A Thick Description of the Deep in the Burbs Research Project

I have introduced the Deep in the Burbs project as a story and have promised to write in a narrative style, always keeping the RT in mind as a primary audience. Chapter two provided a theoretical and theological framework for how and why the story is being told. The purpose of that chapter forced me to lean heavily toward the academic end of the stylistic continuum. Chapter three allows me to swing in the opposite direction and simply tell the story. This chapter provides a thick description of the project itself. I will use the metaphor of a life-cycle to describe the experience: conception, gestation, birth, life, and death.

Conception

The DITB project happened because I had a hunch. First, I had an experience, and then I had a hunch. The experience happened in the Spring of 2012 during Dr. Simpson’s doctoral seminar called Trinity and Mission at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota. Simpson exposed us to the twentieth century conversation around the Trinity and the debate regarding the relationship between the economic Trinity and the immanent Trinity. Many theologians argued that it was essential to the life and future of the church to reconnect the economic Trinity to the immanent Trinity. They argued that God is essentially a social community—the three persons of the Trinity—from which all things exist, not a being that is completely separate from creation.[1] This theory has been called the social Trinity. Dr. Simpson summarized the proposal in the title of his article, “No Trinity, No Mission.”[2]

I had heard many missional church authors refer to the mission of the Triune God—missio dei—and its importance, but I had not yet seen how essential the Trinity is to the missional imagination for the church.[3] The social Trinity also ignited a paradigm shift within my core passion and research topic. I realized that, not only is the Trinity essential to the missional church in general, it is also essential to spiritual formation. I began to understand that spiritual formation is not simply the internal, personal relationship that one has with God through the practice of spiritual disciplines. Those things are good and right, but not necessarily primary to spiritual formation. I began to understand that God is the ongoing relationship of the three persons of the Trinity. It is from this dynamic relationship that all life exists, and our very essence is the fact that we are in relationship to all things. Our interconnectedness to all things—relationality—is our primary essence from which our individuality exists. Therefore, our spiritual formation is as dependent upon our interaction with other people, and all things in the universe, as it is on our private, personal devotions.

This was my experience of a massive paradigm shift. That experience led to a hunch. If I had that kind of transformational experience by interacting with the social Trinity, it is plausible that other people might have a similar experience. My hunch went a little further. If I am correct, and the social Trinity is key to understanding spiritual formation and the missional church, then introducing lay people to the social Trinity might prove catalytic to igniting a missional imagination in the local church.[4]

Thus my research question was conceived. By the end of the summer, 2012, I had framed the formal question: How might an increased awareness and understanding of the social Trinity impact the ideation and praxis of spiritual formation in ELCA congregations?

Gestation

I spent the next several months (June, 2012 – October, 2013) refining my understanding of the question and planting seeds of the idea with the other pastors in my synodical conference. The dean of our conference invited me to informally share the question and the project ideas with the pastors during several of our monthly pastor’s lunch gatherings. The feedback I received from these conversations provided encouragement to proceed with the project within my own context.

The official proposal was presented to the GTE administration at Luther Seminary in October of 2013. I intended to form a participatory action research team comprised of members from three suburban ELCA congregations. One of the congregations would be my own (Ascension Lutheran) and the other two would be from ELCA churches located in two suburbs adjacent to my own. Five congregations that fit that criteria. I reached out to all of them and found positive responses from two.

I began discussions with the associate pastors of Bethlehem Lutheran and Calvary Lutheran in November of 2013. The pastoral staff of each of these congregations agreed to support my project and to help me recruit people from their congregations. I visited with one men’s small group at Bethlehem Lutheran and presented to three adult formation forums at Calvary Lutheran. I also presented the project to the church council at Ascension Lutheran. I supplied graphics and bulletin announcements for each church to run advertisements during December 2013, and January-February, 2014.

I also built a website for the project at www.deepintheburbs.com. I built the site for three reasons. First, I initially needed a place where I could place the recruiting video, information, and registration forms for prospective team members to view. Secondly, I would eventually need a place where the team members could interact in a safe, online environment. I constructed the site using WordPress[5] along with two plugins: Buddypress[6] and Membership.[7] These plugins allowed me to create a protected online forum through which the team members could communicate privately.

The third reason I constructed the website was to have a medium through which to publicly share my research. I posted my book and article reviews, posted papers and articles I wrote that related to my research, uploaded illustrations or animations I created to communicate ideas, and blogged my personal research journal entries throughout the course of the research project. It all stands as public record.

The first intentional use of the site was to house the recruiting video and registration form so that any potential team member would have immediate access to the project proposal. This method proved effective and I was able to recruit eighteen people for the Deep in the Burbs Research Team.

