Lay Anglicana, the unofficial voice of the laity throughout the Anglican Communion.
This is the place to share news and views from the pews.

Get involved ...

Posts Tagged "Dr Wendy Dackson":

Letting Go of “Leadership”: Dr Wendy Dackson


A number of years ago, I was very close to a young married couple with a small child whom I knew from my church.  I thoroughly enjoyed their company, and we spent practically every waking hour of the weekends together.  We would make plans to go to museums, the zoo, air shows, shopping, and everything else that three adults and a toddler can do.  It was a lot of fun—for about a year.  I was finding that, as fond of them as I truly was, I also dreaded the Thursday night conversation after choir practice of ‘what are we doing on Saturday?’  I sometimes wanted a Saturday to do things that single women in their thirties might want to do (including just slobbing out with a book or cleaning my apartment).

In the course of a conversation with another single friend in her late forties, this concern came up, and she gave me an image that I found helpful.  She said that a jar needs a lid, but sometimes, in the course of time, the rim and the lid can get clogged with stuff that makes it difficult to put them together correctly.  You need to separate the jar from the lid, clean the screw-threads, let it air dry, and only then can they go together again as they were meant to do.  This metaphor helped me understand that as important as my time with this family was, I also needed to separate from them on occasion, and by doing that it would help rather than hinder the positive relationship I had with my married-with-children friends.

I’m experiencing the same uncomfortable, clogged-up relationship lately with the word ‘leadership’, especially when it applies to the church.  It was triggered yesterday, when this (admittedly very good) blog post was shared on two separate Facebook pages.  I am in agreement with what Nieuwhof says about pastors being responsible for small groups of people (usually ‘local churches’), and that there is a need for people who can think beyond the local.  I’d add that it needs to extend beyond just launching a bunch of new communities, but to do some serious work on the inter-relatedness and distinctiveness of various types of communities (such as my interest in the differences of dioceses throughout the Anglican Communion, or the question of identity for Anglicans whose first language is not English, such as the Francophone Network of the Anglican Communion).  It needs not just to seek opportunities for bringing new people in, but to create spaces for reflection which leads to more considered action.  And it needs not to be limited to the ordained.

My own Facebook status reflects my discomfort with the terminology of ‘leadership’ itself, more than any disagreement with Nieuwhof.  I wrote:

The Church does not need any more ‘leaders’, and should stop training ‘leaders’. Because ‘leader’ implies ‘followers’, and that means ‘leaders’ are by nature backward-looking to see who is behind them. What the Church needs are people who are passionate about doing what needs to be done, and are ready to welcome people to join *alongside* them, so that together they will get all the things that need to be done, DONE.

I did not quite anticipate having as lively a discussion as my admittedly bad-mood status update sparked, and I did not realize how aggravated I have become, over the past few years, at the language of ‘leadership’.

The church, from where I sit (which is mostly on the outside these days) does not need one more ‘leader’.  We have all the Leader we need in the person of Jesus—and that is the only person who should, in the church, have ‘followers’.  Human leadership, even in the church, is a matter of looking backwards, to see who is behind, who is following, and how many of them.  The focus is on the success of the ‘leader’—how effectively s/he can get people to follow.  When you have to keep looking over your shoulder at who’s behind you, it diminishes your capacity to look at the road ahead. Furthermore, few people can authentically ‘follow’ more than one ‘leader’—there is little or no overlap, and therefore, it can only be measured or described in ways that are inappropriately competitive.

I got a bit of pushback, with one of the conversation partners calling it ‘servant leadership’.  Jesus might have displayed this, but I have yet to see it in any local church or higher institution.  The term has become a two-edged sword, and we should put it down immediately.  The edges are, I think, less whether we are talking about clergy/laity, but who is doing the talking about whom. If I say about myself ‘I am a servant leader’, at some level (intended or not), I am saying ‘I am doing you a great SERVICE, and thus your task is to follow me and do as I say.’ If I tell you ‘Yours is a servant leadership’, what I am likely saying (at least in part) is that your God-designated place in the grand scheme is to serve (me) and set an example that others will follow.

In the first instance (“I see myself as a servant leader”), it is what sociolinguist Deborah Tannen calls (in her book, The Argument Culture) ‘getting the lower hand’–it obligates someone to you because you are (falsely) putting yourself in a one-down position in relation to them. By doing this, you take control of the relationship, while falsely asserting that the other person is really in the driving seat.

In the second instance, by praising someone else’s ‘servant leadership’, we get a double-win: we say something ‘nice’, while keeping that person firmly in his/her place.

All of this is problematic, whether we are, in Nieuwhof’s terms, ‘pastors’ or ‘entrepreneurs’.  “Leadership” , using my friend’s metaphor, is a jar that is so full of junk that it needs to be unscrewed, cleaned out, let to air for a good long time—and only then can we put it back together and use it well.

What would I rather see?  First, I do not think we need a new terminology for the same old problem.  Calling something by the more modern name of ‘tuberculosis’ when our ancestors used to call it ‘consumption’ does not change what the problem really is.  We need a remedy, not a new name.

Secondly, although we may not need more pastors, we probably don’t need fewer, either.  There will always be a need for people who are very good at caring for the local church, identifying the needs of the ‘little flocks’ and making sure those needs are met.  After all, it is most likely that people who flourish in the local church are the ones who can emerge as the entrepreneurs that Nieuwhof wants to see more of.

