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Service Learning and Spiritual Development in High School Students
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By Corbet Clark, D.Min.

A student graduating from many of our schools is expected not only to have completed a rigorous academic program but also to have put in many hours of service, both on campus and in the broader community. As an Episcopal school, our school has embraced service as central to our school mission and to our understanding of what it means to be a whole person, and, as at many schools, service is a required part of our program. But what impact does service actually have on the lives of our students?


A solid body of research documents the impact that service can have on strengthening students’ sense of social responsibility as well as deepening a sense of their own identity. A useful example is Youniss and Yates, Community Service and Social Responsibility in Youth, which chronicles a service program in a Catholic high school (1)


Service has the potential to influence the spiritual growth of any student who engages in it, because spiritual development is a universal process. One useful definition of spiritual development is 

the process of growing the intrinsic human capacity for self-transcendence, in which the self is embedded in something greater than the self, including the sacred. It is the developmental “engine” that propels the search for connectedness, meaning, purpose and contribution. It is shaped both within and outside of religious traditions, beliefs and practices.


The authors further suggest three essential processes: “awareness or awakening,” “interconnecting and belonging,” and “a way of living” (2). But how, exactly, does that process work, and what evidence is there for service’s impact on student spiritual development?


My doctoral research explored the ways that service contributes to student spiritual development, in particular, when they have opportunities to reflect on their service. I offered students the chance to engage in a three-hour workshop of writing and discussion to discuss and write about their service experiences and the impact these had on them and their view of the world. I also read reflection papers on service that students had written for a religion course, Religion and Social Justice, and I surveyed students and faculty about their experience of service-learning.


I was surprised that, while many of the students (sophomores to seniors) had done extensive service, most had not had the chance to reflect in depth on that experience, or to share it with their peers. The goal was to have them reflect not just on the practical impact of their service but on how it had influenced their sense of identity, commitment, and most deeply held values.

Some common themes emerged out of student reflection on their service work:

Community and connectedness
The capacity to connect with others, including those from very different backgrounds, was probably the most common theme in student reflections. Overcoming a natural anxiety about the unfamiliar, students found that they could build relationships with those who differed culturally, educationally, generationally, economically. And this led them to see themselves as part of a much broader human community. As one student put it, “It makes me feel incredibly connected to the world as a whole, and it becomes a lot less ‘me-and-them’ and a lot more ‘us.’” Moreover, this sense of connectedness led some to note a feeling of “unity” or “harmony” similar to what one might find in a faith community. For some, it also led to an increased awareness of a power greater than themselves—a sense of transcendence.


Realizing they had the capacity to build relationships as these students did, and overcoming their anxiety in the process, is a good example of the “competence” addressed elsewhere in this issue of Connections. In the process, they were fostering not only spiritual growth, but also social and psychological well-being. 


Compassion for those in need
Though students themselves didn’t often use the term “compassion” when speaking of their service (perhaps
because it sounds self-congratulatory), they clearly were developing an ability to understand the needs of others, to share in their struggles, and to take action with and for them. The students who did speak directly of “compassion” saw it both as a general human quality that allows them to transcend barriers and as a personal quality that is (as one student put it) “kindled within me” through service. One young woman, drawing on both Confucian and Christian teachings, wrote of her work in an orphanage:

What I learned from the orphans was that all of us were born to long for love and affection, and with the ability to love others. My experience at the orphanage taught me to love someone I hardly knew, not because they are cute, but because there is love in me, and that innate love, I believe, was given by my creator, God.


Hope for the future
Students frequently mentioned the challenges and problems they had faced in service projects: working in unfamiliar settings, feeling unprepared, anxiety about working with people different from themselves, the overwhelming nature of social problems. Yet, paradoxically, those who had faced the greatest challenges also felt the strongest sense of agency—an ability to influence their environment—and the deepest sense of hope.


Overcoming obstacles, whether in working locally with autistic children or building latrines in Central America, gave students a sense of their own abilities to cope and solve problems—another example of competence—but also an enlarged sense of both the need for action and the ability to make an impact. Not that they were starry-eyed about the ease of changing things; on the contrary, service gave them a realistic sense of what was possible. One student wrote:

The social problems [in El Salvador] are so daunting that what I envision myself doing seems trivial in the larger scheme of things. What it really comes down to for me is not what I can do to help a lot of people a little bit, as some large-scale service projects try to do, but rather how much I can help a few people.

