A Time to Listen

Highlights from a recent survey of Div. 36

How are Div. 36 members contributing?
By Julie J. Exline, PhD

Warm greetings to all of you from not-so-warm Cleveland, Ohio! Thanks for being part of our division and for taking the time to check out our newsletter. My Fall 2012 newsletter column described some of the vital ways in which our members contribute to the life of Div. 36. I’d like to build on those ideas here by briefly outlining some key findings from a recent survey of Div. 36 membership. This survey was one of my main presidential initiatives. My aim was to identify strengths in the division as well as problem areas and ideas for improvement. I also wanted to encourage self-reflection by members about their own strengths and interests and how they might use these to benefit our division and the field. Thanks so much to everyone who participated in the survey!

I’m presenting some fairly detailed results from the survey as part of my presidential address at the 2013 Mid-Year Meeting on Religion and Spirituality. However, that talk is about 45 minutes long, and you probably don’t have 45 minutes to spend reading this column. So what I’ll offer here is a short summary of some key findings and take-home points that I gleaned from analyzing the survey data. I’ll be highlighting 10 topics in the form of action items. But first, I need to give some background on the survey itself: the method and the participants.

Survey Design & Procedure

I designed the survey in collaboration with Div. 36’s executive committee. The survey had 4 sections: 1) Demographics, 2) Your Thoughts about Div. 36, 3) Self-Reflection, and 4) You and Div. 36. I programmed the survey using Qualtrics, a web-based survey program. I received IRB approval from Case Western Reserve University, where I am a faculty member. Div. 36 didn’t have funds or staff allocated for paper mailings of surveys, which can be expensive and labor-intensive. Because we needed to disseminate the survey in a low-cost, efficient way, we decided to send a recruitment e-mail to the Div. 36 announcement e-mail list, which includes all division members who have active e-mail addresses on file with APA. The initial invitation went out at the end of November 2012, and a reminder e-mail was sent in December. At the time that I’m writing this column (March 2013), there are 647 e-mail addresses on this list. There were 130 valid responses submitted, so our response rate was approximately 20%. This response rate is not great, and it’s certainly a limitation of the study; however, it’s a pretty typical response rate for studies that recruit via mass mailings.


Who completed the survey? Two-thirds of respondents were men. The mean age was 52.2 years (SD = 16.6), ranging from 21 to 86. Most (88%) identified as White/Caucasian (n = 114). Other groups represented included Middle Eastern (n = 6), Asian/Pacific Islander (n = 3), African American/Black (n = 2), Latino/Hispanic (n = 2), American Indian/Native American/Alaska Native (n = 1), and other or mixed race (n = 6). Four participants were from outside of the United States. Respondents included faculty (53%), mental health professionals (36%), researchers (25%), graduate students (16%), religious/spiritual professionals (14%), retirees (9%), administrators (4%), post-docs (2%), and other (7%). (Percentages exceed 100% because respondents were allowed to select multiple options.) Religious affiliations included Christian (71%), nonaffiliated/atheist/agnostic (9%), spiritual but not religious (9%), Jewish (5%), Muslim (1%), and other (6%). Christian subtypes included Catholic (33%), Evangelical or Conservative Protestant (23%), Mainline or Liberal Protestant (20%), Christian unspecified (10%), Protestant unspecified (9%), Mormon (2%), and Orthodox Christian (2%).

Ten Action Items from the Survey

Given the limited space available for this column, I’ve chosen to highlight 10 topics from the survey. Since I have more freedom here than I do in a traditional journal article, I’m framing these in terms of “action items” rather than simply describing what I found. My hope is that we can translate the knowledge from this survey into concrete ways to improve Div. 36, our field, and the lives of ourselves and others.

I’ll start with the satisfaction ratings. Respondents were asked to rate their overall satisfaction with Div. 36 on a scale from 0 (not at all satisfied) to 4 (totally satisfied). No one endorsed “not at all.” Most said that they were quite satisfied (39%) or very satisfied (38%). Notably, however, a substantial minority (19%) said that they were just slightly satisfied, and only 4% reported being entirely satisfied. On several open-ended questions,76% (n = 99) listed strengths of the division, and 35% (n = 45) listed specific concerns or problems. I drew from these questions—but also from other survey sections—to develop these 10 action items.

1. Savor our strengths

There was plenty of good news from the survey. Here are some strengths that were noted often: First, participants reported that they appreciated having a division that was specifically focused on religious and spiritual issues (33%). They valued the sense of community, including opportunities to connect with others with kindred interests (31%). They remarked on the benefits of having diverse perspectives represented (22%), including approaches that are more spiritual than religious. Participants noted strengths in the quality of research (21%) and the journal (15%).They also acknowledged the benefits of electronic resources such as the e-mail list and newsletter (12%) and conferences (12%).

