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Uncovering Your Church’s Hidden Spirit

A woman sitting next to me in the pew stood up and said with feeling: “I don’t want just to believe in God; I want to know God. In this heartfelt exclamation during the sermon seminar, she spoke for many people. More people are coming to church saying they want to know God. They are on a spiritual search. And church leaders are wondering, “How can we respond to these searchers?”

In this presentation I want to tell you what we’ve learned about how churches can respond to deep yearnings like that of my fellow parishioner.

The Alban Institute began the Congregational Spirituality Research project because spirituality and congregational life are so often kept separate! The goal was to bring them together, to integrate the spiritual wisdom of The Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation with the Alban Institute’s learnings about congregations, fed by insights from the social sciences. The Alban Institute sponsored the research; Shalem leaders Tilden Edwards and Jerry May were consultants. The process of the research tried to bring congregational life and spirituality together. And that is what we’re going to try to do in this workshop.

The research intended to take seriously God-at-work in the life of the congregation. One advisor suggested that “we look at a congregation and contemplate its life in such a way that we come to know how God reveals Godself to its people.” Tilden Edwards suggested “asking the Spirit to show you what you need to understand.” “Spiritual” was understood to mean anything that speaks about the restlessness of our hearts, our yearning for or sense of connection with God, and that connection as we know it within the communion of our parish life.

The research intended to uncover this alive, evocative, immediately present yet slippery, hidden spiritual life of the congregation, to find out: “What are these people allowing God to do with them?” And so the action research was carried out with a variety of churches to try to find out more about the spirituality of congregations. The churches in this action research project included Ascension, Silver Spring, St. Thomas’ Parish, St. Peters Poolesville, St. Patrick’s, and Ascension Lexington Park. [footnote: all of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington] These churches became our teachers.

What Is Congregational Spirituality?
Congregations do have a discernible spiritual identity, we will learn as we hear the stories of these churches. Just like people, congregations are unique. Your church’s spirit is not unlike your individual spirit: the core of who you are-where you really live, where your heart is, your history with God, who keeps calling you back and calling you out to do the work you’ve been given to do. In the book of Revelation this corporate spirit is addressed as the “Angel” of the church. Not only is every person uniquely engaged in a life journey, but so is every congregation.

Now I’m going to tell you some stories about two of these congregations that give us some hints about the hidden spirit of a church and its voyage of discovery. All the churches taught important lessons. But to keep it simple, I’m going to tell stories of just two churches. In between the little stories I’ll give you some short meditations, which may help you think about your own church and pray for some hints about your church’s hidden spirit.

I suggest you take a couple of minutes to journal after the meditations.

Congregations may be strong at the broken places
Let’s look at journeys “through deep waters” at the Church of the Ascension in Silver Spring, and at St. Thomas’ Parish on Dupont Circle. The Church of the Ascension discovered new life after a large number of parishioners left. When a leadership lock was opened up, committees that had been headed by the same people for decades needed new leaders. During that time Silver Spring had become even more diverse, so suddenly a very diverse group of people sprang up in leadership positions all across the parish. People said they experienced this diversity as “exciting.” It “adds to life’s beauty.” They said “God is revealed” through this diverse community gathered. As the rector [pastor] put it, all these diverse people ” are yoked together on the same plow team.”

St. Thomas’ Parish experienced a literal rising from the ruins. It was a successful, established downtown church, with a beautiful building and a wonderful organ. Franklin D. Roosevelt had been a member of the vestry. Early one morning in 1970, the church burned to the ground. The fire had been started with gasoline from unknown arsonists. Was it a hate crime?
One leader, Hal, said, “the people who stayed, stayed for reasons other than buildings and prestige and social status, because there was no building, there was no prestige, and there was no social status.” They decided to make a park out of the burned sanctuary. They found the buildings weren’t all that important- it’s the worship and the spirit. They said, “The fire cleansed us.”

[Light a candle. “You may use the candle as a focus, or just close your eyes.”]
Take a deep breath, right down to your middle.
As you breathe out, let all tension flow out.
Sitting aware on the edge of mystery,
Envision a burnt out forest making room for the beginnings of new growth…
With God as your companion, consider Hal’s words:
“The fire was a tragedy in many ways,
It was a blessing in others….”
Have you and your church ever lost something
and then found something that, as you looked back,
seemed very precious?

