Engaging Youth Spirituality as a Primary Driver of Identity Formation

Engaging Youth Spirituality as a Primary Driver of Identity Formation


Spirituality is a core element of healthy youth development.

There’s an old joke about a Sunday school teacher who was planning on using a squirrel as an object lesson. To increase their curiosity, she put the stuffed animal in a paper bag and said, “I’m going to describe something to you, and I want you to raise your hand when you know what it is.” All the children nodded eagerly. “This lives in trees (pause) and eats nuts (pause)…” The children were looking at each other but still no raised hands. “And it jumps from branch to branch (pause) and chatters and flips its tail when it’s excited (pause)…”. Still no raised hands. Finally, one little boy said, “I know the answer must be Jesus, but it sure sounds like a squirrel.

A lot of our “no child left behind” efforts to connect with youth today are born out of narratives and expectations we’ve planted in them that overlook reality. So compelled are we to stuff learning into them that we spew content before connection with who they are and who they are becoming. And what actually gets left behind is the hunger for connection, meaning, and purpose that is found in their deeply spiritual quest for identity.

Spirituality is the Thread that Connects Everything

As an organization that is committed to creating transformational youth development experiences, we see spirituality, not as a single element, but as the thread that connects everything. Because of this deep connection between spirituality, youth, and human development, growth, and change, one of our core values at ULEAD is Spirituality. Our Spirituality value is, “We believe people discover significance, belonging, and purpose when they become aware of and engage in the pursuit of connection with the transcendent.”

What this spirituality value means to ULEAD is that we believe when people and teams come together to grow their leadership skills or to strengthen their ability to communicate and work together, the human interaction that is catalyzed is fueled by spirituality. This power – a tangible yet often unseen bonding with a deeper connection, whether between people or with a higher power, is available to everyone regardless of belief, background, creed, or religion.

Social researcher, author, and speaker Brené Brown, Ph.D., says, “We are biologically, cognitively, physically, and spiritually wired to love, be loved, and to belong. When those needs are not met, we don’t function as we’re meant to be. We break. We fall apart. We numb. We ache … The absence of love and belonging will always lead to suffering.” In our work with adults and youth at ULEAD, we have experienced both the privilege and the responsibility that comes with having a front-row seat to the power of connection – when people are invited to co-create ideas and practices where inclusion and human flourishing abound. From this seat, we also have witnessed the hunger and ache that are present when significance, belonging and purpose are ignored, forgotten, or lost.

Spirituality and Youth Development

Lisa Miller, Ph.D., in her book, The Spiritual Child, frames the journey of change and development for children and adolescents with a spiritual lens. She states, “Adolescent individuation is the process of testing and questioning the world as handed to us by parents and school and community against our own inner felt self. It’s the ongoing moment-by-moment litmus test of lived reality over-borrowed reality. The natural work of adolescent individuation is foundationally spiritual and deeply challenging. Individuation can progress without spiritual individuation, but it’s a weakened version based too often solely on performance, accomplishment, and material success. Transcended hunger emerges through intellectual, emotional, relational, and physical development. When the cogent unifying rubric that they seek – transcendent and spiritual knowledge – is absent, they only feel the pangs of hunger.”

The issue with ignoring spirituality as a core element that animates healthy youth development is that, without the warmth, the invitation, and the connection with a deeper transcendent meaning, children and youth search out the momentary, quick, and illusionary fixes that drugs and alcohol supply. In contrast, Lisa Miller’s research found that spirituality is the most potent form of protection against suffering in adolescence.

Spirituality and Mental Health

The impact of spirituality on mental health and thriving in children and youth is the following:

  • Spirituality is associated with significantly lower rates of depression, substance use and abuse, and risk-taking.
  • Risk-taking includes: sex, thrill-seeking, driving fast, physical endangerment
  •  No other preventative factor known to science and medicine has such broad-reaching and powerful influence to the daily decisions that make-or-break health and wellness.
  • Adolescents with a strong personal relationship with a higher power are 70-80 percent less likely to engage in heavy substance use or abuse.