2. Offer a warm welcome — and ongoing support.

When going through the survey results, my biggest concern by far was that not all Division 36 members feel welcome. A few participants used words such as cliquish, unfriendly, or insensitive in their descriptions of the division. Not surprisingly, seeing the division in this unwelcoming way was associated with lower satisfaction ratings. Those who expressed these concerns were more likely to describe their affiliations as “spiritual but not religious.” Granted, the number of participants who expressed concerns about feeling unwelcome was small (n = 7), but small numbers don’t make the problem any less important. And are the numbers really so small? I wondered how many people who did not complete the survey might also be feeling unwelcome — and whether some responders might have felt this way, too, but didn’t want to speak up for fear of being identified. Of all the issues raised in the survey, this problem of feeling unwelcome was the one that troubled me the most. So I’m going to go into more detail on this than the other points.

I followed up on the “unwelcome” finding by looking at a related set of items. The survey assessed how supported people felt, from 0 (not at all) to 5 (totally), in terms of their interests in the psychology of religion and spirituality. On average, participants reported that their interests were reasonably well supported by their organizations, colleagues, religious groups, mentors, friends & family, and the field in general (α = .79). The mean rating for feeling supported was 3.4 (SD = 1.1) on the 0–5 scale. At first glance this seems OK, but a full 1/3 of respondents reported scores of 3.0 or lower — meaning that they were feeling somewhat isolated in terms of their interests.

I took a closer look at some of the factors that were associated with feeling supported, although I won’t list all of the statistical details here. In terms of professional interests, certain people felt more supported: those with academic interests (e.g., quantitative research, writing, teaching, mentoring) and those who liked to attend conferences, network with others, and present their work. Demographically, those who felt more supported were younger, female, and Christian (especially in comparison to those who identified as spiritual but not religious). Also, on the item assessing overall satisfaction with Division 36, satisfaction levels were marginally (p = .06) lower for persons who endorsed an ethnicity other than white/Caucasian.

When I first came into the division, I felt very welcome. Div. 36 has always felt like a secure base for me. But I must also consider these not-so-fun facts: At the time that I joined the division, I was a young, white, Christian woman who was involved with quantitative research, writing, and teaching. As an introvert, I’m not much of a networker — but the rest of the profile fit me like a glove. No wonder I felt so welcome!

To say that these findings were sobering would be a gross understatement. But it is vital for us to know that some of our members do feel alienated — and many more feel isolated. It’s clear that we need to be more welcoming and supportive to one another.

3. Stand up

Some members expressed concern that by broadening our focus to include spirituality, we might lose our ability to serve as a “safe haven” or a sound intellectual base for those interested in religious issues (or who hold specific religious commitments). Might members lose their ability to address the needs of specific religious groups if the division becomes too broad in its focus — or too politically correct? Also, as described in the Participants section above, some members are likely to feel underrepresented in our division.

Obviously there’s no easy solution here. However, it seems crucial that the voices of all members can be heard. Personally, I’d like to encourage Div. 36 members to stand up for themselves — and, where appropriate, their groups — by continuing to do high-quality work that feels connected to their own beliefs and values. I also hope that each of us can find ways to share our perspectives with others in the division and more broadly, while maintaining a stance of openness and respect toward those whose views might differ (even sharply) from our own.

4. Be a lifelong learner

Several respondents suggested that Div. 36 members would benefit from broadening our knowledge bases in the areas of religion and spirituality. Most of us in the division have a lot of training in psychology or closely related fields. But there is huge variability in our knowledge of topics such as comparative religion, theology, philosophy, transpersonal psychology, and religious/spiritual integration with psychology. And frankly, sometimes our lack of background in these areas can make our work seem to lack depth or relevance for colleagues who have expertise in the areas listed above.

There are many resources that can help us learn more about religious and spiritual topics, from personal study to formal coursework to collaboration. In addition, collaborating and consulting with religious/spiritual professionals (e.g., clergy; theologians and religious studies experts; pastoral counselors; spiritual directors; chaplains) not only has the potential to teach us a great deal; it will also help us to build bridges. It would be informative to have more religious/spiritual professionals give conference sessions in their areas of expertise. Several respondents suggested that we be proactive in attending meetings of other related groups (e.g., International Association for the Psychology of Religion; Society for the Scientific Study of Religion; Religious Research Association; Westar Institute) and inviting members of these groups to join us.

5. Do rigorous research

There is a lot of great quantitative research going on in the division. Several members highlighted the need to stay methodologically rigorous and to keep in step with other areas of psychology and the social sciences. Sometimes psychology is seen as “soft science,” and our subfield may seem even fuzzier than most. One member suggested that we offer some methodologically or statistically focused sessions at our meetings, so that those who are interested but don’t have the requisite training can improve their skills.

6. Keep it real

In comparison with other professional groups, satisfaction levels were higher for faculty and lower for mental health professionals. Some participants expressed concern that the division has become too focused on quantitative research. Even in papers and presentations that take a basic science approach, greater attention to practical and clinical implications would be welcomed. For some, qualitative research will open creative new doors. Professionals in the mental health and religion/spirituality fields want practical ideas that they can use in their daily work with clients, so the relevance of quantitative research to their practice needs to be clear. Continuing education credits will also help to draw more clinically oriented professionals to conference presentations.

