A Design for Living

Ministry innovators address ‘soul sickness’ afflicting the U.S.

By Paul Massari

Students used to come into Varun Soni’s office and ask, “How should I live?” Now they ask, “Why should I live?”

As the dean of religious life for the University of Southern California, Soni is on the front lines of a mental health crisis that he believes afflicts up to one-third of the school’s 65,000-person community. Beyond campus, the nonprofit, independent news site The Conversation reports that “from 2009 to 2017, major depression among 20- to 21-year-olds more than doubled, rising from 7 percent to 15 percent,” according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ National Survey on Drug Use and Health. “Serious psychological distress, which includes feelings of anxiety and hopelessness, jumped 71 percent among 18- to 25-year-olds from 2008 to 2017.”1

Soni works closely with the university’s mental health professionals. As someone with a PhD and a JD—and someone married to a doctor—he has a healthy respect for medical science. At the same time, he believes the spike in serious mental illness among young people goes beyond brain chemistry. It’s an epidemic of loneliness.

“Historically, it’s been the oldest generation in the United States that has been the loneliest,” Soni says. “But studies now show that the loneliest generation in the United States right now are post-millennials, our youngest.”2

For ministry innovators Sue Phillips, Casper ter Kuile, and Angela Thurston, the crisis Soni describes is one of disconnection—personal, social, environmental, and, most of all, spiritual. It affects not only college students struggling with depression and anxiety at unprecedented rates, but also middle-aged white men in the heartland, where opioid and alcohol abuse have spiked; immigrants and their children, searching for a sense of meaning in a new culture; and people of color, who cope each day with racism and with the “daily verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities” of microaggressions.3

“People are cut off from each other and their communities in the deepest sense,” Thurston says. “At the same time, they hunger to tap into a deeper sense of meaning and purpose—to connect themselves to something greater. These crises are completely intertwined, and we can’t achieve meaningful change in our society until we address the spiritual problem at their foundation.”

To treat the “soul sickness” at the root of the country’s social ills, Phillips, ter Kuile, and Thurston have launched Sacred Design Lab (Sacred), an organization that explores the changing landscape of community and spiritual life, addresses isolation and spiritual longing, and partners with organizations across sectors to apply ancient wisdom and practices to contemporary problems. In so doing, ter Kuile says that the trio is uncovering an “exciting, hopeful story” about the new ways that people are coming together to find meaning, work for justice, create beauty, and experience the transcendent.


The project began with ter Kuile and Thurston. After earning her undergraduate degree from Brown University, Thurston became curious about the organizations to which millennials flocked for a sense of belonging. About the same time, ter Kuile, a climate activist from the United Kingdom, developed the same interest. The two enrolled at Harvard Divinity School in 2013, where they met and embarked on a process of “naming and framing” the changing landscape of community and spiritual life.

In 2015, ter Kuile and Thurston published How We Gather, a report looking at secular organizations that provided an experience of community traditionally associated with religion. Across 10 very different groups—from worldwide workout phenomenon CrossFit to The Dinner Party, which brings together young adults dealing with personal loss—the duo found common themes that included community, personal transformation, social transformation, purpose finding, creativity, and accountability.

“These are communities that are helping people aspire toward goals, transform themselves, and work toward change while holding each other accountable to make things better,” Thurston said in a 2015 interview. “They are inspiring creativity and inspiring people to find their purpose and mission in life. All [of these are] key functions that a community can serve.”4

Even as ter Kuile and Thurston chronicled the growth of secular communities, they were impressed by the innovation going on within traditional religions as well. They chronicled this work in Something More and, joined by colleagues Lisa Greenwood and Gil Rendle, Faithful, two reports that stressed the importance of cultivating nontraditional models of ministry and religious life within traditional faiths and denominations.

“We are offering a challenge, and this is more of a challenge to the world of religion,” ter Kuile said in 2015. “If you think religion is dying, we are saying religion is changing.”5

The group leveraged the common themes that they identified among the secular organizations of How We Gather and said that religious traditions offered “something more”: language, imagery, ritual, and, most of all, ways to experience the transcendent. They presented case studies of organizations that represented Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, and several Christian denominations that “bring people together to hold each other accountable, discern purposeful work, stimulate creativity, participate in mutual growth, change the structures that bind—and fully and deeply experience Something More.” These included a pop-up restaurant inspired by the Jewish tradition of Shabbat; a Christian program of “spiritual growth, theological education, and community building” that bridges “the gap between the ancient mystics and our contemporary context”; an online Buddhist community that offers meditation, teachings, and retreats.6

“Angie, Casper, and Sue’s work is done with deep respect and helps reframe the mission of the church rather than the institution,” says Greenwood of the Texas Methodist Foundation (TMF) and an ordained Methodist minister. “They’re talking about a different way of understanding leadership that helps inform how we can ask questions of ourselves around our own discipleship and engagement.”

