It happened one morning during the sermon. Joe Duggan, a church leader participating in an initiative exploring ways to incorporate recent confirmands into the ongoing life of the parish, suddenly knew what he wanted to provide for them: a program that would help them discover how God is calling them to service through their everyday lives. He would call it “Sacred Journeys.” Duggan knew that confirmation marked a significant step in these confirmands’ faith journeys and that they were eager to be engaged. He also knew that unless they were connected quickly, their enthusiasm would dissipate or be redirected elsewhere.
Duggan doubts that simply reading a book or attending a committee meeting would have led to his inspiration, instead attributing it to being an active participant in parish life. “Sacred Journeys wouldn’t have come to me without my engagement in the regular worship life at All Saints,” he says. “It wasn’t a separate idea; it came out of my total experience.”
To flesh out the concept of Sacred Journeys, Duggan teamed up with other parishioners. One of them was Bob Cornell, a former Zen Buddhist monk. Cornell knew how the discipline of spiritual practice turned his faith into a way of life, how it transformed Buddhism from an idea into a daily experience. He was concerned that Christianity presented grace as a concept but didn’t provide the spiritual tools needed to access or experience it. You wouldn’t expect a concert pianist to play beautifully without practicing hours of scales and études, or an all-star football player to complete a touchdown pass without sweating through grueling field drills, so it was unrealistic, Cornell reasoned, to expect that simply reading or thinking about Christianity would lead to living life as a Christian.
Cornell’s passion was to see a rigorous framework for spiritual formation take root within All Saints, a progressive, inclusive Episcopal Church (www.allsaints-pas.org). Cornell wanted to help people answer the question, “What do I have to do to be open to grace?” He wanted the program to be evangelical, not in any Bible-thumping way but in the profound sense of being opened to God’s presence, God’s work, and God’s mystery. An intellectual experience wasn’t enough; the experience needed to incorporate daily practice to equip participants to find and welcome that presence in their everyday lives.
When Sacred Journeys finally launched, Duggan’s idea turned out to be more than the vocational discernment program he had initially imagined. Described as a process rather than a program, Sacred Journeys emphasizes regular prayer or meditation, group support, and experiencing life as a laboratory.
Sacred Journeys explores four basic elements of whole spirituality: practice, inquiry, community, and service. Practice refers to a daily set of focused activities that align one with God’s love in the moment and throughout the day. Inquiry refers to the insight provided through “contemplative engagement with great writings, teachers, and experience.” Community is being part of a committed group of seekers “willing to witness the divine insight in one’s own life and the lives of others” and to find compassion and forgiveness and/or acceptance of the “other stuff.” Service refers to acting “wisely in all things big and small.” Sacred Journeys equips people to experience, moment by moment, the presence of God through relationships, work, recreation, and spiritual practice. It also encourages people to listen for God’s calling into ministry and service to others.
How It Works
The process starts with a six- to nine-week course that explores the four elements of spiritual practice, reviews the process’ fundamental objectives, and introduces the small group concept. At each session, the emphasis is on teaching about the practice, giving participants the opportunity to experience it, and, most importantly, showing how the practice relates to everyday life. To ground the practice’s tangible realities, participants consider how their lives might change if they engaged in the practice for 15 minutes each day. Going a step further, they imagine what things would be like if everyone at All Saints—or society at large—practiced that same discipline.
The sessions are fairly structured. Each opens with music and prayer. After refreshments and logistics, conclusions from the last session and assumptions about the current session are reviewed. A spiritual practice is introduced, along with an exercise to try it out. (These range from yoga to centering prayer to Examination of Consciousness, a form of simple prayer developed by St. Ignatius.)
A facilitated small group session follows to discuss what did and didn’t work. Though not mandatory, participants are invited to do assigned journal exercises. They are encouraged to note lecture ideas which, when presented, elicit a strong reaction; which ring true and which do they find annoying? This awareness helps pinpoint areas that participants may want to explore further.
Once participants complete the introductory sessions, they may choose to continue in one of three small groups, each with a different emphasis: study and reflection, spiritual practice and healing, and discernment of vocation. The Study/Practice Group focuses on developing a rule of life that includes daily spiritual practice. Scripture and other spiritual texts are used in a “nondogmatic exploration of what it means to be a follower of the way of Jesus in the 21st century . . . Hearts, minds, and bodies are engaged in the practices of the group.”
