Trust: The Critical Entrance into the Sacred World of Adolescent Spirituality

This week’s blog post is by Rev. Bobbie McKay, Ph.D., a UCC  minister, author, and licensed psychologist. Rev. McKay co-created The Spiritual Health Center, NFP and conducted a research study on Spiritual Life in the United Church of Christ. Based on the findings of this study, “Spiritual Life Teams” were born and the study has been extended into the Episcopal Church, the Catholic Church and the Reform Jewish Community in the greater Chicago area, as well as to Islamic populations in New York, Illinois, and Florida. Rev. McKay currently works as Pastoral Associate in Spiritual Life at the Glenview Community Church in Glenview, Illinois.  

After completing our study of Spiritual Life in mainstream Interfaith traditions, we had a range of participants from their mid-twenties to late sixties but were missing a younger population of adolescents and people over seventy. We initiated a study of adolescent spirituality.

We selected four churches (two Protestant; two Catholic) in Chicago and suburbs with established adolescent programs, meeting with a total of approximately seventy- five adolescents and their leaders. The study consisted of sharing God experiences (as defined by the participants) and the completion of a short questionnaire I designed about spiritual life. Last year, we added a fifth church which was powerfully confirmative of our study.

Church A: Protestant (Congregational). Their leader was a dedicated, high energy young man, well accepted and cared about by everyone. They called themselves the “servants” and met in the church basement with a well-loved dog in attendance. After our meeting, they wrote a letter of thanks for sharing our study, with individual messages from each person.

Church B: Catholic. Four adult couples led the group.They were so excited about their group and our research they filled out our questionnaire also. A sixteen-year old male member of the group with cerebral palsy was in attendance in a wheel chair accompanied by his caretaker and parents. He was fully accepted as part of the group.

Church C: Catholic. One adult couple led the group. The husband, soft spoken and quiet, was accompanied by his wife. They were clearly dedicated to their group. The group had recently experienced a “Kairos” weekend, a powerful opportunity to look at their relationship with God.

Church D: Protestant (Union). A tall, attractive young man was their leader. Before the meeting, he shared with us that he was planning on leaving the ministry and becoming a screen writer in California. However, he had not shared those plans with the group or the congregation.

The themes of the shared spiritual stories were highly relational:  experiences with friends, family and particularly with their grandparents. (Our being grandparents may have stimulated some of these stories.) But the loss of grandparents (through death or moving) were powerful expressions of grief and loss (usually not shared) and reminders of the critical nature of that relationship, especially when it is loving and accepting.

However, the leadership of the group was the most powerful predictor of both the verbal and written responses from the group. In Church D, where the leader had NOT told the group he was leaving, we received no shared written or verbal experiences of God. In some way, the group sensed his leaving and were already saying their silent goodbye.

Trust was clearly the most critical aspect of leadership for each group and the entrance requirement into the sacred world of adolescent spirituality.  Without a reliable trusting relationship, adolescents will not share their inner spiritual world and the reality of God in their lives.

When we repeated the study last year with a large group of adolescents (40+) and their trusted leaders in a UCC church, we received powerful confirmation of the essential role of trust in spiritual leadership for adolescents. They kept us overtime with their flow of words to describe their spiritual lives!



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