Congregations need to rediscover their spiritual centers

August 4, 2008

"What do you need most from your church?" In one typical survey, four out of five Episcopalians replied, "I want food for my spiritual hunger."


Another study discovered that, although many people volunteered to serve on their vestries hoping to enhance their spiritual growth, at the end of their terms they frequently went away disappointed because they had experienced only a secular "Roberts Rules of Order" mentality.

Unless such "Martha" churches can make room in their busyness for a rediscovery of their spiritual centers, they risk losing energy and a sense of relevance to their lives. In the Alban Institute's Congregational Spirituality research, it became clear that not only individuals but also churches have a spirit, often hidden, that can be uncovered.

Some found this spirit revealed in their diversity -- a gift that can inspire members to discover: "We're being called upon to be a model that 'all may be one!'" Some parishes discovered a more incarnational kind of social activism, flowing naturally from a congregation's being in a way that's deeper than a job or a principle.

Or church leaders can learn to really trust members to live out their ministries at work, at home and in their communities, strengthened by their participation in parish life. A busy congregation can be a "Mary" as well as a "Martha" church when it uncovers its hidden spirit and lives out of that holy, given ground.

These learnings become practical in the book describing the discoveries that emerged from the research in "Uncovering Your Church's Hidden Spirit" (Alban, $14). We found ways to identify and interview the "sages" in each congregation -- and, in doing so, uncovered the church's gifts. We then found paths that can move us into discernment: Given these gifts, how is God calling us now?

In "Discover Your Spiritual Type" (Alban, $17), Corinne Ware helped interviewees describe their own spiritual experiences. Do they encounter God primarily in a speculative (intellectual) or affective (heartfelt) way? Is their spirituality apophatic (sensing God as mystery) or kataphatic (knowing God as revealed)?

Answers to these questions pointed toward types for the individuals and churches. In our study, we could see that not only is every person uniquely engaged in a life journey, but every congregation is, too.

One way to receive the benefit of the perceptions of people outside the congregation would be to team up with another parish:

  • Find a nearby church with similar interests in discernment.
  • Consider surfacing the lay spiritual leaders of the congregation by using the questionnaire in Chapter 10 of "Uncovering Your Church's Hidden Spirit."
  • Design a training session on interviewing (perhaps using the section "The Process of the Interview" as a guide) and then let each participant interview someone in the other parish, teaming up to listen for that church's gifts.

If you decide that your church needs to undertake this discernment without any external assistance, use the suggestion in the book (page 106) about journaling prayerfully in response to the interview questions, and share your responses with one another.

There is no one right way. But you can discover the way that will help your parish to discover its unique, hidden spirit.

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