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In this episode of the Saturdays at Seven Podcast, Todd Ream interviews Sarah Schnitker, Associate Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience at Baylor University and Director of the Science of Virtues Lab. They discuss Sarah’s work studying patience and other virtues, as well as how religiosity and spirituality contribute to people’s virtue development. Sarah also shares about working with other researchers across different disciplines to meet the felt needs of various communities.
- Peter Hill from Biola University
- Bob Emmons from UC Davis
- David Baily Harned’s book: Patience: How We Wait Upon the World
- Devan Stahl from Baylor University
- Christian Smith’s moral therapeutic deism from his book: Soul Searching
Todd Ream: Welcome to Saturdays at Seven, Christian Scholar’s Review’s conversation series with thought leaders about the academic vocation and the relationship that vocation shares with the Church. My name is Todd Ream. I have the privilege of serving as the publisher for Christian Scholar’s Review and as the host for Saturdays at Seven. I also have the privilege of serving on the faculty and the administration at Indiana Wesleyan University.
Our guest today is Sarah Schnitker, Associate Professor of Psychology at Baylor University and Director of the Science of Virtues Lab. Thank you for joining us today, Sarah.
Sarah Schnitker: Thank you for having me.
Todd Ream: You completed an undergraduate degree at Grove City and then graduate degrees at UC Davis. At what point in time, along that journey did you know that the study of psychology was in your future and in particular that you were gonna commit to your life and your life’s calling to the science of virtues?
Sarah Schnitker: Well, I was one of those people who figured this out very, very early. So I’ve struggled sometimes when I am helping my undergrads like figure out their purpose and their calling and, ’cause I’m like, it was easy for me. I remember my first semester of college, had the honor of taking my intro psych class from Peter Hill, who is still a colleague to this day, who’s a social psychologist who studies virtues and psychology of religion and one of the leaders in that field and so was introduced very early on and-
I’d entered undergrad thinking I would go into psychiatry but very quickly it was like, oh no, what’s for me is to be a professor. This is the best job in the world. And that semester decided that path. And so I was always exposed to this research that I do, even from that early time and just became more and more committed to it.
And then got the privilege of working with Bob Emmons at UC Davis and he does a lot of work on the development of gratitude, people’s spirituality and faith development, things like that. And so it just was always such an obvious choice for me. It took my love of science and math and wed it to these philosophical questions of the good life and character development that I really cared about. And, so very early on.
Todd Ream: First semester, I believe you said.
Sarah Schnitker: Yep. First semester I was 17 years old.
Todd Ream: So you, you were young for your, for entering college as it was, and then it came in the first semester too.
Sarah Schnitker: Yep. Yep. Before I became a, I guess what can you do at 18? Purchase cigarettes, which is before that happened, I knew what I wanted to do with my time.
Todd Ream: Well, before we get too far into this semester, I may have a couple of first year students that I would like you to talk with then about that possibility. You can find your calling and it can be now.
So you mentioned his work at UC Davis, and that was the attraction and reason then to go to graduate school there, I assume.
Sarah Schnitker: Yes. Working with Bob Evans there. And just there aren’t that many people. it’s grown since that time, but especially that time, people who are really looking virtue development but also attending to spirituality and religion in the process of virtue development was, there’s not a ton of folks then so, um- And Bob is an amazing scholar also, has a deep faith in his personal life. And so being able to work with him and see how he operates in the academy was just a real blessing.
Todd Ream: Yeah. Any authors that you read, to who contributed to shaping your vocation?
Sarah Schnitker: I mean, it’s hard, so many. I would say though, you know, some of the theological writers. My first semester of grad school, I read a book by David Bailey Harned on the virtue of patience. He’s a moral theologian, philosopher, and that sparked my interest in that virtue in particular, and set a course of the last two decades of work.
You know, the other thing I just love kind of children, young adult chapter books, so authors like Madeleine L’Engle, just inspiring kind of the imagination and thinking about metaphors for what we’re trying to do when we seek the truth and we do a lot of naming in psychology. When we name things, what does that mean? Those are both different types of writing but two that stand out.
Todd Ream: Yeah. Yep. Thank you. In terms of that naming, for those who are not familiar with personality psychology, can you say a little bit more about it and where it fits within the larger field?
