For Neddy Yong ’23, family and spirituality are closely linked. She grew up in the church, watching her grandfather and mother serve as ministers, then married her partner, who is a theology professor and pastor. When she was looking to continue her education, she chose San Francisco Theological Seminary (SFTS), housed in the University of Redlands Graduate School of Theology.
“I was drawn to the school because they had a program for spiritual direction,” says Yong, who is pursuing a Master of Divinity (MDiv) and a Diploma in the Art of Spiritual Direction. “I was able to take advantage of both areas. The spiritual direction program was foundational for me in learning how to become a better listener.”
Some form of spiritual direction is present in any religious tradition, especially those with experiential or contemplative emphases. A spiritual director is a person who sits with a spiritual seeker to support them and provide guidance for their path. While it is common for spiritual directors to operate independent and private practices, Yong is interested in working alongside church staff and community members to integrate spiritual direction into local ministries.
A way to cope
In 2019, Yong and her family moved into student housing on the Marin campus. As an expectant mother with two other children and few friends in a new place, she experienced heightened stress levels. She sought the guidance of a spiritual director who could help her thoughtfully navigate the transition.
“[SFTS] supports students with vouchers that make this resource more affordable. I knew that I needed support and help, and so much transformation has happened in me since then,” she says.
For guidance, Yong looked to Ruth Mordecai, a spiritual director at Interfaith Counseling Center in San Anselmo. Mordecai is trained in the Internal Family Systems (IFS) model, an integrative approach to individual therapy based on the idea that each mind is made up of multiple subpersonalities, each with its own viewpoints and qualities. Yong was previously introduced to the framework while auditing a course at the Claremont School of Theology when her partner was a Ph.D. candidate.
“I was really encouraged by what I learned in IFS because I learned skills to connect to my deepest self,” she says. “Integrating IFS with theology supports a belief that we, at our very cores, are good and compassionate, and that we have the capacity to love deeply.”
With the help of the IFS model, Yong was able to treat herself with more kindness—an approach that she ultimately integrated into her family dynamic. In a recent blog post published by Feminist Studies in Religion, Yong and her partner, Aizaiah G. Yong, refer to the framework as a spirituality of compassion. In the article, the Yongs encourage other parents to adopt a perspective of compassionate care when faced with a challenge, especially while parenting during the COVID-19 pandemic. The benefit, Yong says, is twofold.
“With support from someone who is trained or if you continue to practice and train yourself, you develop skills from a compassionate core to tend to and care for yourself. When you can do that, you then have the resources to care for others,” she says.
Yong notes that this practice doesn’t have to be complicated or time-consuming—it can be as simple as pausing, taking a breath, and being grateful for that breath.
Additionally, Yong says her children are developing emotional awareness and learning about language and practices, such as pausing, breathing, and taking the time to process feelings. “As parents do their work, they’re able to be a grounding force for their children,” she says. “Parenting is emotional coaching but it’s beautiful because we are cultivating an atmosphere in our home where we welcome all the parts.”
Yong’s theology informs her parenting, and she spends time reflecting on the Christian church and her religious experiences as an MDiv student. While characteristics such as nurturing and providing care are often understood to be maternal qualities, she says they are also characteristics of a divine spirit.
“As we study Christian history, we learn how women and children were excluded from many of the theologies that originated in the church. Today, there are more conversations about whose perspectives have been marginalized and how we can uplift those perspectives so that we can have more harmony and balance in our existence together,” she says.
Looking forward, Yong aims to take the knowledge she acquired in her program and use it to transform spiritual connection within local communities in much the same way she was transformed at SFTS. “I have learned that I am deeply loved, and I believe that everyone is deeply loved,” she says. “We have infinite potential to co-create a world where everyone is well and thriving.”
Learn more about the Graduate School of Theology.