I agree, however, that we need more than pastors.  Entrepreneurs is perhaps one category that we do need, but we need more than that, too.  We need people who are committed to a complementary endeavor to entrepreneurial action—we also need people who are passionate about reflection on experience, because completing the action/reflection cycle is more effective than either action or reflection alone.

I don’t have a ‘catchy’ term for this.  The best I can do is to say that the church, in my experience and observation, needs quite a few passionate accountable visionaries.  There may be some overlap into the categories of pastor and entrepreneur, but it is an area that needs to be developed—and it may need more well-qualified lay practitioners than ordained ones.  The passionate accountable visionary is a person who sees a bigger picture than local congregations, is concerned with quality of Christian life together (not just in the congregation, but across wide areas of the Communion of Saints), and makes imaginative connections between realities and aspirations.  A passionate accountable visionary has is grounded in theology as well as practical knowledge, and is capable of making a theological analysis of what s/he observes and experiences.

The ‘passionate’ and ‘visionary’ elements are fairly obvious—it’s the ‘accountable’ that needs to be teased out a bit more.  This person is resourced  by the church:  laborers deserve their pay, and if someone has equipped himself for this kind of work, the church must be prepared to compensate him for performing it, whether he is lay or ordained.  It is a dedicated life of study and sharing, which is far beyond what can be sustained in off-hours from a full-time job. It needs frequent contact with other visionaries, for stimulus and for sharing across communities.

Those who wish to support the passionate visionary’s work are not followers, so much as  backers, very much in the sense that this word is used in a business context—they invest in a person’s passion and knowledge, expecting a return for their churches, whether local churches or a wider association.  They have a right, even a responsibility, to ask for regular communications from whoever they support, and any backer could support a number of visionary thinkers.

This, obviously is very different from the leader/follower model:  a visionary might be supported by a number of people, who in turn support others (and ideally, there could be a great amount of overlap between the ‘support system’ of passionate visionaries).  The passionate accountable visionary is in ‘front’, not to attract attention or to ‘lead’, but to see what is needed for the future of the church.  The ‘backers’ are behind—not to follow, but to encourage, and to create energy, and to maintain accountability.

The effect would be much like an ecclesiastical version of Dragon’s Den or Shark Tankthe return on investment not measured in monetary terms, but the advancement of the gracious reign of God.


Editor’s note:

This post is being published simultaneously on the blog of the Revd Ken Howard, a fellow admirer of Dr Wendy Dackson’s work. This is a great blog, which I think readers of Lay Anglicana would also enjoy. Ken’s Wikipedia page is here. He is:

“an author, an ordained minister of the Episcopal Church in the Diocese of Washington, and a thought leader in church planting and post-partisan Christian unity. Howard is the founding vicar and first rector of Saint Nicholas Church.[1] He led Saint Nicholas through its 1388% growth from 1995 to present,[2][3] including purchasing and breaking ground on its own property and constructing the church building itself.[4] He gives talks and presentations nationwide on topics from his book Paradoxy: Creating Christian Community Beyond Us and Them, as well as consulting on conflict resolution, vision, and direction for congregations and dioceses, through the Paradoxy Center for Incarnational Christianity at St. Nicholas Church.[5]A Christian of Jewish origins, Howard has been an ordained priest in the Episcopal Church since 1993, focusing on church planting, congregational vitality, and conflict transformation. Prior to ordination Howard was a consultant in team-building, organizational development, and strategic planning. He holds a Master of Divinity degree from Virginia Theological Seminary, with honors in Church History for his research into the Jewish origins of early Christianity, published in Jewish Christianity in the Early Church.[6] In 2010, Howard authored the book Paradoxy: Creating Christian Community Beyond Us and Them, the premise of which is to help congregations “transcend dead-end divisions and transform conflict into healthy diversity united by the love of Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit”

The Nones are Something: Wendy Dackson


My Facebook feed recently had an interesting piece from Huffington Post’s religion blog, entitled 10 Facts about the Transforming Global Religious Landscape.  I find the facts interesting, but not surprising.  Christianity and Islam are the two dominant religions throughout most of the world; Judaism is only the dominant religious affiliation in Israel, and claims a smaller percentage of world population than folk religions (although it has, arguably, the greatest cultural impact of any single religion, being the parent of both Christianity and Islam).  The majority of the world’s Hindus are geographically located in India and a few neighboring countries.  None of this is news.


What many people, especially loyal adherents of specific religious traditions, may find surprising or even upsetting is the data concerning those who do not claim affiliation with any religious tradition.  The article calls them the “nones”, and they cover a fairly wide swath of humanity.  This group includes atheists, agnostics, the “spiritual but not religious“. Probably a fair number of people who accept most of  the teachings of a particular tradition, but do not attend its worship services or submit to the authority of its temporal leadership, fall into this large category as well.  Christianity claims just under a third of the world’s population; Islam just under a quarter.  The “nones” are the world’s third largest spiritual grouping, at around 16% of people living on earth.


