Sunday, March 31, 2013

Developing a Center for Spiritual Formation

Cherri Johnson has been developing the Ministry for Spiritual Formation for eight years at First United Methodist Church in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. See her amazing work at Scroll to the bottom of the home page for the link. Here is how Cherri Johnson describes creating the Spiritual Formation focus.

In truth, there was little pastoral support in the initial stages of ministry development. Our senior pastor was focused on education, evangelism, and service. But as the ministry flourished and grew, he became more supportive and affirming. The initial years of development were hard on me emotionally. With little affirmation, I had to rely on God and developing my own inner strength and resiliency. Fortunately, I had established a faith community beyond the walls of the local church. Mentors and spiritual directors encouraged and supported me and held me accountable. I still find these individuals and groups to be most instrumental and important in my own maturation.

The ministry of spiritual formation is becoming the leaven in the Bread of Jesus Christ—gradually forming and shaping the culture and ethos of our congregation. We are raising up spiritual leaders and empowering them in their calling. The ministry provides the container
for a committed core group to delve deeper into spiritual practice. We are enabling members to reach out into the world and become agents of God’s redemptive, saving grace.

I began to offer that which I knew best—one-on-one spiritual direction, contemplative worship experiences, walking and praying the labyrinth. Only a few people attended, and sometimes I simply “held the space” for God. However, some wanted to know more. They would ask: “What is this ministry all about? What is spiritual direction?” I responded, “When are you free? How about meeting for coffee?” I began to notice the deep hunger and need placed right before me—
the young father who wanted to parent as a more committed Christian; the young man who wanted to know more about spiritual direction; the women who were hungry for spiritual renewal. As I listened with the “ears of my heart,” God revealed the way. I offered classes on the language of spiritual formation—Exploring the Way, The Way of Blessedness,
The Way of Discernment, all from the Companions in Christ series. I offered book studies on the saints and mystics, including contemporary authors; and I began small-group spiritual direction. I publicized our many offerings in our newsletter.

A pilot group of young parents formed to explore Christian parenting in more depth and created a curriculum that included spiritual practice. I companioned a young man as he designed a curriculum for men. I began to offer spiritual life retreats. I assisted an older woman in
bringing her heart’s desire to life as we created a Life Mentoring (spiritual companioning) Ministry. In partnership with other denominations, the ministry brought in national speakers. The ministry began to offer opportunities for Centering Prayer and lectio divina. People responded positively; gradually and predictably, a “core group” formed. The spiritual hunger so evident in the beginning was now being satisfied.

From this beginning, a major ministry focus came into being: Two years ago, by the grace of God, First United Methodist Church blessed and opened the doors to the Center for Spiritual
Formation. The ministry of spiritual formation is now housed in a beautifully restored home situated next door to the main church building. Our programming and ministries are highly respected and are considered equal to all other ministry areas. We are now embarking on a
mission to help our congregation understand how education (Bible study), outreach (mission), and spiritual formation (spiritual practice and prayer) are integral to the vitality of the church and how these three areas working together can transform the world. We will launch a
new ministry of spiritual leadership, which we are calling Academy for Spiritual Leadership. This phase of ministry and discipleship is based on the Great Commandment, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself” (Luke 10:27).

It is essential that we, as the church, raise up more clergy and laity steeped in the practice of spiritual formation—accountable to their faith journey, with communities in which they can face their own shadow and do their deeper inner work. I believe this is the call placed on the emerging church—not simply addressing programmatic concerns but raising up and empowering spiritual leadership—clergy and laity committed to the deeper journey, leading others toward authentic transformation.

This in turn will transform the world in which we live.