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Rambo's stages of conversion

Page history last edited by PBworks 13 years, 9 months ago

Rambo's stages of conversion

by Judy Harrow


I'm a convert, and probably so are you. Very few of us were raised as Pagans. Most of us come to this religion in adulthood, by conscious choice. Some Pagan elders find satisfaction in welcoming newcomers to our community, helping them to find their way around. It's good for all of us to reflect upon the process of change that most of us have experienced.


Among ourselves, we don't call new Pagan affiliation "conversion" at all; we call it "homecoming." The difference is not trivial. Remember, language shapes thought. Most religions expect conversion to be a transformative experience. They expect new adherents to think, behave, even speak differently, utterly renouncing their old ways. In contrast, we say "you don't become a Pagan; you find out that there's a name for what you already were, and a community of others who feel the same way."


All we really expect from a new homecomer is a deep sigh of relief. Certainly we have our community mores and customs. However, instead of indoctrinating or re-socializing newcomers, we like to believe that they come to us because they find us already feeling and doing the very things that made them misfits in their previous faith communities. They find the home they never thought existed for them. That's what it felt like for me, how about you?


It's not that simple of course. Whoever comes home as an adult has left a previous home. Although it was less satisfactory, still there are aspects they'll miss, and baggage they'll carry along. And anybody who has ever moved house, even to a much better location, knows how disorienting, and how much work, it can be.

At this critical part of the path, the scale changes, allowing the map to show more detail. Here's a staged model that specifically describes the process of religious conversion:


Rambo's stages of conversion

Lewis R. Rambo is Professor of Psychology and Religion at the San Francisco Theological Seminary. His well-respected book, Understanding Religious Conversion 1, presents this comprehensive seven step model of the conversion process.


1. Context: This is the starting point, made up of everything that has brought the person to where they are now: their upbringing, their educational background, their work, their social network, the cultural trends around them. Their previous religious training and experience. Their mental health and social skills. Their core values.


The Erikson and Maslow models can be of great help in understanding a seeker's life context, all the intellectual, emotional and spiritual resources available to them at any moment in their lives, including the crisis point. In turbulent moments of conversion or in periods of gradual growth, seekers can only start from where they are. Mentors will be more helpful if they understand the seeker's general direction and present location.


The risk of this phase -- I think it's premature to call it a challenge -- is conventionality or stagnation. People may follow the forms of their birth tradition by rote, never really probing their deeper meanings or striving for congruent lives. Absent social pressure to attend services, they may completely ignore the religious aspects of life. As a religiously committed person, I believe atheism is far more honest than robotic conventional practice.


2. Crisis: This second phase is nothing but challenge. Something happens to destabilize their religious identity.


It might be a sudden and painful discovery. Adolescents who are already struggling to find their personal values and identity are particularly vulnerable to disillusion. Their trust may be shattered when they learn that religious tales they were told as children are not factual. The world was not assembled in six days, and neither did the magician Gwydion make a maiden out of flowers to be his young nephew's bride. Worse, they may find that a respected religious leader was behaving inappropriately. Contradictions of this sort may become intolerable, forcing the seeker to leave where they are, even if they have nowhere else to go.


At any age, traumatic shock -- serious injury or illness, bereavement, etc. -- can induce a religious crisis. So can spiritual emergency -- an unexpected and overwhelming mystical experience that challenges settled beliefs or social roles. In fact, traumatic shock can precipitate a spiritual emergency. Spiritual emergency may look just like psychosis, but it's really more like psycho-spiritual growing pains .


Simple dissatisfaction, a hunger for more, can set off a quieter kind of religious crisis, more typical of a mature person who has reached the top of Maslow's secular hierarchy. Often a religious crisis can be understood or reframed as a Sacred call.


The real challenge of any crisis is to find a way to use it as an opportunity for growth. Pagans can receive growth-provoking crisis as the gift of the Crone, of "She who breaks the dams when the waters have become stagnant."


3. Quest: The person in crisis searches for helpful alternative approaches, within or beyond their original faith tradition. There are many ways to gather information: reading, broadcast media, visits to houses of worship, talking with friends of different religions.


People in the quest stage may show up at open rituals and approach elders afterwards with copious questions. Elders who respond well to this sort of curiosity may find themselves acting as resource people to new seekers. Since my coven maintains a web site for adult seekers 2, I occasionally receive emails from people on quest.


If you meet a seeker who is on quest because of disillusion or profound disagreement with their birth tradition, first try to help them explore the progressive alternatives within that original community. Most mainstream religions contain internal minorities and advocacy groups that are feminist, environmentally oriented, supportive of gay rights, etc. Perhaps such groups will meet their need, and spare them the unpleasant side effects of a change of religion. Nobody should leave their original faith unless they really have to. Furthermore, the Pagan community only wants those who are coming home to us from joyful choice.


Please notice that they are still looking at spiritual resources outside themselves. This is not inner exploration, yet, but the necessary precursor, the search for a theological model that offers an entry point and a faith community that provides a secure base camp.