A religion such as Christianity, which is bound by the Great Commission (most familiar as Matthew 28:16-20), and called to spread its message of “good news” to all nations, preaching repentance from and forgiveness of sin (Luke 24:44-49) needs to take the phenomenon of the Nones much more seriously than I believe it is doing.  Especially if the final point of the HuffPost essay is correct in its claim that the Nones have spiritual convictions, we cannot fall into the trap popularized by those religious leaders who dismiss them as unformed, vacuous, self-serving, or just too lazy to go to church.  This was my biggest flash-point with Lillian Daniel’s book on the Spiritual but Not Religious, and it led to a review of her book and a set of more personal responses and reflections that have appeared here on Lay Anglicana.


The Nones believe.  We, as Christians, need to respect that, and find out what forms the content of that belief.  It might also be a good thing, while we’re at it, to learn the source of that belief.  I think it is very likely that, if the content has some component of the teachings of one of the major religions, then the person holding that belief has had substantial contact with the institutions of that religious tradition.  If s/he now identifies as unaffiliated, we must ask why. If the contact has not been direct, and a person thinks the teaching and practice of the religious tradition is good but still refrains from identifying as a member, we must also ask why.


People refuse to affiliate with, or choose to leave, institutional religion for a variety of reasons, and I believe it is a very foolish community that does not make an honest attempt to understand the phenomenon of the Nones, or the Spiritual but Not Religious.  Dismissing them as spiritually vague or lazy, while insisting they need the churches (and simply saying so more loudly when objections are raised) is not ‘evangelization’.  Evangelization means sharing good news.  Treating people like spiritual dimwits is the exact opposite, and those who reject it should have the admiration of thoughtful people of faith.


Yet, doing so has become popular.  Lillian Daniel’s book is perhaps the most egregious example, but the attitude has trickled down even to educated lay Christians.  A recent Facebook conversation yielded the following comment by someone who claims to be concerned with mission, but said the Spiritual but Not Religious are “sometimes curious but uncommitted and privileged people who may or may not have concern for the deeper things of ministry and mission”, and that they are “unwilling to see beyond their own privilege and social location.” My interlocutor in this conversation has a postgraduate degree in mission studies from a liberal denominational seminary.  If this is what is being taught as “mission”, I cannot be at all surprised that churches are failing to reach the unaffiliated.


People may leave a church for a variety of reasons–moving to a new area (and not reaffiliating once they are settled), forming relationships not sanctioned by their spiritual community, realizing that there isn’t much there for them.  There is also the possibility of having been victimized by people in power in the church who have misused their positions of authority.  The cases of this last are notorious, but overall, I think not the overwhelming reason people cease to claim religious affiliation.  But good “mission” involves understanding the reasons, and not blaming those who do not respond to our message because we have failed to deliver it authentically and convincingly.


I have a very different take on the Nones, and most specifically those who have been formed in a Christian tradition but no longer attend or self-identify with a particular church.  It is rooted in James Fowler’s Stages of Faith (see my earlier blog post about the Big Bang Theory of Faith for a brief synopsis).  Churches, and the training for their ordained leadership, are geared to a Stage 3 Synthetic-Conventional faith. When people reach a more deeply questioning Stage 4, the vast majority of Christian churches cannot accommodate their journey any further.  Rather than stunting their own growth, people leave.  It could be for a time, and there may be a return at some later point.  But the inquirer will be a different person—and the same church structures may not be able to accommodate him or her.  My suspicion is that rather than being vague, lazy, or unable to see past his or her own social location, someone who leaves is being very rigorous about their spiritual growth and broadening their view.  A boxed-in church, even a liberal one, cannot be home to this person.  And so, rather than trying to grow in a situation that does not allow it, the inquirer has little choice but to forge his or her own path.


This is not a happy situation.  People who leave often miss their communities—the ritual, the celebration, the support.  But people who have outgrown their churches often find that the community is no longer a place of support, and even feel marginalized when they attend or attempt to participate.  If they have gone to great efforts to develop gifts and offer them back to the community, they may feel their gifts are rejected (this is my particular relationship with the church at the moment).  They may feel the questions they raise are dismissed by the church.  And so, after a period (often years) of feeling rejected and devalued, they leave.


The church may have become very sad news to those who have left it.  And possibly even sadder when they try to return and find that their journeys and insights are dismissed, and that to be part of the community once more they have to regress in their spiritual growth.  As well, the churches may look very silly to those who have a vague idea of their message, but who hang back from entering.


A few years ago, I contributed an essay to a collection on the American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr edited by two Church of England Bishops; my offering concerned an exploration of Niebuhr’s “outsider ecclesiology“.  I am convinced that the most important thing the church can do for its mission is to take the Nones/SBNR seriously (not just dismiss them as lazy, vague, or privileged), and attempt the difficult task of viewing the church from their vantage point. My opening quote from William Temple in a recent Lay Anglicana offering indicates this need—it is the fault of the church if it fails to preach the gospel in a way that appears to outsiders as authentically good news.  We need to develop leaders–ordained, but perhaps more usefully senior lay leaders—who can hold up a mirror to the church so the church can see itself as those who are not already convinced by the gospel do.  We need to develop theological language that respects those who stand, with good reason, outside the Christian community (and we have to really enter into dialogue, not just some cheap Christian ‘pitch’ that sounds like a telemarketing script).  We have to treat our critics as intelligent, thoughtful people of goodwill who deserve our respect—otherwise, they have no reason to respect us.  So far, what I see from ‘mission’ studies has neglected this.  We train people for ‘mission fields’ far away from home.  That is the easy route.  The more difficult is to enter into respectful conversation with the people we ride elevators with each day.  The risk is that we will be changed in the encounter, and see a bigger vision of the Gospel than we get cozily wrapped up in by our refusal to change.