The Team is Born

The members of the RT shared several characteristics. First, they are all white, middle-class, and have at least some college education. Most of them are college graduates. The majority of the group started life in a rural context and moved to the suburban context either in adolescence or early adulthood. Most of them report that they had a small town and small church experience as a child and have found the suburban context to be a big change. They are all either gainfully employed, a homemaker in an economically stable household, or are retired from a successful career and are financially stable in their retirement. Many of them have been Lutheran their entire life. Some of the group began life in either a different Christian tradition (Catholic, Baptist, and Methodist), or had no church upbringing. Each of them currently actively participate in an ELCA mid-west, suburban congregation, located on the outer edge of a Midwestern metropolitan area.

Table 1. The Demographics Of The Research Team

Ascension Lutheran Bethlehem Lutheran Calvary Lutheran Combined Team
·  10 members:            7 women, 3 men.

·  1 member age 30-40

·  5 members age 40-50

·  4 members age 50+

 

·  4 members:           4 men.

·  4 members age 50+

 

·  4 members:           4 women.

·  4 members age 50+

 

·  18 members:            11 women. 7 men.

·  1 member age 30-40

·  5 members age 40-50

·  12 members age 50+

 

The Life of the Project

The project consisted of three Phases. Phase One began on February 24, 2014 and ended on May 4, 2014. It included eight meetings, each two hours in length. I audio recorded each meeting with a digital flash recorder, transcribed the recording using Express Scribe, and typed it into a Scrivener document. I distributed a PDF copy of the transcription to each team member via email so that they would have access to the data and review them as desired. During these meetings we discussed the topics of Spiritual Formation, the dynamics of suburban life, and the Trinity. The goal of these meetings was to imagine projects/activities that the team members could do from May – October that would try to reimagine spiritual formation in the suburbs within the imagination of the social Trinity.

Phase Two began on May 5, 2014 and ended on November 9, 2014. The team members engaged in various projects of their own design and produced qualitative data through the following media. First, they journaled and either posted their journal entries on the team forum on our website, or they emailed their journals directly to me. Second, they interacted with each other via the discussion forum. Third, we held one meeting on August 24, 2014 to provide a check-in and an opportunity to update the team on their individual progress. This meeting was audio recorded, transcribed, and distributed to the team via PDF document.

Phase Three consisted of two final meetings and some emails sent among members between the meetings. The first meeting was on November 10, the second was on November 17, 2014. The group discussed their final reflections on the project. The conversation was guided by seven questions that I distributed to the team prior to the meetings. We tried to discern what God was doing in the midst of the project and what we think the next steps should be for each congregation.

I received and compiled the data throughout the entire course of the project and entered it into Scrivener initially. In August, 2014, I purchased a twelve-month license for NVivo and transferred all the documents into this program. I spent September-November carefully reading all the data and following the qualitative coding guidelines in Charmaz,[8] looking for themes that might emerge from the data.[9]

Phase One

Session 01 – February 24, 2014

Description

The first team meeting was held at Bethlehem Lutheran. I took Peter Block’s advice and paid careful attention to how the room was set up and how I asked the questions.[10] I arranged the room like this: three tables sat in the corners opposite the main door. A circle of 18 chairs sat in the center of the room. I packed the chairs close together and left a single gap for entrance. I placed the consent form, a blank 1/2-page ruled notepad, and a pen on each chair. There was a small table against the wall, next to the entrance, which had an assortment of snacks: a veggie tray, pita chips with hummus, fresh-baked chocolate chip cookies, and enough mini-water bottles for everyone to have two bottles. I also placed an assortment of colorful markers, post-it notes, and a large piece of paper on each of the tables. This added pops of color to the room. Finally, I stuck three pieces of paper to the wall, opposite the entrance, upon which was written: “Spiritual Formation” on the first, “The Trinity” on the second, and “The Suburbs” on the third.

People began to arrive. It was fascinating to watch how it played out. The first two to arrive would not enter the circle. There were no chairs at the tables, but they stood closer to the tables, even after I invited them into the circle. More people arrived. I stood just outside the door to the room, so that I could see the door from the outside that led into the hallway. I greeted them by name as they entered, invited them into the room, and handed them an index card upon which I had hand-written their contact information and their ID number. I think they felt very welcomed and set at ease.

It was not until more than half the people entered the room that they began to take their seats in the circle. I was in the hallway, so I’m not sure who made the first move. Eventually we were all seated in the circle. I made my chair fill the entrance gap. The circle was complete. Everyone was equal, and there were no empty chairs.

There we were. Three congregations, facing each other for the first time. Interestingly, the members of the congregations all sat next to each other. The three men from Bethlehem were at 10:00 from my 6:00. The four women from Calvary sat at my 6:35-9:00. The folks from Ascension sat to my left and from 12:00 – 6:00. I thought it would be interesting to see if the sectioning continued in the following weeks.

I asked a Peter Block invitation question to begin: What led you to accept the invitation to this team? I answered first and then we moved to the right, allowing each person the chance to say whatever he or she wanted to say. Fifty minutes later everyone had spoken and I could sense that the Spirit was present and everyone was encouraged and excited.

