Terms and Definitions
Congregation: A gathering of believers who have covenanted to do life together through church membership and baptism.
Conflict: Pulling on the field of family systems theory, I define conflict (inside of an organization) as any event that throws off the equilibrium of a community. This could be a disagreement in the organization, a change in leadership, an act of violence or abuse, or an outside event that changes the way the local congregation relates to itself (ex: a global pandemic).
Spirituality: “The spiritual life is simply the increasing vitality and sway of God’s Spirit in us. It is a magnificent choreography of the Holy Spirit in the human spirit, moving us towards communion with both Creator and creation. Spiritual life is thus grounded in relationship. It has to do with God’s way of relating to us, and our way of responding to God. In Christian experience, the work of the Holy Spirit is to conform us to the image of God” for the sake of others.
Spiritual Formation: Spiritual Formation starts with a choice to live for and in response to Jesus Christ. Formation is the process of experimentation and implantation of a way of living in connection with the Spirit of God.
Spiritual Formation as Process: There are a plethora of ways that Christians have historically connected with the reality of the divine, experimentation and education within these tools is essential for the process of formation to continue. We must never see ourselves as having arrived, but as dynamic characters on a journey. In community this means that we are all moving together towards God, at different paces and utilizing different techniques, but in relationship with God and with each other.
Spiritual Disciplines: James Martin Sj, gives us the metaphor of a bridge. “A spirituality is like a bridge. Every bridge does pretty much the same thing - gets us from one place to another… but they do so in different ways… Every spiritual [discipline] offers you a distinctive passage to God.” Throughout the history of the Church different communities have developed different ways to connect to the divine, building a variety of bridges that we are not blessed to have access to. A Spiritual Discipline is a spiritual technique that one is committed to the practice of.
In this Manuel I am seeking to offer a way forward for congregations that are experiencing a season of rebuilding after a congregational conflict. When I talk about conflict I am referring to anything that breaks the homeostasis of the organization. All organisms and organizations seek homeostasis, a time when the system balances, life is predictable and the objectives of the organization are clear and clearly pursued. Andy Lester tells us that anything that breaks that homeostasis is perceived as conflict, even if it's not something we would traditionally identify as such. So conflict can be the sorts of things we expect: a church fighting over women’s ordination, theological differences between ministers, a controversial sermon. Perceived conflict can also be triggered by more mundane or benevolent change, the church adding a second service or campus, adding projectors and screens to the sanctuary, dividing a popular Sunday school class into two, the addition of a new staff position. Then there are conflicts triggered by situations completely out of our control, the church being forced to move to make way for new infrastructure, changes in the civic order of the surrounding community, or the emergence of a global pandemic that limits the congregation’s ability to gather or leads to the disruption of core traditions.
Why do I include this community talk in a theology section? Because all encounters with God are communal. When we delve into the work of our spiritual disciplines and seek spiritual formation we are seeking an encounter with the Triune God who exists in a perpetual state of community. To have a spiritual encounter with the divine is to join the community of God and to allow the encounter with the community that is God to reshape us more into the likeness of Christ and to shift our perspective of our imminent human community as well.
When a congregation is in flux it pulls the members into a state of anxiety, both as individuals and as an organization. 2013’s fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM5) discusses anxiety, saying “Anxiety is more often associated with muscle tension and vigilance in preparation for future danger and cautious or avoidant behaviors.” Sometimes the level of fear or anxiety is reduced by pervasive avoidance behaviors. Panic attacks feature prominently within the anxiety disorders as a particular type of fear response.
The authors of the DMS5 are careful to point out that while anxiety and fear share many signs and experiences, they are not the same thing. Fear deals with autonomic and physiological responses to an imminent threat of danger. On the other hand, anxiety generally has a long-term effect as it deals with the possible threat of danger in the future. The National Institute of Mental health claims that at least 18% of American adults are living with some form of an anxiety disorder. I propose that at least as many churches are suffering from a type of congregational anxiety from a failure to reunify and seek encounters with God and each other.
“There is one body, one spirit, one hope, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, and there is one God.” Ephesians 4:4-16 follows a creedal structure. Note the seven-fold repetition of the word “one.” The use of the number seven throughout the Bible tends to indicate completeness. The creed that Paul formulates for the church in Ephesus is complete in nature: there is nothing else needed. Existing inside of this seven-fold structure is a Trinitarian model, assembled in a similar fashion to the parallel structuring found frequently in Hebrew poetry: (1) there is one body – there is one spirit, (2) there is one hope – found in one lord, (3) there is one faith – acted out in one baptism, and above it all – one god. Under this complex and poetic framework Paul calls the community of the church into unity. These seven truth claims, around which Paul centers the church, are each intentionally vague and generic.