Sarah Schnitker: Yeah. So, whenever I say, oh, I’m a psychology professor, people automatically think I’m a therapist, which I am not. I’m like, no, I don’t wanna actually help people myself. I wanna do the research about how we can do this, and put it in the hands of skilled folks in different areas. But personality psychology, we’re really trying to understand what is a human person. And how are people- what is human nature? How are we like all other humans? What are some of those individual differences and ways we might classify people and how they’re like some other people?
And then the thing that’s often lost is just that individual patterning of a person’s life and their life story. And that is also within our domain. And so personality psychology is trying to say, what is human nature and what are all the variations on human nature that are interesting and important to learn about and how do we describe those?
How many are there? How do we measure those things and track them over time? And so, there’s a lot of popular psychology personality systems out there like the Enneagram or the Myers-Briggs, and oftentimes those have major flaws and don’t hold up to empirical scrutiny. And so trying to figure out what can we say about humans and what is gonna be accurate information we can share with the world that really resonates with people because it is indeed the way humans are. That’s something we try to do.
Todd Ream: Yeah. That’s very helpful. Thank you. So you, you started your career at Fuller Seminary, Pasadena, California, and then made the transition to Baylor University in Waco, Texas a couple of years ago. In what ways is serving as a scholar in those two environments comparable? And then in what ways, if any, is that, is it different?
Sarah Schnitker: Yeah. That’s a great question. And I think, in many ways they’re quite similar in that both institutions have deep commitments to rigorous scholarship, to being excellent, and just pursuing truth and understanding and application to make a difference in the world.
I think too at both institutions, I see them as very mission driven, that they have clarity, the faculty individually as well as the institution and kind of up and down from boards to administrators, to faculty, to students of kind of understanding what their calling is to do into the world and that both share this deep Christian commitment to education and to producing knowledge that serves, the kingdom of God.
And then, and I think, you know, the other thing that’s really distinctive about these two is both are very creative institutions. Both I think especially if you look in the landscape of kind of Christian higher ed, I feel like both are on the cutting edge of what’s innovative. Trying to rethink our models, doing things that aren’t typically done in Christian higher ed. And so that looks different, I think of those, that’s where you start to get into the differences.
Whereas at Baylor, right? I mean, we like to call ourselves the really, truly kind of committed Protestant R-1 that we have in the country. So with the Carnegie classifications of being at the highest level of research productivity and thinking about, how do we do that intensive scholarship with the whole university, with all the different types of colleges and departments? Whereas at Fuller, it was really theological education that also was thinking about training psychologists, as those who are really engaging with people’s lay theological beliefs in therapeutic contexts, whether it’s marriage or family kind of therapy or clinical psychology. And so I think a big difference is just Baylor has the entirety of a university and I can talk to the chemist down the hall and the physicist and the nursing school.
So there’s more of a scope that I experience here at Baylor, that Fuller didn’t have. And, and I think the other big difference is, at Fuller it was all graduate education. the eight years I was there, so primarily working with PhD students, but also some MDiv students. Whereas at Baylor, I get to work with undergrads again and really phenomenal undergrads. And so that’s been fun to get back, with kind of that early formation of students that I missed a bit.
Todd Ream: Helping students find that calling in the first semester.
Sarah Schnitker: Exactly, exactly. If only.
Todd Ream: To date, what would you identify as the most satisfying experience that you’ve had as a scholar?
Sarah Schnitker: That’s really hard. I’ve had many. I feel incredibly lucky to get so many rich, deep, scholarly experiences. You know, I’d say the one that’s most salient right now is my work on the virtue of patience. So it was in 2004 that I first picked up the book by David Baily Harned and started working on this.
And for many years it was kind of just me. I remember when I started my dissertation I only had four sources on patience. And one of them was Charles Darwin, right? There was really no psychological discourse on patience. Even though all of us recognize this as something we maybe are really bad at but really wish we had. And so I think it’s been really satisfying to start to see other people join me in studying this virtue. And the first decade I felt like it was really slow and yes, of course that’s appropriate for studying patience. You’re gonna have to wait.
But then especially in the last five years, just so much more interest from other scholars, across disciplines, just people starting to come together and join me in this journey of understanding what is patience, how do we cultivate it? Why is it necessary? What does it look like on a daily basis? And how does it even solve big problems like religious polarization or things like that?
Actually just this past month we started kind of a second grant on the virtue of patience funded by Templeton Religion Trust, bringing together philosophers, theologians, religious studies scholars, alongside the psychologists to really make some concentrated headway with a lot of intentionality.