In most of the world, the Nones are the second-largest spiritual grouping (and in China, the largest).  To behave toward them in condescending or dismissive ways is a betrayal of the Great Commission, and a commitment to fail in its execution.

An American Thinks about the Royal Baptism: Wendy Dackson

Baptistry ceiling of Neon, Ravenna

Baptistry ceiling of Neon, Ravenna



Two days after my knee surgery, I woke up early to catch the coverage of infant Prince George of Cambridge’s baptism on Good Morning America.  Really, it wasn’t much to get up for—watching people arrive, but no actual broadcast of the service itself.  The real interest for me has been my Facebook feed, and the commentary by American friends (over whom the Supreme Governor of the Church of England has no jurisdiction) concerning this liturgical event.


After more than four years living in England, and working with churches, I found nothing remarkable about the occasion.  It was what I have come to expect as a typical Church of England baptism, despite the notoriety of the main participants.  The family gathered at a place of worship with which there is a significant connection, with family and friends with whom they share spiritual values and convictions.  The clergy invited to officiate have important relationships with the parents.  It was not an enormous gathering, but done at a time when the people who share the family’s spiritual journey could assemble to witness the event, and to welcome and encourage the new Christian to the household of God.  In many ways, there was absolutely nothing remarkable about Prince George’s baptismal service.


So, I was a bit taken aback with some criticisms I saw leveled, by otherwise open-minded people.  People who ordinarily would take to task anyone who inappropriately applied one cultural or theological norm to a situation where another was called for.  People who would ordinarily recognize a sort of cultural imperialism if the economically and socially privileged world imposed its standards on developing nations–but who did not recognize that it is equally imperialist to apply a US norm to the Church of England.  I found it especially disturbing, because these are people who, despite high levels of education, have not really taken the time to examine why the principles they insisted upon were not applicable.  There were two instances of critique which I attempted (unsuccessfully) to engage, but the discussion fell short of what I had hoped.  This reflection stems from those instances.


The first was when someone expressed gladness that the prince had been baptized, but wished that Archbishop Oscar Romero‘s insistance that “all people, regardless of their position in society, receive the sacrament equally and without exception.”  I asked what was meant by this, and how it was applicable to the situation of the baptism of an English infant prince.  The response, initially, was that I received instruction to go watch a video with Raul Julia entitled “Romero“.  (I am unable at the moment to go to libraries to hunt up videos and will not be able for a few more weeks—sorry.)  When pressed, my interlocutor cited the objection raised in the film to the ruling class custom of “private baptisms”, held outside the usual worship times and where only those invited could be present for the ceremony.  This may have been a problem in Latin America; my English experience is that most baptisms are conducted outside of Sunday morning worship, and are relatively small services where family and friends attend.  This is not just for certain classes, and the fact that the royal baptism was one of these typically small English ceremonies was probably what confused my interlocutor to the point of equating it with the aristocratic private baptisms in San Salvador.  This person did not realize that low-key baptism is an option available to most English families–not just the upper classes.


Furthermore, it seems a theological nonsense to say that baptism is somehow not the same depending on the character (whether public or private) of the ceremony.  One is not “more baptized” if the sacrament is administered by the archbishop in the presence of a handful of witnesses—nor is one any less baptized in that setting.  The grace of baptism is not something that can be quantified, and so to speak of baptism not being “equal” makes no sense.  Finally, the assertion that it should be “without exception” is unfathomable in anything resembling a religiously plural society (such as the United Kingdom, or the US, for that matter).  Baptism is the liturgical recognition of membership in the Christian community.  Its exact significance and timing will differ from one denominational group to another, but it is only for those who choose to enter (on their own, or through their sponsors).  The only “without exception” that can be imagined is that baptism will be provided without exception for those who wish it.  This side of the eschaton, we cannot expect a community of nothing but baptised Christians–and we may be surprised if we arrive on the other side of that divide and find that even there, baptism without exception does not exist.  If the church holds (as it generally does) that all people should seek the benefits of baptism, and does not have the power to require people to do it, the church needs to ask what are we doing or not doing to make the life with God in the community of the church a desirable good.  And then the church needs to do something about the answers to that question.


Those were my concerns with the critiques raised by one conversation partner.  Equally disturbing were the pronouncements made by an Episcopal priest in how a service of baptism held outside the Sunday worship of the congregation did not live up to the liturgiology of the Episcopal Church’s 1979 Book of Common Prayer—and how “far behind the times” the Church of England is (which may have some merits, but is not applicable in this instance).  Objections to the way the service was conducted (and remember, nobody in the conversation actually was privy to what went on—not even me) circled around the failure to welcome the newly baptized into the community of faithful; to do proper preparation and reflection prior to and after the administration of the sacrament; and to provide adequate pastoral care for the baptismal candidate and family.


