David Wang: Strengthening spiritual formation using psychology

Photo courtesy of David Wang

The pastor and psychologist leads a project that helps seminaries evaluate their goals of spiritual formation.

As a college pastor in his early 20s, David Wang believed that the practice of spiritual disciplines all but guaranteed personal spiritual maturity. Daily Bible reading and prayer would translate inevitably into being a good person. Then a woman told him that she was molested by a respected pastor at his church.

“This person served the church for years but was doing horrible things behind closed doors,” he said.

As he witnessed the leadership of the church cover up the abuse and make decisions to protect the church leader instead of the victim, the gap between the leadership’s presumed spiritual maturity and their being actually good humans became more disconcerting.

It’s from this disconnect that Wang set out on a path to become a psychologist. If spiritual practices didn’t automatically translate into being a good person, he wanted to know what other factors were important.

In his work as a psychology professor, one of his research projects continues this question on the relationship between spiritual formation and personal maturity, and provides metrics for seminaries to test whether their stated formational objectives for their students are being met, using actual numbers instead of just words.

Wang teaches at Biola University in the Rosemead School of Psychology and works as a pastor at One Life City Church. He is editor-in-chief of the Journal of Psychology and Theology and serves on the editorial board of the journal Spirituality in Clinical Practice.

While consulting with the Duke Clergy Health Initiative, he spoke with Faith & Leadership’s Chris Karnadi about his research on spiritual formation and what pastoral leaders can learn from psychology. The following is an edited transcript.

Faith & Leadership: Tell me more about your research project on formation and seminaries.

David Wang: That project is being funded by the John Templeton Foundation. We’re doing some longitudinal empirical research on the formation of future religious leaders and getting a holistic perspective on it.

We’re looking at character, at spirituality, at mental health and physical health, lots of different facets, and we have about 18 seminaries on board. It’s an ecumenical study -- Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, mainline Protestant, as well as evangelical -- and we’re gearing up to do both quantitative and qualitative work. It’s a three-year project, so we’re going to collect data at five or six time points over the next few years.

We’re asking the question of how you assess that somebody has been spiritually formed. This question is of great interest to The Association of Theological Schools, who is a partner and co-sponsor of our institution and our project. The project is largely related to their role as an accrediting body. So ATS, like a lot of the other institutes of higher education that do accrediting work, are increasingly asking their member institutions to provide data that they’re actually accomplishing what they’re setting out to accomplish. This follows a larger trend of a push toward empirical data and research.

The tricky thing with seminaries is that when you try to take more of a data-driven approach, you’re working with mission statements like “We’re here to shape the hearts and minds of future religious leaders, and their spiritual lives as well.” And you run into this very practical dilemma, which is how to measure that.

This is one of the areas where I feel that psychology generally, and the psychology of religion and spirituality, which has developed a lot in the last 10 to 15 years, can develop reliable and valid measurements of various kinds of spiritual dispositions like character, like virtues -- stuff that is typically pretty hard to quantify.

For example, a colleague of mine, Pete Hill, studied humility and brought in an interdisciplinary group of philosophers, theologians, social scientists and practitioners to ask the question, “What is humility? What are observable indicators that someone might be humble?” And then based on that, they’ve developed and validated a number of different measurements of humility, like cultural humility, general humility, intellectual humility, expressed humility in business organizations. And even though there are still imperfections and limitations to these measurements, they are definitely huge leaps and bounds in greater sophistication than just asking, “How humble are you -- very humble or not very humble?”

As we’re doing this work, we’re finding that many seminaries haven’t even seriously asked the question of how to define formation or spiritual maturity and how to tell if a student who has gone through a program has actually developed in the ways the seminary intended.

F&L: How does this research affect your work as a pastor at One Life City Church?

DW: The church that I pastor now is a multiethnic but also multi-[socioeconomic status] church. It’s about a third Spanish-speaking, a third pan-Asian, a third Caucasian. We planted the church six years ago in this neighborhood in Fullerton Anaheim with a lot of undocumented immigrants, a lot of drugs and gangs, and a lot of trauma, especially childhood trauma.

My pastoral work there has been really focused not only on the spiritual but on human formation, because a lot of the young adults at my church grew up without consistent adults in their lives, which led to all sorts of challenges in our discipleship process, where there are feelings and anticipation that people will abandon them.

So for me as a pastor, I have to attend to and focus on those matters just as much as the other dimensions. The last series of sermons I gave was on spiritual friendship and how sometimes spiritual friendship just comes down to the commitment. It’s about persistence: I’m committed to you as a person, and that has to do with our maturity as human beings.

F&L: You mentioned that there’s past trauma in your congregation, and I understand that you’ve developed a manual for trauma-informed care. Can you talk about that?

DW: In my psychology work, I do a lot of work in trauma. I partner with the International Justice Mission, and I helped them develop their trauma-informed care manual. And since then, I’ve received a few small grants to do work on trauma-informed congregations.

The idea behind trauma-informed care is that a lot of times, systems are set up in a way that they end up re-traumatizing people. So training in trauma-informed care is an invitation to reexamine an institutional culture and system to see if there are ways to shape the culture so that it’s more sensitive and responsive to those with PTSD and those with trauma histories.

There’s a lot of work on trauma-informed care for schools, and I feel that churches need it, too. The way that some churches [respond] and the culture that some churches have cultivated over the years have a great capacity, unfortunately, to re-traumatize people -- and often with a spiritual veneer. So this trauma-informed care manual is [an invitation] to look at the systematic factors that make some churches not a safe place for people who have trauma.

For example, we talk about Good Friday versus Easter Sunday. Easter Sunday, unfortunately, is -- I mean, it’s a day of celebration, but it also tends to be one of the most difficult days for trauma survivors to attend church, because there’s a tendency to gloss over the trauma of Christ’s death on the cross and embrace a narrative of triumphalism, which is very incongruent with the experience of those who have survived trauma, because the consequences of trauma often persist over time.

I grew up in Northern California listening to certain Christian radio stations, and one of them was called K-LOVE. And the motto for K-LOVE is “Positive & Encouraging K-LOVE.” I don’t know where this came from, but people can equate being positive and encouraging with being Christian, and so if I have negative emotions, that’s not Christian.

Not only are there grave psychological, mental health implications of that imbalance, but I think it’s really poor theology. It’s not reflective of Scripture at all, so that might be another example of where psychology and faith interact. We need to create more spaces for things like grief and lament, because we don’t do it well as a culture in America, and we definitely don’t do it well in our religious communities.

F&L: What can Christian leaders learn from your work?

DW: One thing to consider is very basic: being a good listener and cultivating a church culture that is comfortable bearing witness to somebody else’s suffering.

Before we even get to the psychology, we can just say that a lot about our faith has to do with witness. Last year, I did a four-part sermon series on lament with our church, and we invited people to share their stories and share areas in their lives that have been painful. These were the kinds of stories that are not typically shared in churches, because there isn’t a happy ending yet -- and that was the point.

What I invited my congregation to do was to spend some time as they’re hearing the story to just observe what are they being pulled to say or to do and, as best they can, to hold back and just observe and just bear witness to the story.

As we debriefed that experience, it felt like torture for a lot of us. There is just this pull to try to resolve the tension, to say something. And even something as safe and as great as prayer became a complicated issue, because there’s the kind of prayer that can be avoidant, that ties everything up with a bow to move on.

But there’s also prayer that actually presses into that tension even more and says, “I’m going to accompany you through this.” But we lack instruction, and we lack opportunities to do that kind of thing. And as a result, we often find ourselves having good intentions but giving really horrible advice and really horrible feedback when we try to move people on from places of pain.