The challenge of the quest stage is to reach the bridge that crosses from anger to hope. Even if the trauma that drove them from their previous affiliation was directly caused by clergy corruption, oppressive theological models, etc, running away will only get them ... away. They need to actually get somewhere else, and hopefully somewhere better. Healthy re-affiliation requires that we go towards something good, not just away from something bad.


4. Encounter: The seeker meets somebody, or notices that someone they already know is devout and active in the practice of their religion. If they perceive this person as truly spiritual -- honest, kind, wise and grounded -- they may choose to explore the same path. The friend whose spirituality attracted the seeker may answer their questions, loan them reading material, take them along to services, or even introduce them to a clergy member who can provide more information.


Some faith groups actively proselytize. They send out missionaries. But even in non-proselytizing communities like ours, personal contact is a normal step in the process of conversion. The way we live our faith is the beacon that quietly guides our own back home.


5. Interaction: The seeker finds a religious community that seems to suit them better. They spend some period as a guest or a participant observer, perhaps attending public rituals, learning the customs, getting to know the people. Some faith communities offer structured introductory classes for adults who are considering conversion.


The challenge of this phase is discernment. Interaction, as Rambo defines it, is like courtship; there's a halo effect. People are welcoming and supportive to newcomers. Internal problems are backstage where seekers are unlikely to see them. Seekers need clear perception and critical thinking skills to penetrate the glow, to check whether this group's theology, ritual practice, etc are consonant with the seeker's core values, the promptings of their inner guides. Those who commit in haste recant at leisure, usually loudly and bitterly, sometimes at the local courthouse.


6. Commitment: The seeker formally, usually ritually, joins the new faith community. In doing so, they take on all the ritual and moral obligations of membership. In some local areas, Pagans are now developing long-needed rituals to mark and celebrate the moment when a person joins our laity -- their homecoming.


For Pagans, the challenge of the commitment stage is "coming out," informing non-Pagan family and friends. Many of them are still ignorant about our religion. Hostile stereotypes abound, and sometimes lead to cruel discrimination. Telling people about an attraction to or affiliation with Paganism, can expose us to considerable risk. Our people have traditions of secrecy, believed to go back to Inquisitorial times when the risk was far more dire than job loss.


Certainly we are under no religious mandate to "bear witness" to our faith. But we have learned from the gay experience that secrecy is inimical to an authentic life, and detrimental to mental health. Elders, particularly those who have negotiated their own coming out with relatively little damage, may want to help newcomers work through this difficult set of choices.


7. Outcomes: 3 The person participates fully in the new faith community, while continuing to learn more about its ways. Their hopes may be fulfilled or disappointed. Some people cycle through this model several times before they find a religion that truly meets their needs.


There may be repercussions from people who disapprove of the conversion, particularly family members or former friends. If the new religion is socially unpopular, a so-called "cult," the new member may face difficulties with employment, housing or even child custody. Not long ago, converts to unfamiliar or unpopular religions also risked legalized kidnapping and coercive pressure towards de-conversion.


It's also entirely possible that the seeker will find all that was sought: Sacred contact, a symbol system consonant with their core values, a ritual system that nurtures their inner life, a congruent ethical code and a supportive community. So mote it be!


Working with Rambo's stages of conversion

Rambo proposes that all conversion processes begin with some sort of crisis. I agree, especially if crisis is broadly defined to mean any destabilizing experience, from spiritual breakthrough to traumatic shock. But people need very different kinds of help in working through these very different types of crisis. Here are just a few of the stories Pagan mentors may hear from new homecomers:


  • A fifteen year old, in the midst of adolescent identity crisis, is sexually molested by a clergy member.
  • A parent, previously comfortable in their marriage, career and religious affiliation, discovers that their teenage child has been sexually molested by a clergy member.
  • A college student reads a book that challenges the religious teachings they received in a happy childhood. The evidence and logic in the book are strongly persuasive.
  • A mid-life professional, with no previous interest in religion, takes up meditation for stress relief and has a surprising experience of Sacred contact. They have no idea what this means or what they should do about it. They may even be worried about losing their grip on reality.
  • A teenager discovers an apparent contradiction within the teachings of their religion, or a conflict between religious teachings and their own experiences and values. When they raise the question with a clergy member, the clergy member becomes angry, tells the youngster that it is improper to question received wisdom.
  • A college student has always believed what their religious tradition taught about justice and stewardship. Now, they discover that the endowment funds that support the institutional structure of their religion are invested in third-world prison factories or domestic strip mines.
  • A young married couple, who have not previously questioned their conventional religious upbringing, lose their cherished baby to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. At the funeral, the officiating clergy member tells them not to question the will of Deity.


Case studies:

All of these situations can be used in elders' workshops or support groups. They can serve as roleplays, as the bases for brainstorm or mind-map exercises, or simply as starting points for group discussions. Even better, you can evoke situations directly from the group -- people learn a lot from hearing others' perceptions and suggestions about the situations they are actually working with.


One way to let people present situations for group exploration without risk of embarrassment is to place some blank notecards, pens and a basket in an unobtrusive spot in the workshop room. (for a bit of humor, clean up an old coffee can and label it "WORMS.") Explain at the beginning of the workshop that participants can write about their own perplexing situations on these cards, anonymously if they wish, and add them to the basket or the can of worms. Then cards can be pulled at random. Or, if there is a facilitator, the facilitator can review the cards during a break and choose which ones to present.


