The many faces and voices of Division 36
By Julie J. Exline, PhD
Thank you for the opportunity to serve as president of Division 36. Back when I was deciding whether to run for this position, I spent time thinking about how I could best serve the division. Although there are many ways to serve and to lead, I reasoned that my best bet would be to focus on activities that line up with my personal passions and style. I tend to be a self-reflective sort of person. I’m often happiest when I gain an insight that helps me improve my life in some way—or when I can help another person do the same. Although therapy and spiritual direction are natural ways to help plant seeds for insight, these themes of self-reflection and self-improvement also manage to find their way into my lectures and mentoring relationships. I actually came into psychology with the intention to write self-help books….a dream that has not yet come to fruition. But every once in a while I’m given an opportunity to write or speak about selfreflective topics in an academic context (see, e.g., Exline, 2012, for an application to the Christian integration movement). After allowing myself a little time to consider who I am and what I love to do, I realized that this emphasis on self-reflection and self-improvement (at individual and collective levels) could form a natural theme for my presidential term.
One way of addressing this reflective theme is by surveying division members. I am now collaborating with others to develop a survey of Division 36 membership. This survey will be coming your way through the division’s announcement e-mail list, probably in October. The purpose of the survey is to encourage you to think about our division and your place in it: What drew you in? What’s working well, and where do we need to improve? I’ll also try to encourage you to think about your own passions, skills, and preferred roles in Division 36 and our broader field. My hope is that taking the survey will give you some new insights. It will also help me and other division leaders to see where things stand so that we can focus our energies in an effective way.
My goal for this column is less empirical, less systematic, than the survey. What I’d like to do here is to convey a more personal flavor of how members of our division have touched my own life, both personally and professionally. In this new position, I can sometimes feel like I’m talking to a crowd, to an entity, to “the Division.” But what is this “Division?”
Well, it’s a group—a group made up of individuals. And this brings to mind the most helpful advice that I ever heard about public speaking: Rather than focusing on the crowd, try to see the individuals. Don’t focus your gaze on your notes or up above the audience’s heads. Instead, look in people’s eyes. Try to connect with them. Think of this as a personal conversation.
Even in the oddly removed context of writing this column, when I start to think about you as individuals, you start to come into focus for me. I can start to see your faces. I can hear your voices. And it helps me to feel more connected with what I am doing here…and with what we are doing here together as members of this division and this field.
In this column, then, I’d like to share a few memories of how Division 36 members have touched my life over the past 15 years—in so many different ways. Some of these people were probably aware that they were sowing good seeds, but I suspect that many were not aware; they were just being themselves. I’m not going to list specific names, but you might recognize yourself in one of these verbal snapshots. At any rate, I hope that you’ll see something in here that resonates with your own experience—or your hopes for the future.
My earliest exposure to the psychology of religion and spirituality was by hearing the voices of its scholars. In most cases, these voices were communicated through writing. My graduate program was strong and supportive, but entirely secular in its emphasis. This was before the days of diversity training, and I don’t recall any mention of religion or spirituality. Late in graduate school (mid 1990s) personal interest compelled me to start reading about the psychology of religion and spirituality, just to see what was out there. I discovered a handbook and several scholarly books that helped to orient me to the field. It was fascinating to see the many ways that people could explore psychological approaches to religion and spirituality: through empirical studies, popular writing, clinically oriented material, textbooks, and literature reviews, to name just a few. At the time, I was primarily in a mode of listening. It was amazing (and humbling) to see what others had already accomplished. Sometimes it felt overwhelming to see all of those volumes, those names in print. But each of those writers, too, is an individual with a story to share. And all of them took the time, the energy, the risk to share their ideas and findings with others through writing. Even before I had met a single person in the field, my earliest bond was forged by a sense of connection with these writers.
Advisors, editors, reviewers
Eventually I started to gather data and submit research articles to journals, sometimes alone and sometimes with collaborators. I earnestly wanted to become a part of this dialogue about psychology, religion and spirituality. But I was ‘green,’ new to the field and to academic writing. Looking back, I can see my research advisors and collaborators, as well as the journal reviewers and editors, as true agents of grace. They encouraged me and provided helpful feedback when it would have been easier to say nasty things or to dismiss my faltering attempts altogether. And some did face the tough tasks of delivering bad news. They had to reject a poorly conceived article or ask for a major overhaul of a paper. Although often disappointing and frustrating at the time, this corrective feedback was crucial, not only for quality control in the field, but for my own growth as a researcher and writer. So many people walk with us on this path: advisors and IRB members, editors and reviewers, journal assistants and copy editors. Each one shares in that process of shaping our ill-formed ideas into something better, and they pave the way for us to share our findings with others through writing. Without their diligent efforts, would our ‘field’ even exist?
When attending one of my first American Psychological Association (APA) Conventions, I was feeling a little overwhelmed, dashing from session to session. Then I noticed on the conference schedule that there was a hospitality suite for Division 36. What was a hospitality suite, anyway? I saw that there was a session there to meet one of the division’s award winners, whose talk had inspired me. I ventured over, albeit with some trepidation. Upon arriving, I was warmly greeted by the division members who were hosting the suite. This was a great comfort, because at the time I don’t know if I knew a single person in the division, and I was feeling pretty shy about the whole thing. But then I settled in. I got to sit on a comfy couch and enjoy some of my favorite snacks, an icy cold Coke and some M & Ms—a real relief and pleasure after the overpriced convention center fare. I was able to meet a senior member of the field who has since become a collaborator and friend. I enjoyed being in the suite so much that I stuck around for the next session, listened a lot, and met a few more people. At the time, I didn’t realize all of the labor and expense that went into creating this opportunity for division members to connect. What I knew was that being there helped me feel like a part of things, even though at the time, no one knew me from a hole in the ground. They made me feel welcome anyway.