I found this line of reasoning to be invalid.  First, we cannot judge what preparation occurred prior to the event, as we do not know.  What we can say with a fair amount of confidence is that the Duchess of Cambridge was confirmed shortly before her wedding in 2011, by one of the bishops who presided at her infant son’s baptism.  Her preparation was seen to be adequate by a senior bishop in her church, and there is no reason to assume that the private nature of the ceremony indicates a lack of preparation.  Secondly, the child was baptized in a worship space that is meaningful to the family, where they regularly receive spiritual nurture, and amongst people whose values are consistent with those of the parents of the newly baptized.  It is particularly interesting to note that the choice of sponsors was not a pro forma selection of who would be honored to be a royal godparent, but people who the Duke and Duchess trust with their child’s spiritual formation. This indicates a fairly sophisticated reflective process on the meaning of baptism and the role of faith in the life of a potential monarch.  The question of reflection subsequent to the baptism is, to my mind, a non-starter:  when do you know it has been enough, or done to a satisfactory degree?  The answer is very simply that it is not knowable.  It is a lifetime process, and cannot be captured or controlled by priest or community (and not every community is adequate to the task of baptismal reflection).  Finally, the question of pastoral care for the family is silly.  If any family was more in need of a quiet, low-key baptismal celebration, in the presence of those who mean the most to the parents and child, than the Duke, Duchess and their baby prince, I can hardly imagine who that might be.  But the main problem is to evaluate a Church of England service through the lens of the Episcopal Church (USA) 1979 Book of Common Prayer, and to make pronouncements that the service has failed to be something it never claimed.


What might have been an advantage, if any can be imagined, of the baptism of the newest royal being more public in its character?  I think there is a theological nuance that most have missed.  At least, I have not seen anyone other than myself make a claim for it.  It is that society has asked the church to help it transform into something better, nobler, more holy than it is.  The symbolism of the royal family—the highest echelon of English society—has submitted itself to the authority of God’s gentle and just rule.  Society, represented by a helpless infant, has asked to become what it is not yet.  It is a start for Prince George, and a re-start, a reaffirmation of aspiration to the Kingdom that we pray will come on earth, made in his person on behalf of the social order of the nation.  That is what we should be reflecting on as the significance of the royal baptism this past week.  That is what we should grieve that we did not witness.  The adequacy of post-baptismal reflection about this event is not just the task of the Duke, Duchess, their son and his sponsors.  The question of societal transformation under the guidance of and in partnership with the church needs all of our participation.  Critique from the cheap seats is not an option.

The Big Bang Theory of Faith: Dr Wendy Dackson



Faith is not always religious in its content or context. . .Faith is a person’s or group’s way of moving into the force field of life.  It is our way of finding coherence in and giving meaning to the multiple forces and relations that make up our lives.  Faith is a person’s way of seeing him- or herself in relation to others against a background of shared meaning and purpose.

James W. Fowler, Stages of Faith:  The Psychology of Human Development and the Quest for Meaning

Probably one of the most intelligently entertaining American situation comedies of the last 15 years is the Big Bang Theory.  Although it is perfect light viewing early on a Thursday evening (in the US, new episodes air on the CBS network at 8 pm eastern time, and there are multiple broadcasts of reruns on cable stations), Big Bang has some of the most thoughtfully developed characters and story lines, and perfectly-timed acting, of any half-hour comedy I can remember over the course of my lifetime.  The series, for those who have not watched it, is focused on the lives of four male colleagues at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech).  Sheldon Cooper and Leonard Hofstader, experimental and theoretical physicists, are roommates.  Although Sheldon, a child prodigy, has a supposedly slightly higher IQ than Leonard, he lacks his roommate’s social and life-skills.  Rajesh Koothrappali, a particle astrophysicist from New Delhi, experiences such social anxiety that he cannot converse with women without the help of alchohol; his best friend, Howard Wolowitz, is an aerospace engineer, and the only member of the group whose academic credentials do not include a doctoral degree.


I have not been a devotee of the show from its inception (it began in 2007, while I was living in England, and was not available on terrestrial British television during my time there).  However, having been laid up for several months earlier this year, unable to do very much other than watch television, I believe I have seen just about every episode.


Religion is not a major or explicit theme in the Big Bang Theory.  There are references to Howard’s Jewish upbringing, to Raj’s Hindu heritage, and to the “hell” which was the Christian fundamentalist childhood Sheldon endured.  But with little explicit reference to major spiritual traditions, it is fair to ask why, on a re-reading of James Fowler’s classic book on faith stages, I am led to reflect on the inner lives of these four young, hilarious, fictional men.


