Newsletter: Volume V, Issue 4

Spiritually Engaged Pedagogy:
The Possibilities of Spiritual Development Through Social Justice Education

By Jennifer M. Pigza & Marshall J. Welch

This article proposes a new framework – Spiritually Engaged Pedagogy – that draws on the intersecting literature of spirituality, social justice, engaged spirituality, and engaged pedagogy. Spiritually engaged pedagogy integrates the cognitive (head), affective (heart), and behavioral (hands) aspects of learning and development, and posits that all are teachers and learners in the process. In addition to describing the development of this pedagogy, the authors provide academic and co-curricular examples and pose implications for professional development.

Recent research suggests a strong relationship between spirituality and one’s interest and capacity to engage with others. Specifically, Lindholm and Astin (2008) speak of how “people’s abilities to access, nurture, and give expression to the spiritual dimension of their lives have also been found to impact how they engage with the world and to foster within them a heightened sense of connectedness that promotes empathy, ethical behavior, civic responsibility, passion, and action for social justice” (emphasis added, p. 186).

If this statement is true, what is the reciprocal relationship between spirituality and social justice? And, what educational practices might benefit the emergence of both? To answer these important questions, this article begins with an exploration of the concepts of spirituality, social justice, engaged spirituality, and engaged pedagogy. We then propose a new framework, Spiritually Engaged Pedagogy, which is informed by engaged teaching and learning and critical pedagogy. Finally, this article suggests implications for faculty and staff development through this new pedagogical approach that strives to enhance both spiritual development and social justice through education.

While the framework of Spiritually Engaged Pedagogy is grounded in theory, it also emerges from the authors’ professional experience in service-learning, community-based research, faculty and curriculum development, and student leadership. Examples throughout this article draw from the authors’ current roles in leading the center for community service-learning and social justice education at Saint Mary’s College of California.


This exploration of the interplay between spirituality and social justice begins by considering the ways in which spirituality is currently defined. The by-line for HERI’s Spirituality in Higher Education project indicates that it is “a national study of college students’ search for meaning and purpose.” This notion of spirituality is not solely one of religious belief or formal affiliation, but rather that of spiritual questing and meaning-making in a more holistic manner. Tisdell (2003) and English (2000) also contribute to operationalizing spirituality. The key concepts embedded in their work reflect the general literature and include:

With these perspectives in mind, spirituality can be viewed as a gateway to constructing both meaning and a meaningful life. Spirituality impacts how students view family, friendships, vocation, religious affiliation, and political and civic engagement. The landmark book Common Fire: Leading Lives of Commitment in a Complex World explores what can now be called the spiritual commitments of adults (Daloz, Keen, Keen, Parks, 1996). Spirituality asks big questions, and calls us to embody worthy dreams (Parks, 2000). Palmer (2002) recalls Steer’s suggestion that spirituality not only asks “Who am I?” but also asks “Whose am I?”

Building on this holistic definition of spirituality, Koth and Welch (2009) challenge the assumption that students’ spiritual development is relegated to the work of campus ministry or courses in theology and religious studies; rather, they describe a developmental approach to nurture students’ spirituality through service-learning. In this way, spirituality can be both learned and practiced by being in relationships with each other in various contexts where students engage across differences.

These conceptions of spirituality also connect to social justice education through engagement with otherness. While definitions of social justice typically begin with an exploration of rights and responsibilities (Noddings, 1999), to rest at this level of understanding is to omit naming injustice through words like power, privilege, colonialism, and systemic oppression. Perhaps more importantly, however, this definition limits the transformational possibilities of a vision of social justice that contains concepts – and lived possibilities – including equity, inclusion, sustainability, and what King called “the beloved community” (Washington, 1986).

In terms of higher education, social justice ally development focuses on social justice as a process of naming and understanding injustice, while also providing opportunities for students to consider their own vision and participation in a more just world (Briodo, 2000). To be committed to social justice implies a sense of self that is open to new meaning and what that meaning calls us to be and do.

Saint Mary’s College’s institution-wide Social Justice Coordinating Committee endeavored for one year to craft a definition of social justice that resonated with our Catholic and Lasallian traditions, while also positing social justice education as a component of the liberal arts experience. Through the work of this Committee, we determined the following:

Social justice is a set of principles and a process that govern humans’ behavior to one another and the natural world. Social justice is based on the premises that society is characterized by inequalities in resources and influence, and that individual and collective actions can and will transform society. Social justice promotes awareness of inequalities, action to redress inequalities, and ongoing habits of mind and actions that continue to redress inequalities. Social justice seeks transformation of society at global and local levels and the liberation of creation from every oppressive situation. (Saint Mary’s College of California Social Justice Coordinating Committee, 2009)

In addition to defining social justice, the Committee also developed benchmarks for curriculum development of social justice courses and programs, which will be discussed later in this article. Both of these documents serve to institutionalize social justice and are hallmarks of our undergraduate education.

