Communion Within Transformation: A Developmental Pastoral Care Perspective for Congregational Life

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“Love is the spirit of this church, and service is its law.

This is our great covenant:

To dwell together in peace,

To seek the truth in love,

And to help one another.”

James Vila Blake

(Singing the Living Tradition hymnal reading #473)

In many Unitarian Universalist congregations each Sunday words similar to the above are recited in unison and these words stand in the ritual place that is reserved for the Nicene Creed in many mainline Christian churches. This recitation proclaims a vision for congregations that is relational, loving, cooperative, and aspirational. The pastor of a UU congregation is by implication tasked with nourishing this aspiration and developing a ministerial practice that effectively promotes the behaviors and culture that fulfill this vision.

And yet, ministers labor at this task within all too human congregations. Human beings considered as individuals are complicated – all too often troublingly so – and when these complicated troubled persons are drawn together to undertake the creation of a community of love, we can be certain of only one thing: we will fail to attain this aspiration with anything like perfection. Thus, pastoral care of a congregation is a task of patience and grace, not for perfectionists. This essay will explore the implications of developmental psychology and some proposed extensions of developmental theory as it pertains to congregations. It will further propose some practical approaches to applying the theory to a congregation for a minister and staff. Above all, the goal of this exploration is to advance a wide angle approach to fostering a congregational culture of love and communion within a deep embrace of transformational journeys.

In the words of James W. Fowler,

Ours will be an “ecological” approach to the congregation. My employment of the ecological metaphor … will consider the community of faith as an “ecology of care” That is to say, in approaching a practical theology of pastoral care we will try to honor the richness of relationships in the interdependent community of the congregation. … to offer an account of the animating and ordering purposes of congregational care and to draw on theological and social-scientific perspectives from faith development theory to frame approaches to making such care more consistent, intentional, and effective.

(Fowler, Faith. Location 123 – Kindle edition.)

Developmental theories often begin with an account of individual development as developed by Fowler, Erikson, and others, but with a focus herein at the congregational level, this essay will begin by seeking a wider frame within which to understand a congregation as a living community. For this wider view, the theoretical work of Ken Wilber will be used to situate an approach to understanding congregations. A caveat must be offered at this point as Wilber’s work exists on the margins of developmental theory, embedded in Wilber’s location as a “New Age” guru of sorts and outside the peer-reviewed confines of the usual academic culture of developmental theory. Wilber does make extensive use of peer-reviewed research, but also has a somewhat cavalier disdain for those who question his grand theory. With this recognition in hand, this essay will not use Wilber’s work uncritically, but rather deploy it as a hypothetical construct for developing the approach to congregational pastoral care and the fostering of transformational communion.

Wilber proposes that human life is helpfully categorized in terms of four “quadrants” that he calls the interior individual, interior collective, exterior individual, and exterior collective. (Wilber, Integral, 61). Other names for these quadrants that clarify the framing are “mind” for interior individual, “body” for exterior individual, “culture” for interior collective, and “society” for exterior collective.

Given the focus on congregations, the character of the collective quadrants is directly relevant. The interior collective for Wilber includes, “values, meanings, worldviews, and ethics that are shared by any group” (Wilber, Integral, 63). The exterior collective refers to institutions, politics, and ecosystems. The distinction between interior and exterior collective applied to a congregation suggests we can place theology, interpersonal relationships, awareness of history, rituals, and other customs in the category of interior collective, while the meeting place, board of trustees, finances, and congregational administration constitute elements of the exterior collective.

Where Wilber’s theoretical approach takes a departure from standard developmental theory is to propose that in a similar manner as individual psychological development moves through stages, collectives also develop or evolve in identifiable stages. It is not uncommon for observers of congregations to speak of them as mature versus immature, but Wilber’s hypothesis of a collective developmental trajectory suggests that we can take a developmental stage-theory and usefully adapt it to apply to a congregation to determine at what stage of development it may be. Erikson’s stages follow the paradigmatic template of individual growth from infancy to old age, with transitional stages within that pattern of childhood, adolescence, young adulthood, middle adulthood, and so on. A Wilberian hypothesis that congregations evolve would lead us to expect that a minister can usefully consider whether their congregation has appropriate collective maturity in its interior and exterior collective life.