 Fowler’s stages of faith

The quote that starts off this little exploration is key:  For Fowler, “faith” is not about religious belief, the acceptance of a metaphysical system, or subscription to a particular philosophy. Faith, as Fowler describes it, is how one is oriented to the world and others, the values that one holds as ultimate, and how all lesser values are ordered.  Fowler describes six “stages” of faith, based on (but not exactly correlating with) the developmental models of Erikson, Piaget, and Kohlberg, beginning in early childhood (around age 2, with a pre-stage of “undifferentiated” faith), and through adulthood.  I summarize them, as follows, using Fowler’s categories, but condensing the descriptions:


Stage 1:  Intuitive-Projective Faith

Fantasy-filled, imitative.  Thought patterns are fluid, with no logical thought to inhibit and restrain imagination and fantasy.  Self-awareness is almost completely ego-centric, although the child can be permanently influenced by the moods and actions of closely-related adults.  The gift of this stage is the birth of imagination, but the danger is that the imagination can be taken over by unrestrained images of terror, or the reinforcement of taboos.  (Pp.133-34)


Stage 2:  Mythic-Literal Faith

This is the stage in which a person starts to take on the stories, beliefs and observances that indicate s/he is a member of a particular community, although usually in a very literal, rule-following manner.  Concrete operations begin to order the imaginative construction of experience.  The sense of reciprocal justice emerges, as does the rise of narrative capacity. The danger is the limitations of literalness and the excessive reliance on reciprocity for constructing relationships, which can lead to an over controlling perfectionism.(pp.140-150)


Stage 3:  Synthetic-Conventional Faith

Experience of the world extends beyond the family, with multiple spheres (school, work, peers, etc) demanding attention and loyalty.  Faith provides a coherent orientation for this more complex environment, as well as a basis of identity and outlook.  Usually this stage arises in adolescence, and it is important to note that Fowler believes many adults find their point of permanent equilibrium here.  The gift of the stage is the formation of a personal myth of one’s own place in the past and anticipated future of their ultimate environment, and a unification of personality characteristics.  The deficiencies are that (a) the expectations and assessments of others become internalized so that autonomy and judgment can be impaired, and Interpersonal betrayals can either give rise to a nihilistic despair or over-reliance on whatever one holds as God (including science) which is unrelated to mundane relations. (Pp.172-173)

Fowler also notes that most American (and I suspect, European) church communities and their ordained leaders are oriented toward bringing people to this stage of faith and no further.


Stage 4:  Individuative-Reflective Faith

If (and it is a big ‘if’) this stage occurs, it is where the person begins to assume responsibility for his or her own commitments, lifestyle, beliefs and attitudes.  This will be a time of tensions between self and the community to which the person belongs.  It may even occasion a temporary or permanent breach with the community.  (This is where I think it is important for churches to take special notice.)  Fowler says it is “most appropriate” to young adulthood, although it may be delayed until later, and may never happen at all.  The strength of this stage is the increase in capacity for critical reflection on identity and outlook, but these can be offset by an excessive confidence that results in a narcissism. Unlike Stage 3, it seems rarely to be a stopping place in faith development.  My own thought is that either the Stage 4 person will return to a more synthetic-conventional form of faith (although often in a different setting, but almost always with a deeper capacity for critical reflection) or s/he will progress to Stage 5.(pp.182-183)


Stage 5:  Conjunctive Faith

This is perhaps the most difficult stage to pin down with a short description.  Fowler gives a few analogies as to what its emergence is like; my favorite among them is it is something like “Discovering that a guest, if invited to do so, will generously reveal the treasured wisdom of a lifetime of experience” (pp. 184-85).  Conjunctive faith is characterized by giving up the “either/or” of earlier stages, and the person at this stage can understand many sides of an issue simultaneously.  Fowler claims that conjunctive faith “suspects that things are organically related to each other; it attends to the pattern of interrelatedness in things, trying to avoid force-fitting to its own prior mind set.”; there is attention to the ” ‘wisdom’ evolved in things as they are, before seeking to modify, control or order them to fit prior categories”(p. 185). There is a sense here that Rowan Williams, in his 1993 essay “On Theological Integrity“, was hinting at this when he claimed that theological integrity demanded that we talk about what we say we are talking about, without coming to foregone conclusions. Conjunctive faith requires a “conscious cognitive and affective adaptation to reality”, as well as a new reclaiming and reworking of one’s past (p. 197). Because it “knows the sacrament of defeat and the reality of irrevocable commitments and acts”, this fifth stage is unusual before mid-life.  It recognizes the powerful symbols and meanings of one’s group, while :understanding that they are relative, partial and inevitably distorting apprehensions of transcendent reality.” It can, however, result in a “paralyzing passivity or inaction, giving rise to complacency or cynical withdrawal, due to its paradoxical understanding of truth.”  It “lives and acts between an untransformed world and a transforming vision.” (198)


Stage 6:  Universalizing Faith

It is important to note that Fowler considers this to be extremely rare, and most of us will have little personal contact with those who have reached this stage–examples he cites are people such as Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King, Jr., Gandhi.  I suspect that time will tell if Desmond Tutu and Pope Francis might be among those at Stage 6.  Universalizing Faith is not an indication that someone is a perfect human being.  Fowler claims that this is almost always achieved within the context of a religious outlook (although my personal suspicion is that it need not be).  It is known more in the impact of their vision and leadership than in a particular way of life, and especially in the way they relate to the ordinary person (Fowler’s example for this is King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail”, which was written to moderate/liberal religious leaders–his colleagues, rather than his adversaries). Their visions are not abstract, but “radical acts of identifications with persons and circumstances where the futurity of being is being crushed, blocked, or exploited.”  They are not self-formed, but have been through formation in church (or possibly non-religious communities) and familial relations, and education.  There are multiple acknowledged influences, which have been subjected to critical reflection and consciously chosen or rejected. This is the highest achievement of the life of faith, which all formative institutions should aspire their adherents reach.