Joined by the Reverend Sue Phillips, a Unitarian Universalist minister, the group moved from diagnosis of America’s soul sickness to prescriptions for recovery. At the end of 2016, they brought 80 community leaders—both religious and secular—together at Harvard Divinity School for “The December Gathering.” Over four days, participants discussed practical matters like funding, scaling their operations, and mobilizing their communities; reflected on inclusion and innovation; and developed spiritual practices to prevent burnout and foster renewal.

“Over the course of the conference, leaders of the secular communities began to use, unbidden, the language of faith,” Thurston says. “Usually people would name the things they were hopeful [for], afraid [of], and proud of. Person after person replaced the word ‘hope’ with ‘faith.’ ”7

The group’s capstone report, Care of Souls, leveraged four years of research to identify seven key roles needed for modern-day spiritual life—Gatherer, Seer, Maker, Healer, Venturer, Steward, and Elder—providing a mission statement, rationale, and risks for each.

“We’re looking at the intersection of belonging and becoming,” ter Kuile explained after the report’s release in 2018, “the ever-interconnected questions of human flourishing and community depth. The form it takes is wonderfully broad and will go far beyond the seven roles we illustrate in the report, of course. . . . So much of soul care is as old as time[. It] is really the context that has changed so drastically.”8

Phillips, ter Kuile, and Thurston’s research and recommendations have attracted attention from mainstream media outlets, including PBS, The New York Times, NPR, and The Boston Globe. It’s also attracted support from funders such as TMF and the Fetzer Institute. Fetzer Program Officer Michelle Scheidt says that the trio’s work advances understanding of the new ways in which people across the country are coming together to pursue spiritual growth and make meaning.

“Casper, Angie, and Sue have a finger on the pulse of the culture,” she says. “And not just the millennials and younger, but the culture more broadly. People are seeking new ways of connecting, belonging, and thinking about their purpose. Whether it’s connection with self, with others, with the divine, with the planet, the universe, people still embrace mystery and awe and wonder and the idea that there’s something larger than us.”

Phillips, ter Kuile, and Thurston’s “naming and framing” work revealed both the acuteness of existential malaise in the United States—particularly among millennials—and the value of religious resources as a remedy. At the same time, the group started to feel that even the connections of the December Gathering and the prescriptions of Care of Souls were insufficient to address the problems identified and as an expression of what the team could offer.

“While there was enormous value to bringing people together and to staying abreast of these changes, we also wanted to do what we could to intervene in the landscape, seeing as we did that these crises were big and mounting,” Thurston explains. “So, the prototyping really came out of that energy. We decided: let’s actually try and create a lab environment to respond to the very call to creativity that we keep issuing.”

The result was The Formation Project, a year-long initiative to develop spiritual leadership. Launched in October 2018, the project’s participants are mostly millennials from a range of religious traditions—and from no tradition at all—who have an interest in deepening their spiritual lives. Because the group is spread across the country, much of the program is online.

Thurston says that the prototype’s design was drawn from several influences, religious, secular, and spiritual.

“The project is based on all of these containers for formation that we’ve learned about,” she says. “One is the novitiate experience of Catholic women religious. Another is the way that the army cultivates an honor culture. Twelve-step programs like Alcoholics Anonymous bring together shared practice and recovery. All have something to offer in designing a formation experience for people from a wide range of perspectives and practices.”

Above: The Sacred Design Lab team: Angie Thurston, Sue Phillips, and Casper ter Kuile. Photo by Bethany Birnie.

Each group is facilitated by an elder from one of a wide range of religious, racial, and demographic backgrounds who “holds space” while participants share their reflection and engage in spiritual practice.

Divided into four quarters, the Formation Project invited participants first into a three-month period of discernment to determine whether they felt ready to commit to the process of spiritual deepening. Of the original 56 participants, 40 decided to continue, meeting online weekly for 90 minutes in one of nine small groups. Each group is facilitated by an elder from one of a wide range of religious, racial, and demographic backgrounds who “holds space” while participants share their weekly reflection and engage in spiritual practice.

“The second quarter of the Formation Project is three months of intense focus on inner life,” Thurston explains. “Then we shift to outer life: How are you living your values out in your relationships? The final three months is another period of discernment, listening for how that inner-outer continuum is leading you into a sense of purpose, a sense of call, a sense of the gifts that you have to give.”

Josh Miller is one of the first cohort of Formation Project participants. A young Jewish man who lives in San Francisco, Miller is part of a group led by Alicia Forde, a Unitarian Universalist minister born in Trinidad and Tobago and based in Colorado. He expresses gratitude for Forde’s creativity, curiosity, and generosity. Most of all, Miller appreciates her ability to accompany people from very different backgrounds on their own spiritual journeys.