Paul calls this community past whatever differences it may have, towards a group of central concepts, which all can gather around. Why can they, beyond the possible boundaries between individuals, be called together as one church? Verse seven tells us it is because of the grace that was given to each of us by Christ (4:7). The word here that is translated as “was given,” is the Greek verb δίδωμι (didōmi). Δίδωμι is in the aorist tense, pointing us back to a completed event in the past. The church can be called forward into new things, because of the gift, which they have already received. The reception of that gift (the grace of Christ and the power and presence of the Holy Spirit) have already been given. That part of the work is finished, now the Church must decide how it will live with these gifts.
Here the author makes sure that the reader understands that the work/building-up/growing of the Church is not exclusively the work of professionals; such as the teachers, pastors, prophets, evangelists, and apostles. Verse sixteen states that “the whole body” has a role to play in the work of the Church and that each member has been equipped for this work. If each member of this, the body of the Church, is empowered to perform the task to which it has been called, connected to the rest of the Church in unity, then the Church will be “built up” in the work of love. (4:16) The specific word for love being used in the Greek is ἀγάπῃ (agape). ‘Aγάπῃ is the Greek term for the type of love that is self-sacrificial in nature. This is the kind of love that Paul says feeds the work of the Church and empowers the unified community. This love is accessible in relationship with the God who has revealed itself as love (1 John 4:7).
Methods of Measurement
How do you study, record, track, and evaluate spiritual growth? This is always the struggle of evaluating effectiveness of programs in the church as well - how do you measure how effective a ministry or program is at increasing someone’s faith, at affecting maturity or growth, how can you measure how well someone connected with God in a worship service. It’s not really something you can assign a number to. The qualitative research experts give us a fairly clear path though - to simplify it, observe and ask. For my Doctor of Ministry project I used surveys and questionnaires with open ended questions which allowed for participants in the study to create their own language to explain their experience. This sort of process allows great freedom for the participants but also makes codification difficult as there is no standardized vocabulary. To make sense of these sorts of answers one must search for trends and clues to help the researcher decode the answers and stories provided.
Another useful tool are graded scales that allow participants to rate how effective an experience was for them with great freedom on a standardized scale. These sorts of evaluation tools are easy to use for participants as they are accustomed to being asked to take surveys. Tim Sensing suggests that surveys are a strong choice for this sort of qualitative research as he suggests they are strong for measuring “beliefs and values.”
The utilization of group interviews is also useful in our context as we are looking at community development. If we break the congregation into groups, perhaps by small group, Sunday School, or ministry groups we can utilize group discussion and group interview in familiar settings and with the people who they have been practicing spiritual practice with. So we can ask participants what they experienced and what they thought was accomplished; we can also observe the “temperature” in the congregation. Take note of how congregants interact with each other, with leadership, notice how it is the same or different when in casual settings, worship settings, and church business settings. Are people operating in patterns of anxiety or shifting towards trusting their church community? Mary Clark Moschella invites us in these sorts of spaces to listen/observe Literally and Interpretively. What literally happens matters and tells us much about what is going on, and from there we can read/observe interpretively, looking for what the literal actions mean. This moves us back into family systems territory as we are looking for the why behind the what and wondering what the actions of the observed mean. What is revealed by how they interact.
When thinking about Christian Spirituality you might think to start with the Early Church and the first followers of Jesus; but to do so would miss the fact that the Early Church was a breakout sect of Judaism - a religious movement with a long and rich spiritual tradition. The Jewish spiritual tradition is primarily a kataphatic and speculative one. Their spirituality played/s itself out in practices such as the reading of scripture, reciting blessings, and reading and memorizing prayers and psalms. Many Christians have chosen to cling to these exercises as the most biblical of spiritual practices. In the second chapter of Acts, we see the Early Church’s activity being described as study, prayer, and fellowship. One of the places where these Jewish spiritual practices overlap is in the Psalter.
