I am working on Certificate of Spiritual Direction at Aquinas Institute of Theology and am writing a research paper on Spirituality and Congregational Transformation. In part, I am wondering what spiritual practices enable traditional church folk to become open to change in their congregation, and engage in relevant mission with Millenials, the “spiritual but not religious”, and others who are disenchanted with institutions in general and organized religion specifically. I interviewed two pastors who have led successful transformations in a congregation, and also worked as consultants to help others do the same.
Both consultants said that the lay leaders, as well as the pastor need to be engaged in their own spiritual practices on a daily basis. There are a whole variety of spiritual practices across denominations and cultures, but the most important ones include some form of the following:
• living in the Word or Bible study
• living in community—like a small group—where honesty and vulnerability are expressed, and genuine love and active care for one another is experienced.
When the pastor is willing to be appropriately vulnerable in sermons and teaching about his or her own challenges, the lay leaders are more willing to do so in their small groups, committees and teams. This kind of heart-to-heart culture in a congregation is what fosters authentic community, which is the basis for a mission focused on sharing God’s love with others.
These spiritual practices and the genuine community that grows from them, help people realize that the church is not an institution, a building, a certain way of doing things, a power structure, a place where we consume services, or a place where we get what we want, but rather, the church’s purpose is to share the life-changing love of Jesus Christ in and with their community and the world.
When congregations are asked what they want in pastor, they usually list off skills: preaching, leading worship, pastoral visitation, teaching, administration, and so on, but they never mention spiritual practices or depth. After hearing this list of non-spiritual functions, one consultant then tells church boards that they are missing the most important question to ask a pastor or pastoral candidate: “What are you doing to deepen your relationship with Jesus, so you can help us do the same?” The board members’ response usually is, “isn’t that assumed?” And the answer is, “no!” Pastors spend a lot of time doing the tasks to keep the institution functioning rather than focusing on their own spiritual life and equipping the laity in deepening their relationship with Jesus.
It turns out that the only path of congregational transformation is the same as it is for personal transformation in the faith: spending time with Jesus in prayer, in Bible study, and in community so that we are continually drawn out of our self-focus into the love of God, and the mission of the Gospel to transform the world.