Relational Integration

Psychology-BgIn preparing to lead an opening devotions and prayer with our doctoral psychology faculty, I began to reflect on who we are as faculty in our relationships with our students. I reviewed a line of research began by the late Randy Sorenson and expanded in collaboration between Randy and other colleagues at several integration programs.

Randy was known for the quip: “Integration is caught, not taught.” It has become something of a classic line among educators in integration programs that actually raises more questions than provides answers. How did Randy arrive at that conclusion? Over time.

Randy led a research group that conducted at least five studies I know of on how students learn integration of psychology and Christianity while they are in training to become psychologists in faith-based integration programs. He would develop a relational attachment model for how students learn integration, and in the first two studies the focus was on the impact of students’ own personal therapists, early attachment in their family-of-origin, and their comfort with integration in the therapy they provided. Student indicated the salience of their own personal therapists in shaping their integration. These were what Randy would refer to as “affectively engaged relationships” that provided a venue for learning integration and that overshadowed early attachment figures. Personal therapists tended to intervene as though God were real (and not merely a representation); they were open and non-defensive about integration; they initiated discussions about connections between a student’s experience of God, parents, and the therapist; and they saw a student’s relationship with God as potentially positive and meaningful, among other things.

Randy then turned to the question of how students learn integration from faculty in these same integration programs. Now let me say this: We put a lot of time in these programs toward curriculum development, ordering the course offerings to maximize exposure to what is needed for assessment, clinical practices, ethics, and so on. All of our programs teach various models of integration and test students on their knowledge of these models of integration. But what Randy reported in his third, fourth, and fifth studies in this area was that students learn about integration from real relationships they form with their faculty. Two findings about faculty stood out: 1) Evidence of a process of an ongoing relationship with God, and 2) Emotional transparency.

Here is a conclusion from one of the earlier reports:

From the students’ point of view, the most salient dimension to contribute to their own integration was how well they could determine that a given professor had an authentic, lively and growing relationship with God, coupled with the professor’s nondefensive, emotionally unguarded, and even vulnerable relationship with students.

The conclusion from the final report in this line of research is similar. It is not about “creedal orthodoxy,” let alone memorizing models of integration (e.g., parallels) as such, but rather an

…ongoing process that a mentor is modeling before the students’ eyes in ways to which students feel they have real access personally, perhaps even as collaborators in the project together. … students are saying, “Show me.”

That is powerful.

I try to keep this line of research in my mind at the start of each new academic year. At a practical level, I wrestle each year with how many students to bring onto my research team, which is where most of my mentoring takes place. For me I am balancing a desire to “let everyone on who wants to learn” against the real limitation of “the number of people with whom I can be in an authentic relationship.” Of course, faculty can be open and transparent in the classroom and with larger numbers of students, and I want to do that. But mentoring relationships and research teams lend themselves to increased accessibility, collaboration, and the “Show me” approach.

I concluded this time of devotional reflection with a story I read to our doctoral students before they head off to internship. It’s from Henri Nowen’s book, Reaching Out. Nouwen is visited by a former student who just wants to be with Nouwen for a time. The student says,

I have no problems this time, no questions to ask you. I do not need counsel or advice, but I simply want to celebrate some time with you.

How disarming is that? It’s beautiful. Nouwen relays what happened next:

We sat on the ground facing each other and talked a little about what life had been for us in the last year, about our work, our common friends, and about the restlessness of our hearts. Then slowly as the minutes passed by we became silent. Not an embarrassing silence but a silence that could bring us closer together than the many small and big events of the last year. We would hear a few cars pass and the noise of someone who was emptying a trash can somewhere. But that did not hurt. The silence which grew between us was warm, gentle and vibrant. Once in a while we looked at each other with the beginning of a smile pushing away the last remnants of fear and suspicion. It seemed that while the silence grew deeper around us we became more and more aware of a presence embracing both of us. Then he said, “It is good to be here” and I said, “Yes it is good to be together again,” and after that we were silent again for a long period. And as a deep peace filled the empty space between us he said hesitantly, “When I look at you it is as if I am in the presence of Christ.” I did not feel startled, surprised or in need of protesting, but I could only say, “It is the Christ in you, who recognizes the Christ in me.” “Yes,” he said, “He is indeed in our midst,” and then he spoke the words which entered into my soul as the most healing words I had heard in many years, “From now on, wherever you go, or wherever I go, all the ground between us will be holy ground.”

So the question that I have is this: “What kind of relationships will you form with students now that will lend themselves to this kind of celebration of time together in the years to come?”

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