Research often uncovers unexpected gems. Such was the case in my work on the Alban Congregational Spirituality Project, a study of five disparate Washington, D.C. churches undertaken to learn about the different ways their congregational spirituality had developed, to discover their unique gifts, and to help them develop processes for discerning their call from these gifts. The hope of those involved in this research was that these experiences could help other churches in going deeper and in discerning their own gifts and call.
It was during my work on this project—sponsored by the Alban Institute, funded by the Soper Trust of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington, and described in my book, Uncovering Your Church’s Hidden Spirit—that I was surprised to discover that my role as researcher was also one of spiritual companion to the churches. The traditional role of spiritual director, guide, and companion to individual people seeking to deepen their spiritual lives was now being exercised in the corporate body of the congregation.
Many years of work with the Alban Institute have taught me that surprises deserve careful attention, so I felt compelled to explore further the possibilities of this role in local churches. To get started, I asked project consultants Tilden Edwards and Jerry May of the Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation to recommend some trained spiritual guides who might be interested in pursuing this role in local churches, matched the nominees with interested churches, and set up a peer group to support these “congregational spiritual companions” and to serve as a forum for sharing what they learned.
Now, two years after the formation of the Congregational Spiritual Companions Peer Group, these spiritual guides have reported some fascinating results of their work, which has played out in very different ways in different churches. The reasons for this are simple: The role of the congregational spiritual companion is one of receiving the reality of the congregation rather than attempting to direct it. Being a spiritual companion is like being a midwife; it involves being present for congregations and doing what seems useful to support them as they carry out their processes. The spiritual companion walks alongside the congregation, adopting a variety of roles as needed, while remaining respectful of the people’s leadership of their church.
The crucial question for the companion, says Jerry May, is how to participate in whatever God is up to in the spiritual life of the congregation. As Tilden Edwards puts it, the spiritual companion is “a special kind of evangelist holding up the good news of the intimate presence of the Spirit in the congregation’s life. . . . Even though you say, ‘I’m not here to teach,’ in a way you do teach just by your way of being present.”
The following stories of two spiritual companions’ experiences—presented anonymously here to protect the churches’ privacy—illustrate the uniqueness of each church’s experience of being accompanied by a companion, and the powerful impact the presence of this role can have on a congregation’s journey.
Story 1: Layers of Discernment
Imagine a church where all members of the corporate body sit in silence and prayer together and, from that silence, discern the church’s future direction. Imagine a church board that considers discernment a more valuable skill than debate, and committees where discerners help the groups determine their next steps. This may sound like an unusual way for a suburban church to do business, but this is what is happening in one Protestant church in Maryland.
After a churchwide retreat using the book Listening Hearts: Discerning Call in Community by Suzanne Farnham, Joseph Gill, R. Taylor McLean, and Susan Ward, several parishioners felt a “nudging” to continue in this contemplative way of being. The pastor also had a vision of how the church might continue to listen more intentionally for God’s calling. So, with the support of an outside spiritual companion, this group began exploring how to become discerners and how to support the entire corporate body in listening directly to God’s calling for the church.
The group began meeting monthly to study and practice discernment with one another, developing a simple process that allowed for a rich time of sharing and prayer:
- Check in, allowing people to connect and be fully present in the room (15 minutes)
- Outline a question, issue, or idea from the reading assignment (5 minutes)
- Discuss a question, issue, or idea from the reading assignment (20 minutes)
- Silence (5 minutes )
- A member of the group shares an issue on which he or she wishes to receive guidance, which defines the question for discernment (10 minutes)
- Silence (5 minutes)
- Share from the silence (15 minutes)
- Assess the group’s process (5–7 minutes)
- Close with a prayer (2 minutes)
After two years of this practice, the group was given an opportunity to introduce discernment to the entire corporate body. The board decided to develop a new vision statement for the church, and the discernment group was asked to help lead the entire corporate body through a process of sitting in silence and listening for God’s guidance for their future together.
To provide ample opportunity for participation, three meeting times were selected during a particular week. Each night began with a prayer led by a member of the discernment group, followed by a 10-minute period of silence. Parishioners then met in smaller groups to discuss the church’s future. Board members were present as listeners to the community, whose ideas were captured on a flip chart. Members of the board will use this discernment from the entire church to assist in identifying and articulating the vision for the church.