“I’ve been doing a Jewish Mussar practice—basically a mindfulness practice—that’s supported by my participation in the Formation Project,” he says. “It’s a Jewish life-cycle thing. I bring it to work every day. My colleagues know that. My family knows that. I am more authentically living a Jewish life than I was a year ago, thanks to the support of a small group in a nondenominational program led by a Unitarian Universalist minister.”

The Formation Project and Sacred’s research into the emerging landscape of spiritual life are also helping to transform his work at the Jim Joseph Foundation, which is “committed to the continued flourishing of the Jewish people and the culture, wisdom, and practices of Jewish life and learning.”

“We’ve just reimagined a framework for our strategy at the foundation,” he explains. “We are doubling down in some areas that Angie, Casper, and Sue have really highlighted: home-base experiences, do-it-yourself experiences, ways to help young people create meaning on their own terms. But they have also helped us appreciate the degree to which we should feel very proud of the ideas of Judaism that are relevant in modern times. Sometimes you need to hear that from people who are outside your work to have it really sink in.”

The ultimate objective of the Formation Project is to inspire transformation, in both the inner lives of participants and the communities they serve. Thurston quotes Killian Noe, founder of Seattle’s Recovery Café: “The kind of change that we’re looking for is rooted in being deeply known and deeply loved, and then having the opportunity to be one who knows and one who loves in the lives of others. That’s what unlocks fundamental, lasting change.”


Photo from the Formation Gathering

Participants at the Formation Gathering, September 2017. Photo by Keyvan Behpour.

With the success of the reports and the Formation Project, awareness of the group’s work has expanded, not only among community leaders but also to business people, designers, writers, artists, and parents—so much so that Phillips, ter Kuile, and Thurston decided to add a new area of focus: partnerships with a wide range of organizations interested in community, connection, and spiritual deepening. Phillips’s work leading a team that served the roughly 250 Unitarian Universalist congregations in New England gave the team important expertise for this new phase.

“Really, it was organizational development consulting in a very niche context,” she says. “So—learning the spiritual technologies that congregations use to engage their members from the moment they walk in the door until they leave. The technology of covenant, for example, in the Unitarian Universalist tradition is the practice of connecting people to each other, manifesting commitments, and connecting those commitments to spirit. Angie, Casper, and I use covenant to keep us together as ‘siblings’ in this work. The Formation Project uses covenant to cohere small groups.”

The group found themselves doing the same sort of consulting with an increasingly diverse array of organizations. There was the technology startup Journey Meditation, which was working on a smartphone app that connected people with live meditation classes and teachers. Phillips, ter Kuile, and Thurston spent three months helping the developers think through ways to build more community into their technology. Then came work with Moishe House, an organization that supports places “where young adults in their 20s come together and create vibrant Jewish communities.”9 Yet another project, ongoing, is with the Well Being Trust, “a national foundation dedicated to advancing the mental, social and spiritual health of the nation.”10

In the meantime, Phillips, ter Kuile, and Thurston developed a relationship with the global design firm IDEO beginning in 2016, when senior designer Mitch Sinclair attended the December Gathering. The trio offered Sinclair ideas on creating interactive spaces for one of IDEO’s projects. Now the trio works with the firm’s circular economy team, which conceives sustainable products, services, and businesses.

“We’re talking with IDEO about how to use large-scale physical disruption—for example, the construction of a new university campus or a new corporate headquarters—to actually unleash the gifts of people who already live there,” ter Kuile reports. “For example, we look at one of our favorite congregations in Indianapolis, run by a Methodist minister, as a model of asset-based community development. It’s so far outside of IDEO’s usual box of tools that the designers are excited to talk to us.”

Photo from the Formation Gathering

Participants at the Formation Gathering, September 2017. Photo by Keyvan Behpour.

With guidance from IDEO and others, Phillips, ter Kuile, and Thurston decided to form Sacred Design Lab (Sacred) a “spiritual research and design” organization. They launched Sacred, appropriately, at IDEO’s Manhattan offices in late September. Casper ter Kuile says that organizations come to Sacred not only for knowledge of spiritual practice and community, but also for the capacity to translate that knowledge into a context that fits within contemporary culture.

“Often, the person that’s talking to us is at the edge of their own company culture or organizational context,” he says. “They then have to figure out, ‘How do I talk about eldering to my CEO?’ or ‘How are we going to talk about the gifts that people have to give to my HR department?’ And we just keep pointing them to look at this Methodist congregation in Indianapolis or look at this amazing Jewish eldering project in L.A. It’s so cool to just be able to expand their imaginations.”