A congregation is somewhat different from the wider social collectives that are central to Wilber’s collective theory, but a congregation is directly embedded within the wider collectives of humanity that Wilber identifies. Often, a UU congregation finds itself at odds with the wider social collective, for example, the historic engagements of UUs with social issues such as abolishing slavery and legalizing same-sex marriage ran against the grain of much of US religious and secular culture. Using Wilber’s model, it can be proposed that US society is currently engaged in conflicts between three competing worldviews that he names as mythic, rationalist, and pluralist. The mythic worldview corresponds to the worldview of pre-modern traditionalists and is romantically fostered within conservative and fundamentalist subcultures. This mythic population can be identified from religious beliefs such as creationism, which is directly in conflict with a rational-scientific worldview. In 2009, Pew Research reported that 31% of US citizens embraced “young earth creationism” the most extreme form of anti-evolution theology (Leshner, Public, 37). The actual number of mythic believers may be much larger. Data from 2016 surveys on the question of same-sex marriage support report 55% supporting and the remaining 45% opposed or uncertain (Doherty, Campaign, 32), which suggests that US culture is in the midst of a growth period for post-mythic worldviews. Although such worldviews are currently under attack by the triumphant political party in the USA, it remains to be seen whether such a setback can force social regression on a large scale.

KEN WILBER’S INTEGRAL THEORY CHART

Mythic subcultures look longingly back in history to a Golden Age that has been lost in modernity. When active as a social force, mythic collectives aim to impose moral values from a past era, such as marital chastity, compulsory heterosexuality, and family values. The typical UU congregation falls into one of the other two worldviews; rationalistic or pluralistic. Observers of UU culture have long noted the tensions between “humanism” and “spirituality” within and between congregational factions. Superficially, this conflict maps onto the trajectory that Wilber identifies in the lower left quadrant in the above graphic between the rational and the pluralist worldviews. UU congregations have largely moved beyond the mythic culture that characterizes traditional and conservative religious populations, but UUs have done so in tension with the larger social center of gravity. This suggests that for UU congregations this tension is likely to be an ever-present factor in the life of the congregation and that a pastoral ministry practice would need to navigate this tension with an intentional awareness of it. In fact, the rise of the “New Atheism” and the growing identification with atheism among contemporary young adults, suggests that a burst of growth in the rationalist worldview is occurring in our society. As many UU congregations are becoming more strongly identified with the pluralistic worldview, this may explain some of the reasons why younger adults are less attracted to such pluralistic congregations and have begun to create more solidly humanist forms of community, such as the Sunday Assembly movement and Atheist/Humanist meetup culture. It may be that this is an inevitable development in our culture that cannot be absorbed by UU congregations. UU congregations desiring to grow in the contemporary climate may need to appeal to a different constituency than the humanist subculture that formed such a dynamic growth vector for much of the 20th century.

One important consideration that Wilber’s collective theory does not develop, as it is focused on large-scale social systems, is the distinctive subset of the larger population which a congregation actually embodies. Wilber’s four quadrants do not have a place for a congregation’s life system due to his focus on large-scale social conditions. Somewhere between the society at large and the individual person lies a field of interpersonal life in which a congregation’s life is dynamically enlivened by relationships between individual persons, each of whom bring their interior and exterior individuality into direct interaction with the interior and exterior lives of others. Wilber’s interior and exterior collective is at a remove from the dynamics of a congregation. This “in-between” quadrant might be characterized as the “interpersonal sub-quadrant” with both interior and exterior aspects. This theoretical departure from Wilber offers a provocative possibility for understanding the role of religious congregations in the world. If human life and interactions fall into three categories of individual, interpersonal, and collective, then the religious congregation is actually one of the few sites for a holistic community of interpersonal relationship that is greater than the private life, yet less impersonal than the collective culture and society. Within a congregational setting, a person is more than their job, politics, or their interior perspective. A congregation can shape its culture to care for the whole person within the larger impersonal mass society.

Perhaps this is a clue to the continuing relevance of religious congregations in modern industrial societies. Religious demographic studies suggest that religion will continue its historical pattern of stable growth and that atheism and secularism will actually decline globally in keeping with low birth rates in the modernized West (Hackett, Future, 5). If a pastoral care strategy can be embraced that prioritizes creating an “ecology of care” that is situated in the interpersonal sub-quadrant of human experience and is capable of appealing to a pluralistic population, perhaps the decline of religion in the modern West can be redirected towards a new religious culture. In order for UU congregations to maximize their relevance to a changing world, it will be necessary to understand what elements are currently inhibiting greater growth in UU and other liberal religious congregations.