The process was valuable, if not perfect. A major learning was that, although the discernment group had grown very comfortable with a 10-minute space of silence, it was a stretch for most members of the church. Therefore, for future discernment efforts, the group recommended using a guided meditation that included periods of silence rather than complete silence, particularly when first introducing the practice. Discernment group members also played a critical role in reminding people that the small group discussions were a time of brainstorming and listening rather than the usual forum for debate. Even with these bumps in the path, this was a significant and meaningful experience for the entire corporate body.
The discernment group continues to meet regularly and has discerned that its process is to be a subtle happening within smaller groups. The group’s purpose is to change—intentionally and subtly—the way business is done. In each of the ministries in which the group members are involved, they are seeking to begin meetings with an opening prayer and short periods of silence for the group to open itself consciously to the moving of the Spirit in the midst of their deliberations. The hope is that discernment will gradually become the way of the whole community. It may also prove to be a way individual members of the community may come to see the discernment group as a resource for them as they are trying to listen for how God may be calling them through the questions and decisions they face in their own lives.
This group of discerners and the corporate body have taken a miraculous step toward becoming a discerning corporate body. The richness of this experience for the members of the group is powerful, and it continues to take them to new depths as they journey together. This is indeed an awesome gift for the parish as a whole.
Story 2: Resurrection Church
The ministry of spiritual companionship, depen
dent as it is on the promptings of the Holy Spirit, is always suffused with mystery and shot through with surprises. When I embarked on my conversations with the pastor at a church I’ll call Resurrection, I felt as if I had an assignment of sorts—to discern and nourish the hidden spirit of the congregation—but I was open to whatever might unfold in terms of my specific role.
From the start, the pastor and I felt a sense of rightness about our connection, and we were delighted to be part of a process that seemed not unlike a parent and godparent getting together to enjoy a child’s emerging identity and to discern what support and encouragement the child might need. We hoped that our monthly conversations would bear fruit for the congregation’s corporate spiritual identity as well as for individual congregants. However, we had no particular sense of how that would be achieved, and proceeded by simply putting one foot in front of the other, trying simply to show up, pay attention, and listen well. In the early months, our conversations focused most often on what was currently going on in the church and what had happened in the years since the pastor’s arrival—and in the challenging years prior to his arrival, when the church’s focus often had been mere survival.
The pastor also described to me his hopes for the church, and his longing for a greater sense of energy and depth in their shared life together. Over time, our focus moved increasingly to his desire for greater depth and integrity in his own life and ministry. Several times during this initial period I offered the pastor some different options for how our work might proceed, most of them involving my meeting with various groups of church members and lay leaders, but also including the option of concentrating on the movements of the Spirit in the pastor’s own life and how that might, in turn, shape the life of the parish. What might constitute his own hidden spirit, hidden from the congregation and even at times from himself? How might his own “going deeper” evoke something similar in the congregation, not through the sharing of the particulars of his interior journey, but by the agency of his own being as he grew in wholeness and authenticity, openness, peace, and pervasive rootedness in God?
About nine months after our first conversation, the pastor acknowledged that, prior to my arrival, he had had a sense of having no one to talk with about certain topics, such as his prayer life, his joys and frustrations in the parish, and the demands of family life and the impact of these on his ministry. He realized he had wanted a spiritual companion for quite a while but hadn’t found the time to seek one out. He also felt it might be selfish to spend time or money on such a thing, or that it might be perceived that way. However, he had come to see my arrival as an answered prayer. Looking back on this fork in the road, he wrote: “When our congregational spiritual companion raised the question of how our work might evolve, I was between spiritual directors myself, knowing I needed to find someone but unsure where to start. While our companion had previously mentioned individual spiritual direction as a possible path, the idea had not registered with me. I was focused on the project as discernment with the whole parish, and did not think individual direction would be ‘allowed’ within the context of the project. So, when our companion again stated that this was an option, my reaction was very powerful: God was offering me just what I wanted and needed, and it was almost too good to be true. Receiving this gift, or being allowed to have this gift, has refreshed my spirit. I would say it has increased my capacity for receiving the blessing of God.”