We took a quick break, stretched, got some snacks and then reconvened in the circle. I quickly explained the process of participatory action research. I tried to incorporate some things that I heard the people say into my explanation. I’m trying to demonstrate active listening and co-creation by doing so.

Phyllis said that one reason she came to the team was because she wanted to learn how to listen. I told the group that listening was a key to the PAR process. Phil said that he was interested in seeing theology put into practice. I used that statement to introduce the praxis cycle. I said that the action research cycle goes like this: We gather together around an issue, we create a new possibility for addressing the issue, we do something, then we reflect on what we did, do something more, then reflect on that, and so on. Even having a conversation is an action, so we will continually be stopping to critically reflect on what is happening.

We then moved into a Dwelling in the Word. I briefly described the process. I added a new element, in light of the fact that we are researchers. I asked everyone to write in their journals what they heard their partner say. That way I can have a written record of everyone’s responses, and do not have to rely on the audio recording, or feel the need to have everyone speak to the large group.

I read John 14:15-24 out loud, twice. Next week, I told them, I would invite one woman and one man to read the text out loud. We then broke out into our dyads to practice active listening. I gave them three minutes per person. Time was getting away from me, so I decided to invite three dyads to share, and then we moved on. I have learned from experience that the first time of Dwelling is never earth-shaking. We listened, and then we moved on.

I asked everyone to stay where they were—in the dyads—but to take a moment to be attentive to what is happening inside of their own skin.[11] I told them that we are here to learn to listen to God, to each other, but also to ourselves. I asked them to take a few minutes to reflect, in writing, in their journals about how they are feeling at this point in the process.

While they were writing I handed each of them a playing card. I had selected six cards from three suits earlier in the day. This method of randomly handing out the cards made for a quick way to mix the group into three tables. I simply announced that the spades were at this table, the hearts at this table, and the diamonds at this table. They assembled at the tables, and then I asked them to do another individual reflection exercise. I asked them to describe their own personal practices of spiritual formation. They had five minutes to write.[12]

Sharon has pushed back on the term spiritual formation from the beginning—even when we were talking when I was inviting her to consider joining the group. She spoke up in this moment and said, “Shouldn’t the term be spiritual growth?” I used that as an opportunity to tell the whole group that we are purposefully not defining terms right now. I think that we will discover that, through the conversations—having left the terms open-ended—we will eventually come to definitions naturally.

The groups did the final project at the tables. I asked them to draw a grid with four quadrants on the paper. The columns were labeled “hopes” and “fears.” The rows were labeled “community” and “personal.” I defined “hopes” to be the possibilities we think can become reality for spiritual formation. The “fears” are the obstacles that we think stand in the way of those possibilities becoming reality. I asked them to either write on the paper itself, or use post-it notes to fill up the quadrants.

Jarod reported one group’s findings to the large group. Then we were out of time. I prayed for the group. Told them all how excited I was, and sent them on their way.

After the room cleared, I took pictures of each grid on the table and stored it in Evernote. Everyone turned in his or her personal journals. I captured each page in a separate Evernote note for each person. I kept a digital record of all the hand-written documents.

Reflection

I will use this session to reflect on the issues of the suburban context that the team articulated. Pat beautifully named the suburban issues that reflect the assumptions I bring to this research. She said,

I grew up in a small town. Very unlike the suburban atmosphere. Church was central to life where I was from. It is very disconnected here. I really don’t have any family close by to depend on. When I look at my neighbors, they all seem to be very disconnected, too. I look at my kids and my kids’ friends, the people they associate with. My kids grew up in sports; a lot of baseball, soccer, football, hockey, golf, whatever, they played it. There was a lot of contention with practices on Sunday mornings, practices on Wednesday nights. A lot of decisions about what do you forego. Is the choir concert more important than the game tonight? You know, decisions that need to be made. People make those decisions differently? It’s very different in the suburbs than it is in a small community where you have that core that everything is built around. In the suburbs there are so many choices and so many alternatives. So many pressures being put on, especially, young people; as to what they should do, what they should pursue, the amount of time they should spend doing what. And the fear on the part of the parents. I remember—[directed to Tiffany]—you’ve got young kids—you’re going to be making choices about how much time you’re going to let your kid play hockey, golf, soccer. Are they going to play all year? How much time are you going to dedicate to that? Are they going to miss church, or miss Sunday school? It’s all those hard choices that people have to make. At the time it’s going to seem like a life or death decision to you. Which it really isn’t, but at the time it seems like it, because everyone is afraid that if you miss a season you can’t play any more. You’re going to be out, you’ll be cut. I think it’s mostly the young people that drew to, because it’s those people that you know. Even those kids that grow up in the church—they get baptized, they get confirmed—once they get baptized and confirmed, they’re gone. You may never see them again, until maybe they have a kid that has to be baptized. We need some way to connect to them and get them to stay. Even adults, their parents, there’s so much pressure, so many different things to be involved in to do, and so much juggling. It’s really hard for people to get their priorities and to get them straight.

The RT listed their hopes and fears regarding spiritual formation in the suburban context. These data represent core issues for the suburban congregation.