That’s been really fun to see. It’s been a very slow two decade process but to see, oh, maybe in 2024 after some serious time, I feel like we’re actually getting somewhere and projecting to the next five years what will happen. It’s gonna scale up exponentially with the plans that we have. So that’s been super exciting and just personally meaningful as well.
Todd Ream: Yeah. No, that is exciting. Along those lines, one of the first articles that I read of yours had to do with the application of your earlier research on patience. When it comes to say one’s calling or career for junior faculty, as well as senior faculty, so those who’ve committed themselves to the academic vocation, what advice would you offer, stemming from that, that early line of work, that might be of benefit to them?
Sarah Schnitker: Yeah. And we’re even continuing that right now. Right? A lot of our current working is on patience is really thinking about patience in goal pursuit, that if we have long-term goals, which for many, I mean for faculty, this, these are long-term goals, like what can I actually produce? It’s often getting tenure in seven years and then this, and I mean, there’s just a large timescale.
Words of advice I would have is, you know, when I talk about patience and, and we find that when people are patient, they actually exert more effort and have more success in their goal pursuit. Something that I think we need to do as faculty, and I know I’m trying to always remind myself, is to think about the really big picture of why this matters. Right?
With patience, we can also get stuck in the day to day, the annoyances, the interpersonal stressors, the things that feel like are inhibiting us. But I think when I am having conversations with my colleagues, being like, what is the thing you want to discover in the next 30 years? What is the big thing that we can only do all together, that is not just about getting this paper out the door but what is that difference we’re gonna make in the world? What is the mission we have and what is the mission you have for your scholarship? And that keeping that big picture in mind, that why, why am I doing this, is really energizing when it comes down to the how.
And it’s like, okay, so yes, I will submit. And I, I think my count of paper this point that I said had to submit to the most journals was nine, nine different journals. Right? We keep trying and especially early career faculty and like just because it’s rejected, doesn’t mean it actually isn’t good scholarship. It just needs to write home. And so just that patience. But it’s hard when you’re like, oh, I’m going up for tenure review or I’m going up. I gotta get this. And so just keeping that long view and patient industry and celebrating the rejections. The rejections show you’re making progress and that you are actually trying something difficult and original. And so it’s, it’s not gonna be easy.
Todd Ream: Well, and sometimes when there’s only, say, four sources in the literature review in one’s project, finding that home for it.
Sarah Schnitker: Exactly
Todd Ream: Or creating that home actually in some ways is quite difficult.
Sarah Schnitker: And I think, right, learning to, and I think this is true of a lot of scholarship in psychology of religion or this work on virtues, of how do I translate this into the language of these different subfields?
How, what is a language this audience will understand? And how can they hear this and integrate it into what their current schemas and ways of thinking, doing that kind of cross-cultural communication within psychology, between psychology and philosophy or whatever these other disciplines is- it’s really hard to learn but it’s really essential, for this when you’re solving the big questions of life or trying to make a little dent in what’s been going on for millennia.
Todd Ream: So patience then fits into this sort of larger concept of self-regulation. And this has been part of your work, you know, since the very beginning. And as you just mentioned too, it’s going to inform your work going forward here and into the next year and, and subsequent years. What is it, you, you used the term energizing, what is it about this particular exploration that energizes you and perhaps has energized you back to maybe that first class that you had?
Sarah Schnitker: Yeah. We think about anything that humans are trying to do that’s important in life, whether it’s have a strong marriage, build spiritual disciplines and connect to God, whether it’s success in a career to achieve career goals or to make a difference in the physical environment. I mean, things that are long lasting and important. To work on our mental health, they all require regulation. We are goal-seeking, goal-pursuing species.
And what we know though is that humans really struggle to regulate themselves, right? And I think, oh, all you gotta do is like, try to fast a little bit for Lent or for some other time of year, and you’re like, whoa, this is really hard to do the thing, to delay the gratification or to do the thing I don’t wanna do or stop eating that piece of chocolate cake or whatever. Right? This is really challenging. I always love St. Paul’s, like, the things I wanna do I cannot do. And what I do, do, right? I mean, this conundrum is such a human problem.