Let your mind go back over a painful place
in your own church’s life.
Has any strength been given to you through this time?
Is more healing needed?

Take a few minutes to journal, if you like.

“We’re called to be this place where diversity works.
The people interviewed at Ascension and St. Thomas’ said they experienced this diversity as “a sign of a healthy church.” They said participating in an inclusive community is “exciting” and “adds to life’s beauty.” For them, “God is revealed” through this diverse community gathered.

At St. Thomas’ Parish, people told how they experience the corporate spiritual energy in their gay/straight community. A gay visitor said, with surprise: “This parish accepts us, embraces us.” A straight leader told me about his experience: the gay/straight community “really has broadened my humanity. And dealing with these people as human beings, and seeing their strengths and their humanity, and their sameness and differentness with me, has been a very moving spiritual thing.” People see this experience as a transcendent reality, a gift. And this gift becomes a call: as one leader said, “I think we’re being called upon to be a model.”

At Ascension, the gift becomes a call, too: Annie, an African-American leader, sees Ascension’s diversity as a key to the community’s calling : “Ascension is a very inclusive church, respectful of difference at the same time as we try to be the one community. With the changes in the demographics of American society, where people are going to have to accept leadership from all kinds of folks, Ascension is a good example of how this can work.”

Take a deep breath, right down to your middle.
As you breathe out, let all tension flow out.
Sitting aware on the edge of mystery,
With God as your companion, reflect:
Do you notice any “energy from diversity” in your church?

As you listen to people, do you hear anyone speaking of an experience like
“seeing God in the face of [the other]”? Do these experiences hint at a call for your church? (Journal if you like.)

How does our church support people’s ministries?
People in these churches value their church participation as a way they can step back and be strengthened for their ministries on Monday morning. As one member of a parish says, “I go to church to be patted back into shape.” At Ascension ministry springs from the corporate spirituality of the congregation. This ministry is expressed not only in church but through the individual ministries of the parishioners outside the church doors.

Perhaps your church supports ministries.

— by keeping the church work transparent ( we can see through the church work to our daily calling)
— by encouraging laypeople to look at how our participation in the congregation affects our spiritual growth, the way it nourishes us to meet other demands-to “fight the battles of life.”

Take a deep breath, right down to your middle.
As you breathe out, let all tension flow out.
Sitting aware on the edge of mystery,
With God as your companion,
picture the people leaving the altar of your church,
walking out the door, and returning to the ministries in their daily lives
at home, at work, and in the community.
What do you see, as you follow that image?

Do you have a sense of how those ministries might spring from their congregational participation ? Of how your church might equip people to walk back out the door into Monday morning?

Being the church in this place
These churches in the study cared about nourishing their members for their individual ministries in the world. And they also cared about “being the church in this place.” Their ministry is not just about individuals, it is a corporate ministry.

St. Thomas’ Parish is the formal name of their church. Parish is a name that speaks about the church here in this place. St. Thomas’ cares about being the people of God in and among the people of the neighborhood. They care about including (in fact being) diverse people-not just caring for them. Last year, for instance, St. Thomas’ joined with St. Luke’s, a larger African American church, three blocks away, to explore racism. St. Paul would have been right at home with this attention to “being the church in this place.” He knew that churches are “relational” — he spoke of churches on the one hand as “The church of God” and on the other hand as “the church of a certain place–the church of Rome, or the church of Capitol Hill.

Take a deep breath, right down to your middle.
As you breathe out, let all tension flow out.
Sitting aware on the edge of mystery,
With God as your companion, consider:
Do you have any sense of how your church is gathered by God to “be church in this place”?

