Research on the Spiritual Development of Young People: an interview with Dr. Eugene C. Roelkepartain


Today, we are very fortunate to have an interview with Dr. Eugene C. Roehlkepartain, Vice President of Research and Development for Search Institute. If you do not know, Search Institute is an independent, nonprofit organization dedicated to discovering what young people need to succeed in their families, schools, and communities. For over 20 years, Dr. Roehlkepartain has been doing research on a range of areas, including service learning, youth philanthropy, family strengths and family engagement. In 2008, Dr. Roehlkepartain co-authored the report With Their Own Voices: A Global Exploration of How Today's Young People Experience and Think About Spiritual Development.

The following interview has been edited for length.


You have a particular interest in youth spiritual development. How did that come about?

I’ve long had a personal interest in spiritual and religious development. Before coming to Search Institute, I worked in religious publishing with stints at both Group Books and The Christian Century. At Search, I’ve been involved from the beginning in our work with faith communities, working to build bridges between faith communities and the broader field of youth development. Much of that work focused on how Search Institute’s framework of developmental assets could be a resource for strengthening engage with youth and families in congregations of many faith traditions. 

The work on spiritual development emerged in the early 2000s out of a sense that this dimension of life was marginalized in the social sciences and youth development, even though it plays a powerful role for so many people. My mentor and colleague, Peter Benson (who passed away in 2011), shared this interest. We became intrigued with the question: What is spiritual about being human? 

We were fortunate to receive major funding from the John Templeton Foundation to explore spiritual development in adolescence across cultures and traditions. That focused work ended in about 2010, though I continue to be quite interested in the field.

I know this is a question that deserves a very long answer, but could you briefly define what you mean by ‘spiritual development’?

That was the subject of many, many conversations, and I’m still not satisfied with how we have articulated it. Our working and evolving definition is: 

Spiritual development is, in part, a constant, ongoing, and dynamic interplay between one’s inward journey and one’s outward journey. 

Spiritual development involves at least three core developmental processes (shown in the figure) , which are emphasized differently in different cultures and traditions:

  1. A process of awareness or awakening, which includes both self-awareness and world-awareness (including, for many, an awareness of the Divine).
  2. A process of interconnectedness and belonging, including significant relationships with people, the world around us, and the narratives, beliefs, and traditions that give meaning to human experience across time.
  3. A process of living an integrated life byauthentically expressing one’s strengths, identity, passions, values, and creativity in everyday life, decisions, practices, and relationships.

Young people engage in theses processes and dynamics in many different ways with different emphases and levels of intensity across cultures, traditions, and developmental periods. Some are quite active in their pursuit of and articulation of the spiritual dimensions of life. Others are more passive. But in our study across eight countries, we found that more than 90 percent of young people believed that there is a spiritual dimension in life.

In 2012, you wrote a paper on “Spirituality and positive youth development.” What did you discover? How would you say spiritual development ties in with overall youth development and helping youth succeed?

That chapter in the Oxford Handbook of Psychology and Spirituality offered an overview of the field and some of the key findings from our study of youth in eight countries in North America, Europe, Asia, and Africa. We found that, across traditions and cultures, young people who scored higher on our measures of spiritual development (as described earlier) also reported higher levels of positive development, including higher levels of volunteerism, self-rated overall health, environmentalism, and reduced risk behaviors. 

The case we made is that providing more opportunities for young people to intentionally cultivate their sense of awareness, belonging, and living a life of integrity, the more likely they are to be on a trajectory to thrive in life.

I loved the report that you and others prepared on listening to young people’s experience of spiritual development. In it, you and your co-authors say that, “When it comes to spiritual development, young people too often get one of two messages:

  • It’s not something we talk about; or
  • If we talk about it, let’s focus on what you should believe.”

What are some of the ways youth told you they were given those messages? And what are some things we can do to make spiritual development something that we do talk about?

This was a message we heard when we conducted focus groups with youth in multiple countries around the world. In several instances, youth would tell the facilitator that this focus group was the first time they have been asked what they thought about these issues and how they experienced these processes. In some parts of their lives, these are taboo subjects; we’re not really comfortable talking about them, or we think it’s off limits. When we do talk with kids about these topics, we are often trying to “pass on our faith tradition” that we aren’t attentive to their experiences and insights. 

My fear is that there’s a huge disconnect between what we keep saying and what they are experiencing and thinking about. We can’t know that unless we really listen to them without getting defensive or anxious that they don’t always have the “right” answers to the questions. 

One way we can make it something to talk about is, frankly, to stop talking and start listening, asking questions that invite deeper reflection. That won’t happen every time, and it will likely be uncomfortable (for everyone!) at first. 

Perhaps an example will help. We struggled with several strategies to begin our focus group conversations. If we started by asking young people about their own spirituality, we knew we would get their “pat answers” that they thought we expected to hear. So we began by asking them to describe a time when they had been full of joy, wonder, or hope. Later, we asked them to describe a person they know who seems spiritual. What does that person say or do that makes you see her or him as spiritual? These questions seemed to evoke a different conversation about spirituality based on their experiences and observations, rather than on how systematically they have thought through their belief system.