Exploring spirituality leads to a consideration of the common good, which, in turn, implies a process of self-discovery grounded in spiritual questions. This reciprocal relationship is reflected in Parachin’s (1999) notion of engaged spirituality. According to Parachin, “engaged spirituality is demonstrated by all those persons who find within their faith tradition the resources that nurture their being and enable them to engage in activities that move the world toward peace, justice, greater compassion, and wholeness” (p. 1). Furthermore, Parachin suggests that those who practice engaged spirituality create a back-and-forth narrative between spirituality and social justice.

Parachin’s engaged spirituality provides a link to engaged pedagogy – one that moves beyond the text and reader to include active engagement with others in teaching and learning. Colby, Ehrlich, Beaumont, and Stephens (2003) characterized engaged pedagogy as a model consisting of eight principles of best practice for learning. These principles include active learning, learning as a social process, knowledge as shaped by contexts, reflective practice, and capacity to represent an idea in more than one modality.

In the context of our institution, engaged pedagogy is necessarily connected to an exploration of social justice. As we reflect on our own work and study in higher education related to spirituality and social justice, a new form of pedagogy emerges – one that allows for the interplay between spirituality and social justice in academic as well as co-curricular settings. We call this framework Spiritually Engaged Pedagogy.


Spiritually Engaged Pedagogy provides a pedagogical framework that focuses on intentional practices that support both spiritual development and social justice education. The model draws references from literature of critical pedagogy (e.g., Wink, 2005), engaged pedagogy (e.g., Battistoni, 2002; Jacoby, 1996), and spiritual development (e.g., English, 2000; Tisdell, 2003). It is symbolized in the triadic image of head, heart, and hands (Welch, 2007; Welch & Koth, 2009), as represented below. Spiritually Engaged Pedagogy asserts that none of these three components can or should stand alone. Students and educators often equate learning with task completion and knowledge acquisition, whereas this type of pedagogy invites an integrated holistic approach.
HEAD (Cognition)
This teaching and learning paradigm – Spiritually Engaged Pedagogy – is not altogether new, and its components are closely aligned with the three purposes of liberal education (Harward, 2007). One is epistemic which relates to the traditional cognitive activity of study that takes place in the head. Another is eudemonic, which allows the learner to explore the affective dimensions and realize one’s identity and potential – a process associated with the heart.

Finally, civic or compassionate understanding relates to responsibility and/or the learning that comes through action or the hands. Obviously, there is a relationship and overlap between and among the head, heart, and hands. Nor do these three components necessarily unfold in a specific order. Spiritually Engaged Pedagogy purposefully integrates and infuses each of these components as part of the teaching and learning experience.

Head: Cognitive and Intellectual Development

Study can be incorporated through reading texts and articles, participating in lectures, writing essays, and exploring multiple forms of media. This is the cognitive process that focuses on the “what” and takes place in the head. It is content, facts, definitions, history, and theory. Historically, this has been the focus of higher education. Faculty and students are familiar and comfortable with the traditional methods of study focusing on the “what.”

As Wink (2005) explains, “Critical pedagogy seeks to make pluralism plural: standards, cultures, knowledges [sic], histories, languages, perspectives. Society has a tendency to domesticate students into believing the dominant view” (p. 46). Critical pedagogy infuses a new way to study – one that challenges students to name their lived experiences as text, to question the given-ness of information, and to wrestle with injustice.

Students can also be invited into newer forms of academic engagement, such as community-based research, web-based learning communities, and community partners as teachers. For example, students in an education course may learn basic research methods by studying texts, reading examples, and researching student persistence at a local urban Catholic elementary school. They both read the word and read the world. In a co-curricular example, student leaders learn the principles of community organizing and action planning, while coordinating major campus events. In these examples, the cognitive process of learning is that of doing in real world settings.

Heart: Reflection and Meaning-Making

Borg (2003) suggests, “the heart is an image for the self at a deep level, deeper than our perception, intellect, emotion, and volition. As the spiritual center of the total self, it affects all of these: our sight, thought, feelings, and will” (p. 151). Reflection is the intentional consideration of an experience in light of specific learning objectives (Bringle and Hatcher, 1999) and provides an opportunity to explore questions of meaning and purpose (Baxter Magolda, 2008). If intellectual and cognitive development as described above lead to a greater knowledge of the world’s problems and opportunities, then reflection creates the opportunity for wisdom (Brown, 2004) and self-authorship (Kegan, 1994).