If it’s true that spirituality is the vital life force behind all healthy growth and change for every human being, regardless of their religious affiliations or practices, then the question is, “what kind of intervention, process, or program will open space for the spiritual quest to do its transforming work? In other words, how will a theory of change be impacted by the view that spirituality is the secret sauce for lasting change?

Theory of Change: Roadmap to Transformation

The Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Theory of Change: A Practical Tool for Action, Results, and Learning research states: “A theory of change offers a picture of important destinations and guides you on what to look for on the journey to ensure you are on the right pathway. As Alice observed in Wonderland, ‘If you don’t know where you are going, any road will take you there.’” In other words, without a theory of change, a community is vulnerable to wandering aimlessly. The theory of change is a practical and essential part of a successful transformation effort.

At ULEAD, our theory of change is deeply connected to our mission, and our mission impact reflects the conviction that lasting change is sourced in spirituality.

Our mission as an organization is: “Grounded in the life and teachings of Jesus, ULEAD provides dynamic and inclusive leadership development filled with play, laughter, and celebration by inviting individuals to discover their “why,” grow their skills, and inspire others.

What does this mean? How is spirituality woven into the fabric of our theory of change? We believe that to be spiritual means to recognize that every human being is a mirror of the divine – worthy of honor, respect, inclusion, and opportunities to grow. And as a divine mirror, every person possesses a unique set of talents and gifts with a purpose to fulfill in life. To be grounded in spirituality is a call to action that implores us to obliterate all barriers, walls, labels, and categories. It means we invite everyone we meet and have the privilege of serving into experiences filled with opportunities for connection, relationship, and challenge so that their identity is strengthened, their skills are grown, and ultimately that their “why” becomes clear – to offer their lives in service to others and to making this world a better place.

The Leading Light of Spirituality

One need not be religious to know that clarity, an inner sense of calm, a feeling of belonging in relationships, or a loving connection with the bigger world are essential to well-being. At the same time, we see tremendous value in espousing spiritual principles that increase our awareness and understanding of the value of spirituality as an animating force of growth and change. In the gospel of John, Jesus proclaimed, “I am the light of the world.” If this is where he left it, spirituality would still need to span a huge gulf from humanity to divinity. But this isn’t where it stops. In the book of Matthew, Jesus goes on to say, “You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden.”

This begs the question, what if a spark of the divine isn’t light-years away but in every cell of our star-born bodies? Father Richard Rohr has said, “Light isn’t something you see, but something that allows you to see other things.” What if embracing spirituality as the energizing life-force of positive development in the lives of students, and in our lives, actually expands our hearts and mental capacities to discover new pathways toward significance, belonging, and purpose? What if “God” isn’t only present with us, but present as us? What if embracing spirituality, rather than leading us to exclude and judge others, leads us into a cosmic movement toward diversity, creativity, wholeness, and a world where every human being is loved into flourishing.

“What makes us spiritual?”, asks Lisa Miller. “Our awareness that our lives, our relationships, and the natural world, both seen and unseen, are filled with an ultimate presence. It is our awareness of transcendence in us, around us, through us, and beyond us that is spiritual. And we are born with an innate capacity for transcendence.” She goes on to say, “What children need from us in order to develop their spirituality – Our children look to us, but not really for the answers. We’re being asked to show up. We need to show up, but we don’t need to have all the answers.”

And at ULEAD, this is why we are so compelled to pour our heart and soul into co-creating experiences based on a theory of change where impact is deeply connected with transcendence. Our work isn’t to craft the perfect 5-step curriculum or fill the role of resident expert for leadership development. Rather, our work is to invite people into spaces where they experience the transcendent relationship – a dynamic sense of connection with each other and a higher power or sacred presence. Only this will move our theory of change to practices of knowing ourselves and others beyond the limits of the physical or ordinary self, and to see ourselves as image-bearers of the divine, with a distinct purpose and part to play in the larger universe. As it turns out, what the teacher alluded to in the bag was a squirrel, and through the lens of spirituality, we can see much more than a tree rodent. Rather, our eyes are opened to the majesty and wonder of another living being we have the privilege of interacting with.

Ritch Hochstetler, Chief Ideation Trailblazer at ULEAD

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