But we know some really interesting things from psychology that can help us. And that sometimes if you’re trying too hard, it actually can backfire, and that this is actually a really complex process and thinking about if we wanna enhance our faith development, our marriages, our human flourishing, right? All the different things that matter, this may be a core competency that if we can understand it better, look at how we regulate in different types of contexts, how we can improve it, that this really enhances human flourishing.
And that this can have far ranging effects across so many domains to kind of build the good things. And also if we look at a lot of the problems we have, like our polarization and politics, like is it ’cause we have our phones and we tweet whatever we feel like or do like, right? So many of these things, it’s like, yeah, I know I shouldn’t have done that. What if we could learn to inform ourselves and test out what works and what doesn’t and figure out how to do this altogether just a little bit better can make a huge difference.
Todd Ream: In terms of tweets that maybe we shouldn’t have sent out, we live in a culture where it seems the illusion of fame is one post away or satisfaction is one purchase away with same day shipping. So how is it that you persist then with this line of research when it seems like the culture is moving at an ever increasing rate in the opposite direction?
Sarah Schnitker: I mean, I think there’s good news and bad news, right? So a lot of signs are like, oh no, where are we going? Things are accelerating. But I also think that when you have this kind of cultural moment where things are changing quite rapidly, I mean in my own lifetime how our technology has changed, is wild. And I think it also allows for an opportunity to reassess and to take note.
And like every other technology that has come through kind of in the course of human history, there’s a lot of risks, right? I remember, like we read about like when the novel was invented, the very same things we say about like social media today were said about the novel. Like, oh, this is gonna lead to social disintegration. People aren’t talking to each other, they’re just reading all the time. But then we also know there’s immense capacities that can be built with the novel or with our new technologies today.
And so something I’ve tried to do in my work is think about, okay, we have some serious risks, with the increasing pace with these new technologies, but how can they be redeemed? How can they also be assets to us? So even thinking about like spiritual development, there’s some really cool apps out there, right? That we know technology can actually help you ’cause it’s momentary feedback or momentary assessments. There was one app called SoulPulse and I think it’s still out there, like helps you understand when you feel spiritually connected and when you feel close to God and when you don’t.
And we actually learned things. Researchers looked at that and said, oh, sleep matters and this matters. And people can see their own data. So I think there in my lab even wrote, we made an app called Character Me, a couple years ago. We’re trying to build patience through the phone. And so I think to me it’s just another interesting challenge to think about what we do. That there are new risks being introduced but the very cause of some of those risks also might be where we can find some of our solutions to help pivot things.
And so I’m optimistic, but I mean, I know the risk is there and I think that’s why I’m so motivated is like we can’t let this just go the way it will go naturally. That as scholars we need to step in and say, what can we do to make this redeemed? Things have a tendency to be broken and to cause harm but they don’t have to.
As a Christian, we know Christ redemptive work can imbue all things. And so looking at these cultural moments, try not to be too reactionary but really to think about what is the opportunity? And how can we learn from this?
Todd Ream: Yeah. Thank you.
Now moving from sort of talking about your research to how you go out organizing it. Your work is organized then in the, what you call the science of virtues lab, which I would encourage people to look at the webpage for that. and it’s organized in roughly what I, what I identified as sort of five initiatives or domains. And you know, one of ’em has to do with the mechanisms that make virtues possible. religious communities, participation in sport, technology usage. So in part, what we were just talking about but then also relations between members of groups. How did you come to organize something so large and how do you keep people, you know, whether it’s colleagues and graduate students and undergraduates, perhaps even, yeah, engaged in the participation in this? Cause this is a large endeavor.
Sarah Schnitker: Indeed. And I think it probably needs to even be updated, the organizing system. You know, I think, and these are not mutually exclusive by any means, right? The mechanisms we might look at in those other categories listed in. I think a lot of these we’re trying to think about like what are areas where there’s consistently work happening? Some of these categories are really thinking about particular types of contexts, where virtue development takes place that might be distinctive. So like religious communities or athletic context, or technology, if we think of online is its own unique context.
So in the model, kind of the theoretical approach I bring to virtue development, it’s really, right, what is the story the person tells? But then, what habits does an individual have and how do they kind of have this big picture purpose connected to those habits? But then it’s also about that dynamic relationship with their environment, right? We aren’t virtuous in a vacuum and that the environments we’re a part of really matter. And so you look at like some environments, it’s really hard to not be virtuous because the social context, people are already acting that way. There’s norms that are set up, the system is virtuous in itself and like you have to work hard against it. But other contexts, we see the exact opposite, right? We see the norms are really immoral, that there’s this cutthroat nature that leads people to cheat. I mean, right? You can see these spirals of individuals in their communities.
