How many times have you come home from continuing education events, laid your folders and notes on your desk, become consumed in the demands of everyday ministry, and—six months later—found those notes and thought, “Oh, I remember that event. What was it about again?” I’ve experienced that more times than I care to admit. How about you? These experiences—and the realization that congregational leaders often completely overlook the potential sacred practice has for leadership—set me on the pursuit of a more transformative approach to continuing education.

Looking For a New Way

With these observations in hand, I contacted Alban to see if they would be willing to create a new kind of event. Over the course of several months, we developed the outline for a series of six events that would address sacred practice and would move toward transformation through continuity, peer relationships, and accountability. We sought to help participants integrate sacred practice into the life of a congregation for the sake of renewal. Our intent was to find a way to move beyond one-time events to ongoing relationships, from expert-driven education to peer-supported 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.

With an outline in hand, I recruited a local leadership team to further refine the proposal. People from five denominations helped broaden and contextualize the proposal.  They were the ones who provided the name: Sacred Practice Leadership Series, or SPLaSh.

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. 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 two calendar years featured twelve prominent authors, theologians, and practitioners inviting us into conversation and reflection on the practices of vision, prayer, discernment, relationship, proclamation, and service. We explored 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 in which they wrestled with contextualizing what they were learning and developed plans to experiment with the practices in their leadership back home. We built accountability into the process by asking participants to establish goals for implementing each practice at home and to turn in a written report on their progress at the beginning of each event.

What We Learned

By tracking progress made throughout the series we found that the most significant change was a renewal of spiritual life and practice. Participants reported more time being spent in prayer and in encounters with Scripture, and lighting of candles at the start of meetings and other intentional reminders of God’s presence. 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 something of a surprise, participants reported that one of the most significant impacts of SPLaSh was in the area of personal growth. While the goal of the series was to impact the life and ministry of congregations, 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.

In a question about the various aspects of the series, the overwhelming majority of respondents were very 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.

When asked about the ongoing nature of the series, two-thirds of the respondents indicated that they were completely satisfied 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 in the final evaluation, but the progress that participants reported in implementing the practices at home indicates that the series did make an impact in ways that stand-alone workshops often don’t.

Continuing Education and Transformation

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 individuals and churches. But “the way we’ve always done things” doesn’t have to be the only way forward. Our experience with SPLaSh shows that continuing education can no longer be only about education. One of the things 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.

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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.

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The Rev. Dwight L. DuBois, MDiv, STM, is an ordained pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Having served parishes in Mississippi, South Carolina, and Iowa, he now serves as the director of the Center for Renewal at Grand View University in Des Moines, Iowa. The Center sees renewal as the ongoing conversion of the Church, through which we rediscover the ability to discern, proclaim, and participate in God’s redemptive mission in the world. In order to foster renewal, we promote discussion, offer events, and provide services for individuals and congregations. More information can be found at www.renewingchurch.org.

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FEATURED RESOURCES 

AL374_SM Gifts of an Uncommon Life: The Practice of Contemplative Activism  
by Howard E. Friend, Jr.

This book of ten essays is a breath of fresh air, a source of inspiration, a wake-up call, and a bold challenge for pastors, congregational leaders, and church members—both active and lapsed—who long for a new perspective, even a touch of creative irreverence. Howard Friend offers forthright, at times disarming, candor as he shares his personal pilgrimage of activism rooted in contemplation. Drawing on a range of stories from the Bible and his own lived experiences, Friend invites us to meet real people—pastors, leaders, everyday folks—who dare to dream a new dream, journey toward a far horizon, walk with tireless determination, and press on with awesome hope.

AL303_SM A Praying Congregation: The Art of Teaching Spiritual Practice
by Jane E. Vennard

“I believe that God is calling all of us into deeper prayer and is longing for our congregations to become places of prayer,” writes Jane E. Vennard. Pastors and others who want to develop their skills as teachers of prayer and spiritual practices will find in this book not only wisdom for themselves but easily accessible lesson plans, enabling them to share Vennard’s insights with others while infusing the activities with their own spirit and creative ideas.

AL310_SM What’s Theology Got to Do with It? Convictions, Vitality, and the Church  
by Anthony B. Robinson

Theology can be a loaded word for mainline Protestant congregations. It often suggests the dogmatic or implies fault lines for conflict. But when unleashed from its narrow academic sense, “theology” offers a powerful way to get at many of the issues that affect the health and vitality of congregations. Defining theology as the “core convictions” that help a congregation understand its common perspective and shared identity, Tony Robinson examines the problems that occur when congregations are reluctant to focus on theology and are unsure of their beliefs.

AL326 Humble Leadership: Being Radically Open to God’s Guidance and Grace  
by N. Graham Standish

Humble leadership, grounded in the teachings of Jesus, means recognizing that what we have and who we are are gifts from God, and our lives should reflect our gratitude for these gifts. It requires us to be radically and creatively open to God’s guidance, grace, and presence in everything. When we lead out of such openness, God’s power and grace flow through us. Standish helps us explore the practices and attitudes that make humble leadership effective leadership.

 

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