Brueggermann brings the language of the Book of Common Prayer (BCP) into his discussion of the Psalms saying that the Psalms enable us to pray as the BCP invites us to “for all sorts of conditions of men.” He suggests that this power lies in the Psalms as they are so deep and diverse in their expression of human experience and that in this breadth they teach us to pray. From celebration and adoration to doubt and lament, deClaisse-Walford says that the Psalms are both the liturgical cornerstone of the Jewish faith, and the foundation for the continuation of the community post-exile and beyond. Our prayer and worship using the tools and techniques of those who have gone before us can ground us and hold us together. These practices start out as something we do to find meaning, and then transition into a way for us to stay
connected to the ground of our being. When we join with our Jewish and Early Church ancestors in praying the Psalms we join them in a worship tradition that has been unbroken for at least the last three thousand years.
Another holdover was the meditation on the Shekinah of God, God’s mysterious presence with God’s people - which would develop under the helenistic influence of the western empires into a search for gnosis wisdom in the Church. Gnosis and Metanoia transformation were two of the key themes of the earliest days of Christian spirituality; this development goes along with the more apophatic tradition found in the three synoptic gospels.
The Early Church, on top of its Jewish Spirituality, added rituals connected to the life of Jesus, the earliest and most significant of which was the celebration of the Eucahrist. The reenactment of Jesus’ last meal with his followers before his crucifixion. This meal, where everyone is equal in front of Jesus, brings the sacrifice of Christ into the worship service and as the elements are consumed, into the faithful participants. “Christian belief that Jesus’ body is not in the grave but is raised to life eternal determines the primary vocabulary both for the ritual of the meal and for Christain life.” In the ritual of the Lord’s Supper, Jesus’ example and promises are highlighted in the communal presence of the Church. The table invites us into the life,
ministry, purpose, and presence of Jesus allowing us to engage with it on a variety of levels. “A healthy Christian Spirituality will engage the whole story of Jesus’ life, which includes the incarnation, the ministry, the passion, the resurrection, and Jesus’ pouring out of the Holy Spirit to empower his followers.”
With the baptism of the Roman Empire in the 300s CE, Christians went from being persecuted to having status and access to the benefits of the empire. Among the many shifts that this brought, one was the shift away from the ideal of martyrdom. With the Church now being privileged rather than persecuted, many Christian leaders turned to the emerging technology of monasticism to reclaim space at the edge of the world. One of the gifts we receive from the monastics is the practice of Lectio Divina. First developed by Benedict of Nursia in the 500s and later formalized by the Carthusian monk Guigo II in the 12th Century. This “sacred reading” draws us from our intellectual reading of the scripture, where we seek to understand what it says and what it means or seeking personal/communal application, towards a more apophatic way of experiencing the divine in the text. Lectio Divina “focuses on personal knowledge, knowing yourself in relation to God.” The process involves reading sections of scripture seeking to encounter and experience them through four steps: reading, meditation, prayer, and contemplation. This practice has held a place in the collection of widely practiced and accepted Christian spiritual disciplines.
An adjacent Christian tradition was developing alongside monasticism. Out of the reach of the Roman Empire and continental Europe, the Celtic peoples developed their own version of Christian spirituality. They have their own theological tradition, their own monastic tradition, their own missionary tradition, their own saints and exemplars, and their own spiritual practices. One of the aspects of Celtic Spirituality that I wish to highlight is that of the “soul friend” or anamchara.
Soul-friendship has obvious biblical roots in the relationships that existed between David and Johnathan, Barnabas and Saul, Paul and Timothy. Like so much else, the Irish monks almost certainly took it up in imitation of a practice pioneered by the desert fathers who despite their quest for solitude often shared their cells with a syncellus (cell-mate) who acted as both a close friend and spiritual guide.
These spiritual friends were mutual spiritual guides, confessors, and companions. It is unclear the extent to which this practice made it way outside of the walls of the monasteries and castles of Ireland or if ordinary lay persons were trained in or engaged in the practice, but there are plenty of writings on the roles of the anamchara and how essential they were to the work of the cloistered, the clergy, and celtic nobility. This aspect of Celtic Christianity has regained popularity with recent waves of its resurgence in western Christianity. In many ways the reemergence of soul-friends often looks like the sponsor/sponsored relationships cultivated in Alcoholics Anonymous, one party might be farther along on the journey than the other, being able to give guidance and wisdom based on experience, but the relationship is not master and apprentice of teacher and student, there are no experts, just collaborators towards freedom.
