Spiritual Needs: A Missing Piece of the Pastoral Pie?

I read many studies on church attendance and affiliation, looking for trends and listening beyond the numbers to the lives, hopes, desires and needs that people express through them. It is easy to focus on the things that drive people away, things such as disillusionment and suspicion of institutions, rejection of Church teaching, and abuse and scandal. These are, no doubt, real and important things to know and address as we are able.

I think we miss something in the midst of this, however. The majority of the people who move from church to church, denomination to denomination, and those who become unaffiliated say they did not feel their spiritual needs were being met in the church in which they were raised. When I first read the statistics, I was stunned. How could anyone experience the mystery and gift of the Eucharist and not feel his or her spiritual needs met? And yet, something in the statistic rang true. How many of us have experienced moments in which our spiritual lives feel hollow? How many of us regularly encounter people whose daily lives are not touched by their participation in the Sunday liturgy? How many of us know in our hearts that for many people there is a huge disconnection between faith and daily living? 

Add to the above the research on engagement that recognizes meeting spiritual needs as foundational to engaging people in faith. It makes sense. As a young man who was a workshop participant told about 250 of us, "I was away from the Church for a few years after college. I just couldn't quite make myself go to Mass on Sunday. As I began to think about coming back, I have to admit, the question I asked myself was, 'what am I going to get out of this?' It sounds very selfish when I say it out loud, but I had to know there was going to be some impact in my life if I was going to make a commitment to return."

What are 'spiritual needs,' and what can our pastoral response be for those who feel their spiritual needs are not being met? Most of the study on spiritual needs has focused on the dying and the disabled, and point to things such as belonging, finding meaning and purpose in life, giving and receiving love, and finding forgiveness, creativity and hope. Those who have studied the engagement research see these reflected in the causes and outcomes of engagement. Still, it seems to me there are things we are missing within our Catholic parish practice. Are spiritual needs a missing piece of the pastoral pie? This is why we created the Spiritual Needs Survey, in order to ask everyday Catholics about their spiritual needs. In my next post, I will share what we have learned thus far through the survey, which has 3800+ respondents to date. For now, let me ask you to think about and share your thoughts on this. What would you say your spiritual needs are, and how does your parish help you to have those spiritual needs met?