The pelican papers

A big bird’s eye view

Chapter 3: Project materials

This project consisted of seven components that will be discussed below in detail. It produced two useful documents, interview summaries and spiritual profiles, which served the purposes of this researcher and provided benefits to subjects of the study. Methodology was qualitative with regard to the gathering and analysis of data regarding spiritual practices but quantitative regarding types of faith. The worksheet and interview questionnaire used in this study were developed in consultation with the field supervisor.

The subjects

Subjects of this study are ordained ministers of the Episcopal Church. None was well known to this researcher, although he had met four of the six previously. They were selected in consultation with the field supervisor, who knew four of the six well. The sample is disproportionately female but for no particular reason. All but two are relatively local to this researcher. Another, recommended by the field supervisor, lives three hours’ drive away. Another, with whom this researcher had become acquainted by participating in a training program for lay spiritual directors, lives two hours’ drive away.

Each subject was known by reputation to be theologically articulate and spiritually alert. Two subjects were chosen primarily because of their personal history: Subject #5, a former Roman Catholic priest, and Subject #6, a former United Methodist pastor. The field supervisor permitted the use of his name and standing in the diocese in soliciting subjects’ cooperation. That probably made a difference in subjects’ level of cooperation. This researcher believes the field supervisor’s help in this regard was critical.

The worksheet

The worksheet consisted of 27 value-laden statements arranged to provide subjects with two rounds (A and B) of choices in which they would choose 14 statements in Round A and then seven statements in Round B. Each statement was associated with a type of faith described below. Subjects did not know which statements corresponded with which types of faith. This document was the principal means by which this researcher established each subject’s faith type.

The worksheet statements were drawn from Fowler’s summaries in Stages of Faith: The Psychology of Human Development and the Quest for Meaning. There was no specific methodological rationale for using these summaries and not another of the numerous iterations of Fowler’s stage theory. These had the merit of being relatively concise but yet complete and susceptible to restatement for purposes of this study. An example will suffice to show how statements were drawn from Fowler’s summaries. See, first, Appendix B, Type 1, Literal Faith, a paraphrase of Fowler’s summary. From that material were drawn the following value-laden statements for the worksheet.

  • Reciprocal fairness is fundamental to my view of the world.

  • Religious stories themselves are more important to me than any reflective, conceptual meaning they may contain.

  • The coherence and meaning of my faith are constructed narratively.

  • I see the actors in cosmic stories anthropomorphically.

  • Religious and personal stories give unity and value to my experience.

    The statements were arrayed at random into the worksheet using an integrated program of Microsoft Excel. The worksheets were sent to subjects by e-mail attachment prior to interviews. The researcher asked that they be completed before the interview and that he preferred to retrieve a hard copy of the worksheet with subjects’ responses marked in column A and B. Four subjects complied with the procedure. Subjects #5 and #6 returned their worksheets by mail after the interview.

    The questionnaire

    The interview questions were formulated in consultation with the field supervisor and with an eye toward Fowler’s methodology. No attempt was made to duplicate Fowler’s methodology because the goal of interviews for this project was not to discern stages of faith; rather, the object of interviews in this project was to elicit spiritual autobiography. The methods are similar but not identical.

    Question #1 was similar to Fowler’s method of asking subjects, as a first step, to report a “life review.” Then, however, rather than ask such overarching questions as, “Can you describe the beliefs and values or attitudes that are most important in guiding your own life?” Question #2 focuses on the discrete moment of “your first actual awareness of the presence of God.” Autobiographically, this is where the thread begins for spiritual development. The approach could not be more different from the Fowler methodology, which does not enunciate that question at all in so many words.

    Fowler’s interview outline seems to assume that subjects have developed a system for thinking about their faith development. (E.g., “Can you describe the beliefs and values or attitudes that are most important in guiding your own life?”) After a preliminary inquiry into the “narrative” of subjects’ lives, it asks principally for information in the abstract. Such questions probably elicit a species of “autobiography,” but they don’t ask for it. This researcher sought to make subjects’ life stories less of an abstract conclusion and more of a story. Hence, this researcher’s questions focus on what Fowler’s method seeks when it asks subjects to “divide life into chapters.”