The Community (Way of the Heart) Group “uses the foundational practice of heart-centered listening to explore how spirituality is manifest in relationship to others.” Case studies from spiritual communities such as the Catholic Workers, Quakers, and engaged Buddhists provide examples of communal work and worship. The group incorporates aspects of these communities as they select and serve in a community service project.
The Service Group supports members in discernment of their vocation. All members of the church, be they lay or ordained, are called to ministry in all aspects of life. This group focuses on the themes of vocation and God’s call: listening, discerning, and committing to and meeting the challenges presented by a call.
Sacred Journeys is not a process to be taken lightly. Throughout the experience, members are asked to commit to attending all sessions, assuming a regular daily practice, and to “listening and speaking from the heart.” Participants commit to the continuing small groups in three-month intervals. Now in its third year, some of the small groups have continued to meet; others have disbanded.
Flexibility is Key to Success
Anne Peterson, senior associate for leadership and incorporation at All Saints, explains that the program didn’t progress as first envisioned. All Saints provides incorporation programs through its Covenant Series. The Covenant I program is intended for newcomers preparing for membership or baptism. It includes an introduction to the small group experience and writing spiritual biographies. Covenant II focuses on church teachings and what they mean in an individual’s life. It leads to confirmation. The parish was originally looking for a Covenant III program to augment the Covenant I and II programs. Covenant I and II are “past and present tense” programs focused on helping the participant address “How did I get here? Where I am now? This is what I believe.” Covenant III would be a “future tense” program centered on “Where am I going?” and “How am I going to get there?”
The first group of Sacred Journeys participants was very diverse and brought a confused set of goals. Some wanted to focus on spiritual practice while others were expecting a Covenant III experience or personal discernment. So
me participants hadn’t completed the prerequisite Covenant I or II classes. One of the program’s strengths is that it honors flexibility and diversity. Duggan and Cornell adapted their original concept to accommodate the participants’ different expectations. The result was a series of introductory sessions for all participants followed by three different small groups for further exploration.
“Sacred Journeys would not be a ministry open to new leaders, flexible in its programming, unless it was organically structured, ‘organic’ in its grassroots development from within the congregation, its crossing the boundaries between parish ministries, and its being connected to the core of the parish’s mission,” says Duggan.
Sacred Journeys didn’t end up being All Saints’ Covenant III program, but that doesn’t seem to matter. The church will find another way to meet that need.
A Practical Theology: Lay-Led Programs Don’t Just Happen
Sacred Journeys is inspired, created, and managed by lay leaders. It may seem remarkable that such a program exists, but it is just one of more than 60 lay initiatives offered at All Saints Church. “All Saints is constantly giving the message about the sin of clericalism,” says Rector J. Edwin Bacon, Jr. “We emphasize the importance of baptism as both a rite of inclusion and of ordination. Through baptism, everyone is initiated and ordained into the priesthood of Christ. Lay folks are just as powerful as deacons, priests, and bishops.” He reinforces that theological grounding every chance he gets—in sermons, small group training, weekly announcements, incorporation classes, and in as many other places and ways as he can.
Those theological words translate to an image Bacon offers as an example of practical theology: thirty brightly covered tables displayed on the church’s front lawn after each week’s services. Staffed only by laypeople, these tables invite parishioners into various forms of ministry. Each week a different ministry is given prominence. This ministry is mentioned in the liturgy, and a descriptive flyer about it is attached to the worship leaflet. The day a particular ministry is featured, its table is given a prominent place on the lawn. “That table image,” says Bacon, “is totally dependent on the creativity and prayer life, the courage, and the imagination of laypeople. When All Saints was founded, there were no lay ministries. Twelve people got together with a priest, a prayer book, a Bible, and bread and wine.”
People come to All Saints from a variety of faith traditions and experiences. Some are ardent evangelicals while others are agnostics. Disenfranchised Roman Catholics worship with former Baptists. Few are cradle Episcopalians. All Saints expects much from its members and shares much of the responsibility for ministry. This leads to a creative, enlivened congregation where inspiration and initiative are rewarded with the opportunity to implement ideas into ministry. Consequently, many creative people are drawn to the church, further enriching the diversity and initiative of the congregation. “Membership at All Saints is not a spectator sport,” says Bacon. “We encourage people to assume responsibility and ownership of ministry. We live out the idea of two or three gathered in Christ’s name in small groups. All Saints is ‘small-groupified.’”