Out of the breadth of the Christian tradition I highlight these three disciplines: Communion, Lectio Divina, and Spiritual Friendship. In a setting where the community has been fractured how do we start to pull the people’s spirits back together? I suggest that we start with communion, the imagery and tradition are already there. We are all equal when we receive at the table, and with careful pastoral guidance the richness of the ritual can be explored and drawn out. Not only theologically is this possible, practically too; my tradition does not guard the administration of the elements as a role only for the clergy; it could be potentially transformative to receive from and serve someone who you, in that moment, were thinking of as a problem, a road block, or even an enemy. To serve and receive would force you to look at them with the eyes of Christ and to be gazed upon the same way in return.
A similar opportunity exists in the learning and practice of lectio divina. I would propose that this be used in a smaller group setting like a prayer group, life group, affinity group, Sunday school, bible study, or something similar. To allow for vulnerability and wisdom to flow in the group and see the work of the Holy Spirit in others (especially those who you are pretty sure Jesus is mad at too) and to sense the working of the Spirit in yourself in a space where you can share that with safety, honor, and dignity will force a chance in the way that you perceive your neighbor.
These same principles apply to the formation of spiritual friendships, which should happen naturally and programmatically with some spiritual friendships emerging (possibly with guidance) from current friendships, and others being curated by leadership. As we learn to recognize the Spirit’s work in each other and activate our roles as the priesthood of believers for each other the reality of the ubiquity of God’s movements in the congregation will become evident.
Minister as Spiritual Guide
As the minister leading a congregation emerging from a season of conflict, whatever the conflict might have been, is a precarious position to be in. Not only is it potentially exhausting and overwhelming, there is always the risk that an anxious people will attempt to triangulate their leaders, putting them in positions where they will feel compelled to pick sides or fill the role of the identified patient and become the perceived source of the conflict. Leading Congregational Studies scholar Peter L. Steinke says that there are eleven main ways that anxiety in a congregation, or any emotional system, impacts the behavior of individuals. (1) It decreases our capacity to learn. (2-4) It replaces curiosity with a need for answers and certainty, causing us to fortify what we already think, and keeping us from interacting well with each other. (5-6) Causes our brains to stop listening and processing new information; reducing us to binary reasoning. (8) This leads to the desire for a single quick and easy fix. When these “silver bullets” fail to work it leads to (9) a sense of hopelessness. (10-11) This hopelessness causes a total loss of creativity and the inability to be flexible in our interactions with each other. In his 1963 book on effective propaganda J. A. C. Brown explains that you, the propagandist, should seek to keep your target audience in a state of anxiety as it leads to a narrowing field of vision where there can only be one accepted solution; he calls this “tunnel vision.”
If a congregation has slipped into a place of anxiety, one of the roles of the leadership is to direct them out of it. When communities internalize the narrative that their best days are behind them, it is the role of good leadership to help them tell a new story about themselves. Congregations that are directed by their desire to survive need to be guided towards a future where they can thrive. I propose that the first step to overcoming congregational anxiety is to redirect that energy towards hope and a future through the process of developing and implementing a clear vision for the future, a mission plan for how to get there, and core values that will govern the journey.
If a community can be reoriented towards this new vision, mission, and core values, the energy that it had been directing into perpetuating anxiety can be successfully redirected into imagination. This return of imagination frees the system from the cycles of trying harder, repeating the same behaviors and expecting different results, and allows the community to ask brave new questions - rather than just seek the correct answer. We have already explored several spiritual disciplines that have the potential to reorient congregants back towards each other in order to rebuild community and the congregation's ability to connect with itself and with the divine. These practices are a potential first step in finding a way forward into a future together, but if the minister/leader is exhausted, anxious, or spiritually depleted they will not have the strength of soul required for the task of guiding a community back home to itself.
If a minister/leader is going to be able to survive, especially in such a difficult season, they are going to need a robust spiritual life. I propose the formation of a “rule” to guide and govern our spiritual life - to hold us in obedience to the type of life we claim to desire. It is worth noting that pastors, especially those serving in difficult times, do not need another thing to do, rather we should fram the work of curating a rule of life as a way of being rather than just more activity. Margaret Guenther says that a rule should “Keep us clear and attentive, to enable us to live contemplatively in the midst of activity. The temptation, of course, is to be overambitious and to set ourselves impossible goals… Our rule should be practical, doable, and suited to our own circumstances.” In helping pastors think about making their rule of life, Burgess, Andres, and Small suggest that we frame the process in two ways; making time for ourselves, and making time for God.