Table 2. Hopes And Fears For The Suburban Context

Hopes Fears
Community •   That more are saved.

•   Bringing people to Christ.

•   Less greed in our community.

•   Support for the lonely and those need.

•   Churches of all denominations united.

•   All united.

•   All welcome.

•   More service—hands and feet idea.

•   More resources put to work for kingdom purposes.

 

•   Judgment

•   Denominational finger pointing

•   Pressures on our time, especially on big church days like Sunday and Wednesdays.

•   Garage doors and fences.

•   Lack of interaction with the community.

•   Bad PR from our own flock

•   Bad past experiences within the church

•   Put me in a box.

•   Bad media image of church and religion

•   Busy schedules.

 

Personal •   Be a role model

•   Walk the walk

•   Openness and honesty

•   God is our strong tower, not the imaginary ones we build in our mind.

•   Being the hands and feet of Jesus.

•   Building a role model

•   Deeper intimacy with Christ

•   Knowing the Word of God from Old Testament to New

 

•   Busy schedules

•   Life challenges too much

•   Giving up other things the world says are important.

•   What kind of sacrifices will I be asked to make.

•   Self-doubt

•   Not worthy

•   Guilt

•   Family and friend opposition

•   I don’t want to be counter-cultural

 

 

Session 02 – March 3, 2014

Description

The second session was very similar to the first session. We met at Bethlehem again and the room was arranged in the same manner. We began with Dwelling in John 14:15-24 again. The focus of this session was to formulate definitions of spiritual formation. We followed the same 1-3-6 pattern from Block that we used in Session One. This time we asked the question: What is your definition of formation? Each person wrote their own definition in their notebook, then collaborated in a group of three to create a definition that represented the three voices, and, finally, met in groups of six to combine the triad’s definition. This process took the bulk of the meeting time. We briefly addressed the topic of Trinity, but I chose to leave that until the next session.

Reflections

The important data to report from this session comes in the form of the definitions of spiritual formation that the team constructed. These definitions will be used as a type of base-line ideation of spiritual formation against which the data from Phase Three will be compared.

Table 3. Baseline Definitions Of Spiritual Formation

1.     Spiritual formation is to form my life, my daily thoughts and actions, always at least trying to be aware of the Holy Spirit and ever-present Father. Not just when I’m doing church things, but in my thoughts, words, and actions so that one day it will be me and part of me without needing to think of it, forming my very being by the gifts of the Holy Spirit.
2.     A development of an intimate, personal relationship with God as demonstrated in our everyday lives.
3.     A practice to develop a foundation to understand a power greater than ourselves that shapes our core beliefs.
4.     How the Spirit manifests itself within me, and then presents itself from me to the world through action and word. It’s not a command to do that, but that it’s built up inside us so much that we just have to let it out. Because, we want the world to have what we have.
5.     It’s a process and a journey of spiritual growth and maturity in our relationship with the Trinity, and with our walk with the Lord, that results in a discerning of God’s call for us, and answering God’s call for commitment of action.
6.     The process of maturing in our faith through an ever-increasing awareness of our own spiritual relationship with God in conjunction with our relationships with people around us.
7.     A process and journey of growing and maturing in our relationship with the Triune God and with those around us that results in a discerning of God’s call through   commitment and action.
8.     An initial recognition that we need God to fill the void in our spirit and a continual surrendering to God which leads to a manifestation within us, and presents itself from us, to the world through action and word.
9.     The development of an intimate, personal relationship with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as demonstrated in my thoughts, words, and actions so this relationship will become an integral part of me.

 

My initial assessment of these definitions is that the team members generally understood spiritual formation to be a process in which their personal relationships with God were the priority. The social aspect of spiritual formation was either a secondary product of the primary relationship with God, or was derivative of that relationship. This observation is noted so that it can be used in comparison to the data of Phase Three.

Session 03 – March 10, 2014

Description

We changed gears in session three in two ways. First, we met at Ascension Lutheran, which changed the physical dynamic of the meeting. Second, I presented four videos to the group as a means of introducing them to the social Trinity. These were short, animated videos that I had created. All four videos lasted less than thirty minutes, combined. This was my chosen method of increasing their awareness and understanding of social Trinity.[13]

I chose this style of teaching for three reasons. First, I was trying to utilize my skills as an animator to create an interesting form of communication that would engage them in a unique manner. Second, by creating videos that could be posted online I was allowing the content to have a shelf-life that lasted beyond the scope of a traditional lecture/discussion forum. Third, I wanted to be as clear and concise as I could with the content so that we did not get distracted or derailed in a discussion forum, and thus lose precious time for conversation in our meetings.

We spent the rest of the meeting, after the initial Dwelling in the Word, in the following pattern: watch the video, time for personal reflection in notebooks, large group discussion, repeat. We did this four times, got through all four videos, and ended on time. I told them that this is the only time we would watch the videos together, but that they have access to them on the website any time and are encouraged to watch them repeatedly.