Hondagneu-Sotelo and Raskoff (1994) suggest reflection consists of three salient features: affect, behaviors, and cognition. Later, these were modified into the ABCs of reflection (Welch, 1999; Welch & James, 2007). Intentional reflection is the critical component that links action and study to learning and development. Reflection is not necessarily a “warm fuzzy” experience as many students and faculty presume; rather, reflection often means making meaning of the noise created by new knowledge and experience (Welch, 2009).
For example, students and faculty in a service immersion course in New Orleans struggled to integrate their concurrent experiences of devastation and hope, doubt, and faith. They were challenged not only to reflect upon how to live together for three weeks in a make-shift camp, but also how to foster community on campus in ways that attend to the suffering of others once they returned. They experienced what critical pedagogy would call a dialectic – a tension between opposing thoughts and values – and then translated that learning to their personal lives and experiences at home (Wink, 2005).

Hands: Physical and Civic Engagement

The pedagogical use of action has a historical foundation traced to the principles of Dewey (1938), who criticized the false dichotomy of knowledge and practice. Kolb’s (1984) experiential learning cycle and learning style theory provide guidance for incorporating “hands” into the educational process through pedagogies such as service-learning and community-based research. Action can be the impetus for, the result of, and the pathway to the acquisition of new knowledge. Action is not for the sake of “doing hours;” it is to support student learning and the development of communities. In this way, students (and faculty and staff) experience what Freire (1970/1994) calls praxis – a cycle of action and reflection in order to transform the world.

For example, Saint Mary’s College Jumpstart corps members participate in a 300-hour leadership and service program in which they work in pre-schools serving low-income communities. The action of being in the classroom is only possible because of the training the students receive; the training course becomes a richer experience as the students have more experience with the children and neighborhoods. Additionally, their work leads to larger questions about urban poverty, the meaning of childhood, and how people predisposed to being advocates for social justice will respond to what they witness and learn.


Saint Mary’s College’s definition of social justice was operationalized through benchmarks that guide the development of courses and programs related to social justice. The following benchmarks reflect the head-heart-hands triad of Spiritually Engaged Pedagogy:

These benchmarks have been put into action in a variety of academic and co-curricular programs at the college. Faculty and staff recognize that meeting the ideal of the benchmarks is an ongoing process. A faculty committee provides assistance to its peers in animating the benchmarks, and our center’s staff members assist others with in co-curricular efforts. In each of the examples below, we identify how each benchmark is addressed.
Community-Based Research in Sociology

A sociology faculty member at SMC teaches “Justice and the Community: The Prison System from the Inside out,” a course in which he and his students study crime and delinquency. The course is grounded in the restorative justice and reintegrative shame theory (Braithwaite, 1989) which connect to benchmarks 1 and 2 above. The course not only engages students in the sociological literature about criminal justice and culture, it also features a multi-semester research project about programs and services that support ex-offenders. Each semester, students meet with a non-profit agency partner, learn about its programs, and then engage in one-on-one interviews with ex-offenders (Benchmark 3).

The sociologist is adamant that the students’ research interviews are conversational in tone and allow students and ex-offenders to participate in an exchange about life purpose, goals, impediments and opportunities—what can be considered spiritual themes. The conversational interviews create “I-thou encounters” (Buber, 1970/1996) that challenge the students to probe their understandings of themselves, ex-offenders, and systems that perpetuate crime and transform society; they are also asked to consider how their actions contribute to or work against injustice (Benchmark 4). After a recent semester, a few students became very connected to the ex-offenders and the non-profit agency and initiated involvement beyond the semester. Noticing the lack of operable computers for use in the job training program, these students coordinated donations of computers, software, and supplies to the agency.

Student Leadership & Service Programs

The Bonner Leader Program – a national co-curricular program grounded in the core commitments of social justice, civic engagement, spiritual exploration, diversity, international perspective, and community building – is hosted by the center for community service-learning and social justice education at Saint Mary’s College. The national program is grounded in civic engagement framework of Battistoni (2002), and at Saint Mary’s College, we also operate from the justice-oriented theological framework of Catholic social thought (e.g., Massaro, 2000) (Benchmark 1 and 2). Students make at least a one-year commitment to this co-curricular program during which they receive 100 hours of training and development (Benchmarks 3 and 4) and invest ten hours per week in direct service and advocacy (Benchmark 3).

