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Response to dreaming about Spiritual formation

Dreaming Together About Spiritual Formation

I'm writing this in the New Orleans airport where I'm waiting to meet up with 13 other people from our congregation who are coming on a later flight. We're going to spend the next week working on some housing rehab projects in Diamond, Louisiana, working with Mennonite Disaster Services. I am bringing my laptop along so that I can blog about our experience this coming week, as it happens.

But while I'm waiting here with free wifi in the airport, I thought I'd try to write down a few thoughts about our dinner conversation last night where we attempted to dream together a little bit about the future of our spiritual education/spiritual formation work at KC, and possibilities for partnership with the Servant Leadership School in Washington, D.C. I invited all the members of our Church Council, our Spiritual Education Leadership Team and our Outreach Team to squeeze around a couple of tables at my house, and then invited Fred Taylor (the Chair of the Board of the Festival Center, where the Servant Leadership School is housed) and Elizabeth Branner (the new Director of the Festival Center) to join us.

There's more background to this story than I can really relate here, but suffice it to say that KC and the Servant Leadership School have a long history of parallel and intertwined development. The two organizations have both held that small group gatherings, where there is both content taught and a great deal of participation and response, are essential to adult Christian formation and discipleship. The "classes" at SLS and KC (and most of the Church of the Savior communities) aren't just discussion groups or support groups. There is content to each class--be it about scripture, or a theological or ethical issue. But most of the class is spent hearing short "papers" which each participant has written about his or her own responses to the content of the class. So the classes never become too impersonal, too "heady". They have a way of going deep, going right to the heart of an issue.

But there is one big difference between the Servant Leadership School and the spiritual education program at KC: the SLS is not connected to any single congregation. It was founded by the Church of the Savior, but it is an ecumenical organization, and it attracts people who are members of all sorts of churches and of no church at all. At KC, although the classes we offer are open to people from outside our community, by and large it is people from within our church who participate.

At one point in time, KC had an extremely involved program of classes, including a requirement that four or five of them be completed before a person could become a member. People speak of these classes with great fondness--it's what helped them to form an adult relationship to their faith, to go deep on their spiritual journey and connect deeply with other members of the congregation.

But the community has always been a small one, and at a certain point in its history, it go to a point when just about everyone had taken all the classes who was ever going to take it. It just didn't seem worth it to offer the classes for the one or two new people who wandered in each year. And some people who had been teachers died. Then, the minister, Jerry Goethe (who had been one of the church's most enthusiastic and effective teachers) retired. And for a number of years, the Spiritual Education program kind of went into remission.

When I arrived, people still talked about the classes the church used to offer, but classes were offered only rarely. People weren't really that interested in teaching classes themselves, and for a while I was a bit concerned that I was expected to design and teach multiple classes myself (something that could easily take up half of my time without growing the church). But I had an idea--maybe we could partner with the Servant Leadership School to form a northern suburbs branch. Florence and I went down to DC to sound some folks out on the idea, and got a flat no. Why? The SLS is an ecumenical institution, and it cannot affiliate with any one church without risking its relationship with all the other churches to whom it is related. I was disappointed, but I understood their point perfectly.

But then, last fall, I noticed that something was changing at SLS. The board was engaging in a number of conversations about the school's future with Church of the Savior churches. I made contact with the chair of the board, Fred Taylor, and suggested that KC might also be a conversation partner. And so began a series of conversations with Fred and I, ultimately resulting in dinner last night.

The conversation was cordial and interesting, but at the end of the night I didn't have any clearer sense than I did before about what the spiritual formation is going to look like (at KC or at SLS) in the future. Fred described the board as wanting to re-think the work of the school in a number of fundamental ways, including moving towards having sattelite schools in a number of locations. Since the school is committed to being very contextual in its content matter and its teachers, this could mean a wider audience, and a wider range of topics.

But a couple of questions held us back from diving into this vision and dreaming about what it might mean for KC. One question was asked quite pointedly by Roger: "If our goal is to help people to be faithful, we have to first ask, faithful to what?" Can we really come together on a project that has at its heart a call to a deeper level of commitment to Christ when we aren't really sure what that means in our current context? Fred referenced Brian McLaren's work on the various Jesuses he has known over his lifetime. Which Jesus are we inviting people to follow?

For me, this is the crux of the problem with doing anything ecumenically. It is hard to get one congregation to agree on an answer to Roger's "faithful to what?" question, but in my experience, it's nearly impossible to get a group of churches to agree on this. In fact, it tends to be one of the ways in which churches work to distinguish themselves from each other. But, if we aren't looking at an ecumenical future, we'll be putting a lot of time and energy into preaching to the choir at KC. And, as someone pointed out at dinner last night, the choir is getting to be a pretty small percentage of the world.

The other question that I thought held us back last night was more implied than stated. What is success? Elizabeth was quite impassioned about her belief that in order to move forward into the future, we have to be willing to be experimental, and we have to be willing to fail. I absolutely agree, but I also think we have to be willing to succeed. In fact, I think it can be helpful to have a bold vision that you are trying to step towards. But as soon as we start talking about our call to be a "counter culture" we start to worry if our desire to affect people's lives is really just a desire to be popular.