Reflection

I found the dynamic of this session to be very different from the first two weeks. In those sessions we began with intimate conversations in dyads and triads that evolved into the large group. Everyone had a chance to speak from the beginning. This session led people from passive watching, to personal reflection, and then immediately into a large group discussion. It almost seemed like a different group of people. They were very reluctant to talk. A few people spoke most of the time. Some people didn’t say one word. This experience helped reinforce the importance of Block’s 1-3-6 principle. That method allows everyone to speak and people feel empowered through the process.

The people who did speak fell into three voices. The first voice was that of Stephanie, Tiffany, and John. They embraced the message of social Trinity as expressed in the videos. They acknowledged the damaging effects of the hierarchies that emerged from the dualist universe and longed for the relationality of the fusion of horizons. The second voice was Phil. He was kind, but wondered if, perhaps there was a third worldview in response to the dualist one, and the modern one. He proposed that there was the world view of the risen Jesus. He also questioned whether theology is just the words of humans. Christian theology, he said, is the revealed word of God and the continual processing of the Holy Spirit. Emilee and Eleanor expressed the third voice. Emilee said, “Can’t we just embrace the mystery.” Eleanor also said that she really liked it when she was younger and everything was black and white. Now everything is gray and it is often disconcerting to her.

I posted the following journal entry in the Team discussion forum following this session.

I wonder if throwing that much information at a group of people who have not passed through the same slow, painful journey that I have in order to have these ideas, is more helpful or harmful. I realize that we are all mature adults, each bringing our own life experience to the experience of watching these videos, and that is a positive experience in itself. However, I think I am simply struggling with the messiness of the PAR process. This, once again, betrays my inherent positivistic bias and the instrumentalist reason that has dominated my conservative upbringing. I need to take a deep breath and let the process unfold.

Still, I am stuck as to where this should go from here. We’ve talked about spiritual formation for two weeks. Then we spent one session watching the videos—a bit like drinking from a fire hydrant. Now, we have three weeks left to “do” something with it. But what? How do I frame the questions in order to empower the group to co-create a new possibility?

Are we trying to reimagine the practices of spiritual formation in the suburbs? Are we trying to reimagine what church could be like in the suburbs? Are we wrestling with an abstract theological question and asking if it has any “practical” application in the suburban context?

What are some possible projects that they could do?

John emailed a simple response to my post, “We need to talk.” We did talk about it. He felt the post was very negative. He also felt that Session Three took a turn that was very different from the first two meetings. The first two meetings were all about the group constructing something together. This last one, he said, “you slipped back into your teacher mode.” Not that he minds that, but it seemed different from the intention of the group.

I posted that journal entry because I felt that, since this is a participatory action research project, I needed to participate. I wanted to be transparent with my sense of being stuck. Just as I was pondering these thoughts in my journal, Phil posted the following entry on the team discussion forum. He said,

I think that your methodology of team formation for future visioning and action is spot on correct. However, I also think that your attempts to motivate the team through doctrine of social Trinity (my own doctrinal misgivings to your presented view aside) are problematic at best. Doctrine doesn’t really ever motivate very well.

In both NT and OT times the people of God were motivated not by doctrine but rather by narrative. The narrative of God at work in the world of humanity was told and people were then invited to join in and become part of the narrative. There are hundreds of examples of this in scripture. What you need to do is tell a compelling story of what God has done and is still doing and invite the people to join in. If you tell the story well enough then the people of God will be delighted to join in and in that way become part of the narrative that God is telling in history.

I took this post to heart. I wondered if the narrative of how I felt God has moved me to this research project would be a narrative worth telling. I posted my story on the website for the Team to read. It is titled “The Story Behind the Question.”[14]

Session 04 – March 17, 2014

Description

The team met for Session Four at Ascension Lutheran for the second time. We did three things in this session. First, we moved to a new text and dwelt in John 15:1-17. I made a split decision during Dwelling. I decided to frame the large group conversation by asking, Think about what we’ve heard everyone say as they shared their partner’s word, and ask what we are hearing God say in regard to our research topics of spiritual formation, the Trinity, and the suburbs. I think this helped the conversation be more fruitful for our team’s purposes. It is amazing to me how powerful the framing of a question can be. Seven people were missing, so the dynamic was far more intimate. Everyone shared in the dwelling exercise.

Second, I presented a live version of my previous post “The Story Behind the Project.” This was the one and only time throughout the project that I ever made a lecture-style presentation. I mapped out my story on the black board and described the evolution of my understanding of the Trinity. This presentation opened up lively conversation about the nature and role of the Holy Spirit in the world today.

Third, we began preliminary conversations regarding taking action in our suburban context. I asked this question and asked the team to write responses in their notebooks: What is it about living in the suburbs that helps our spiritual formation? And also, hinders our spiritual formation….in the context of this conversation today?

Table 4. Helps And Hindrances Of Living In Suburban Context

Helps Hinderances
•     freedom and peace.