Senior colleagues and research supporters
At some point I decided to step out and start presenting posters and talks at conferences. This was a new endeavor for me, and I needed a boost of confidence. It meant a lot when others took the time to stop at my poster and engage me in conversation. Sometimes we focused on my work, but often we were just trying to get to know each other. I remember when one new colleague, someone who I had just met earlier in the conference, clearly went out of his way to attend my Sunday morning talk. This was long after most conference attendees had headed out to the airport. Although surrounded by a veritable sea of empty chairs, my new friend remained smiling and attentive, asking good questions and encouraging me in my work. Later, another colleague made the much bigger commitment of taking me under wing as part of a mentoring program when I was a new faculty member. Such generosity of time and attention! And this was all before these people knew whether I would stick around and contribute more to the field. Not knowing this, they invested their time to connect with me anyway. Their personal attention gave me a powerful sense that I belonged, that my work mattered, that I was worth getting to know.
Social hour attendees
Ahhh, the social hour. To be honest, a part of me still shies away from these events. As an introvert, I’m not one who is drawn to “working a room” or “networking.” In fact, those terms make my stomach hurt just a bit. But when I finally decided to start attending the social hours, there were pleasant surprises. I would usually see a few familiar faces, and sometimes a more outgoing person would walk up and start a conversation with me—always such a relief! Often our conversations would center on research or career issues. But sometimes we had a chance to go deeper, sharing about spiritual experiences or personal challenges. At other times we would simply be brain dead and sick of shop talk, and we would start telling stupid jokes or comparing notes on roller coasters or Bugs Bunny. And all of this was good in its own way. Yes, we had to fumble through those inevitable awkward moments of not quite remembering each other’s names, when the room got so overcrowded and warm that we all had sweat pouring off us, when the noise level was getting too high and our voices were getting hoarse. You pretended not to notice when my balancing act failed, when the little appetizer rolled off my plate and on to the floor. A lot of my relationships in the field today came from these sorts of conversations—at the social hour, at the hospitality suite, at a poster session. That little bit of awkwardness was worth it. It was worth it to meet you.
Over the years, many people in this field have become my close friends. Often my most special times at conferences are spent with people with whom I have built up relationships over the years. I remember going with friends to a baseball game in Toronto, and it didn’t matter one bit that I didn’t fully understand the game. I remember a soggy trolley tour with rainwater leaking in. There have been pizza dinners in noisy restaurants, late-night laughter and occasionally a few tears shared by the pool, with lamplight shimmering on the water and palm trees swaying in the breeze. So many people in this field have contributed to my life just by being present and being my friends, regardless of whether they happened to be serving in leadership or presenting at the conference that year. It mattered so much just to have them there.
After Division 36’s Mid-Year Conference a few years ago, I was waiting by the curb, trying to catch a cab to the airport. Out of the blue, a senior colleague asked me if I would consider running for member-at-large of the division. After some deliberation, I agreed. A few years later, another senior colleague and friend encouraged me to run for the presidency. Again, after some deliberation, I agreed. I’m not exactly the “joiner” type on my own, and I’m not naturally the type who would pursue leadership roles. So I really needed that little push to get more involved. I needed you to reach out and invite me. Thank you for asking me.
Executive committee and leadership teams
Now I’m finding myself in a new position, leading Division 36 for a brief season. Thankfully I’m not alone. I can work closely with members of the executive committee and others who have banded together to achieve specific goals within the division. I’m grateful for their wisdom, care, helpfulness and good cheer as I face new and unfamiliar tasks. Whether I’m trying to make a financial decision, appoint a person to a position, or decide how to respond to a problem, it’s a consolation to know that I am part of such a supportive team. These people give so much. They spend their valuable time poring over conference plans and schedules, budgets, meeting agendas and minutes, journal submissions, and membership charts. Some work to ensure that the professional efforts of others are recognized through awards and fellowships in the division. Others make sure that we have enough snacks in the hospitality suite and that everyone feels truly welcome there. Yes, there are a lot of details, and we all have a lot to do. But I am so grateful for that consistent sense of being supported, that we are there to help each other. I smile when I remember the words of one of our executive committee members, spoken to me in the fountain room of the Peabody Orlando hotel just a few hours before I took on this new mantle of leadership: “I’ve got your back.” :) And I can tell. I feel it. Thanks, everyone.
There are so many ways to contribute to each other’s lives in our division and our field. It’s not always about joining a committee or running for office, although this sometimes fits. Regardless of the form that your involvement takes, I hope that you will seek and find some new and creative ways to become more deeply engaged in our field…in ways that fit with who you are, your passions, and the season of life that you’re in right now. Whoever you are, whatever your gifts and interests and even your limitations—you are welcome here, and you have something valuable to offer. Thank you for being part of Division 36.
Exline, J. J. (2012). There’s room for all of us: Discerning your role in the integration movement. Journal of Psychology and Theology, 40, 60–65