It seems to me that one of the consequences of the decline of institutional religion in America – and it’s also a cause of that decline, by the way – is that we have created a spiritual care vacuum. Mind you, I’m not talking about religious education. I am talking about spiritual care. To look at the spiritual care vacuum, we need to define what we mean by spirituality first.
I define spirituality to be, broadly, the way we make sense of and find meaning in our world. Under this definition, your spirituality may or may not involve a being you call God. Your spirituality will, however, impact how you interact with others and how well you cope with the adversity that comes our way throughout our lives. Your spirituality will impact how you understand both successes and failures, achievements and losses.
Sadly, Christianity in America over the past fifty years or so has decided that clergy should function more as administrators and teachers than as pastoral care givers. In some traditions, such as Roman Catholicism, this happened because of the clergy shortage and the reality that one person cannot possibly provide pastoral care to three thousand church members. In others, it reflected a movement from what I would call a spirituality of the heart to a spirituality of the head. With that movement comes the erroneous belief that we can think or reason our way to happiness and out of suffering. Just a quick look around will tell us that strategy isn’t the most effective one we might devise.
For those who are unaffiliated with a religious or spiritual organization or consider themselves spiritual but not religious, the only time they may encounter pastoral care is when they or a relative are hospitalized or in long term care. Chaplains do fantastic work in these settings, and are to be both commended and recommended. The truth is that the spiritual questions of life don’t only arise at moments of crisis, and they are better answered as the product of an extended period of reflection and conversation. There are also less dramatic, though no less important, spiritual questions than those of life and death – as anyone who has parented teenagers can tell you. Imagine how helpful it would be to have someone available to you with whom you met periodically over the years and then could call on when questions arose. I am looking at models of how this might be accomplished, and hoping to develop a local program on a trial basis. Your feedback is welcome!