A Sabbatical from Spiritual Community

Following was prepared for the writing group I am in.  The topic assigned to us was, “What’s most on my mind these days?” I chose to write about a discernment process Pat and I are in regarding finding a local spiritual community near our home in Milford.


Pat’s and my work in our respective spiritual communities has come to an end, or at least to a break. What will be next in the way of spiritual community for us? Anything? Is it time to explore? We decided to explore exploring, and our first exploring is with nearby churches. Considering traditional churches for our primary spiritual community is a major shift for us – we have been away from traditional church membership for fifteen years or so.

As a first venture, Pat and I decided to attend nearby (literally seven minutes from our doorstep) St. Thomas Episcopal Church. We made our first outing to the 8:00 AM service at St. Thomas on Easter Sunday (April 20). Parking was convenient. We were welcomed at the door. The sanctuary where the service was held is a lovely, warm, and a beautifully decorated space. We were surprised that there were not more people in attendance, this being Easter Sunday, but small attendance works for us.

As the service began I found the liturgy surprisingly familiar, familiar to me even though the church is Episcopalian and not directly related to my long history of Lutheranism. And, coming from her Catholic background, Pat was comfortable with the Episcopal service as well. We were greeted afterwards, especially when we shared that this was our first time at St. Thomas.  So our first church outing, after a 15-year absence, was a positive experience overall – enough to motivate us to go forward with our exploration of “traditional church” as possibly our next spiritual community.

Our second Sunday at St. Thomas Episcopal included the worship service and, having been personally and enthusiastically invited by a magnetic extrovert member and leader who tracked us down after the Easter service, staying on for something they call the Adult Formation Class. I loved the name – especially the words “adult” and “formation”!

So after the 8:00AM worship service on this second Sunday we joined those meeting for the Adult Formation Class. We were surprised and at the same time pleased that there were only 15 or so people in attendance. We were divided into three small groups of five people. The experience began with us all watching a short DVD – Marcus Borg’s Embracing An Adult Faith – something Pat and I were most comfortable with. The three leaders then gave us their respective views of Borg’s message – yes, they like this progressive message also! Their enthusiasm for Borg was very encouraging to Pat and me. For the last half hour of the class each of the three groups was left on its own to discus the topic.  This “discussion on matters spiritual” is Pat’s and my kind of thing! Before, during, and after the class we met a number of very interesting and spiritually inspired and inspiring people. So after this second experience we decided to continue our exploration of community at St. Thomas.

For our third Sunday at St. Thomas we decided to skip the worship service altogether and go directly to the Adult Formation Class. “Was this allowed?” we wondered – the worship service seems so central to any church, how could we skip it and still “belong” to the community in some way? We were working on the basis of participating in what feels right for us – and what felt so right was the small group discussion format – so we decided to start there. Confession: While we are not as sure about the worship service side of the church, I did order a copy of the Book of Common Prayer – one of the leaders, whom I thoroughly enjoyed, said this book would give us everything we needed to know about the Episcopal Church. I have it, now we’ll see if I read it. It is not drawing me much as yet — just not ready for formal church I suppose.

For our fourth Sunday we again skipped the worship service and went directly to the Adult Formation Class. The topic for the final Sunday in this Marcus Borg series was “Christian Community.” How perfect was that! At our small group table we energetically launched into sharing how each of us had experienced Christian Community during our lives. One of the leaders shared how much St. Thomas had meant to his and his wife’s Christian formation. Of particular significance to him personally was a four-year program developed by the University of the South, an Episcopalian University. The program is called EFM – Education for Ministry – and was offered at St. Thomas a number of years ago. When the four-year EFM program was over, although the group had truly bonded on a deep level, they did not feel a need to continue to meet. It disbanded. This surprised Pat and me. How could such a bonded community just disband after four years? We wondered, “Would not a few of them want to continue in such a rich community, at least on some basis?” But we also realize this is reality and actually  happened to most groups she and I have been involved in. I’m not sure why this is except people move in different directions over three or four years and need different people with whom to interact and grow.

At our table on this fourth Sunday another person spoke of St. Thomas’ work with Stephen Ministries – a one-to-one Christian ministry program. I was familiar with Stephen Ministries from my Lutheran days. It is a good church-laity-based outreach and support activity. But the folks at our table said this program, though popular and valuable for all involved, was mysteriously dropped at St. Thomas a few years ago.

