I no longer attend continuing education events because I’m tired of rubber band workshops.” A pastor was describing his  experience attending events in the past, being stretched and excited by what he heard, only to return home to the tyranny of bulletins, hospital visits, and confirmation classes, and “snap back into the shape I was in before I left.”

I’ve experienced that too many times, so I understand this concern. How about you? Are we forever condemned to come home from continuing education events, lay our folders and notes on a counter in the office, become consumed in the demands of everyday ministry, and—six months later—unearth those notes and think, “Oh, I remember that event. What was it about again?” Surely there is a more transformative way to approach our continuing education in and about ministry.

Contributing Factors  

When I began my current call five years ago, I was asked to conduct a needs assessment of our congregations in southeastern Iowa. That was the occasion for the interview in which I first heard about rubber band workshops, along with a number of factors that influenced the course of my work. Other pastors expressed frustration with the perception that most continuing education events are held on or near the coasts. Some mentioned the difficulty of paying for registration, lodging, and transportation with limited annual allowances.   

In response to other questions, I found that most congregational leaders pay a lot of attention to good business practice. We assure that financial reports are frequent and accurate; we spend considerable time and energy on mission statements, vision statements, and strategic plans; and in the face of decline or change, we realign our structure or staff or we look for a killer program that we hope will fix what ails us. In comparison to business practice, I found that leaders, at best, underuse sacred practice, and often completely overlook its potential. We gather, invoke God’s blessing on our meeting, then ask God to step out into the hall while we get down to business. Then—if we remember!—we invite God to come back in at the end of the meeting to bless what we have decided.

Looking for a New Way  

With these observations in hand, I called Wayne Floyd, then the coordinator of education development at the Alban Institute, to ask if Alban would be willing to bring an event to Iowa, citing the complaint of pastors about events often being held on the coasts. As we talked, I raised the other issues I was finding, most notably the concern about rubber band workshops and the lack of sacred practice as the foundation for leadership in congregations. I clearly remember Wayne opening the way for conversation by asking, “What do you have in mind?”   

Over the course of several conversations, we developed the outline for a series of six events that would address sacred practice and would work to overcome the rubber band syndrome through continuity, peer relationships, and accountability (or as we called it, “loving pressure”). We were looking for a process that would sustain renewal and provide accountability in the practice of ministry. Our earliest proposal talked about helping participants shift the focus from what they do to who they are as religious leaders. We sought to help participants integrate sacred practice into the life of a congregation for the sake of renewal (as opposed to approaching the practices in terms of accumulating knowledge or personal mastery). Our intent was to find a way to move beyond one-time events to ongoing relationships, from expert-driven education to peersupported formation.

On a hunch, we decided to encourage lay leaders to attend along with their pastor, with the expectation that teams would have a better chance of implementing change back home than would a solo participant. Near the end of our planning process, Congregations published a CENTERview article on the positive effects of lay people attending events along with their pastors. In response to what I’m calling the rubber band syndrome, the article observed, “when clergy and laity attend events as a team, the likelihood of the ideas getting lost once they’re back home diminishes.” In addition, “when multiple people participate, they bring to bear multiple lenses through which they generate their own interpretations, insights, and applications for new ideas. Conversations ‘back home’ reach deep and wide and have a longer shelf life than when only the pastor presents new learnings and ideas.”

With our outline in hand, I recruited a local leadership team to further refine the pro-posal. People from five denominations helped broaden and contextualize the proposal. They were the ones who provided the name: Sacred Practice Leadership Series, or SPLaSh. By the time the first round of SPLaSh began in 2009, several of these folks stepped up to be the hospitality coordinator, the small group leader, the worship steward, and the evaluator. One member of our team decided to become a participant in the series, rather than a leader.

We located the series in Dubuque, Iowa, hoping to draw people from the upper Midwest. As we had hoped, most participants came from within an easy driving distance, but we also drew participants from Michigan, West Virginia, Tennessee, and Kansas. I found it ironic when potential participants from the coasts observed that the series was located a long way from them. We were blessed with a rich diversity of participants who were Lutheran, Presbyterian, Methodist,  Episcopalian, Mennonite, Roman Catholic, and Southern Baptist. Two-thirds were clergy; 58% were female.   

Aiming High 

We launched SPLaSh with this vision: Imagine your congregation doing ministry based not on what has happened before, or even on what people want. Imagine your congregation growing in its ability to understand and plan its ministry based on God’s call and on God’s desire for the world around you. We set out to challenge the understanding of leadership as knowing and following good business practices, reading the desires of members, and developing programs. We offered the possibility that an emphasis on efficiency and success often leaves something important out of the mix—namely God and the sacred practices that express and form our ability to respond to God’s call. In short, we offered the opportunity to pursue one central question: What would it mean to reintroduce sacred practice to the leadership of a congregation?  