Not long after we began our work together, the pastor established for himself a disciplined daily practice of centering prayer. He now feels that maintaining this contemplative thread in his life has contributed significantly to what he has described as “continents moving and shifting within.” Paradoxically, he finds himself more consciously vulnerable and also more firmly anchored in God, sustained by a Source beyond ego, beyond anyone’s potential to hurt or humiliate him. He feels he is living from a more truthful center and is now free of what he feels was a tendency to over-function and an excessive need to feel “in charge.” This particular shift has borne fruit both in his family life and also in the parish, where he increasingly relies on lay leaders to take care of certain administrative tasks and asks non-stipendiary clergy in the parish to preach more often. He continues to set aside time in meetings of the governing board for prayer, reflection, and bible study, and he is so convinced of the value of centering prayer in his life that, for a time, he led a small group of church members in the practice. He hopes that their experi-ence will produce a ripple effect in the congregation. Similarly, he is considering instituting a group of “wise ones” to engage with him in continuing discernment on the congregation’s behalf.
Over time, my conversations with the pastor at Resurrection Church have provided a protected container in which he can reflect on and knit together learnings and experiences from the personal and congregational spheres of his life. Having a regular time and place and a willing listener have allowed the surfacing of many painful concerns—grief, regret, and self-doubt—as well as joy, awe, and much gratitude. “As it happened,” he wrote, “during the past year I have been through some major challenges and changes, including the death of my mother. This holy relationship with a spiritual companion has provided a wide open space of welcome, safety, and trust for reflecting on how the Spirit has been present and moving through it all. Having this spiritual relationship has opened me in many ways, bringing breadth and freedom of spirit and security even in the most difficult times. I know that the parish has benefited from my growth, even without being privy to the vehicle. Having a pastor more fully present and able both to give of self and admit others, in appropriate ways, just loosens up the soil around the spiritual roots of the whole parish.”
Reflections on the Stories
As is obvious from these two stories, the role of the companion can be performed quite differently in different congregations. The reason is that this ministry becomes the opposite of any “cookie-cutter” program. Here we speak of discernment rather than “program.” These clergy and congregations are reaching toward a way of being that flows into doing.
In Resurrection Church, the pastor wanted to discover how his own “going deeper” might evoke something similar in the congregation. And while this companionship experience began in the personal experience of the pastor, the private journey did indeed enrich the corporate life of the congregation.
In contrast, the role of the other spiritual companion was firmly grounded in the parish structure. Notice this church’s intricate multidimensional process—how it progressed at individual, small group, and total congregational levels, and how all those dimensions reinforced each other and moved toward a well-articulated vision of the church’s mission.
Just as the “roominess” of the role of the spiritual companion can be seen in these contrasting stories, so will any church choosing to be accompanied on its journey by a spiritual companion find that its own uniqueness will determine its experience of this role and the impact it has on the congregation. Perhaps we will soon have even more stories to share with each other about the remarkable benefits of having someone walk alongside a congregation as it seeks to discover within the working of the Holy Spirit.
Mark Your Calendar
Join Celia Hahn at “Uncovering Your Church’s Hidden Spirit,” a one-day program for pastors and lay leaders seeking spiritual companions for their congregations. The event will take place on October 25, 2003. Visit the Web site of the College of Preachers (www.collegeofpreachers.org) for more details.
Finding Spiritual Companionship for Your Church
Perhaps you are wondering whether a spiritual companion could be helpful to your own church. If so, there are many ways to begin the process of fulfilling this role.
You may already know someone who could walk beside your church as a spiritual companion, perhaps a person in your local denominational office, a retired judicatory executive who is spiritually attuned, or a trained spiritual guide who has some experience with congregations. If a possible companion comes to mind, you might ask him or her to read my book, Uncovering Your Church’s Hidden Spirit, and then engage in a conversation with you about walking alongside your church.
If you don’t know anyone you believe would be suited to the role of spiritual companion, the Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation may be a resource for letting you know which graduates of its Spiritual Guidance Program are living in your area. The Institute can be contacted by telephone at (301) 897-7334, by mail at 5430 Grosvenor Lane, Bethesda, MD 20814, or online at www.Shalem.org.
Another way to get the benefit of the perceptions of someone outside the congregation would be to team with a nearby parish with similar interests in discernment. Consider using the questionnaire in chapter 10 of Uncovering Your Church’s Hidden Spirit to surface the lay spiritual leaders of the congregation. Design a training session on interviewing (perhaps using the section entitled “The Process of the Interview”) and then let each participant interview someone in the other church—teaming up to listen for the church’s gifts.
If you decide that your church needs to undertake this discernment without any external assistance, consider prayerful journal writing in response to the interview questions mentioned above, and sharing your responses with one another.
Whatever process you choose for achieving spiritual accompaniment for your church, know that it is a first step toward more fertile ground in the congregation’s spiritual journey.