And so some of this organization, to think about specific contexts like religious communities or athletics or technology, is really to think about what are the specific affordances and risks of these contexts. And how, and these were all potent ones. Our tech influences our lives. Religion, religious communities can lead to some of the most amazing human goodness that we see. And also some of the opposite, some of the biggest atrocities in human history. And then technology, right? We all know it’s affecting us greatly. So what is going on in these particular contexts for virtue development? And what kind of interventions might need to be particularized, particularized to those contexts.
Then I think with the met relations between different types of groups, you know, in psychology, inner group relations, we just see over and over again that sometimes people are really willing to be kind and generous and virtuous with people they consider within their group. But then you have someone who’s considered the other, the outsider, right? We even think about the story, the Good Samaritan in the New Testament, right? That suddenly, oh, I, I behave very differently.
And I think when we think about virtues, we wanna make sure that it’s not just for me and my own, but for all of our brothers and sisters around the world and the whole human race. And so, that’s really essential to think about what’s going on between groups and also in as within groups. And is there really virtue if it’s only to people I already have an affinity toward. So yeah, so we have kind of this mechanisms, which the psychologist in me loves. What’s really at work here?
And then these three particular contexts that, and a lot of times too, I’ve gotten into these because of collaborators I’ve been blessed to have in my life. And just interests but also these are potent contexts. And then looking at the inner group contact and making sure our virtue really is towards our own community, but also towards others.
Yeah, so that’s, that’s the organization and yeah. How do we keep all this coordinated and moving? I ask myself that question every day. I’m like, what’s, how are we doing this? I have amazing staff and colleagues. Right now I have four people with PhDs working under me in the lab and grad students and undergrads and three staff members, right?
So a lot of excellent team members who are incredibly talented and also many, many colleagues across Baylor and other institutions and across disciplines. I’m very much a fan of team science and interdisciplinary work and having the humility to realize your own discipline can only get so far. That we’ve got to do work that bridges disciplines, even if it’s, it is going to be tougher but that the payoff is worth it.
Todd Ream: Right. Thank you. One of the things that I appreciated the most about the work that you and your colleagues have done as I reviewed it, was that it’s not limited to the academy. You’ve made a mark in the academy. I mean, there’s not just four sources, for example, on patience anymore out there.
So someone who’s coming along is gonna have to cite more material, not only your own but also the work that it’s also inspired. But that it has a reach into other communities and other components of the public. So when you’re looking at the work that you’re doing and preparing it for dissemination, how do you decide then with whom you’re gonna share it? And as you were echoing earlier, how do we communicate those themes, those ideas in ways that that particular public can appreciate and understand?
Sarah Schnitker: You know, one thing I’ve tried to do over the years, and again, I always have a team on any one of these projects. Cause I find often some of my colleagues, my scholar colleagues are better at some of these aspects than I am. We’re really trying to engage the practitioner or the end user of this knowledge from the get go.
So for example, we had a grant a couple years ago where our own team but also other teams of researchers were trying to create virtue interventions for adolescents in outta school time activities. And so often in science, in psychology in particular, our traditional model is we develop an intervention based on theory. We test in the lab, then we start taking it out into the field, and people should just want it. But often by the time it gets there, it’s got some serious flaws that make it not usable or it’s not really meeting a felt need that people have. And so trying to bring our practitioners into the process a lot earlier and having them be partners in the discovery process and engaged so that we know what they need.
We also know what our scientific questions are but that we’re actually being able to design our research so that it meets multiple goals. So it’s not just whatever drives my curiosity. but also, oh, this group that is working with these teens, this is what they really feel like they need. This is what works with teenagers in their context. And so instead of just doing an intervention study, tailoring it and producing generalizable knowledge but also having kind of that pipeline to the end product already in place. So that has been really key.
And again, just like interdisciplinary work, it takes a more effort upfront because you have more relationships to maintain and, and you really, these relationships matter, right? You need to hear about what this person cares about and understand that and empathize with them and maintain that relationship and have that deep understanding. And unfortunately, scientists, and I’ll say this myself, are not always good at that. So, right? I always look on a team. I am kind of, when I’m working a grant proposal. I’m like, okay, who’s really good at connecting with whatever population we are working to kind of as a have in mind from the get go who this might apply to? Like who can actually speak that language and speak science-y?