•     many small communities are created

•     neighborhood, especially those in newest ones where suddenly all are brought together

•     kid’s friends create social circles

•     kid’s activities create network for them and parents, = community can be supportive

•     shared focus or parent’s activities, networks, memberships create social communities

•     All these contact points can grow relationships which are supportive of individuals and community and may or may not increase spirituality

•     we’re fairly homogenous.

•     lots of churches/church communities that fit our needs/desires

•     Living here helps my spiritual formation because of the opportunity offered me of continued learning about God’s love and the presence of the Holy Spirit. This project you offered me has opened my mind and spirit to new ways of thinking. My church has led me to grow, although I am probably the oldest person in this group I am surprised at how these sessions have made me grow.

•     many churches in the area fairly close to home

•     a variety of churches that can help people find a “comfortable” place to worship.

•     some community already somewhat exist: school, sports teams, clubs, work, etc. How can we use the existing connections?

•     even church community, how do we wake up the “bench warmers?”

•     this is largely a quiet, hardworking neighborhood — law abiding!

•     This allows us independent thinking and decisions ability to rely on self independence.

•     I can follow GOD and not worry about what others think.

•     I have sufficient $, shelter, safety.

•     we don’t get to see those who are in need the most. We tend not to have interaction with those people.

•     long commutes for most (avg 20+ min, longest of metro) reduces family/social network time.

•     focus on material things, new house, furniture, clothing, etc. detracts from spirituality.

•     isolation as kids grow up and leave.

•     people who move in are not included as easily

•     “self sufficiency” – don’t need others.

•     arguments about social and political issues creates barriers

•     cliques – closed groups

•     how do I find a group of people

•     lack info/knowledge

•     we’re fairly homogenous

•     busyness

•     garage doors and fences

•     we generally don’t work where we live or even possibly go to church there.

•     Not living here might not offer this chance [to learn from this group].

•     focus on worldly possessions i.e. big house, big car, etc., etc.

•     busyness takes away time for God, church

•     all about “Me”

•     many are self-centered

•     suburbs are not as prone to see life’s difficulties/hardships as the inner city.

•     so disconnected ==> how can we use that?

•     How do I spread the Word to others where it makes a difference?

•     people commute to jobs

•     suburban people are materialistic

•     people don’t seem to have a sense of community.

•     seems each suburb is more centered around schools and their activities.

 

Common Themes
•     Social status and financial security creates freedom to choose to pursue faith if desired. Large variety of suburban churches from which to choose.

•     Homogeneity creates space for community and connection around common interests.

•     Distance from work/school creates long commutes and hinders family/social interaction.

•     Individualism/self-sufficiency.

•     Materialism.

•     Financial security (including focus on material possessions, single family homes, emphasis on homogenous “safe” neighborhoods) creates isolation and ignorance of social needs in the world.

 

We held a large group conversation regarding possible projects that we might do to engage in spiritual formation in the suburbs. I handed out a copy of two chapters from Practicing the Way of Jesus[15] and described how our congregation had engaged with this book two years prior. I offered this suggestion simply to prime the pump of a type of project they might consider.

Reflection

This session went better than the previous week’s, in my opinion. I had wrestled all week with how to approach this session. Phil’s words struck home with me. He reminded me that people are motivated by narrative, not abstract ideas. People seemed to resonate with my story. John, Tiffany, and Quaid told me afterward that people lean in to listen when things are presented like I did it. Stories captivate the imagination. Perhaps that is why Jesus told them so often.

Session 05 – March 24, 2014

Description

We met at Calvary for Session 05. It had snowed during the day. Big heavy flakes. It accumulated at least an inch. I was a little worried that it might keep the team away. That’s the nice thing the about March snow. It doesn’t last. The roads were clear by evening and the sun was shining when I pulled up to Calvary.

Calvary’s main entrance spans the width of six glass doors and opens to a cavernous, two-story lobby. A wide staircase leads from the doors straight up to the second level. Eleanor and Emilee stood on the second level, at the railing, and greeted me as I walked in. I felt welcomed.

I arrived at 6:35 and they already had the treats laid out at the end of the library. The room is narrow, but filled with padded armchairs and narrow conference tables. We pushed the tables to the side and formed our circle of chairs.

Pat was there. She was one of the first to arrive. As she walked up the stairs she said, “I have a suggestion.” She had a pink sticky note in her hand with “Mark Scandrette, Practicing the Way of Jesus” written on it. She wasn’t present at Session Four, and she was confused by the transcription, so she looked up Mark and watched some videos about the book and the resonate walk. She suggested that RT watch those videos. She had no idea that I knew Mark and that many of our team had already done the book.

The team arrived and there was great energy in the room from the start. The group truly seems to like each other. The feel of the night was completely different from the last two weeks, and infinitely better. I simply facilitated the conversation and everyone participated. This process felt more aligned with the spirit of PAR.