“So what are the current programs of this type going on?” Pat and I asked. The answer was, “None, really,” unless you consider this Adult Formation Class as one such program, which Pat and I do. In reflection, however, there was something missing here that was present in both the EFM and Stephen Ministries programs – a committed ongoing group. We have noticed even over the three weeks we that we have attended the Adult Formation Class that attendance seems sporadic, not involving the same people week to week, or if there week to week, people have not been staying with their smaller group at their table week to week in order to really deepen their formation within a group setting.  Maybe this was by design (the leaders themselves move from table to table during the Sunday morning class, so this seems intentional) but Pat’s and my experience is that spiritual growth groups require commitment of a group of people who are willing to stay together to explore their spiritual journeys, at least for a number of months or even years.

Let’s go back to the question about what has replaced the two groups that were mentioned. The answer as to what has replaced the EFM and Stephen Ministries programs is not exactly “none” as it turns out. As we continued talking at our table we learned of other programs. In fact there was no limit to how much we could get involved with. We appreciated the enthusiastic welcome we got to explore further participation at St. Thomas.

But is this what Pat and I are looking for in the way of spiritual community? In the beginning we were excited. I am particularly interested in adult spiritual formation, both in groups and especially in one-on-one conversations – why wouldn’t I be, since this is what I have experienced these past 20 years in so many programs. But we want to discern this matter on a deeper level. So to what, if anything, are Pat and I really being called at St. Thomas?

In reflection after these four weeks I realized that I had experienced much of what St. Thomas offers in my earlier years at St. Paul Lutheran – attending and leading adult bible classes, serving as an elder – a role that involved getting out to help shepherd members on their journey,  participating in Marriage Encounter – including 15 years of small group couple’s work, evangelism, and many more roles. Yes, those were the days of my busyness – along with family responsibilities, career, and participation in other organizations.

I further realized that for the most recent 20 years, though this has been the most intense period of my spiritual formation, most of my spiritual formation process has been outside any traditional church.  These included things like the Lay Pastoral Ministry Program at St. Mary’s Catholic Seminary, Clinical Pastoral Education at Christ Hospital where I served as a Chaplain Intern, four or five small spiritual support groups – some of which I helped co-create, and a couple of them based upon the Group Spiritual Direction model developed by Rose Mary Dougherty at Shalem Institute of Spiritual Formation in Bethesda, Maryland. These were my passions and experiences between ages 50 and 58 – during which time I also kept up my busy participation in my local Lutheran church.  After leaving the church at age 57 my formation work was primarily that of Pathwork – five years of the Pathwork Transformation Program as well as the additional nine years of Pathwork group and personal growth work that I pursued – and this Pathwork passion included my love of the Pathwork Lectures – recording them and now developing a written Devotional Version.  And of course Pat has had similar experiences; and together we have our couplehood at the core of our spiritual growth work.

But how does all of this “post” and “outside the church” spiritual development work fit into possible roles at St. Thomas Episcopal Church? I realize the high level of commitment required for some of the programs Pat and I have been in these past 20 years – Pathwork for me and the Buddhist-based Awakening Into Presence program for Pat for sure, but also nine months of Clinical Pastoral Education, and the several years in the Lay Pastoral Ministry Program at St. Mary’s Catholic Seminary. Then there is the intense couples work we are doing with our counselors Sage and Anthony and the 1-2 hour morning coffee times with which we begin each day. Perhaps people do not have the time or perhaps the calling to such commitment to a spiritual program. Have such programs to which Pat and I have been so committed prepared us to fit into the needs and structure of St. Thomas? How could we serve St. Thomas and its members from offering some of our background experience? Or how would we grow from such participation?

To address these questions, one of the leaders in the Adult Formation Group, the one who tracked us down after the Easter service and invited us to attend the Adult Formation Class, was quite helpful and insightful. She said it sounded like Pat and I are in a sabbatical period of our spiritual lives. It does not seem time to jump into something at St. Thomas just now. She actually encouraged us to wait and see what emerges organically. She said this “something emerging” could be quite new to us and to St. Thomas. I find her wisdom, guidance and openness exciting! What, if anything, will emerge in the fall?

In any case, having tasted some of St. Thomas Episcopal Church, the invitation now is to relax and see what happens. The Adult Formation Class adjourns for the summer. How perfect. Pat and I will see how all of this comes together in the fall. But for now the invitation is to rest our minds and simply be present to what arises. So, “What is most on my mind these days?” Hopefully nothing. Just wait. Just wait.

Shared in love, Gary