If the hypothesis holds that UU churches are often divided into rationalists and pluralists, it can be hypothesized that these two worldviews also have interpersonal correlates. The rationalist highly prizes evidence, logic, and science. In Wilber’s psychological model, the rational worldview arises from the previous mythical worldview in a somewhat traumatic emergence that is exemplified in the experience of leaving one’s family in late adolescence and beginning life as a young adult. As a young adult enters college, for example, they are exposed to new learning in a new context and may have left most of their family and high school peers behind. This gives rise to an intensive individuation process that compels the new young adult to master a higher cognitive level and thus to learn to prize objectivity in ways that were less all encompassing in high school and the nuclear family context.

In contrast, the pluralist has emerged from the rationalist stage in a similar lurch into creating a life beyond the young adult stage of individuation. For many, this may involve a domestic partnership and raising children. This new set of relational challenges provokes a crisis of the rational worldview as romantic partners and children are notoriously irrational, and in fact, the pluralist stage involves a strong realization that one is far less rational than they may have believed. This disenchantment with rationalism perhaps reached a wider cultural watershed with the emergence of postmodernism within the cohort that succeeded the baby boomers, generation X. Thus, the pluralists are more tolerant of diversity, but paradoxically less patient with the certainty of the rationalists. Aiming for greater diversity within a UU congregation perplexes the rationalists, and the impatience of the pluralists alienates the rationalists.

For Wilber, the rational and pluralist stages are interconnected, evolutionary, and must be viewed from a yet higher perspective that he calls the “integral” worldview. The person with an integral worldview has attained some level of understanding of the larger trajectory within which all previous stages occurred and recognizing the limitations and strengths of each stage and thus able to perceive the evolutionary trajectory itself. It becomes possible for the integral worldview leader to conceive and implement an intentional strategy of reconciling tensions and enabling transitional development beyond whatever present stage of development each person they encounter may be. Thus, the integral worldview person is tolerant of the rationalist, mythicist, and pluralist (though in direct tension with the latter, as it is the stage from which they have recently emerged themselves), but also more aware that all of these worldviews are partial and will be transcended in the normal course of development. Though the integralist may tolerate the mythic perspective, a person with a mythic perspective is quite unable to accept this toleration as a strength and tends to see it as disingenuous, thus the reconciliation possible is limited. This is in marked contrast to the pluralist who gets mired in confusion between toleration of the mythic and utter contempt for it. The integral stance knows and accepts that the mythic stage is necessary and thus their tolerance for it is deeper and lacking in contempt. This is perceived by the pluralist as mystifying and offensive as their conflicted attitude towards the mythic worldview leads them to futile attempts at egalitarian dialogue that mythic stage persons perceive as a rigged arrangement.

In a congregational context, an integral stage minister of a church with both humanist and pluralist factions will perceive the necessary tasks to mediate the tensions within the congregation, by recognizing the tensions as natural and also be confident that unhurried development is truly natural so long as neither faction has become developmentally stuck at their level for a protracted duration. This leads to another strength of Wilber’s theory over some versions of developmental psychology, his proposal that there are lines of development within each stage. That is, the rational or mythic or pluralist stage are each an ideal type that no actual developing person manifests in a one-dimensional form as individual consciousness is complicated and can be analyzed not only along the sort of diachronic trajectory that has been elaborated thus far, but also synchronically in terms of the elements that make up consciousness at any point in the distinct development of the person. Wilber identifies up to two dozen developmental lines that make up the consciousness at any point in time.

These different developmental lines include morals, affects, self-identity, psychosexuality, cognition, ideas of the good, role taking, socio-emotional capacity, creativity, altruism, several lines that can be called “spiritual” (care, openness, concern, religious faith, meditative stages), joy, communicative competence, modes of space and time, death-seizure, needs, worldviews, logico-mathematical competence, kinesthetic skills, gender identity, and empathy—to name a few of the more prominent developmental lines for which we have some empirical evidence.

These lines are “relatively independent,” which means that, for the most part, they can develop independently of each other, at different rates, with a different dynamic, and on a different time schedule. A person can be very advanced in some lines, medium in others, low in still others—all at the same time. Thus, overall development—the sum total of all these different lines—shows no linear or sequential development whatsoever. (Wilber, Integral, 28).