I changed the Dwelling exercise. Instead of the two standard questions about imagination and questions for the Bible scholar, I asked, What might this look like right here, in our towns? The RT reported that this question enabled them to picture the text more directly related to their lived experience.

I handed out the playing cards to randomize the groups again. We followed Block’s 1-3-6 principle again, and it works well. I asked the team to reflect on the past four weeks of discussion, and then write down some ideas of projects that they could do. Each individual had a chance to think and write. Then they gathered in groups of threes (some twos), and they were asked to share all their ideas, and then come up with their top two ideas to share with the large group.

I interrupted them toward the end of this conversation to take a pulse. I asked if they were feeling a) like they had all kinds of ideas and were really on a roll, or b) struggling to come up with something, and needing some idea prompts. Quaid said, “What about a ‘c’ category. We are done and ready to reconvene with the larger group.” The groups were evenly divided.

I had come to a decisional node. Do I give them idea prompts and risk manipulating the group into doing something that I want them to do, or do I let them come up with whatever they want, knowing that those who have ideas will help the groups that were more “b”ish? I shared my inner dialogue with the group and decided to bring everyone back to the large circle. John suggested that we share ideas in the large group and that might generate more thinking. I went with that at first. As the group was reforming the circle, I had a thought. If the whole group gathers, then only a few people will talk and that will be counter-productive. So, I verbalized that to the group and told them that we had come to a decisional node. Should we stay as a large group and pop off ideas, or continue to the groups of six and let it flow. We decided to continue to groups of six.

Reflection

The one thing that surprised and encouraged me during this session was how much the RT wanted to work together between the three congregations.

Table 5. Initial Ideas For Action Projects

This is verbatim of how the ideas were reported during the session.
1.     We had the idea of doing a community barbecue. Where we would invite the people in the community to come, and obviously we would have food there—possibly entertainment, but not necessarily. I don’t know, maybe we have great musicians among our members. We probably do. The idea there was entertainment, but it would have to be. It would sort of be an open, just let people get to know each other.
2.     We had an idea about possibly doing a tutoring thing, where we would have volunteers who would go into schools, or have kids come to the church, we talked about both ideas. To tutor kids. That sort of things. Lots of logistics with that one.
3.     Meeting as a group. Maybe meeting in one of the books, one of the Gospels, and like doing kind of like Mark Scandrette, doing a down-sized give-away thing. That benefits others that don’t have, and benefits those who have who don’t need it.
4.     Working with youth. Specifically like the homeless youth in Anoka county. The ultimate dream there, being, maybe something around having a spot for youth to gather, like a Christian coffee shop, or some place with music, that would be a spot for kids to be able to come, feel relaxed, and also have old people like us there so they could build relationships with people to mentor them. And if they’re missing parental figures, or, you know, mentors, that we could eventually form relationships with them. But we thought that might be the ultimate goal, but we’d start teaming up with Hope 4 Youth a little bit and saying, OK, what are they doing now. Is there things that we could help them with. Things that we could build upon. But, again, kind of a bigger dream there, with kind of a more tactical beginning.
5.     Sunday nights. Kinda smores or campfires, that would be very informal. And maybe it would be something, that, you know, each church did. Or, we do something in a park, or somehow have a…establish a routine and a rhythm, so people know that every Sunday night I can go here, and there’ll be people there, and s’mores, or some goofy thing, and the guitar, just to sit, and kinda build relationships.
6.     Before that, maybe we combine that a little bit and do like a neighborhood walk, like a Scandrette deal. Walk the neighborhood, kind of determine some needs. Then do that for a little bit first, then see if we can discern some things, and then go have kind of a communal campfire, music time, thing.
7.     Thought there was value in working together as a large group. You know, in the different congregations.
8.     We talked a lot about prayer as being a central thing, and even just forming a prayer group, for the needs of each congregation. And then, also within each congregation
9.     A concern of ours centered around the youth who are confirmation age, and their parents. So that, maybe even we start with a prayer group for those parents and the youth.

Commonalities noted:

  • Many team members want to work with youth (and the parents/families of youth).
  • There was a general wisdom to piggy-back on existing programs within the churches, rather than create something unique.
  • Many team members want to work together as congregations.
  • Prayer is important.

Quaid made an important observation regarding the project ideas.

Another commonality, as I’m seeing it, is it’s something we are going to do; something outside this group; something that can be measured; something that we can show. Well, what if we turned that inward, instead of outward. Let’s not think about out there. Let’s just think about right here. Just like I heard the ideas in our own group. I don’t know what the outward would look like, I’m saying I know what the inward would look like, but—this will be my little preaching—I think that’s where the Spirit is working right now. I think we are in a period of huge change. Where models from years, and even now, are not working any more. Or it’s not really where the Spirit is working. What if we inwardly started to look at ways that we as a group could start to pray, or discern, about where the Spirit might be working? And are there ways, or strategies, not to conjure up the Holy Spirit, but that the way this group could be a conduit. Whether it be a few weeks, months. I’m not sure. Again, I don’t know. I’m just saying…outward/inward.