Six renewal events over the course of two calendar years—with online conversations between events—featured twelve prominent authors, theologians, and practitioners inviting us into conversation and reflection on the practices of vision, prayer, discernment, relationship, proclamation, and service. Assigned readings prior to each event helped prepare participants for each topic. We didn’t try to teach the practices themselves—in act we expected that participants would bring a working knowledge of the practices with them—rather we set out to explore questions like what it would mean to make prayer more than bookends for meetings, how to make decisions through discernment rather than by Robert’s Rules of Order, and how sharing personal faith stories could help us find God in our midst.  

In addition to hearing seven hours of formal presentations at each event, participants were placed in covenant groups—ongoing, confidential groups of seven or eight—in which they wrestled with contextualizing what they were learning and developed plans to experiment with the practices in their leadership back home. It was in these groups that we expected peer-supported formation would take place. In looking back on the series, we tried to determine which was more important and formative: the presentations or the covenant groups. In the end we found that both were important—either without the other would not have been transformative.  

Built into the process was what we came to call “loving pressure.” Participants were asked to establish goals for implementation of each practice at home, to implement the goals through an existing team of members (or to start a new team for this purpose), and to turn in a written report at the beginning of each event to describe their successes, roadblocks, and/ or lessons learned. We wanted the written reports so that we could document changes that the series brought about, but the reports were equally important in helping the participants get beyond the rubber band workshop syndrome.

It wasn’t so much by design but by the grace of God that one of the most powerful and formative elements of the series turned out to be the time we spent in worship. By design we built a total of two and a half hours of worship into each event. By grace we were led by a gifted worship steward who greatly enhanced the series through creative and imaginative worship. In addition, the communion service at each of the last five events was led by people representing most of the traditions present in the series. 

What We Learned 

Throughout the series and even more intentionally at the end of the first round we tracked the progress participants made toward the goals for the series. The most significant change that we observed was a renewal of spiritual life and practice. Participants reported more time being spent in prayer and in encounters with Scripture, lighting of candles at the start of meetings and other intentional reminders of God’s presence, and being more intentional about claiming the spiritual gifts of leadership among the laity. Even more frequently, participants reported an increased understanding of and commitment to discernment (as opposed to “deciding”) and the importance of visioning in which God’s desires are at the forefront.

In one question we asked about “the extent to which the use of prayer as a thread to hold together life and work has increased as a result of SPLaSh.”  All respondents reported an increase of some kind (the only practice for which this was true.) In some cases, respondents reported that the series led to the formation of prayer groups, cottage meetings, the giving of testimonies, and book studies (often on the books that had been assigned for SPLaSh).

In something of a surprise, participants reported that one of the most significant impacts of SPLaSh was in the area of personal growth. As stated above, the goal of the series was to impact the life and ministry of congregations, not the individual participants. In the final evaluation, though, participants reported that their individual spirituality and ability to focus on the presence of God had been significantly improved. Several pastors commented on their increased effectiveness as leaders as a result of both what they had learned and their deepening spiritual lives. Ninety percent of the par-ticipants indicated that their personal vision of what God calls the church to be had undergone either a moderate or a significant increase. When we reflected on this outcome, we realized we shouldn’t have been surprised, in fact we should have expected this to happen. A leader who has not undergone personal renewal will most likely not be able to affect renewal in the life and ministry of the organization they serve.

In the final evaluation we asked, “If you were not able to make significant progress in realizing your SPLaSh goals, what, if anything, blocked your efforts?” A significant number of respondents (41%) chose “no significant blocks to progress.” Those that did encounter blocks reported “passive resistance to trying something new” (27%), “lack of lay team commitment to sacred practices” (23%), and 18% reported that they were never able to form a lay team at home to work on implementation.

In a question about the various aspects of the series, the overwhelming majority of respondents were either somewhat or completely satisfied with the covenant groups and accountability to the relationships formed in those groups. They also reported that the opportunity to work with colleagues from other denominations had not only formed new friendships, but had been significant in their overall experience at SPLaSh. In addition, respondents indicated a high level of satisfaction with the worship services, with 78% indicating that they were completely satisfied (4 on a scale of 4). Participants often cited the fire, mirrors, beach balls, rocks, and Hula Hoops (a few of the ‘icons’ that were used) as being instrumental in opening them to God’s freeing Spirit.

When asked about the ongoing nature of the series, 66% respondents indicated that they were “completely satisfied” (4 of 4) with the ongoing nature of the event and no one reported being “not satisfied at all.” Only worship received a higher number of “completely satisfied” responses. We didn’t ask a question that dealt directly with accountability (“loving pressure”) in the final evaluation, but by the progress that participants reported in implementing the practices at home indicates that the series did make an impact in ways that a stand-alone workshop probably wouldn’t. 

The Participants Speak for Themselves 

I could cite many more numbers and show charts from the evaluation, but perhaps the participants say it best themselves. Among the comments that we received are these:

“I was looking for a professional growth experience that would be wholistic in contrast to the fragmented and piecemeal nature of many continuing education events; would be relevant to the practical aspects of congregational life and leadership; would be renewing spiritually and emotionally; and would be a way to connect with other colleagues in ministry. SPLaSh did all that and more!”

