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Moral and Faith Development in Pastoral Ministry

November 30, 2010


Despite the hostility of some within the Christian world towards an integration of psychology and religion, an understanding of moral and faith development is “vitally important for anyone who desires to provide soul care.”[1] Indeed, it has been said that in order to reach humanity, we must understand humanity.[2] The following essay will seek to explore how the developmental theories proposed by Lawrence Kohlberg[3] and James Fowler[4] help when ministering to an adult individual within a faith community by providing important insights toward understanding, communicating with, and nurturing them.


But before this question is explored further, it is important to briefly note that a pastor must first evaluate their own personal moral and faith development in light of the theories proposed before they can effectively use these theories in ministering to others.  This self-understanding will not only help in identifying with another individual as one’s own journey of development is reflected upon, but should also provide an understanding of the purpose of these theories and thus guard against their potential misuse as ways of categorising individuals as inferior or superior depending on their stages of development.[5] Once the foregoing has been firmly grasped a pastor can then proceed to apply the developmental theories effectively and appropriately in ministering to others.


Moral and faith developmental theories provide a context by which one is able to understand an adult individual’s reasoning and behaviour.  Both Kohlberg and Fowler have proposed six stage models of development with each stage associated with approximate ages.[6] While this stage-age association is generally reflected in the development of most individuals, not all develop at the same rate.  Fowler, for instance, has pointed out that varieties in congregational presence can include individuals whose “range of stages of faith and selfhood include at least three or four.”[7] Because of this diversity it is especially important for a pastor to have an awareness of these stages as it will provide an indication of where an individual is at in terms of their development and also of their transition between stages.

In practical terms, identifying the stage an individual is currently at can be achieved through personal interactions with them:  the topics and opinions shared in conversations, the comments made following a sermon, the questions raised during a Sabbath School discussion, even listening to the way they pray will provide subtle indications of their present stage of development.  By observing the ways in which they understand and express their faith, whether it is primarily an external, borrowed faith, or an internalised, personal faith, will indicate earlier or later stages of faith development.  This will also implicitly indicate their stage of moral development by revealing their source of authority, whether it is self-centred, indicating a preconventional level; other-centred, indicating a conventional level; or principle centred, indicating a postconventional level.[8]

Kohlberg and Fowler have argued that disequilibrium[9] or deconstruction and reconstruction[10] is an important part of one’s growth and development as it demonstrates that the individual is questioning the views of their present stage and discovering them to be insufficient they find the solution to their problem by moving to the next stage.  The implications of this are important for pastoral care as such questioning is an indication of growth and not necessarily a sign of hostility towards a particular teaching or practise.  While this kind of struggle is more evident in transitions during childhood and adolescence, it can manifest itself in later adult development.  Indeed, “some of the most interesting and powerful faith stage transitions occur only in adulthood.”[11] The reason for this is largely due to some remaining at the earlier stages of childhood or adolescence and carrying them through into adulthood, where it becomes increasingly difficult to move to the next stage.[12] The developmental theories thus provide an important understanding of what the individual is going through psychologically and will inform the necessary corresponding care that should be demonstrated towards an individual experiencing such transitional struggles.


Having ascertained which stage of moral and faith development an adult individual is at will assist in communicating more effectively to them.  As mentioned earlier, it is important to remember while preparing sermons and leading in discussion groups that there are can be a variety of stages of development represented.  Having an awareness of this, a pastor is able to harness a diverse range of language, story, and imagery demonstrating intentional sensitivity in an attempt to reach those at different levels of development.

To be more specific, if an individual is at a preconventional stage of moral development, there is an important need for external boundaries to be articulated.  In a Christian context, this would mean exposing the individual to the commandments of God and the rewards of heaven and the punishment of hell.  Focusing on underlying principles with someone at this stage would not be the most beneficial to them as they are simply seeking to understand and accommodate God’s laws.  Such early stages of moral development are driven primarily by self-interest, and while it is a starting point, believers should not remain at this initial level of development.[13] They must be nurtured and encouraged to progress to higher stages of moral understanding where they are able to distinguish principle from precept.

An individual who is struggling with transitioning between Stage 3 (synthetic-conventional) and Stage 4 (individuating-reflexive) in their faith development, during which time their faith moves from being borrowed to being owned, needs to be reminded of the normality of this experience.  Biblical examples should be cited as encouragement to forming their own identity and independent perspectives.  They need to be taught that their true value and meaning as an individual is found in the sight of God, rather than that of the faith community.  This particular transition involves numerous tensions,[14] including the conflict between their own efforts to move into a more advanced stage in the face of parents or a religious culture that is firmly established at an earlier stage of understanding God and their relationship with Him.[15] Communicating to an individual experiencing this particular transition should be guided by an understanding of these deeper tensions.