Before engaging in a lighthearted categorization of our fictional friends, a few further important points from Fowler should be noted.  First, progression along the stages has nothing to do with the intensity of devotion or knowledge. Someone at Stage 2 is as likely to attend a large number of religious services as someone at a more developed level (possibly more likely); furthermore, the stages (except possibly the sixth) are independent of mastery of the content of belief.  Secondly,  change in the content of faith (whether between religions or secular sources, or a combination), is how Fowler defines conversion. Conversion does not always, or even often, mean that a person’s faith stage changes.  It is entirely possible (even likely) that conversion is lateral or even regressive in terms of stage. Finally, except for the possibility of Stage 6, “goodness”, or even likeability, do not necessarily increase as a person progresses from one stage to another.


It should also be noted that, unlike many personality assessments (such as the Myers-Briggs and Enneagram), Fowler’s six-stage faith development has not been widely adopted as a measurement device by the churches (let alone those for whom “faith” is a somehow suspect word).  Fowler does not encourage his readers to assess others or themselves–and if it were to be done (and the subjects made aware of it), people would probably be quite upset with the analysis.  Personally, I think it could be more widely and productively used than it has been, but for the moment, I will satisfy myself with assessing fictional characters.


 Back to The Big Bang Theory      

So, what can we make of the faith stages of Sheldon, Leonard, Howard, and Raj? None of them are particularly religious, in the popular sense of observing the rituals and ethos of any particular faith tradition.  But they are all faithful devotees of the sciences, and their community of meaning is the higher educational institution.  Three–Sheldon, Howard, and Raj–can be said to be converts from the meaning-systems of their families of origin (although Howard and Raj still identifiy to some level with those mythologies as well as the master-narrative of the physical sciences).  Leonard has, in some ways, never left the community of intellectual inquiry in which he was (rather alarmingly) raised; achievement in academic pursuits has defined him from an early age. Let me make some observations about each of these four young men, using James Fowler’s faith stage analysis as an interpretative lens.


Leonard Hofstadter, PhD:  Leonard’s world view–one shaped by empirical science in the context of the research-driven university–is the most predictable of the four principal male characters. Leonard_HofstadterHaving never really questioned whether this is the right place for him, and having done well at a young age in his field of physics, he appears in many ways to be a straightforward example of Conventional-Synthetic (Stage 3) faith.   He has a high level of mastery of the content of his master-story, and a strong commitment to membership in the academic community of meaning.  However, his widening circle of meaning–represented by his ongoing relationship with Penny, whose formational narratives have little in common with his own–may mean that Leonard is moving toward the more individuative-reflective mode of a Stage 4. Penny’s presence in his life, and her influence, also cause him to question the influence of several things he cherished prior to her arrival.  These include the comic books, video games, and science-fiction movies (and their attendant memorabiia) which were a shared passion with his friends.  He is the first in the group to recognize that they may be hindering him from achieving wider aspirations (including romantic connection).  Even when Leonard and Penny’s relationship was temporarily suspended, it became clear that the fantasy world of graphic novels and Comic-Con, as enjoyable as they might be, threatened his sense of self-worth.  This was most evident in the guilt produced by his truncated hookup with the promiscuous Agnes, a comic-book afficionado Leonard met while attempting a long-distance relationship with Priya, Raj’s sister.  In the way that many at the Individualtive-Reflective stage (4) do, Leonard became more critical of the influences he had chosen to allow to shape his identity and self-worth.


Sheldon Cooper, Ph.D: Sheldon is a classic convert, in the sense of his uncompromising rejection of the meaning-system in which he was raised, and unwavering embrace of one that is (to his, and his mother’s mind) almost mutually exclusive.  Beginning his higher education career at the age of 11, Sheldon precociously assumed an “adult” role in the academy by earning his doctorate when he was Sheldon_Cooper16. His extensive knowledge and raw talent, however, do not mean that he is advanced in the faith life of theoretical physics, or that he will likely be one of the great lights of the tradition.  Sheldon views the world from a narcissistic standpoint, characteristic of the Intuitive-Projective approach of Stage 1.  However, I would say that his is more a Mythic-Literal faith (stage 2), heavily dependent on an absolutely even reciprocity in social exchanges (and a lack of ability to identify and accept social behaviors, which will probably slow his moving into the Stage 3 Synthetic-Conventional faith).  As well, the Mythic-Literal way in which Sheldon has appropriated his meaning system is uncritical.  This is most evident when he tells the story of Madame Curie to a group of middle-school girls to whom the young men have been invited to speak in the hope of encouraging them to careers in the empirical sciences.  Sheldon cannot stop at Madame Curie’s great achievements–he has to carry the story to its finish with her gruesome death from radiation poisoning.  Sheldon’s abilities for logical process and memorization were noticed early on, possibly by adults who confused his logical capacities and eidetic memory with a maturity he did not possess.  He is unlikely to move beyond a Mythic-Literal way of addressing the world and making it meaningful.  As a result, Sheldon will probably remain as something of a wunderkind, a bit of a freak and novelty, but probably never moving into a position of greater responsibility in which technical and relational skills need to be more closely integrated.  The possibility that this has occurred to him is evident in an episode where a 15 year old genius comes to visit Caltech, and Sheldon’s anxiety about no longer being the young prodigy surfaces. However, rather than moving him to greater self-awareness and a more mature approach to his situation, it illustrates how deeply invested he is in staying exactly as he is.


