deposed clergy. This study seems to indicate that clergy as a group have clear general preferences for certain spiritual practices and that these are linked with their spiritual autobiographies, including such “stories within the story” as their vocation, theological training and spiritual formation in seminary. Another path of study might be whether such similar preferences are a matter of denominational preference and not an interior personal dynamic at all. What preferences would be found among clergy with markedly different denominational backgrounds; e.g., what spiritual preferences might be found among ordained ministers of Southern Baptist or Church of Christ congregations? In any case, some type of study or research regarding the “ontology of ordination” will be part of this researcher’s course of study in this doctoral program.

It was disconcerting to this researcher that subjects of this study reported that leaving seminary marked a decline in their corporate and private spiritual lives. Regarding the former, this researcher hopes to work in the future with ecclesiological issues posed by the disorientation clergy feel after they leave the worshipping community of seminary to become congregational leaders. What is it about congregational life that seems so discontinuous with the experience of those in formation for ordination and that might be reformed or modified to provide a more satisfactory corporate spiritual life not only for clergy but also for congregations? Is there something defective in the current models of congregational life that mitigates the sense of corporate prayer supposed to be the foundation for all other congregational ministry? Is there a model of congregational corporate spirituality that is at once responsive to needs beyond the sanctuary but also expressive of the spiritual origin of authentic Christian ministry?

This researcher would theorize further that there is a direct link between the proficiency of congregational corporate spirituality and effective private spirituality for all, including the clergy. It would seem that robust corporate and private spirituality within a given congregation would diminish the erosion of spiritual resources many clergy seem to feel amid their congregations. Perhaps it also would diminish the likelihood of clergy misconduct, at least insofar as it may be due to crises of faith and a sense of spiritual abandonment.


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