    To some extent, the interview questionnaire for this study was shaped by the researcher’s personal experience. Consequently, it moved from phase to phase of subjects’ lives by virtue of key “spiritual moments”: first awareness of the presence of God; formalization of membership in the community of faith; changes in formal membership or conversion to a new perspective; vocation, ordination, crises of faith, and whether subjects had ever considered leaving the ordained ministry. It seemed to this researcher that such a line of questioning in search of spiritual autobiography would produce something more akin to a life story and less to abstract insights drawn from experience.

    The interviewer’s biography

    An e-mail message sent to prospective subjects seeking interviews said in part:

    Please consider allowing me interview you for a project I’m preparing as part of my DMin program at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary. Nick Dyke is my field supervisor. You don’t know me well, but Nick does. If you have any qualms along those lines, please feel free to call him.

    The project is titled, “Faith Types and Spiritual Practices: Guided Autobiography in Spiritual Direction.” I am focusing on clergy because my overarching interest in this doctoral program is developing a ministry of spiritual direction to deposed clergy. I am not working with deposed clergy in this project, which is a pilot toward developing a method based on appreciating spiritual autobiography by associating types of faith with effective practices.

    It turned out that there were too many unanswered questions about the interviewer in this message. It was not clear in this message, at least in the mind of Subject #1, why this researcher wanted to interview her. Was there some sense in which this researcher considered these clergy candidates for deposition? Without addressing that question directly, as this researcher probably should have done, a biography was sent to remaining subjects who had consented to interviews. This researcher’s ecclesiastical career was reduced to the following terms:

    I was graduated with honors from Nashotah House Theological Seminary in 1976. I was ordained deacon and priest in the Diocese of Dallas and served North Texas congregations in Arlington, Comanche, Hamilton and Meridian. I was active as a spiritual director in youth and adult renewal movements and at summer camp. I served on the Mission Board of the Diocese of Dallas from 1978 until 1982. I left the active ministry in 1982. I renounced holy orders and was deposed in 1986. In a nutshell, I was guilty of sexual misconduct.

    This researcher tried to impart, albeit indirectly, that his interest in clergy subjects of this study had nothing to do with their susceptibility to deposition.

    The interviews

    Interviews were conducted from March 19 through April 9, 2003. Five subjects were interviewed in their church offices and one in her home on the grounds of a church camp. Permission was obtained in advance to record the interviews, provided that this researcher would not retain the tapes. Tapes were retained through the completion of this project to ensure that interview summaries could be edited for accuracy from the original source. They are no longer part of the record of this project.

    Interview questionnaires were sent by e-mail to subjects in advance. This researcher hoped that this would make the interview process efficient but also complete. Original estimates that interviews would take no more than 90 minutes were unrealistic. This interviewer discovered in the course of this project that this group of subjects was willing to talk at length on subjects covered by the interview questionnaire. Consequently, interviews took 2½ to 3 hours – about the same amount of time Fowler reports taking with his subjects.

    Interviews were based generally on the questionnaires, but this researcher obtained permission in advance to ask follow-up questions, including clarifications in which he would draw qualitative conclusions, with which subjects would agree or disagree. For example, Subject #1 was asked, in a follow-up question, whether childhood parental relationships had shaped her patterns of behavior in dealing with church authority.

    Subject #1 agrees that her relationship with church authority, to some extent, was shaped by the dynamics of her family life — a threatening father and a demanding mother.

    “I’ve always had very good relationships with people in authority. I was always like the teacher’s pet, because I really, really, really, respect these people who exist for the purpose of bringing other people up and training them and guiding them …

    I’ve just been a very compliant person. I sort of look for what people want and then I do that … I feel like I have a strong sense of identity and know who I am. The more I’ve been in [ordained ministry], the more things I do that might be out of the box, and I think on my own more. Just because someone in authority has a different view, it doesn’t mean my view has to be that. But I still like to please people and it still gives me problems, even now.

    The interview summaries

    The most demanding logistical aspect of this study was summarizing lengthy interviews. This researcher had planned to do more summarizing than transcribing, but as the process wore on, it became apparent that the subjects’ own words would be crucial in completing their spiritual profiles. It is clear from interview summaries reproduced in the appendix of this study that transcription, not paraphrase, became dominant in making a record of these interviews.

