Republished from the Northwestern University Graduate School Magazine,-74-phd.html

Reverend Bobbie McKay is a licensed psychologist and an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ. Following the completion of her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Northwestern, she received her PhD in counseling psychology from Northwestern in 1974. She is the author of six published books and has led over 900 seminars and workshops about spiritual life and psychological health. Rev. McKay also designed and completed an interfaith research study in spiritual life with over 2,000 participants and has conducted additional research studies in the spiritual life of older adults and adolescents. She is currently a pastoral associate in spiritual life at the Glenview Community Church in Glenview, IL. 

How would you describe your research and/or work to a non-academic audience?
My interest in research began in the early 1950s when I was an undergraduate student with a major in psychology at Northwestern. Psychology was just entering the U.S. from its roots in Europe. I was very interested. Subsequently, I would unexpectedly feel a calling into ministry in the 1960s and received a master’s degree with a focus on ministry to women. I followed that degree with a PhD in counseling psychology from Northwestern, which included extensive research on “feminine attitudes toward feminine achievement.” I became a licensed psychologist and developed a group practice on the North Shore, while also providing supervision for graduate students in psychology. Meanwhile, I pursued my life as an ordained woman minister developing models of small group ministry which were highly successful. 

In 1996 I became interested in the meaning of spiritual life in mainstream interfaith communities. I designed a nine-page questionnaire and selected a sample located across the U.S., chosen for maximum diversity. Over 2,000 people participated and completed the questionnaire. The research clearly showed that people do have spiritual experiences that are life-changing and life-affirming but they never talk about them for fear of being seen as weird, crazy, or too religious. However, given a safe environment that allows the sharing of these experiences, people discover how common these God experiences are, and when shared, the result is a transformed individual and group. An original program on spiritual life in mainstream communities was designed based on this exciting research and implemented in multiple churches in the U.S. 

What is a mistake you have learned from your career?
I didn’t have the time to develop networks of people to interact with, either as a psychologist or as a minister. Being married and raising a family along with doing ministry and psychology and research and publishing six books didn’t include any spare moments. I missed the nurturing aspects of a peer group and the learning one gains from peer experiences and knowledge. 

What is the biggest potential impact or implication of your work?
My work argues that people do have spiritual lives they can share and when they do so in a small group setting, the experience can be transforming for everyone. Our diverse religious traditions are all connected to spiritual life in some form. When we are able to discover our common spiritual anchors, we learn about our common human lives and we learn more about how to live with our diversity and our connections. The universal church is going through a serious decline in membership and financial support. For some denominations, this will mean the end of their impact on people’s lives. To discover our spiritual connections means to learn a language we can speak and actions we can discover to grow spiritually with each other.

Why Northwestern?
I grew up in Evanston and was offered wonderful scholarships to Northwestern. I was thrilled to receive the scholarships and the BS and MA I earned, as I could not have afforded the education. Then when I was offered another scholarship for a PhD program at Northwestern, I was beyond thrilled. I knew this was a critical degree on my journey and it was being offered at no cost to me. Obtaining a PhD from Northwestern was a validation of my life as a minister, researcher, and writer. Being a woman, it was essential that I had the credentials that could validate my understanding of life and my devotion to people and their spiritual lives.

What books are on your bedside table?
My favorite has been read and re-read The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic by John Shelby Spong. I am also reading Michelle Obama’s book, Becoming, at the recommendation of my daughter and three granddaughters! 

What inspires you?
God…I am constantly in awe of the reality of spirit and love in the world. Working with small groups of people to discover and share their spiritual lives is absolutely awesome! Being a wife, mother, grandmother, and now a great grandmother is almost beyond description. Living with people inspires me, but God is the bedrock of my life. 

What advice would you give your younger self or someone considering a similar path?
Learn to be open to what life presents. When I was young, I had no thoughts beyond becoming a secretary. I had no idea as a woman growing up in the ’40s and ’50s that I had a brain. But life does present us with opportunities to grow and learn. Courage is essential if you want to walk a path that is different or unusual. And you will have to make decisions that appear easy but aren’t. I couldn’t have followed the stream of my life if I hadn’t experienced the value of hard work in my family. I learned to value and love work and constantly look for new ways to extend my work into the world. I increasingly connected what I was doing to spiritual growth for me and others so that I had powerful motivations to continue to grow and learn. I learned that resistance to my path was everywhere and was never going to be entirely gone. I didn’t like it, but I couldn’t let it stop the flow of what I knew. It is a path that requires devotion in the midst of struggle and understanding in being misunderstood…And I think it requires a spiritual connection as a grounding for the continuation of the work. Loving relationships are incredibly special and almost always happen as unexpected surprises that change your life. Be prepared to be surprised…and trust the surprises. 

If you are interested in learning more about the Spiritual Life Team Program that Dr. McKay has created is available, email [email protected].