“SPLaSh has been, by far, the most beneficial and transforming continuing education I have done in my 20 years of ministry.”  

“The two-year structure facilitated the formation of trusting relationships among small groups. I grew closer to my pastor. I also grew very close to my small group. We walked through two years of life and shared experiences, thoughts, and feelings with one another. Though SPLaSh officially ended, I will always consider the members of my small group to be close friends.”

“I’m pretty sure that I was approaching pastoral burnout when I discovered SPLaSh… I return to my place of service renewed and energized.”

“I believe SPLaSh is one of a kind. It offers congregational leaders theological, spiritual, and practical training that will give birth to ‘the new thing’ that God is doing in the American church… SPLaSh is encouraging, inspiring, and effective in congregational transformation.” 

The Future of Rubber Band Workshops 

So, are we forever condemned to return from continuing education events, lay our accumulated knowledge on our desk, become consumed in the demands of everyday ministry, and—six months later—unearth those notes and think, “Oh, I remember that event. What was it about again?” Our experience with SPLaSh says that we don’t have to.   

Certainly stand-alone events and workshops will continue, and they will continue to be important in the lives of many people and churches. We do grow and change in and through such events. But “the way we’ve always done things” doesn’t have to be the only way forward. For one thing, I’ve found—and my experience with SPLaSh confirms—that continuing education can no longer be only about education. My recent work has shown that one of the things many congregational leaders are starving for is meaningful and intentional conversation with others who are facing similar challenges and realities. Indeed, as SPLaSh has shown, education alone won’t change us; education and relationships will.

Last summer, as the first round of SPLaSh was nearing its conclusion, I sought to look after my own continuing education. I identified a workshop that addressed a topic I knew little about, but which sounded helpful for my ministry. I flew to the east coast(!) and settled in for a three-day, two-night workshop. The presenter was excellent, fascinating even. I was excited to find a seminary classmatein the audience, which gave us an opportunity to reconnect. In the end, though, I wasn’t empowered to use the process in my work. Without the years of training that the presenter had, I felt intimidated by the prospect of using what I was experiencing. It simply wasn’t the same as what I was experiencing at SPLaSh. And therein lies one of the biggest surprises for those of us who planned and hosted this series: even though we did this for the sake of others, we too were changed. We have not snapped back into the shape we were in before all this started.



Notes

The Sacred Practice Leadership Series is a cooperative program of the Alban Institute and the Center for Renewal at Grand View University in Des Moines, Iowa. Round 2 of the series begins on August 7, 2011 and continues through April 2013. Information about the series, a five-minute video in which participants from Round 1 speak to their experience, and an application form can be found at www.sacredpracticeseries.org .    

1. Adapted from Diana Butler Bass and Joseph Stewart-Sicking in From Nomads to Pilgrims (Herndon, Virginia: The Alban Institute, 2006), 19.   

2. Kara Faris, “Including Laity in Education Events Empowers Congregations,” Congregations (January 2009), 41.   

3. Without their gifts, the series would not have been the same: Phil Barrett, General Presbyter, Presbytery of Des Moines; Virginia Wangerin, Lutheran lay person and nurse educator; Paul Johnson, UCC minister; Sarai Rice, Executive Director of the Des Moines Area Religious Council; and Martha Hill, UMC field minister.   

4. Another program in the same locale that is designed to immerse participants in core Christian spiritual practices—and which is one of the roots of SPLaSh—is the Grace In-stitute out of Luther College in Decorah, Iowa.  

 


Questions for Reflection

1. Describe a time when a continuing education event had a profound impact on your ministry. What was that event like? What made it helpful? What was the impact of that event in your congregation?   

2. In your meetings, do you invoke God’s blessing on your meeting, only to ask God to step out into the hall while you get down to business? Do your meetings look more at what we can do, or at what God might be asking of us? What would it mean to reintroduce sacred practice to the leadership of your congregation?  

3. If you have had the opportunity to attend a continuing education event as part of a lay and clergy team, what difference did you feel that made in breadth of the interpretation of the event, and in the “shelf life” of the topic back home?   

4. How many “rubber band workshops” have you attended in the past? What opportunities have you had to participate in events that meet several times and provide “loving pressure” to help you focus on implementing change? What opportunities could you create—perhaps with leaders of other congregations in your community—to learn, pray, dream and plan on a regular basis?   

5. Often times, when a pastor introduces more prayer or a deeper encounter with Scripture at a board or council meeting, it is met with resistance. Why do you suppose that happens? How would your session or vestry respond?   

6. Do you attend more continuing education events in a setting where people from other traditions are present or when it mostly people from your own denomination are present? What differences do you notice between events attended by homogenous groups versus ecumenical or even interfaith groups?  

7. What difference did this article make in your expectations of future continuing education events that you might attend?