Practical Hope 101

Let’s dive into my big discovery, an entire well-researched field of hope psychology that hasn’t really been brought into the church at all. (I only found a couple of brief mentions in academic papers.) Seriously, followers of the risen Christ are kind of the “hope people;” we can learn something from what psychologists have discovered about hope! The theory itself is remarkably, brilliantly, deceptively simple. However, it does have a glaring weakness when it comes to religion, but we can deal with that.

C. R. Snyder’s Formula of Hope

The field of hope psychology, which has amassed countless clinical research papers and two compendiums including the original Handbook of Hope and a more recent one from Oxford [affiliate links, because why not?], was founded by C. R. Snyder from my home state of Kansas. The core of it, as I said, is deceptively and brilliantly simple:

Hope = Agency Thoughts + Pathways Thoughts

Let’s break that down. By “agency,” we mean believing that you can do something, that you have the power to pull it off. “Pathways,” then, refers to the how of achieving your goal. Do you know what steps to take to get there? Are there multiple paths to your goal in case something goes wrong?

How about an example. I’m a lifelong sci-fi fan. I would LOVE to walk on the moon. Do I have hope of doing so in my lifetime? Let’s use the formula. In one sense, I know it’s at least possible because it’s been done before. NASA pioneered the original path, and I can envision a pathway to me walking on the moon through something like Elon Musk’s SpaceX within my lifetime. My agency is questionable as I doubt this blog would raise the enormous amount of money it would require (hey, any tremendously wealthy donors out there? :) ) But to tell the truth, if I had access to that much money, I’d give it away for charity and justice long before I’d spend it to go to the moon. So, my hope is small, but I do technically have a little bit.

But what if my goal was to go to another solar system? Einstein theorized that travel beyond the speed of light is impossible. While it is possible someone will leapfrog over his theory one day, by our present understanding it’s flat out impossible to travel that far within a lifetime. In this case, there’s no point talking about agency as the lack of any imaginable pathway shuts it down. For this goal, there is no hope.

Using Agency and Pathways In Real Life

Do you see the brilliance of the formula? We can now examine a person’s sense of hope in parts, revealing a nuanced and even quantifiable understanding rather than a nebulous “hope-y change-y” perception (to make an unfortunate and now somewhat dated political reference.)

Snyder and others have developed and clinically researched tools to help measure a person’s hope, broken down into agency and pathways. He also spends time looking at a person’s goals and the potential barriers they perceive, but that really comes back to agency and pathways again. A hope therapist might ask questions like, “How motivated are you to work toward a desired outcome?” (agency), or “How would you describe your ability to reach your goals and to find ways around obstacles?” (pathways.) (These questions are from the Handbook of Hope, by the way)

By asking this type of question, a hope therapist would begin to see where you need help: is it your sense of agency that’s weak, or do you have trouble seeing pathways? Then, over time, they could lead to discovery and a renewed sense of hope.

Agency and Pathways In Churches

Beyond the obvious use of this theory in caring ministry, another way I’ve seen this formula play out in congregations is in committees. I once had two conversations in the same week that looked like this. The first was with a couple of individuals in a church who had great ideas-- I mean seriously great ideas. But as soon as they said their latest ideas to me, they sighed and said, “Ah, but they’d never actually do it.” (High pathways and low agency…) A few days later, I was in a committee meeting where the committee was frustrated. They said, “We really want to do something, and we have lots of volunteer support, but we just don’t have any ideas worth doing!” (High agency and low pathways…)

My job as Pastor was remarkably easy in this case. :) But do you see how the formula helps? Both the individuals and the committee I mentioned felt hopeless. In fact, they felt quite hopeless. But were they really? No! They had partial hope, perhaps even lopsided hope. Seeing this not only helped me to affirm the hope they had but also to address it by bringing them together.

The Glaring Weakness

And now we come to where Snyder’s brilliantly simple formula falls short: there is a type of hope that goes deeper than just agency and pathways. We’ve all known people at the bottom of life, where agency and pathways are unimaginable, yet whose hope is greater than our own. And beyond even that, we Christians know that the risen Christ gives us hope in something for which the agency and pathways belong not to us but to God alone.

To be fair, Snyder never claimed his theory goes to the grandiose level of religion. In Handbook of Hope, he says that hope, as his theory describes it, is a “positive motivational state,” nothing more. Embracing that limitation gave him the pathway(see what I did there?) to create a wonderfully useful field of psychology.

But if we are to bring his theory into Christianity, then we need to do so in a way that acknowledges it doesn’t stand alone. Thus my ideas of “practical hope,” which is Snyder’s hope, and “ultimate hope,” which is what we get from God. Next week I will bridge the two together, but for now, let’s take the time to sit with Snyder.

I’m curious, how have you experienced agency and pathways in hope?