Lay Ministry is More Than an Idea
To offer Sacred Journeys, Duggan first discussed the idea with Rusty Harding, All Saints’ director of incorporation, who oversees programs that welcome and integrate members into parish life. Harding and Duggan discovered that they had been thinking along similar lines, and Harding shepherded Sacred Journeys through the process of becoming a new ministry.
All Saints takes its commitment to lay ministry seriously. In the three years since Sacred Journeys was initiated, the parish has put a rigorous review and approval process for new ministry initiatives in place. The proposed ministry must be presented to a staff member by at least two parishioners. If acceptable, the staff member helps the lay leaders develop a working plan (including a mission statement, objectives, action steps, and budget requirements) which is presented to he management staff. Once approved by management, the ministry may move forward.
The lay initiative proposal is considered in the context of the All Saints mission statement, foundational values and current strategic plan, which are available for review on the parish Web site. Leaders proposing ideas must be pledging members and be vetted through the small group office. They must complete leader training and be approved to serve. Bacon concedes that the process can be demanding, but is not so rigid that there aren’t some ministries that haven’t been through the process: “We don’t have any desire to create a ‘ministry’ police.” Creative ideas and initiative seem to take precedence.
Harding describes the inherent tension that All Saints experiences between traditional Episcopal hierarchical structures and bottom-up leadership that emerges from the laity. At All Saints, there are different interpretations of these structures and different concepts of the term “ministry.” The staff and parishioners live together with this tension as committed members of the All Saints community.
The All Saints culture is affectionately described as “creative chaos.” “God created the world from chaos,” Bacon says. “Chaos is necessary for creativity to bring forth the fruit of the Spirit. Chaos theory tells us that there is order in chaos. If you hang in through the chaos, wonderful things take place. I’d rather err on the side of chaos rather than order.” Some people thrive in this environment, and others leave, seeking a smaller, more structured environment. “That’s fine,” Bacon says, “My interest is in promoting the journey of faith, which sometimes takes people to different places.”
It’s not that All Saints doesn’t recognize the value of quiet or spiritual practice. It actively promotes participation in meditative small groups and developing personal prayer disciplines. Developing a daily practice of stillness, listening in quiet for what one hungers for, is important and necessary work. That work is not viewed as the responsibility of the church but of the individual supported by the church.
Bacon and other staff leaders know peripherally about the Sacred Journeys program. “I’ve known about it since its inception,” Bacon says. “I touched bases with the leaders at certain developmental points, offering them my encouragement. It’s a perfect example of how two inspired folks felt authorized to take up their lay ministry. It has borne great fruit.”
For congregational leaders thinking about doing more to support and encourage lay ministry in their congregations, Bacon recommends starting with discovering the practical theology of your own faith community (see the box on page 20). Learn about the history of your congregation, he suggests, and try to find examples of lay leaders assuming responsibility and authority. Refer to those examples again and again in sermons, worship, and education opportunities. Reinforce those examples with new teaching.
He also recommends developing a good training process for lay leaders and selecting leaders carefully. Be sure you can trust them—really trust them—to establish healthy boundaries in groups and manage those taking too much airtime. Train them to know the legal guidelines and your congregational policies for sexual and other misconduct.
Empower leaders so that they are equipped to lead, but not in a controlling way. Once this is done, communications and expectations are clarified, making it easier for staff members and lay leaders to work together. Lay leaders are supported when they raise an issue or present a new idea. Th
ose charged with authority can release their anxiety and stay calm through the confusion, trusting that the Holy Spirit works through chaos.
Finally, when hiring staff people, Bacon recommends putting them through an arduous interview process. Have them interview with the laypeople they will be leading. Embody your vision in all that you do.
He also suggests ministers be aware of congregational biases and preconceptions that could impede lay ministry, many of which are related to lay pastoral care. Most parishioners want or expect a ‘real’ minister to visit them when they are ill, in the hospital, or during a similar pastoral emergency. While recognizing that people do not intentionally hold onto old models of pastoral care, All Saints is always in the process of reminding its members that lay ministry can, at times, be best expressed through pastoral care. Healing and solace offered by laypeople may more closely resemble the hands and feet of Christ. Infusing this message and exploring hidden biases or expectations before the pastoral crisis makes lay pastoral care—and other forms of lay ministry—easier to implement.
Preparing for Lay Ministry
All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena, California is just one example of a congregation that has embraced lay ministry. The following guidelines, drawn from recent Alban research, will help you think about lay ministry in your congregation. The full report is available through the Congregational Resource Guide (www.congregationalresources.org).