Search for meaning and transcendence

Service had a powerful impact on many (though not all) students’ understanding of their own sense of meaning and purpose—even for students very uncertain about their future direction. One student explained, “In times when my life wasn’t heading anywhere, I could always think about the work I was doing with the residents [of the assisted living home].” When feeling disappointed with life, service was “one things that would constantly, and unfailingly, fulfill me and make me feel as if I was at least doing something right.” Service helped students reflect on some of the “big questions” of life. One wrote, “Reflection on a cause makes

you… consider why you are motivated to support it, and provokes contemplation of essential questions” and that it had “changed my vision for my own future.” Though students rarely used explicitly religious language in speaking of their service, a few students linked service to an increased awareness of God, that service had “strengthened my faith,” and a couple of Jewish students linked service to the Jewish concept of Tikkun loam, “repairing the world.” One student noted a sense that “Something is watching over me while I watch over others.”


Ethical development
Closely linked with spiritual development is ethical development. Student reflection on their service made frequent reference to personal qualities of character and a deepening understanding of issues of justice and equity, particularly when they were prompted to reflect on these questions, as in the class on Religion and Social Justice. Students noted that challenging service projects demanded self-sacrifice and dedication, patience, and a sense of humility. Ultimately service deepened a sense of selflessness, of “putting others
first,” and well as a sense of responsibility to take action. At the same time, the joys and satisfactions of service prompted an increased sense of gratitude and appreciation for others. The mutuality of service with others brought forth expressions of joy, contentment, harmony. “The joy I feel,” wrote one student, “is unexplainable.”

Developing a sense of “wholeness” and integration is part of spiritual development. High school students are all struggling to develop a sense of mature identity. Sharon Daloz Parks suggests there is a transition stage between adolescence and adulthood, characterized by ambiguity and ambivalence, in which young people “long to play a role in forming” a better world but question “whether they have the requisite power to bring such a vision into being” (3). Service seems to play a role both in helping students articulate their own vision of a better world as well as affirming the unique gifts they can contribute to making the vision happen.


Spiritual growth from service doesn’t just happen. Our schools need to develop service programs that deliberately encourage that growth. They can do this by moving away from a model that simply asks students to collect service hours and towards a model that includes:

  • A clear articulation of the goals of service, beyond merely “paying back,” and including personal, ethical
    and spiritual growth.
  • Project-based service that asks students to engage in service or sufficient duration and intensity that they can see the impact on others and themselves.
  • Encouraging students to engage in service that is challenging and that puts them in environments of diversity. This doesn’t have to mean service trips to distant places but can include projects such as working with people of different abilities or different age groups.
  • Opportunities to reflect on their service, including opportunities to think about big questions of meaning and purpose, ethical and spiritual values, and goals for the future. This can also include opportunities to share their experiences with others in formal and informal ways: fellow students, parents, teachers, and community members.
  • None of this is revolutionary. It reflects the standards for best practice that are already part of the national service learning movement ( The essential
    ingredient for schools that want deliberately to foster spiritual growth in students is a clear articulation of the spiritual and ethical basis for service (rooted in the school’s particular spiritual or faith tradition, if it has one) as well as a deliberate effort to engage students in a reflection process on the
    “big questions” that service can raise in the lives of young people. 

(1) James Youniss and Miranda Yates, Community Service and Social Responsibility in Youth (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997).
(2) Peter L. Benson and Eugene C. Roehlkepartain, “Spiritual Development: A Missing Priority in Youth Development,” in New Directions for Youth Development 118, eds. P. L. Benson, E. C. Roehlkepartain, K. L. Hong (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass/Wiley, 2008), 20.
(3) Sharon Daloz Parks, Big Questions, Worthy Dreams: Mentoring Young Adults in their Search for Meaning, Purpose, and Faith (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2000), 64-66.

The Rev. Corbet Clark, D.Min. is Associate Chaplain for Upper School and Chair of the Religion Department at Oregon Episcopal School in Portland. He completed his doctoral work in Educational Leadership at Virginia Theological Seminary in Alexandria.

Originally published in Connections. 





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