One of the primary tasks of the pastor and church family is to lead people to deeper levels of spiritual maturity.  Fowler states that “a faith community that provides for the nurture of ongoing adult development in faith will create a climate of developmental expectation.”[16] Though nurture should be specific for those at various stages, there are general things that can be done to create an environment that will facilitate development and call forth “the gifts and emergent strengths of each stage of faith.”[17] One such way is by helping those within the faith community to become more sensitive to those who are at different stages.[18] This can be done through preaching and teaching by presenting “dynamic images of faith and calling.”[19] The Christian life should be presented as an exciting lifelong journey of growth and development.  Once an ethos of nurturing development has been formed within the community, a pastor can turn his attention to the more specific needs of individuals.

It should be noted in this context that one of the fundamental principles behind the theories of Kohlberg, and Fowler to a lesser extent, is that development follows an invariant sequence.[20] Though this has been questioned by some, it is generally held to be true.  This provides a pastor with a certain amount of predictability which will help in more specific nurturing towards further stages of development.

As mentioned previously, both moral and faith development theories place an important role on disequilibrium as the catalyst for transition.  Though this might be counter-intuitive for most people, not least pastors who are trying to keep their church united, “encouraging disequilibrium through explorative conversations” forces individuals “to thoughtfully examine the framework of their thinking.”[21] This should be done in a caring and constructive way and would require facilitation by someone with an understanding of the stages represented in such discussions.

A further way of achieving this development through nurturing is to encourage mature believers to form close relationships with new believers, who are typically at much earlier stages.  Here they are able to observe higher stages of faith and moral development not only on an intellectual level but also how it is lived out on a practical level.[22] Such a relationship will not only encourage development from a focus on external standards to internalised standards, and transition from having borrowed faith to owned faith, but will provide many other benefits within the community also.


This essay has briefly explored how an understanding of the moral and faith developmental theories proposed by Kohlberg and Fowler help when caring for an adult individual within a faith community.  This is most beneficial when the theories are correctly understood and applied on a personal level before they are applied to others.  These developmental theories provide important ways of understanding how and why an individual thinks and behaves in a particular way; how this understanding guides more appropriate communication with individuals, depending on which stage or stage transition they are experiencing; and how together they merge into forming a nurturing environment in which an individual is able to continue to grow, experience and understand God in more supportive and meaningful ways as they continue their journey of moral and faith development.

[1] David G. Benner, Care of Souls: Revisioning Christian Nurture and Counsel (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1998), 69.

[2] Ellen G. White, Education (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press, 1952), 78.

[3] Lawrence Kohlberg, The Psychology of Moral Development (San Francisco, CA: Harper & Row, 1984).

[4] James W. Fowler, Stages of Faith (Blackburn, VIC : Dove Communications, 1981).

[5] Fowler lists four cautions against the misuse of these stages in Faith Development and Pastoral Care (Philadelphia: PA: Fortress Press, 1987), 80-81.

[6] See Kohlberg, Moral Development, 44, 621-639; Fowler, Stages of Faith, 119-211.

[7] Fowler, Faith Development, 82.

[8] It should be pointed out that the theories being discussed outline the general trends of development, as some individuals can exhibit a variety of characteristics from different stages.

[9] Lisa Kuhmerker, The Kohlberg Legacy for the Helping Professions (Birmingham, AL: R.E.P. Books, 1991), 23-24.

[10] Fowler, Faith Development, 103-105.

[11] Craig Dykstra and Sharon Parks, ed. Faith Development and Fowler (Birmingham, AL: Religious Education Press, 1986), 37-38.

[12] Fowler, Faith Development, 96-97.

[13] Timothy S. Gibson, “Proposed Levels of Christian Spiritual Maturity.” Journal of Psychology and Theology 32, no. 4 (2004), 299.

[14] Fowler, Stages of Faith, 182.

[15] Scott Lownsdale, “Faith Development Across the Life Span: Fowler’s Integrative Work.” Journal of Psychology and Theology 25, no. 1 (1997), 61.

[16] Fowler, Stages of Faith, 296.

[17] Ibid. Most faith communities are aware of the underlying development of faith but it is not usually intentionally considered.

[18] Lownsdale, “Faith Development”, 61.

[19] Fowler, Faith Development, 116.

[20] Kuhmerker, The Kohlberg Legacy, 19.

[21] Gibson, “Proposed Levels of Christian Spiritual Maturity”, 301, 303. See also Kuhmerker, The Kohlberg Legacy, 185.

[22] See for instance 1 Cor. 11:1.


From → Academic Papers

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