Book Review: A Guidebook of Promising Practices

This review is part of a series of book reviews provided by campus pastors throughout the LuMin network! It is part of the ongoing research initiative of Lutheran Campus Ministries. You can learn more about the key literature in the research team’s LITERATURE REVIEW!

Book: A Guidebook of Promising Practices: Facilitating College Students’ Spiritual Development, by Jennifer A. Lindholm, Melissa L. Millora, Leslie M. Schwartz, and Hanna Song Spinosa.

Promising Practices is a longitudinal study of 435 campuses that defines spirituality in terms that allow non-religious as well as religious academic institutions to see support of student spirituality as consistent with their institutional identities and purposes. It is part of the Spirituality in Higher Education Study at UCLA. It concludes, with evidence, that academic institutional purposes — student resilience, mental health, academic success, and satisfaction with their academic institutions — are advanced by support of student spirituality.

The study’s focus is limited to “those within higher education [administrators, faculty and academic personnel, student affairs professionals, and student leaders] who are interested in attending to issues of spirituality, meaning and purpose as part of the undergraduate experience” (p. vii). It finds such interest to be much higher than anticipated. This may point to a higher than presently realized potential for collaboration between campuses and campus ministries.

First, the study defines spirituality:

“From the project’s outset, the Spirituality in Higher Education research team has conceptualized spirituality as pointing to our inner, subjective life, as contrasted to the objective domain of observable behavior and material objects. Spirituality involves our affective experiences at least as much as it does our reasoning and logic. It is reflected in the values and ideals that we hold most dear, our sense of who we are and where we come from, our beliefs about why we are here—the meaning and purpose we see in our lives—and our connectedness to each other and to the world around us. Spirituality also captures those aspects of our experience that are not easy to define or talk about, such as intuition, inspiration, the mysterious, and the mystical” (pp. 4-5).

Then it measures spirituality in terms of five categories:

  • Spiritual Quest — “an active quest for answers to ‘life’s big questions’”
  • Ecumenical Worldview — “a global worldview that transcends ethnocentrism and egocentrism,”
  • Ethic of Caring — “a sense of caring and compassion for others,”
  • Charitable Involvement — “a lifestyle that includes service to others,” and
  • Equanimity — “a capacity to maintain one’s sense of calm and centeredness, especially in times of stress” (p. 5).

Its findings show “that when they enter college as freshmen:

  • Students have very high levels of spiritual interest and involvement. Many are actively engaged in a spiritual quest and are exploring meaning and purpose in life. They also display high levels of religious commitment and involvement.
  • Students also have high expectations for the role their educational institutions will play in their emotional and spiritual development.

Additionally, during college:

  • Religious engagement declines somewhat, yet students’ spiritual qualities grow substantially.
  • Students show the greatest degree of growth in the five spiritual qualities if they are actively engaged in ‘inner work’ through self-reflection, contemplation, and/or meditation.
  • Students also show substantial increases in Spiritual Quest when their faculty encourage them to explore questions of meaning and purpose or otherwise show support for their spiritual development.
  • Engagement in most forms of Charitable Involvement—community service work, helping friends with personal problems, donating money to charity—promotes the development of other spiritual qualities.
  • Growth in Equanimity enhances students’ grade-point average, leadership skills, psychological well-being, self-rated ability to get along with other races and cultures, and satisfaction with college.
  • Growth in Ethic of Caring and Ecumenical Worldview enhances students’ interest in postgraduate study, self-rated ability to get along with other races and cultures, and commitment to promoting racial understanding.
  • Educational experiences and practices that promote spiritual development—especially service learning, interdisciplinary courses, study abroad, self-reflection, and meditation—have uniformly positive effects on traditional academic outcomes.
  • Providing students with more opportunities to connect with their ‘inner selves’ facilitates growth in students’ academic and leadership skills, contributes to their intellectual self-confidence and psychological well-being, and enhances their satisfaction with college” (pp. 8-9).

The bulk of the book (pp. 23-73) summarizes college and university approaches to supporting spirituality at the time of the study (2003-2011), by category:

  • Curricular Initiatives and Teaching Strategies
  • Co-curricular Programs and Services
  • Service and Immersion Programs
  • Encouraging a Search for Vocation
  • Dialogues About Spirituality and Religion

Two concluding thoughts are worthy of note. First, “initiatives are most successful and effective when campus units work in collaboration toward a common goal.” Second, “Current efforts to move collectively toward integrating issues of meaning and purpose into higher education are often impeded… one of the largest barriers exists because of the uncertainty around what ‘spirituality’ refers to and how it impacts a campus culture” (p. 78, emphasis mine). One benefit of this study is it addresses both issues. It defines spirituality in a way compatible with religious and non-religious views, and it demonstrates by evidence that support of student spirituality enhances academic institutional goals.

Finally, the study offers a word of advice: “Mission and core values statements, or strategic plans are key documents to consider when establishing a foundation upon which to base efforts to promote spiritual development. Incorporation of words and phrases like holistic, meaning and purpose, transformative, and student-centered all suggest a connection to the larger work of integrating spirituality in higher education, providing implicit space and support for these ideas and associated practices” (p. 79).

Author: John Tirro, Tyson House at UT-Knoxville