As a Pagan mentor, you'll probably be meeting people in the interaction stage, while they are participating in public Pagan rituals and activities and deciding whether they want to commit to our lifeways. They may ask you for some guidance or assistance. To do this well, it helps to understand -- quite literally -- where they are coming from. Using all three models, Erikson's, Maslow's and Rambo's, can help you do this in depth and in detail. Here are the central concerns:


1. What was the nature and intensity of their religious crisis?

2. What was their background developmental level when the crisis hit? Which life issues were focal for them at that time?


If their crisis was a frightening spiritual emergency, they'll need to learn more about navigating altered states of consciousness. If the seeker is a young person engaged in their normal adolescent identity crisis, you can expect a longer, more turbulent quest than if they were already settled in the more basic areas of marriage and career. On the other hand, if they believed they were comfortably settled and it all fell apart for them in trauma, they will need to work through a mourning process before they are truly free to move on. The possible permutations are endless.


Remember to listen, to let the seeker set the agenda, to act as a resource person rather than a judge. They are not seeking esoteric inner exploration right now. That may come later or never. For now, they are wondering whether our ways can help them restabilize and recover from their current crisis. They are simply considering whether to become a lay Pagan. The only question on the table is how we can best help them, not how to take advantage of their distress by proselytizing them.


When approaching or working through a life transition, it's good to look back, to understand and appreciate the path we've walked so far. Here's an exercise that I've found particularly useful. Please do it yourself before you suggest it to a seeker or student (that goes for every other exercise in this book!).


Timeline Exercise


You'll need some legal/A3 size paper, or you can tape two sheets of letter/A4 size together to make a longer sheet. Also have some colored pens, or crayons handy. Hold the paper in "landscape" orientation - so the long part is horizontal rather than vertical. Date the paper and draw a plain black line all the way across it, horizontally, about halfway from top to bottom.


Take a few minutes to ground and center yourself, and to reflect on those significant events and people in your life, on all that has brought you to the present moment. Then, in color, draw a line that represents your ups and downs. Some will be higher or lower than others. Some will be more closely spaced, others farther apart. Finally, label them. If you like, you can draw symbols or pictures that relate to what was going on. One artistically-trained student of mine drew no pictures at all. He covered the page with writing, using different ink colors, lettering styles, and sizes to create a striking abstract design of his life.


Put it away for a couple of days, then look at it again. See if you can identify moments of crisis, periods of intense exploration, significant encounters with people, other experiences that were, for you, epiphanies. Feel free to add words, symbols or pictures to the design. Save it.


It's a good idea to repeat this exercise once a year, or at times of particularly intense change. Do not look at any of the old ones for at least a week before you draw a new timeline. Make the comparisons, if at all, when you're reviewing the latest one, to better understand your progress.


If you're keeping a journal, write about what you learned from this exercise. If you're not, start one.


Eventually, the person may choose to become part of the Pagan community. This passage is significant, actually life-changing, even though it too often goes unmarked. If the interaction phase is something like a courtship, commitment is much like a marriage. We do this joyfully, but not casually. As someone reaches the decision point, they need to know the callings of their own heart. These questions may help:


Questions for People Considering Commitment

  • What do you experience as Sacred in your life?
  • What is your source of hope? of pride? of power?
  • To what are you loyal? To what are you devoted?
  • For what are you thankful?
  • Where do you find nurturance?
  • Which Deity guides or empowers you?
  • How would that Deity describe you?
  • Who or what do you trust? Who or what do you fear?
  • What are your most inspiring goals, your most sacred hopes?
  • With whom do you share these things? What are your sources of human guidance or support? Who do you trust?

Ponder these questions. Write your answers in your journal privately. If you like, you can discuss them with significant others, including your mentor.


If you are in an intimate, bonded relationship, I strongly suggest that you discuss your answers with your life mate. You should be discussing all aspects of your potential change of religion with your mate, who will inevitably be deeply affected by your decision.


After meditating and dreaming on the answers for a few days, see if they change at all. Then ask yourself similar questions about the group you are considering joining. See how well your answers fit together.


We have no guarantee that this will be our path forever. There may be more crises and more changes yet to come. We certainly shouldn't swear to what we can't know for sure. Still, any such commitment should be based on hope, desire and a reasonable prediction that this religious affiliation will last through life. Just like marriage.

Another and even more important similarity to marriage is that commitment is a gateway, not a dead end. Living and learning do not end with that ritual. If it stagnates, it dies. There's no such thing as "happily ever after," only more growth in love, understanding and faith.


Rambo, Lewis R. Understanding Religious Conversion New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1993


Rambo calls this last stage "consequences," but I think a more neutral term works better. Consequences implies punishments or other bad outcomes, but some outcomes are very happy indeed.

This is a chapter from Judy's book, Spiritual Mentoring: A Pagan Guide, Toronto: ECW Press, 2002, pp. 113-125.


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