This elaborate list of developmental lines may be excessive, but it demonstrates the sort of complexity that an actual person exhibits and thus when a conflict between persons is considered, it becomes obvious that the conflict may not be at the abstract level of “rational” versus “pluralist” but likely implicates multiple asymmetrical developmental processes. This differentiation of lines of development within stages leads Wilber to propose that how a person passes from one stage to the next is fraught with the possibility of actually “advancing” in a pathological manner. He writes,

Each time the self … steps up to a new and higher sphere … it can do so in a relatively healthy fashion—which means it smoothly differentiates and integrates the elements of that level—or in a relatively pathological fashion—which means it either fails to differentiate (and thus remains in fusion/fixation/arrest) or it fails to integrate (which results in repression, alienation, fragmentation). (Wilber, Integral, 92).

In moving from the grand level of social worldview to the level of the concrete individual person, the pastoral tasks become clearer. Each congregant is a person on a distinctive journey that nevertheless manifests within a larger trajectory that has been identified by developmental theory. But, that developmental trajectory does not perfectly mirror the superficially simple lines that are laid out in the theory of Erikson or others. A developmental stage is a marker of real achievements, but those achievements are constructed out of the concrete complexity of each person’s life. Each person’s difficulties with relational conflict, resisting changing times, younger generations, and moral ambiguity are part of the transformative process that each person undergoes over their lifetime and the congregational context needs to be shaped by its pastoral leadership to maximize the realization of communion within the congregation that will support and enable the transformative journey, both individually and congregationally.

For further consideration of the transformative journey, the work of John Bradshaw on the inner child will be considered as suggestive for a model of personal healing that can provide a path for helping a congregation move beyond its current levels of conflict and collective paralysis. Bradshaw deploys a version of Erikson’s psychosocial developmental stages to propose a process of emotional healing. Erikson identifies the basic emotional virtues that healthy development provides: Hope (infancy), Will (early childhood), Purpose (play age), Competence (school age), Fidelity (adolescence), Love (young adult), Care (middle adult), and Wisdom (old age). (Erikson, Life, 64). Bradshaw proposes that during the early stages of a person’s development, the experience of trauma associated with a stage’s central developmental challenges will contaminate adult behaviors (Bradshaw, Homecoming, 7). He offers a series of questionnaires that help each person identify the specific developmental challenges that they experience in their current lives. The questionnaires cover identity, basic needs, and social interactions. Once Bradshaw has administered this questionnaire to a group of therapy seekers in a seminar, he divides them into groups based on the stage at which the most pronounced challenges were identified by the questionnaire. Then, he leads them through group exercises, such as writing letters to their parents, etc. that are aimed to enable “reclaiming the wounded inner child” and thereby to begin a healing journey. The entire series of exercises can be done in a single day with a variety of group sizes, or over time as an adult RE curriculum.

Bradshaw’s model can be adapted and applied to a congregation as exercises in enabling better communication and understanding of each other as persons on a shared journey of transformation. Follow up will be suggested for each person in the manner appropriate to the specific needs and challenges that were identified by the questionnaire. This seminar model does not require that the minister handle counseling cases themselves, but provides a congregation with a shared experience that can begin to shift the culture of the congregation from divisive emotionally frozen camps to a more humble and open-hearted commitment to creating the community of love that is expressed in the declaration that “love is the spirit of this church.”

A variety of other approaches to fostering the loving culture desired can be employed than the Bradshaw adaptation proposed, such as small group meetings that intentionally foster emotional health and growth.

In this essay, the intention has been to move from the collective to the individual rather than the other way around that is typical of many applications of psychological theories to pastoral ministry. This choice reflects a conviction that it is not within the power of a minister and the church staff to deal with congregation-wide growing edges and conflicts primarily through individual interactions. Rather, to foster a congregational culture of love, healing, and transformation requires developing shared experiences that involve the congregation as a participatory community in forming a healthy culture of relational openness and resilience.

Wilber’s grand theory of cultural and institutional evolution gives us a macro level perspective on the challenges that face many UU congregations in terms of growing beyond the paralysis that seems to have coalesced around the tension between a rational humanist culture and a more open pluralistic common life.

Texts Cited

Doherty, Carroll, et al. Campaign exposes fissures over issues, values and how life has changed in the U.S. (Pew Research Center, DC), 2016

Fowler, James W. Faith development and pastoral care. (Fortress Press, PA), 1987.

Hackett, Conrad, et al. The Future of World Religions: Population Growth Projections, 2010-2050. (Pew Research Center, DC), 2015.

Leshner, Alan I. et al. Public praises science; scientists fault public, media. (Pew Research Center, DC), 2009.

Wilber, Ken. Integral psychology: consciousness, spirit, psychology, therapy. (Shambala Publications, MA) 2000.

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