But who? Because I think feeling is always like we’ve gotta get outside the ivory tower. We have to show that we’re relevant to meeting the needs of everyday people and whether that be in congregations and youth sports and the parent who they can’t get their teenager to get off their phone and have a conversation with them. Right? Who, how are we going to really make a difference in the world? And it sounds cheesy but for our work we need basic research but surely we could do our work a little bit more that is ready to be translated to others.
Todd Ream: No, I like in particular the idea that you have that that’s built in from the beginning, that we have an idea that, you know, yes, a referee journal article or two or three may come out of this line of research. That, that is important for others to draw upon, but this population is one that we are seeking to engage and that that is part of the plan from the beginning. So we’re thinking about what those outlets may be that can help us bridge the gap between, you know, where we are in higher education but meeting them where they are terms of their daily lives. So yeah, I appreciate that.
In terms of the efforts that you and your colleagues have had and the questions you’ve sought to answer, is there one for which you think you’ve found a more satisfactory answer, than perhaps any others, like on this question, we really got it?
Sarah Schnitker: It’s very hard for me as a researcher ’cause I am never, every good answer should spawn like 10 more questions.
Todd Ream: Well I’ll ask the converse of this question here in just a second.
Sarah Schnitker: Yeah. Yes. No, this one is very difficult. We have some basic relationships that are really, I would say pretty well established. Like religion is associated with higher self-control. We’ve replicated this. People who engage in more religious activity, who identifies more religious, they over and over again show greater regulatory capacities. So that would be a kind of, we have a finding and we’re starting to get a sense of why that is.
So I think we can say yes, those two things are very much correlated and we have some ways of understanding why that is. The social context that religion provides, the idea that God is watching you and cares about your behavior. We know there’s mechanisms that work there of kind of an all knowing God.
I think though, what, so this might even get to your next question, right? Oftentimes it’s then moving to the next level of, well, this doesn’t always happen this way. So when does this occur of the different mechanisms, which ones are stronger? Or for what type of person is it this, that’s really explaining that relationship and for other people, here’s what’s going on. And so I think we’ve got some good kind of basic associations really established in kind of looking at religious influences.
But we have a long ways to go in terms of like cultural variation, and kind of for whom and when and how. These are, and these are the questions that I find more exciting, that get me excited. And, you know, working on teams is hard. Working in an institution is hard. So like I co like every day I feel like I said to myself, well good thing humans are so complex and difficult, I will never run out of things to study. Because on a daily basis we’re reminded of like, oh, they aren’t as predictable as they, we wish they were, other humans.
Todd Ream: Yeah. So the question that that alludes you then, the one for which you, you just haven’t quite tapped the answer to it yet but you can’t let the question go perhaps too.
Sarah Schnitker: Well, you know, I think, and this is maybe not so, I mean it’s personal, but also as a field, I think we have a long ways to go in really understanding the trajectories of religious and spiritual development from childhood throughout into adulthood, of really understanding how individuals change. So we know we have data on what happens on average across cohorts or what happens on average across the lifespan.
But we have some initial studies looking at like that really allow us to look at within this person, this is the trajectory of their faith development. In this person, it looks different and why does some people go on this trajectory versus this one? And I think part of the reason I find the research we have at the present dissatisfying is ’cause you really have to do intensive longitudinal studies.
And those are really hard to do, right? You have to track people over long periods of time and they are expensive. They require serious, like, long-term investment that well we won’t know for 20 years. What, right? And so, and they require a really concentrated effort on the part of many, many scholars. And so, when I look kind of stand back and look at kind of the different kind of psychological study of religion and spirituality and virtues, it’s really that lifespan looking at within person change over time.
It’s I think that’s what most of us really care about, right? We really care about, and I think as educators in particular, like what happened to this college student before they came to my classroom? What influence do I have here that could change the trajectory they’re on? And we know college adolescents, emerging adulthood, these are really critical periods, is what the research does suggest that can kind shift what trajectory you’re on. But we don’t have enough longitudinal evidence to suggest what happens, and we need, right? There’s a lot of statistical things. You need like at least four time points to really look at within person change and not just group averages. And so those are the questions that I’m not satisfied at all right now with where we’re at and I think we have some exciting things happening but we have a long and ways to go.
