The Heart of the Heart of Lifespan Faith Development

In a Facebook comment, Erik Walker Wikstrom responded to my post on his curriculum Spirit in Practice with this bit of insight: “This curricula would not exist without the incredible work of Sarah Gibb Millspaugh. She was, technically, ‘developmental editor,’ but she is most certainly better called ‘co-author.'”

I believe him, too. I’m sure Sarah brought a deep understanding of what lifespan faith formation is all about. In fact, her summary of the four “strands” of faith development for Unitarian Universalists is one of the best I’ve seen:

Spiritual Development. In the book Everyday Spiritual Practice, Scott Alexander defines spirituality as our relationship with the Spirit of Life, however we understand it to be. Our spirituality is our deep, reflective, and expressed response to the awe, wonder, joy, pain, and grief of being alive.

© Nattle | - Tie Dye PhotoEthical Development. When we develop our ethics, we develop our moral values—our sense of what is right and wrong. We also enhance our ability to act on those values, overcoming oppressions and despair.

Unitarian Universalist Identity. A person’s participation in a Unitarian Universalist congregation does not automatically create Unitarian Universalist identity. Personal identification with Unitarian Universalism begins when people start to call themselves Unitarian Universalist and feel part of a Unitarian Universalist congregation or community. Identity is strengthened as individuals discover and resonate with the stories, symbols, and practices of Unitarian Universalism. As individuals find and give acceptance, as they cherish the community’s people and values and messages, as they find sustenance for their holy hungers, they grow into Unitarian Universalists.

Faith Development. When we develop in faith, we develop as meaning-makers. Faith is not about accepting impossible ideas. Rather, faith is about embracing life’s possibilities, growing in our sense of being “at home in the universe.” Faith is practiced in relationship with others—it has personal dimensions, but it is best supported by a community of shared symbols, stories, values, and meaning. This strand—faith development—emphasizes each person’s religious journey as a participant in a faith community and faith tradition, and each person’s lifelong process of bringing head, heart, and hands to what is of ultimate meaning and value.

I believe it’s no accident that spiritual development is the first of the four. Spirituality as “our deep, reflective, and expressed response to the awe, wonder, joy, pain, and grief of being alive” is truly at the center of faith development.

It informs our sense of right and wrong. It permeates our religious traditions. It expresses itself most fully in the way our faith calls us to live our lives, together.

So, if the heart of lifespan faith development in our congregations is the presence of spiritually mature people grounded in our faith tradition (as I suggested here), then spiritual maturity is the heart of their faith development.

Which is why I think it’s so important for congregations to not just offer “a robust plan for multiple adult faith formation opportunities.” Those opportunities need to start with spiritual development.

I’ve suggested a variety of way to make that happen here and here and here. But those suggestions are just a place to start. I’m sure there are countless ways to deepen the spiritual lives of the seekers and dwellers in our congregations. What ideas do you have for nurturing spiritual growth in our congregations?


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