In addition to this general point, it’s worth highlighting three specific opportunities we might miss. 

First, these conversations are particularly rich when they occur across traditions and cultures—not as debates, but as ways of building mutual understanding. When we’re with people who all think a lot like we think or who have experiences a lot like ours, it can be harder to see things in new ways. We make assumptions about what each other knows. We use “code language” that may or may not be meaningful. That doesn’t work when we’re with people whose experiences, worldviews, and practices are different from ours. We have to work harder and dig deeper to articulate our own experiences and values. That can be uncomfortable at first, since we quickly realize how little we may have thought about these things. In the longer term, though they stimulate new insights that are formative not only for the conversation, but for our own development. 

Second, I think these conversations are easier when they take place in the context of shared experiences among participants. That’s why we collaborated several years ago with Interfaith Youth Core to build interfaith networks of youth in communities to engage in interfaith service-learning. Some of these are still flourishing. They would design and engage in service projects in the community together, and then reflect together on the experience, beginning with questions such as: What in your own experience or tradition inspires you to serve others? Service is one shared experience that really works. I can imagine that many other shared experiences, from  ropes courses to travel, could have similar effects in terms of creating a starting point for conversation. 

Finally, I think it is worth emphasizing that these conversations happen best in relationships that are characterized by trust, mutual sharing, and respect. Those take time to cultivate. And the conversations don’t necessarily happen on a schedule when the curriculum gives a prompt question. Rather, they happen in everyday life. 

So we have to think about spiritual development being nurtured through relationships in which we take time to talk about things that matter when they matter. Those conversations can happen with family members, peers, other church members, teachers, and others who are invested in young people’s lives and development. 

One thing that both this research and other research from Search Institute points to is the importance of mentors. What characteristics do the people who are good mentors have? And what role do mentors play in spiritual development? 

We define mentors broadly, including both those who have formal mentoring relationships as well as the many other adults who are invested in young people’s lives. For us, we’re less interested in the characteristics of good mentors; we’re more interested in the practices of mentors—what they do in their relationships with young people. 

Why is that distinction important? Our experience is that people assume some people are “good” mentors (based on something they saw on TV), and they don’t fit that image or stereotype. So we focus more on the kinds of things adults (including both parents and non-parent adults) to help young people learn and grow. We call these relationships “developmental relationships,” and I’ll talk more about this new research a little later. 

Given that, I would say that mentors play a vital role in spiritual development—not as the person who metaphorically guides a blindfolded youth to a predetermined destination. Rather, the mentor’s role is to be in relationship with young people. That means really letting young people know that they are important to you and you care deeply about them. It involves listening to them, respecting them, getting to know what makes them tick and what questions they have. It involves introducing them to new ideas, stories, experiences, and people that might intrigue or challenge them to grow in new ways. My hunch is that the most profound spiritual development happens through these kinds of relationships.

The report leaves us with a lot of unanswered questions, such as “How do we create safe space for the dialogue? How do we broaden the conversation? How do we handle church-state issues? How might youth work and education be different if we took spiritual development seriously?” Have you found the answers to any of these questions?

I’m not sure any of these questions will have an easy—or even a single—answer. My sense is that the answers to many of them would emerge if we trusted young people to engage them authentically in these questions and gave them room and time to live into many of these questions.

Part of the challenge is that we are in a culture that is much more comfortable debating issues and taking sides than we are with deeply examining our experiences and hopes, trusting that, with time, insight will emerge from those conversations. That requires a depth of relationship that we have to find space to create in our information- and activity- and technology-saturated world.

The report also offers some very good practical suggestions for youth, parents, educators, and youth workers on addressing issues of spiritual development. Do you have any more you want to add? Which ones suggested have proven to be especially positive?

I think we’ve covered most of the big things that come to mind. I would emphasize the power of relationships and the importance of taking young people seriously by listening to their experiences, perspectives, and insights. If we start with building relationships and really listening to understand, then the specific opportunities for growth will emerge from the conversation.

partners in faithAlthough that may not seem as concrete a suggestion as some would like, I think we’re at a place where adults in churches need to do a lot more listening to young people about their lives and their experiences. That listening will lead, I hope, not to figuring out more ways we can serve young people as consumers of our programs, but to discovering new ways to engage them as active agents of their own development and as partners in fulfilling the mission of our communities of faith. 

If there’s one take-away you want to share from your over 20 years of experience in researching the lives of young people, what would you want people to know? 

I’d like to say something about research, and then something about young people.

At its best, research is another window into young people’s lives and experiences. No single study is the final word, and we have to bring multiple perspectives to the dialogue. I think research on youth development is better at raising questions than providing answers. It helps us identify new places to explore and raises questions about assumptions we make. We don’t take it seriously enough if we simply think of it as a way to definitively answer our questions. 

When it comes to young people, I think it is important to remember that, despite generational change, they still need some basic things, and they still have tremendous gifts to offer. Rather than analyzing them and trying to figure them out from a distance, the invitation is to get to know them, their gifts, and their hopes for the future—and then to engage them as partners in ministry in the congregation, community, and world.

Thank you so much!