Todd Ream: Yeah. Yeah. Thank you. Well, the last set of questions I wanna ask you about is the relationship that psychology shares and those who steward that discipline share with the Church. One of the things I noticed in your work is that it’s intended to sort of bridge the gap between psychologists and clergy and be of service to clergy.
In what ways do you sort of build that in, perhaps to the work and, and do you make these sorts of results possible in usable ways for those who are serving our congregations?
Sarah Schnitker: Yeah, no, and that’s a challenging task. And I mean, I think one of the ways I do that is by collaborating with theologians, especially practical theologians who are a little bit closer to congregations. But make sure that, I think as psychologists studying religion, we can sometimes be a little simplistic in our theology and make sure we’re actually taking into account kind of the theological richness that is out there.
And so, for example, right now I have a really fun grant with my Co-PI religion scholar, Devan Stahl, here at Baylor, where we’re training approximately 20 theologians, religion scholars in psychological science, and hopefully the flip side is happening too, where we actually can learn to work together in the academy so that we, our work can stand up to both sides of the equations that psychologists can say, yeah, this makes sense. And the theologians, who are a little bit closer to the congregations, and then work in partnership to go forth into congregations and say, what do people need? What, what is the language that makes sense? ‘ Cause our psychological language may not be the appropriate language. And oftentimes it’s not in the congregation.
So, again, but again, also using clergy. Like if we’re thinking about doing something that would go directly to congregations, asking clergy up front, talking with people who are regularly, using resources, things like that so- But I think really am committed to the interdisciplinary team model and making sure we have theology partners or clergy partners. We’re hoping to do that.
Todd Ream: Yep. This question is admittedly too broad and overly simplistic, but I nonetheless will ask given the culture in which we live today. But in your estimation, do clergy trust people who are scholars of psychology? And then do scholars of psychology also trust clergy?
Sarah Schnitker: Yes and no. I think it, I mean those are very, very large, diverse groups. If we talk about clergy, if we talk about psychologists. And so I think some clergy really do and are excited to partner. Some are more suspicious. I think the same is true of psychologists. Some psychologists are really excited about potentially working with congregations and helping to kind of disseminate the knowledge we have there. Others are much more suspicious.
I think, you know, it’s often there are some differences in what the makeup of those fields look like. By and large psychologists are of the academic disciplines tend to lean more secular. And I think though a lot of psychologists do have a meaningful spirituality in their life. It might be not traditional religion but aren’t gonna be comfortable with the language that clergy are using and then vice versa.
But you know, I think it’s really interesting is that our society has integrated psychology so much into the way we think about the world. Right? And, and Christian Smith’s moral therapeutic deism is very much prevalent in our church communities. And so I think there’s also a sense, as a psychologist at least, I have of, well, that’s like a pop psych version of what psych, right? Like, this is not actually what the literature. Like when I think about like the Enneagram, like no personality psychologist would endorse that.
So I often am, and I think there’s often right stereotypes and caricatures across clergy and psychologists. And so I know I’m trying to always say, hey, let’s not make assumptions. Let’s not engage in stereotyping the other group ’cause what you think might not even be what that discipline- they might not endorse that at all. And so I get excited about trying to gently educate and help people engage across what might be a bit of a divide, more so for some than others.
And recognize that I think we do have a lot of very similar goals, of helping people to flourish, helping to improve people’s lives and helping people connect to what’s meaningful and true and good. And so recognizing that we all have a role to play in that and, and that when I’ve seen psychology psychologists and clergy cooperate, it’s been powerful. It can be really fruitful and lead to real change. So I think there could be some, there is mistrust but there’s also trust that’s being built. And I think both sides can do certain things to like be a more trustworthy partner. It’s what I try to do. Probably not always well, but I try.
Todd Ream: No, thank you. I appreciate that. No, I think of, you know, Fuller Seminary being one of those places that has been working at this intersection and building trust in this way for decades, now and has provided models for others of us to follow in that regard.
Sarah Schnitker: Yeah, if I could mention, you know, it’s really fascinating when you said that too. I, there’s just a recent PhD grad from Baylor’s history department, Skylar Ray, who just wrote a dissertation on the founding of the School of Psychology at Fuller Seminary. I’m sure a book will be coming out, but it really, so I was reading that on the committee.