Fred made an interesting comment towards the beginning of our conversation that I woke up this morning thinking about. He said that a vision has to be expressed in terms of positive steps. So while we may all want to end poverty, that statement doesn't function well as a vision statement. Rather, we need to say, "We want everyone to earn a living wage," or "We want everyone to have affordable, safe housing."

What do we want? We talked last night about how people don't know the Bible well anymore, how people don't have a sense of who Jesus Christ is and what it means to be his disciple. But I didn't get a clear picture of the positive future vision that the Servant Leadership School has begun to embrace. And while I heard lots of dreams about a possible future for KC last night, I didn't get a clear sense of the vision of our group around the table, say nothing of our congregation.

So I'm left remembering Bonnie P's comment in the middle of our discussion. "I think there is a new vision of Spiritual Education emerging in our community," she said. "It's happening in the conversations Ruth has helped to lead with members of the Muslim community." "But that's so small," Ruth responded. "I'm not sure it's really a call. Maybe its just something that happened a couple of times because a few people felt like it."

What do you think? Are we being called into a new, positive vision? Are we moving towards this call in small, piecemeal kinds of ways? What would it take--what would it cost--if we began to consider a call that is a bit more organized, a bit bigger, a bit scarier?


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Laura Shoemaker

The discussion with Fred Taylor on Saturday evening was an interesting one...particularly as a "new" set of eyes and ears in the community. I've spent the bulk of my working years in resource development (fundraising), and I recognize that the Servant Leadership School is working to develop a new model for financial sustainability for their vision. What was unclear to me in the discussion was whether that vision has changed (or more gently evolved or even been willing to learn) from the one that has become unsustainable in the model that "was."

I think I heard that we could partner with the Servant Leadership School and enjoy mutual benefit of expanded audiences...but audience for what?

Let me speak from a deep place in my soul. I hear the murmuring (in the biblical the Israelites in the Wilderness), in this community and in the world as a whole, about how the next generation does not know the Bible, how they do not sit on committees, how they do not join churches. I acknowledge that as a student at Seminary, I run with a slightly different crowd than the mainstream. But I do sense, deep within my being, that the "next generation" is hungry and knows more than they are given credit for. There is a new wave of young biblical scholars who are teaching the bible and teaching it well, in a way that applies, in a way that people are choosing to live in their everyday lives. There is a new generation of people living for the good of the whole, because it is good for the whole, not because it fits their parents' particular flavor of Christianity (or Judaism, or Islam). (Whoa, think about that...there is some power there).

KC was built on a vision...I think it was built on a vision of inclusivity, close community, nurture and carrying light into the world. That is still a powerful vision. Do we want to engage a next generation in that vision? If so, we need to think about doing it differently, while respecting core values and nurturing an evolving community of founders and new members.

Personally, this is the space and time and circumstances to which I feel called. I hope to be part of the conversation and to learn from and teach through the dialogue. I feel like Fred's proposition is a catalyst for casting vision.

Heather Kirk-Davidoff

Laura, thanks for taking the time to write such a thoughtful response to my post, and to our dinner. To me, it would be a shame if our conversation ended at dinner, and I think the blog allows us to keep talking in a way that can include everyone.

I agree with you that in order for churches or organizations to stay vital, they have to continually check back in with their core values, their core mission, and then think very creatively about how to communicate those values, how to live into that mission, in the current context. If the "what" is compelling enough (and the invitation to be radically transformed and transforming through discipleship to Jesus Christ is the most compelling "what" I know) then we are always going to be motivated to think in fresh ways about "how". It's when we're only connected to the "how" and have lost touch with the "what" that we are in danger of becoming attached to forms that aren't working anymore.

The funny thing about the conversation about spiritual education is that one of the things that both KC and SLS seem to know for sure is that the "how" they've discovered works. The class model we both use is flexible, powerful and transformative.

So WHAT do we feel called to do with that HOW? It's a funny question in a way, and it seems to me that it can only be answered by connecting more deeply to the WHAT of discipleship to Jesus. One of my mentors, Tom Bandy, says that before they do any planning, churches must be able to answer the question, "What is it about our relationship with Jesus Christ that the world cannot live without?" I used to think that question was too fundamentalist for me. I don't think that any more.

One thing that I think KC has going for it is that while people still have a strong value on knowing and loving the Bible, they aren't at all committed to "committees". Small groups that are willing to go deep with each other, yes, but committees--groups that are essentially operational in their focus--not at all. So we can keep experimenting, keeping shaping and reshaping our "how" until it feels like we've discovered something worth expanding.

Charlie Powell

Heather, I really like your quote from Bandy. "What is it about our relationship to Jesus Christ that the world cannot live without?" Thanks Charlie

Myeskia Coger

Heather, I too like this quote from Bandy. Let's discuss

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