A Reflection on the First of the Last Meetings

The Research Team met last night for the first of the final two meetings. It was touch and go during the day since the first snow storm of the season decided to blow through town and dump 10 inches on us.

Attendance:

There are 18 team members total.

Those present represented 9 from Congregation A, 1 from Congregation B, 0 from Congregation C. 10 total present.

2 team members declined attendance due to the storm. Hopefully they can attend next Monday. 3 team members were out of town. 2 team members have dropped out of the team. 1 team member is unresponsive to communication.

Meeting Highlights

I spent the first few minutes of the meeting walking through the visual guide to our project via the Prezi I made. Everyone agreed that it accurately represented our project.

Then I simply walked through the questions I had previously sent to them via email.

The Questions:

  1. In what ways, if at all, did the conversation about the social/relational/entangled Trinity change the way you think about and/or practice spiritual formation?
  2. What part of the Deep in the Burbs Project surprised you, and how?
  3. What have been your significant take-aways from this project? In other words, what have you learned from this experience?
  4. How did Dwelling in the Word either enhance or deter from the project?
  5. If we were to do this project again, what would you do differently?
  6. What advice would you give to suburban ELCA Christians regarding spiritual formation in light of your experience in this project?
  7. What advice would you give to suburban ELCA pastors and ministry leaders regarding spiritual formation in light of your experience in this project?
  8. What questions do you think should be asked about the project that have not been asked in questions 1-7?

Everyone got to answer the first question. Then I opened up the next two questions for anyone who wanted to answer. I have not yet transcribed the session, but it will be interesting to go back and listen.

Here are some of my initial thoughts after the meeting, based on my memory of the conversation, not a thorough study of the transcript.

First, I feel like my research question was too confusing. One member said, straight out, that she is still struggling with how the social Trinity connects with spiritual formation. She added that her struggle is a big part of why it was difficult for her to journal.

Another indicator that leads me to think that the question was too confusing is the nature of the projects that were created by the team for Phase Two. The projects seemed, to me, to have little obvious connection to what one might typically think of as spiritual formation or Trinity. I raised this issue during the meeting as my answer to question #2, “What surprised you in this process?”

The ensuing conversation was lively and productive. It led me to, tentatively, name two possible explanations for the apparent disconnect between the question and the projects. The first possible explanation is that the Team members did not fully embrace and/or understand the question and, thus, created projects that they were either (a) already planning to do, or (b) somehow connected to one piece of what they thought might be related to the question, but ultimately struggled to make the connection. This is no reflection on the team, but is more a reflection on my choice of question and the wording of the question.

The second possible explanation is that the increased awareness and understanding of the social Trinity impacted them in a way that was far different, unexpected, and better than I had imagined it would. Rather than lead them to want to learn more about the Trinity (which is always my default mode) the conversations about social Trinity lead the team to see that spiritual formation is really about relationships, because God is relationships (or, what I would call relationality). The types of relationships in which they engage, and the understanding of relationship itself, shifted for the team members. Previously, their idea of a relationship was that of a transaction between two autonomous beings.1 They might have said, prior to the project, that we need to build relationships in order to get people to either come to church or accept the Gospel. Now, however, the team seems to understand that relationships are not an option in life, but are the primary essence of our being. We must, therefore, begin with relationships and see what God is doing in those relationships by engaging the neighbor and listening first.

As with all dualism, I think the answer to my question regarding the disconnect between the research question and the projects is a combination of both ideas listed above. It is true, on the one hand, that the team struggled to understand the question. Yet, on the other hand, in the asking and the reflective processing of it, space was created in us to reimagine ways of being in the world. The Spirit formed us in new ways. Is this not spiritual formation?