I’d like to pass along some great news for those with clinical interests: I recently learned from Dr. Lisa Miller that APA will soon be coming out with a new journal, Spirituality in Clinical Practice. Feel free to contact Lisa with questions.

7. Serve as a mentor

We asked students and early career professionals about their needs for mentoring. About half of these respondents said their needs for mentoring were being met “somewhat/moderately” (25%) or “quite a bit” (21%); however, the modal response was “a little bit” (32%), and 18% said that their mentoring needs were not being met at all. When asked about their level of interest in additional mentoring, no one endorsed “not at all.” The modal response was “very” (51%), followed by “moderately” (26%). Serving as mentors may also be a way to help later-career members stay engaged; several respondents made suggestions along these lines.

What’s needed now is a way to facilitate and organize mentoring efforts in a way that is helpful, practical, efficient, fulfilling for mentors and mentees, and sustainable over the long term. Over the next few months, I’m planning to consult with others to develop a strategy to start to address these mentoring needs. Your input and ideas would be much appreciated.

8. Connect

 Many of us connect with other Div. 36 members at conferences, and conferences were noted as strengths of the division. Yet when asked about conference attendance in the past 5 years, respondents reported relatively low attendance on average. The majority (64%) had not attended the mid-year conference in the past 5 years, 19% had attended only once, and only 4% had attended every year. In terms of the annual APA convention, the picture was only slightly brighter: 45% had not attended in the past 5 years, 18% had attended only once, and only 12% had attended every year. The clearest take-home point, then, is that many of our members are not attending our big conferences — at least not regularly. Also, despite extensive advertising, a few respondents were not aware that we had an annual mid-year conference.

In terms of the preferred mid-year conference location, respondents were “all over the map” geographically. The one clear preference was that only 16% expressed a preference to keep the mid-year meeting at the same location each year. A slight majority (56%) wanted to alternate locations, and 28% didn’t have a preference. Several expressed interest in smaller regional conferences as well. It could take considerable energy and time to get new meetings (or mid-year locations) ready to go. But if anyone out there would like to propose a new conference or new location, please speak up — especially if you can help with coordinating logistics.

These findings got me thinking about the many ways that we can connect. Our regular conferences readily come to mind, but not everyone enjoys large conferences. Also, many can’t afford the high prices of long-distance travel, conference fees, and hotels, especially in big cities. Sometimes it might make sense to gather with a small group of colleagues. We can visit others and invite them to visit us. Small groups with common interests could hold informal meetings — even via conference call or Skype if an in-person gathering is too costly or complex. Modest investments of time and money could lead to new or deepened connections.

9. Be a gem

I enjoyed looking at the Self-Reflection part of the survey, where members described some of their major strengths and interests. There is such a wide array of talent within our group, and we all have distinctive ways to contribute. As I described above in the Participants section, most of our respondents were from academic, clinical, or religious/spiritual settings, so it makes sense that many reported strong interests and skills in these areas. But these are not the only areas in which our division (and, more broadly, our field) has needs. For example, we would routinely benefit from having more help in areas such as recordkeeping, computers and technology, cross-cultural interests and skills, editing and reviewing for our journals, hospitality, and finances, to name just a few. And we can virtually always benefit from the help of visionaries and “connectors” (a la Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point).

We do need people to run for office in the division, and I hope that you’ll consider doing so. But it’s not necessary to have a formally elected or appointed position in order to play a special role in the division. Whatever your unique skills and abilities might be, we hope that you will use them to help build our division and our field. Some of these ideas might be things that you would pursue on your own. But if you have a specific idea about how to make our division more effective — and especially if you can provide concrete steps and some leadership in carrying out your idea — please let us know. We would love to hear from you.

10. Tell someone

When asked how they found out about Div. 36, the largest proportion learned about us through another person (42% total; 34% through an individual; 8% through graduate programs). In short, a large number of our new members come through relationships. So here’s a key question: Who can you tell about Div. 36? Anyone who is interested can go to our website and follow the links to become a member. People don’t even have to remember the web address or division number. They can find us easily by typing in search terms like these: “APA psychology of religion and spirituality” or even just “psychology religion spirituality.” When I did this a few minutes ago, Div. 36 was one of the first websites listed. For questions about membership, please feel free to contact our membership chair. This person should always be listed on the Div. 36 website. At the time of this column, the membership chair is Dr. Carissa Dwiwardani.

Concluding Thoughts

Thank you again to everyone who took the time and energy to complete our survey. I wish that I could have reported more details here, but hopefully some of these take home points will be helpful to you. Over the long term, my goal is that the results from this survey will help Div. 36 to grow in terms of breadth and depth — and I also hope that they will help us to provide an environment that all members will find supportive and engaging.


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