It really struck me that Fuller, the School of Psychology, really had that missionally from the get go but had missionally to transform the field of psychology, which I thought was really cool. I really felt when I was there, and that for these kind of efforts to work, both parties need to come ready to be learning and growing and recognizing the value the other brings to the enterprise.
Todd Ream: Yeah. Yeah. Thank you. As we begin toward wrapping up our conversation, I wanna ask you about preparing the next generation of scholars, and what you would recommend in terms of shaping them and shaping their future. You worked with a number of PhD students already, over the course of your career and yeah. What you’ve learned and what you’d recommend.
Sarah Schnitker: Yes. Yeah. I think over 20 at this point, doctoral students I’ve supervised, which is such an honor and kind of scary too, like, what have I done well? What have I not? You know, I think, I have a couple recommendations. I think the first would be making sure students know their why. Why are they doing this? Why, what do they want to do?
And in psychology, we have a lot of options. We can go in traditional academia. We can go into industry. A lot of technology companies hire psychologists. Lots of different types of companies want our data analytics skills, our ability to predict human behavior so figuring out your why. Or going into ministry, right? There’s a lot of options. So what path do see? But really what is the big thing you want to do across a lifetime? I think for graduate students in particular, they have a lot of acquisition of mundane skills and learning how to write and learning how to read an article and learn like, so helping them not lose sight of that big picture is really critical. ‘Cause then otherwise it becomes demoralizing. They feel insecure, like they’re imposter, right? So doing that quite often.
I think normalizing rejection, as I mentioned earlier, sharing, I try to consistently share all of my rejections. So that they can see, we have a publication pipeline where we try to show all the papers that are happening and moving and, and celebrating when my paper is yet again, gotten desk rejected. Right? That this is, this is not an indicator of quality always.
And then I think the other thing I think the academy needs to do better at, is really creating positive cultures where people feel valued as human beings. And I think sometimes in the academy, traditionally, it’s like you have to prove yourself. And if you put people under threat, they’ll perform higher level because they gotta show their worth and compete and, that’s just not what our psychology suggests is that when people feel safe, and secure, that’s when they’re creative. That’s when they take important risks.
And so I try to make sure I like tell colleagues, like, just like in a marriage, you need like five to one positive interactions for every one negative one. Like the same’s true in an advising relationship. For every critique, I need to make sure I’m giving five affirmations for every one critique, which can be hard to do because there’s a lot that needs to be critiqued early on in a PhD program. So really trying to find ways to make sure people know they’re valued and that I believe in them and that this feedback is really just about growing together and it is not to be threat to self and helping them just have that purpose-based instead of performance-based identity as a scholar.
Todd Ream: Yep. Thank you. One last question then is as we prepare that next generation, in what ways can we prepare them as scholars to be of service to the Church and that, that be part of the public that they perceive is of value to them from the very beginning and part of their formation process?
Sarah Schnitker: Well, I think all the faculty like, are you doing this yourself? Right? So they see this modeled. and when, so I think that’s the first step is you should be doing it. And when you’re doing it, bring them along for the ride. So anytime I have an interdisciplinary collaboration, even if I’m not required to include a grad student in this thing, I always do so that they can see how it’s done. They can start to view, watch us doing it and be part of it. And so I think that model for this particular activity, what we do shows what we value.
So, letting them see you do this and and be a part of it, I think. And also just showing like, hey, this is part of your role and your identity. And, and you know, I have students of different faith traditions in our research lab. So we have Muslim, Protestant, Catholic, Latter-day Saint, people who are spiritual but not religious, but trying to help all of those folks. Say, okay, you might not be the same faith tradition as me, but what does this look like in your tradition? And that this is a valuable thing, it’s- that’s not, that message isn’t always said. So, even just saying it, I think can be revolutionary.
Todd Ream: Thank you. Our guest has been Sarah Schnier, Associate Professor of Psychology at Baylor University and Director of the Science of Virtues Lab. Thank you for taking the time to talk with us today and share your wisdom and insights.
Sarah Schnitker: Yes. Thank you so much for having me. It’s been a real pleasure to speak with you.
Todd Ream: Thank you for joining us for Saturdays at Seven, Christian Scholar’s Review’s conversation series with thought leaders about the academic vocation and the relationship that vocation shares with the Church. We invite you to join us again next week for Saturdays at Seven.