There are some disciplines that can be experienced or obscured by one’s vocation in the Church. We already engage in weekly worship, we study the scriptures in our offices, and we engage with various forms of the Christian tradition as we navigate the Church calendar; but these are work, they are not time for us or time for God, they are time that we have sold to the Church, and while I know that I (and I assume you) take deep joy and fulfillment in my work for the local church - it is still that, work. I propose that we cultivate two primary practices that are only for the sake of the minister’s connection to God: surrender and silent meditation.
So much of what the minister does is focused on completing tasks and achieving goals. We are busy, we are workers, we are pervaying religious goods and services, and in that business we can start to take the burden of guiding (that internal language can easily shift form “guiding” to “saving”) the congregation entirely onto ourselves. To engage in the intentional practice of surender can humble, empty, and disabuse the pastor in the presence of God as we release the church’s future to its lover. Texts like Romans 12 and writings of thinkers like Kierkegaard could be meaningful companions on the path of surrender as we seek to let God be God and us to be ourselves in God’s presence.
We humans, in Kierkegaard’s thought, are a mixture of the finite and the infinite, and our great despair comes when those two elements are thrown out of whack (normally by the favoring of the finite over the infinite.) God, being infinite, reaches out to us in the finite though the incarnation and invites us to be tethered to God’s infinity, allowing for us to connect to a source of true meaning. Kierkegaard names this meaning a person can receive from a relationship with Jesus, “calling.” If you choose to follow a calling, to let Jesus be the source of your ethical decisions and your relationship with God, and the lens through which you find the courage to move and make difficult choices in a potentially infinite world, you have in that moment become an individual. This is not the final stage of faith, but rather the start, the first surrender, the first act of obedience to the call is to leap. If we can make this leap of faith, there is no guarantee of where we will land, but in the surrender we do know who we are.
The second practice is that of silently waiting on God. Meditation can be difficult for those of us who are used to being busy and productive, at least surrendering is work - it can feel like you accomplished something, but what is won by sitting in silence? We could discover that God wants to spend time with us or even has something to tell us. I need help getting into these sorts of spaces and tools like the “Jesus prayer” can help usher my restless soul into places of meditative silences where my soul can wait. Experiment with other prayers, scriptures, and mantras that could do the same for you.
As we think about how to take on the task of guiding others into spiritual development, especially an entire congregation, I would suggest that we already have many of the necessary tools. The congregation needs a shepherd, someone safe who can lead them into safe pastures and along quiet waters. A leader who has cultivated in themselves a sound spirituality that has grounded their soul in the Lord and is open to their continual formation and reformation towards the image of Christ. This sort of leader can embody the non anxious presence so desperately needed in an unstable congregation and be the kind of shepherd that the sheep can trust.
When dealing with individuals, the posture of a spiritual director might be the proper pastoral stance. As we guide our congregation into new ways of thinking about themselves, their neighbor, and their God we are introducing a new destabilizing change into the system and must be ready to peaceably hold the organization and the individuals that make it up in love and support while the system attempts to stabilize the new practices. We are dealing with the sacred on multiple levels, the sacredness of persons, the sacredness of the church, the sacredness of our encounter and relationship with God, the sacredness of these ancient practices. We must treat all of these with the honor and dignity that they deserve. If we are going to change the way a community celebrates communion, thinks about reading scripture, or how they relate to each other as ministers and the priesthood of believers some will feel threatened and others might experience confusion or agitation simply because of a change. We must be ready to lovingly and gently guide them towards being able to receive these gifts without pressuring or dominating them.
I sense an overwhelming call to preach. I am a gifted listener, and a patient and careful counselor. My creativity is unyielding, and I thrive in diverse and unfamiliar communities. When faced with conflict and transitions in the church, I am resilient and never complacent, but consumed by the work of the Kingdom. I draw on my education in church health to identify goals and barriers towards more vibrant community. In 6 years of ministry I have devoted myself to study, prayer, and research in preparation for everything I have taught, writing tailor-made curricula and sermons. As a leader I am thoughtful, inclusive, and energetic, and in every church I have served, I’ve been gradually entrusted with more roles and leadership.
Currently in Atlanta, I serve as the Associate Pastor at Towne View Baptist Church and Host/Producer of the KINGDOM ETHICS PODCAST and the Virtually Church Podcast.
I am currently pursuing a Doctor of Ministry in Justice and Peacemaking at Mercer University.