Rajesh “Raj” Koothrappali, PhD:  From New Delhi, on the “exotic subcontinent of India”, Raj has not, in Fowler’s terms, “converted” fully from his cultural and religious heritage to a scientific Rajesh_Koothrappalifaith.  Rather, he picks and chooses which elements of his upbringing he wishes to embrace and integrate into his newfound love of all things American (including the beef forbidden by the Hindu religion).  In terms of his native land, Raj has experienced a fairly privileged upbringing as the son of a gynaecologist, and does not identify with the crowded, noisy, impoverished city of his birth (and doesn’t cope well with Indian food, either).  However, he holds to some values of upper-middle class Indian families, including assuming a “man of the family” relationship with his younger sister Priya, and at one point asking his parents to find him a bride (even though he fully intends to stay in the United States).  Raj is aware and accepting of a number of identity-forming influences from his past and present, including his social anxiety which is so severe he has only recently acquired the ability to speak to women without consuming alcohol; he has a strongly developed feminine side which comes out most pointedly in his friendship with Howard (he self-defines as a metrosexual–“I like women, and their skincare products”). Probably, Raj’s ability to combine, if not integrate, a number of different influences on his identity indicates an Individuative-Reflective (Stage 4) faith.  This, however, is one of the most uncomfortable stages even when one is not in transition to or from another stage, but Raj will probably need to resolve this, either by regressing to a more conventional world view or by advancing to a more conjunctive faith.


Howard Wolowitz, MEng:  “And you were the most obnoxious person on a double date that included Howard Wolowitz,”  Penny snaps at Leonard after a dinner out with Howard and his new girlfriend Bernadette.  Howard is possibly the easiest target for ridicule of the four male principals on Big Bang Theory–given his sleazy approach to women and how that contrasts with his bizarre Howard-wolowitz-the-big-bang-theory-16865313-930-1246relationship with his never-seen (but definitely heard) mother.  But there is more to Howard than meets the eye.  Howard is the only one of the four who has family roots in Pasadena, but he obviously left California for at least long enough to earn a Master’s degree in engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).  Leaving and return becomes a major theme in many personal mythologies at the level of Conjunctive (Stage 5) faith.  Howard acknowledges his Jewish roots, and claims them more explicitly than Raj claims his formation as a Hindu–there are frequent references to his Bar Mitzvah bonds, to the trials and misadventures of “my people”, and at least a minimal reference to his observance of Jewish law in his choice to wear “tat sleeves” to a Goth bar so he could pick up women but still be buried in a Jewish cemetery.  However, his frequent ordering of bacon cheeseburgers and shrimp dishes is something he acknowledges as a violation of religious dietary laws. Howard recognizes his formation as a Jew, but integrates it with a pragmatic, sometimes even playful, approach to science (there is a marvelous scene where the boys mix cornstarch and water to make a paste, and marvel at its action over a cling-film clad stereo speaker).  Possibly more than any of the others, he is able to hold in tension his codependent relationship with his mother and his passionate pursuit of women his own age—an ability which creates friction with his beloved Bernadette. Also in contrast to his male companions, Howard is past the conventional stage of participation in his scientific faith community. Of the four, he is the only one without an earned doctorate (the norm in academic research and teaching), and he is the only one whose work is recognized outside the academy–by no less an institution than NASA.  Indeed, Howard can participate without contradiction in more than one community of meaning–he is not only an academic researcher, but an astronaut.  His companions frequently belittle his lack of a PhD qualification, but they are somewhat jealous of his membership in this very small, elite subset of humanity. Without directly referring to it, it is clear that the questioning characteristic of the Individuative-Reflective stage (4) of faith took place during Howard’s time at MIT, and he has come home to integrate the various aspects of his meaning-making journey.  Howard will probably never reach the Universalizing Stage 6 of Fowler’s model (few people do), and there is a two-edged symbolism here.  His adventure as an astronaut on the International Space Station is as close to a universalizing experience as his peer group will ever get, but NASA’s recognition of his abilities is literally $#!+–he is there because he developed the human waste disposal system. (Which, when you think about it, *is* a universal concern…)



The big question, I suppose, is what does any of this have to do with Christian faith communities in the twenty-first century? James Fowler indicates that the goal of all religious communities should be to help people as far along to a Universalizing faith as possible–but that most are geared toward keeping people at the Synthetic-Conventional (stage 3) level, and that most ordained clergy are themselves solidly entrenched at that stage.  I think an appropriate revival of Fowler’s Stages of Faith would be to quietly notice the signs of each stage in members of a congregation, and then find ways of providing people with the best way of moving to the next stage.  Especially in a world that is geared to questioning the influences that individuals accept as authoritative, and where a more internal locus of authority is common (what I would call a Stage 4 world), congregations geared for a Stage 3 church are likely to attract fewer new, and retain fewer existing, members.  This is a situation that the churches cannot sustain if they are to be faithful to their vocation in the human community.

We rely on donations to keep this website running.