    The summaries generally follow the course of the interview. No effort was made to compose the summaries thematically, as had been the original intent of this researcher. It was decided while preparing the first summary that composing it by theme would be too time consuming but also that the data would be more effectively arranged for analysis if they were kept in order of the questions.

    The spiritual profiles

    Spiritual profiles of the subjects of this study were composed of a faith typology and a narrative for each subject. Typologies were compiled from subjects’ responses to the worksheet. The numbers were analyzed in various ways to determine faith types of individuals and of the sample as a whole. Each subject’s “strong responses” were listed in order of dominant to less dominant faith types.

    Narratives sought to interpret subjects’ faith typology responses in light of their spiritual autobiographies and to disclose their spiritual practices. Profiles were collated into the following form (Table III.1) to compile the sample’s spiritual practices. Table II.4 shows the results of this compilation.

    Table III.1

    Table III.1

    Explanation: The first line of each grid shows the total number of responses by type. The second line shows first-round responses (A) compared with the total of possible responses by type. Subject #1, for example, made nine Type 2 responses in both rounds and chose six of seven possible Type 2 responses in round A.

    Blind feedback

    This researcher composed the blind feedback questionnaire without consultation. Its questions go to the heart of learning goals 2 and 3 of this project, viz., whether the method of this project was helpful to its subjects and whether this researcher had erred in any way in his conduct of interviews. As stated above, only three of six subjects returned blind feedback forms in time to become part of this project file, but they appear to indicate that the interviews were beneficial to the subjects and that there were no serious interview lapses by this researcher. Blind feedback also indicated that the method of this study was sound insofar as it kept subjects’ identities confidential and made clear in advance and in detail the subject matter of the interviews and the use to which interview material would be put. Subjects’ blind feedback questionnaires are not part of the record of this project, but their substance was transmitted to this researcher by the field supervisor on May 5, 2003.

    Conclusions

    The method of this project appears to have been sound in that it obtained the data it sought in terms of quantity and quality and did not offend interview subjects. This researcher wondered at the outset whether clergy with whom he was not well acquainted would be willing to discuss their spiritual lives in depth, especially in autobiographical terms. In retrospect, this researcher understands that he was asking a lot of these subjects, not only with regard to the quality of what was sought in the interviews but also in terms of the amount of time it took for subjects to participate in the study – as much as three hours for an interview plus whatever time it took to respond to the worksheet and provide blind feedback, perhaps a total of four hours. The utility of the method might be open to question, especially with regard to the time element. Despite its many steps, however, it is logically simple and its purpose clear.

    Despite the weaknesses of the worksheet discussed above, this researcher can foresee how a revised, more effective, document would be useful in spiritual direction, because it focuses on faith not personality. Likewise, it appears that the concept of the interview as “guided spiritual autobiography” would be more effective in practice than, for example, an open-ended format wherein subjects are encouraged to “tell me something about your prayer life.” This researcher foresees that a story-telling, autobiographical approach to “intake” interviews would have general applicability in spiritual direction and not just as a research tool.

    The efficacy of the interview summaries and spiritual profiles is clear to this researcher, but it is not clear whether these would be of practical use in spiritual direction. The question would be whether the benefits of the summary and profile justify the expenditure of time and energy to produce them. In most cases, it took about eight hours to produce a summary and profile. Feedback from subjects of this study did not address this issue because this researcher didn’t ask about it on the blind feedback questionnaire. In retrospect, this was a serious lapse.

    It is debatable whether associating faith types with spiritual practices would be of any practical value either to spiritual directors or their clients. It may be that it’s no more than a way of satisfying intellectual curiosity about the nature of spirituality and its interplay with various faith systems. To the extent, however, that such an association might be diagnostic, it would be of value to know how one might begin a new spiritual practice or perhaps determine a spiritual identity by which to affirm spiritual experience past and present. Contemporary culture has, in many ways, made a fetish of classifying people by various types, and there is certain harm in pigeon-holing either one’s self or one’s neighbors, because it tends to deprive us of our freedom. Seen in proper context, however, wherein typology induces liberating self-knowledge, then a faith typology such as that proposed in this study would have a beneficial effect to the extent that it would provoke healthy spiritual growth.

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