Academic journal article Journal of Psychology and Christianity

Spiritual Formation among Doctoral Psychology Students in Explicitly Christian Programs

Academic journal article Journal of Psychology and Christianity

Spiritual Formation among Doctoral Psychology Students in Explicitly Christian Programs

Article excerpt

How does training in an explicitly Christian doctoral program in clinical psychology affect students' faith development? Two studies are reported that consider students' locus of control, spiritual perceptions, and religious behaviors over the course of training. The first study involved 157 students from 5 doctoral programs who completed questionnaires at the beginning and end of an academic year. A number of changes were reported from the beginning to the end of the year, including increased internal locus of control, decreased awareness of God, decreased church attendance, and decreased ratings on the importance of religion. A number of differences between cohorts were also observed, with first-year students affirming more spiritual attributions, religious problem-solving, and religious behaviors than students in other cohorts. The second study included 140 firstand second-year students from 4 doctoral programs. Changes were reported over the academic year, including increased disappointment with God and fatigue, and decreased church attendance, personal prayer, and importance of religion. No differences between first-and second-year students were observed. Various possible explanations are offered for these findings, including eroding of faith, enhanced self-efficacy, rearranging faith, and fatigue.

Several explicitly Christian doctoral programs have emerged and become accredited by the American Psychological Association in recent decades (Johnson & McMinn, 2003). These programs typically hire faculty who endorse a Christian statement of faith and include curriculum pertaining to the integration of psychology and Christianity. Most explicitly Christian doctoral programs also show admission preference to students who express endorsement of and personal commitment to Christian beliefs.

According to Slife and Reber (2009), psychology tends to have a naturalist narrative emerging from modernism that may actually compete with a Christian narrative, formed from theological anthropology. If this is the case, then even Christian students admitted to explicitly Christian doctoral training programs might experience a degree of faith degradation throughout training. Given the centrality of faith in the identity of these programs, and the students they admit, this seems an important area of research. How does attending an explicitly Christian doctoral program affect the spiritual development of students?

Past research, mostly unpublished, has generated mixed results. Pearce (1996) found that during the course of graduate school many students move toward a more relational, intimate, interactive relationship with God. Hofer (2004) did a 9-year follow-up with the participants in Pearce's study, finding the participants reported having an even deeper, stronger, and more important relationship with God than when in the program. But not all research suggests increased faith experience during graduate school. Edwards (2006) found a linear decline in faith commitment over the course of three years among clinical psychology graduate students at a Christian university. Whereas Edwards found a decline on all 8 subscales of the God Image Inventory (GII) as well as decreased church attendance, Mullís (2008) reported positive change on 2 of the 8 GII subscales over a similar 3-year span.

From the limited research available, it seems likely that faith development during graduate school is a multidimensional research issue, calling for studies that look at various aspects of religious and spiritual beliefs and practices. Moreover, it may not be a linear phenomenon. Students may have critical periods where faith is enhanced or compromised, and these periods may occur either during or after graduate studies.

Most of the prior studies investigating spiritual development of students in explicitly Christian doctoral programs have focused on how students perceive God (God image) or attachment to God. These are important variables, but many more dimensions of faith warrant investigation. …

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