Now I want to sum up our quest for our church’s hidden spirit, so far:

These stories show some ways churches can uncover their hidden spirits…
— In their stories of death and resurrection, as they suffer and discover new life, finding themselves “strong at the broken places”
— As they see Christ in the face of the other, and find difference not a threat, but a richness
— These churches uncover their hidden spirit as they find that this gift of diversity may become a sense of call–perhaps a calling to be a model.
— They find their hidden spirit when they pay attention to how their people walk out the church doors after Sunday services and go back to their Monday morning life at home, at work and in the community, when they pay attention to shaping a life IN church that helps people carry out their ministries OUT of church.
And these churches uncover their hidden spirit
— When they deeply know themselves as the church in this place -Dupont Circle,Capitol Hill, or __________ (right here).
— When they are living their lives as the Church of God in this place.

You have been thinking and meditating about the hidden spirit of your own church. At the same time you have been getting in touch with the gifts of your spiritual community. Now I’m going to ask you to think about this question: (in small groups, if appropriate-perhaps small groups from the same parish. The leader might gather those who have no fellow parishioner present.)

What are the gifts of your church, given by God?
What has been coming to you in your meditations and journaling that might be called a “gift” God has given your church?

(After small groups) Next we will want to ask: Do any of these gifts imply a call? Because God has given our church this gift, what might God be calling us to do?

You’ve made a great start, if you begin to have a clearer sense of our gifts as a parish

(If several churches are represented in the group, hand out copies of this design. “Here’s what we have done this morning. You could have a workshop like this with a group in your church.”)

Part II of Uncovering Your Church’s Hidden Spirit
…will give you some help on the next step–discerning
— Who are we called to be?
— Where are we called to go?

Part III of Uncovering Your Church’s Hidden Spirit
… will offer more practical help from the research, such as
–How to uncover your church’s lay spiritual leaders
–How to do interviews to discover your church’s gifts
–How to use Story in the discernment process
and more.

Blessings on your way!

What people are saying
about Uncovering Your Church’s Hidden Spirit:

Gerald G. May, Senior Fellow, Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation, author Will and Spirit, The Awakened Heart (HarperCollins) and other books: Celia Hahn not only reports the results of an excellent and careful study on congregational spirituality, but also offers a very readable, wise, and highly practical text for people interested in exploring this area with their own congregations. I find her insights about spiritual companionship for congregations to be ground_breaking, and am certain they will do much to deepen and enhance the experience of the real meaning of “church.”

Charles M. Olsen, Author, Transforming Church Boards Into Communities of Spiritual Leaders and Discerning God’s Will Together (with Danny Morris), The Alban Institute: Celia Hahn is helping church folk to go one step deeper in their quest for a spirituality of depth and meaning in congregational life. She respects the personal expressions of spirituality but moves to the communal. Based on the detail of her in_depth work with specific parishes, she takes their real life, history, and context seriously as she seeks to discover a church’s inherent spirituality. Then she moves on to show how that particular DNA of spirituality can be deepened.The methods that she used in the spirituality of congregations research project have not been hidden under a basket, but are presented in such a way that consultants, researchers, facilitators, and teachers can access them. But the methods are not limited to use by outside professionals. They can be accessed by pastors and lay leaders for use in their own congregations. If you are looking for signs of God’s presence in corporate life, this book will point you in a fruitful direction.

Corinne Ware, D.Min., LMFT, Asst. Professor of Ascetical Theology, Episcopal Seminary of the Southwest, author of Discover Your Spiritual Type and Connecting to God, The Alban Institute: Celia Hahn brings together her passion for churches with her experience in spiritual direction and creates for us an exciting model for church discernment. The growth she cares about is spiritual and its focus is on the unique gifts of a congregation. This very readable book tells stories of several parishes, each with its own spiritual history and promise. From these stories we learn how we, too, may be nurtured into a richer corporate life.This is not a one_size_fits_all programmatic blueprint but a fresh way to actively foster the spiritual gifts of each church. Full of narrative examples, the book will equip you to approach your congregation in a new and creative way.

The Rev. Donna Schaper (Pastor, author of books and articles, former UCC Conference Minister): What Celia Hahn has already done with the topic of authority, she now does with the topic of spirituality and the parish. She listens deeply to a variety of congregations and finds out what they are doing right. She then codifies and categorizes their assets in a way that makes these assets accessible to all. Spirituality in parishes is putting God first and being God led. She almost makes it sound simple.

Review & Commentary