There is one other initial observation about the meeting upon which I would like to reflect. It was also a comment made during the question, “What surprised you during the process? One member said that she was surprised because she didn’t have a big “aha” moment during the process. She thinks it is because she has been exposed to my teaching in the past and this provided a prior framework to feel a natural connection to the social Trinity. She said the “aha” moment came during the Life of Jesus class that I taught in the Spring of 2012 when I talked about, (1) how God tented among us (John 1:14), (2) the Kingdom of Heaven is now and, (3) the difference between the dualistic Greek cosmology and the unified/integrated Hebrew cosmology. She further said that, because of that exposure, and other teaching she has had from me, the presentation of social Trinity simply made sense to her and gave her clearer language for something that she had already begun to process.

As I reflect on that, it draws me back to the sense-making sketch that I did on April 21, 2012 (see below).

Making Sense out of the Past

Much of the work that I believe the Spirit is doing in Congregation A stems back to an event called the Renew Weekend with Mark Scandrette in the Fall of 2011. A group of people did Mark’s Practicing the Way of Jesus (PTWOJ) book and the experiments therein for several weeks that Fall. Those experiments were designed to put into practice the practical teachings of Jesus. It emphasized action first, then sense-making/reflective thinking second. Then, in the next Spring semester (2012), I offered the Life of Jesus (a harmony of the Gospels) class that provided a Biblical/Theological framework for the experiences that they had in the Fall. Many class members had obvious “aha” moments as they were able to look back at the PTWOJ experience and say, “That’s why we did what we did!”

Many of the people involved in that process were the ones who volunteered for the DITB team, so they were primed for the Social Trinity piece. I’m not sure how this affects my research. Perhaps this familiarity skews my research. It is important to note that one member of the DITB team, who was not part of the PTWOJ experience, expressed a sense of an “in group” among those who had done the PTWOJ book that made it difficult for the “outsiders” to engage in the conversation. On the positive side, perhaps the realization that those who were in the PTWOJ found the DITB project more of a “next step” for them reinforces the idea that spiritual formation is a slow, progressive journey that requires a leader in spiritual formation who is willing to engage a congregation in the slow praxis of action-reflection-action that deepens and expands us over time. The DITB project was one piece of a larger thing that God is doing in, with, under, against, and for congregation A and me.

Reflections Toward Writing the Final Paper

Last night’s conversation helps me to better understand spiritual formation and might provide two lenses through which to write about it. The first lens has to do with the topic of conversion. I could first bring Schneiders’ definition of spiritual formation/spirituality into conversation with Willard’s VIM.2 Then, having established that spiritual formation is the ongoing process of self-transcendence, also known as conversion, I could engage the topic of conversion by discussing Fowler, Conn, and Kegan. Each of these authors note that the apparent end-goal of normal human development is the conversion experience that takes the individual beyond the Ego/Autonomous self and into the interdependent relationship with the Other.

The second lens through which I could engage spiritual formation has to do with the role of leadership in the process of cultivating spaces for spiritual formation to happen. The first lens, in discussing the natural process of adult development, suggested that conversion toward self-transcendence is the natural order of life as God creates it. I could draw an analogy from the seed (here I will borrow from the journal of one of the RT members) and note that the potential of life exists within the seed, but the seed must have the proper environment if that life is to break out and grow. I could tie this to the illustration of the Vine and the Indwelling of the Upper Room Discourse. I could also draw upon Roxburgh’s Missional-Map Making, Van Gelder’s Essence of the Church, Open Systems Theory, Brookfield’s use of Habermas’ Communicative Action, and my experience in the DITB project to suggest that missional leadership is called to create spaces, and allow for surprises, in which the Spirit can bring to life the self-transcendence, thus the spiritual formation, of the church. The relinquishing of traditional power structures in leadership is, in itself, a form of self-transcendence, and thus spiritual formation for the leader. I could further suggest that this process of cultivating and experiencing communicative action is the experience of the social Trinity, thus bringing the conversation back to the presenting question.

These are my initial thoughts following the first meeting. I look forward to the next and final meeting. Next Monday night the Project will be officially concluded and I will be left to write the dissertation!

Footnotes
  1. my words to interpret their meaning, not a quote []
  2. see this post to learn more []