Phillips, ter Kuile, and Thurston often refer to the “unbundling” of religious life. They describe the phenomenon in Care of Souls:

Unbundling is the process of separating elements of value from a single collection of offerings. . . . Fifty years ago, most people in the United States relied on a single religious community to conduct spiritual practices, ritualize life moments, foster healing, connect to lineage, inspire morality, house transcendent experience, mark holidays, support family, serve the needy, work for justice, and—through art, song, text, and speech—tell and retell a common story to bind them together. Now, we might rely on the Insight Meditation Timer, mountain hikes, Afro-Flow Yoga, Instagram hashtags, Friday shabbatlucks, Beyoncé anthems, and protesting the Muslim Ban. But no common story.11

In an unbundled world, people don’t relate to spiritual wisdom and practice primarily through identification with one religion or denomination. In fact, Sacred asserts that the boundaries between traditional religions may be doing more to keep people out of religious life than to guide them in. It was for this reason that Phillips, ter Kuile, and Thurston offered different ways to think about sacred life: the seven “jobs to be done” in the care of souls. Since then, they’ve also tried to categorize different types of spiritual technologies and practices. The visualization of that work takes its shape—and inspiration—from the rose window: the dazzling, intricate stained-glass windows that adorn Gothic cathedrals.

“At the center are the five senses,” ter Kuile explains. “Then there are these different roles that people play, either in a large group or a small group: elder, healer, seer, etc. Then there are around 20 categories of practices: food and drink, ritual objects, music, and so on.”

Perhaps the greatest value of the rose window is its flexibility. Phillips, ter Kuile, and Thurston assert that the model can be applied with sensitivity anywhere. Eating and drinking? You’ve got Ramadan. You’ve got Eucharist. Fasting. Feasting. Not religious? You can still apply these practices as life design principles. Want to help people feel humble? Do a three-day fast.

“Of course, we are in no way the inventors of these or the creators of these,” ter Kuile cautions. “It’s really about being stewards and translators and contextualizing. If we’re doing anything new, it’s about how we apply them, rather than having created them.”

Sacred’s project is to . . . help place new forms of spiritual life in the context of ancient wisdom, ritual, and practice, enabling communities to reestablish bonds.

As Sacred chronicled in their reports, unbundling can be an immensely generative force, both inside and outside of traditional religious organizations. At the same time, the trio observes in Care of Souls that “As we’ve unbundled and remixed, we’ve also isolated and made insecure.” No common story means no common context—the foundation of community. As a longtime minister with a passion for congregational work, Sue Phillips is conscious of what’s lost as people increasingly opt out of formal religious life.

“Having an integrated, coherent package where all that song, story, ancestry, text, buildings, smells, places where other people have sat for hundreds of years—the physical environments—when you put all that together, there’s no question in my mind that that’s about as powerful as it gets,” she says. “To me, that’s what we lose: the amplifying power of having all those things in one place in one time, whether it’s for a year in a transient city like Boston, or for a lifetime in other communities where people return again and again. But we have a lot to gain in learning how to turn those places inside out.”

Sacred’s project, Phillips says, is to embrace that learning process in order to harness the creative energy released by unbundling; help place new forms of spiritual life in the context of ancient wisdom, ritual, and practice; and, in so doing, enable communities to reestablish the bonds that connect people at the deepest level.

“Our claim is that there is so much human wisdom that’s been developed over centuries—long predating Western religious institutions,” she says. “This is how people tried to live and be happy. So, the question we ask in all our work is: ‘How can we capture that wisdom in a way that has authenticity—because so much of it is embedded in a tradition that has story and song and ancestry—and in a way that amplifies the power of the practices of those communities? What can we draw on, in the most respectful way, to redeploy in new contexts?’ Because our basic claim is that you can. It is possible. And what’s more, the world is starving for those kinds of resources.”


  1. Jean Twenge, “The Mental Health Crisis among America’s Youth Is Real—and Staggering,” The Conversation, March 14, 2019.
  2. Rachel Simmons, “Why Are Young Adults the Loneliest Generation in America?,” The Washington Post, May 3, 2018.
  3. Derald Wing Sue et al., “Racial Microaggressions in Everyday Life: Implications for Clinical Practice,” American Psychologist 62, no. 4 (2007): 271–86.
  4. Tom Layman, “CrossFit as Church? Examining How We Gather,” November 4, 2015.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Casper ter Kuile and Angie Thurston, Something More, www.howwegather.org/reports.
  7. See my 2016 article on the HDS website, “New Ministries for Millennials
  8. Paul Massari, “Ministry Innovation Fellows Take on ‘Care of Souls,’ ” March 14, 2018.
  9. See www.moishehouse.org.
  10. See wellbeingtrust.org.
  11. Casper ter Kuile, Angie Thurston, and Sue Phillips, Care of Souls, www.howwegather.org/reports.
Paul Massari writes for Harvard Divinity School.

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