A week-long orientation contains education on topics such as poverty, pluralism, and Catholic social thought, as well as direct service and guided reflection. The group meets bi-weekly for ongoing education on topics of their choice and monthly with a staff director for coaching and self-reflection (Benchmark 3 and 4). Students report that participating in such a deep program enables them to explore their purpose, develop spiritually, and engage their academic studies with new perspectives (Keen & Hall, 2009).


By engaging the head, heart, and hands, Spiritually Engaged Pedagogy makes evident the interplay between spirituality and social justice. Faculty and staff are experts in their disciplines and professional practice, however, few are prepared to facilitate this type of education (Pigza, 2005). In our work with faculty and staff at Saint Mary’s College, we infuse technical and theoretical knowledge about engaged pedagogy with activities and curriculum examples that promote spiritual development. The practice of Spiritually Engaged Pedagogy does not supersede the autonomy of faculty to develop and teach courses that meet their learning goals; it extends the possibility of teaching and learning.

For example, out faculty development workshops begin with a reflective exercise. One workshop began with a five-minute free write followed by pair conversations answering the question, “Why do you teach?” This spiritual question invites faculty to individually reflect on meaning-making and then to share their thoughts and feelings with others. Faculty comment that they infrequently engage in questions about the vocational aspects of their work and were enriched by the authentic exchange it evoked. This was particularly true of newer faculty, many of whom experienced spiritually engaged pedagogy as undergraduates.

In this way, Spiritually Engaged Pedagogy challenges faculty to consider the question, “Whose am I?” For example, a chemistry instructor regularly engages his student in service-learning project where students provide lead testing to non-profits and schools. One semester, the instructor was faced with an identity and meaning-making challenge when his students discovered high levels of lead at his own children’s school. He asked: Am I a chemist? A teacher? A parent? A community member? Can I talk about my conflicting responses with my students?

He decided to engage in a transparent conversation with his students about how he was conflicted about the experience. He lived Freire’s (1970/1994) notion that action and learning are linked explicitly with being “truly human” (p. 53). That particular semester, not only did the students learn about the value conflicts embedded in scientific inquiry, they also witnessed a faculty mentor make meaning of the experience. He took a risk, and his own learning and students’ learning were enriched as a result.

Spiritually Engaged Pedagogy requires an expansion of faculty and staff development and graduate education that includes attention to the technical, theoretical, practical, and spiritual needs of all parties involved in the educational process. Lindholm and Astin’s (2008) study of faculty spirituality and student-centered teaching supports this assertion. The three-word phrase, see-judge-act, attributed to the World War II era Belgian priest Joseph Cardijn (Holland & Henriot, 1983/2003), captures the essence of Spiritually Engaged Pedagogy. I see. I judge. I act. I participate in transforming the world and myself. As Pigza (2005) suggests, faculty and staff, by design and serendipity, engage in the same questions we invoke in our students: Why am I here? What matters to me, and why? What provides orientation to my life?


Merton (2002) comments that “the purpose of education is to show a person how to define [him/herself] authentically and spontaneously in relation to the world” (p. 3). Spiritually Engaged Pedagogy invites this authentic spontaneous progression and asserts that we are all teachers and learners in the process. Students are hungry for education that places them in relationship not only with theories, but also with real people who help them learn about themselves and their role in promoting the common good. Faculty and staff want to explore questions of meaning and deepen their abilities to teach and learn in pursuit of social justice (Pigza, 2005). Teaching and learning through Spiritually Engaged Pedagogy invites us all to dream-in-action. We are not finished, but we are well on the way – head, hearts, and hands in motion.


Jennifer M. Pigza is the Associate Director of the Catholic Institute for Lasallian Social Action (CILSA) at Saint Mary’s College of California. Pigza has been invested in service-learning and social justice education for nearly 20 years, both in community and higher education settings. Her research explores the lived experiences of faculty who teach for social justice, and she creates professional development opportunities for faculty and staff who consider themselves social justice allies. She is particularly interested in critical pedagogy’s application to higher education and the intersection of faith and justice. Pigza earned a Bachelor’s Degree in English Literature from Loyola University Maryland, a Master’s of Education Degree in Higher Education and Student Affairs Administration from the University of Vermont, and a Doctorate in the Social Foundations of Education from the University of Maryland.

Marshall J. Welch became Director of the Catholic Institute for Lasallian Social Action (CILSA) in December, 2007. He comes from the University of Utah where he was a faculty member in the College of Education since 1987 and later served as the Director of the Lowell Bennion Community Service Center. Welch earned his doctorate at Southern Illinois University. He is actively involved in the field of service-learning at the state, national, and international levels with publications, presentations, and workshops. Welch has taught several service-learning courses including one that immersed his students in post-Katrina New Orleans. He currently studies spirituality and spiritual formation at the San Francisco Theological Seminary.


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