Session 06 – March 31, 2014

Description

Session 06 was different than the previous meetings. We had come off of the first warm weekend of the season. It hit sixty degrees on Sunday, and that was glorious. It rained, but it was still fairly warm. I was pleasantly surprised to see almost everyone back. Kelly, Christy, and Pat were missing. 14 people were present.

Things shifted in this session. We did our dwelling in John 15:1-15 using The Message translation. People heard things differently. I presented this question for Dwelling: What do you hear God telling us to do tonight, in light of the task ahead of us? The task to which I referred was the fact that we needed to make a decision on what project to do.

Several people commented on how they sensed a need to shift from doing something that was very task/action oriented to doing something that was more being oriented. The need for prayer was a huge theme. I sensed that Quaid’s comments at the end of Session 05 had much to do with that shift. Quaid’s comments, combined with the fact that Stephanie met with Quaid to discuss the Dwelling, led Stephanie to speak out in a strong move in that direction. She mentioned Practicing the Way of Jesus, so I jumped on that. I proposed that this book could be a viable option because it combines the doing and the being.

Sharon spoke up and said she felt like an outsider when it came to this book, because some in the group had done it and others had not. We spent a little time discussing the book. Stephanie mentioned another book—7: An Experimental Mutiny Against Exess—as a similar option.[16]

Reflection

I was a little frustrated that night. We got all the way to the point of decision, and then backed off. We hit a leadership vacuum. No one wanted to insert himself or herself and make a decision. I struggled so hard to not say, “OK, here’s what you should do,” and then lay out a plan of action. I bit my tongue, listened, and felt unresolved.

Here are the things the team did decide:

  • Everyone wants to continue in the project.
  • They agreed that this group was powerful for them. The Dwelling in the Word with strangers from other congregations was a very meaningful experience.
  • They will meet again on April 21st for Dwelling, prayer, and further discussion on projects.
  • Everyone will journal over these seven months. The journals will be sent to me electronically. I asked them to ask the question: Where did I see God show up today?
  • There should be a prayer group for the catechism/Confirmation families. Emilee has a passion for that.
  • Rob is leading some initiatives with his Haiti group, and I told him that taking this project into that was totally valid.
  • We are unsure of what to do.

We tabled the decision-making until the next meeting.

Then there was the meeting-after-the-meeting in the parking lot. Eleanor expressed her frustration in not knowing the focus and purpose of the next meeting. Her linear, rationalist mind—as she put it—needs to know these things.

Heather made a really important comment. She said that one of the things she observes about suburbanites is that we don’t like conflict. Last week we were all so eager to stay together and work as a team, but this week, when it came time to push through to a decision, we so easily backed away and wanted to stay true to our local congregations. Heather had made a comment during the meeting that it is often through struggle, or conflict, that the greatest bonding happens.

Sharon made a comment at the end of the meeting, after we had dismissed, but before we left the room. She said that it was a lot of information crammed into a short amount of time. She feels like we are all still trying to process what happened two weeks ago with the whole Trinity presentation. That was so much information.

Rob also came up to me immediately following the meeting and wondered if we had drifted away from the Trinity piece. I sensed he was concerned for me that the project was going in a direction that was different than what I had hoped. I assured him that the project was designed to go in any direction the group took it. The research question looks at whether an increased awareness of the social Trinity would make any difference. The group didn’t need to necessarily do something specific with Trinity, but I want to see if the exposure to social Trinity will impact where and how they proceed over the next few months.

I sent this email to the RT following Session 06

DITB Team,

First of all, let me say, “Thank you, thank you, thank you!” for being part of this project and persevering through Phase One. We’ve passed that mile marker now!

I have a very special request, and the topic for your first journal entry. It is a multi-step process:

  1. Think about the moments immediately following the meeting Monday night: the conversations you had, the thoughts racing through your mind, the feelings you were having, that possible debate going in your mind as you drove home.
  2. Try to write down the experience from #1 as accurately as you can. Do this writing before you read the transcript from the session. That’s important, because I want you to reflect on how you remember yourself feeling during those moments.
  3. Read the transcript from Monday night’s session.
  4. Reflect, in writing, on any ways that your thoughts and feelings may have changed after reading the transcript and the passage of time since Monday night.
  5. Write down any thoughts you have about how the group should proceed between now and April 21st.

You can either post this on the forum for everyone to read, or, if you don’t want people to read what you wrote, you can email it directly to me.

I want you to know that all of this is part of the process. Life, and spiritual formation is a messy journey. My job is to listen to our group as we make the journey together.

Blessings and peace.

Steve

The email precipitated a great flourish of very long, thoughtful, and perplexed emails. This is the general summary of the RT’s feedback. First, everyone felt some level of frustration at the lack of unity and clarity at the end of the session. Second, many people felt that there was actual division amongst the group over two specific topics. First, there was apparent division between those who are more prone to being activities (prayer, specifically) and those who are more action oriented. Many RT members named this as the be-ers vs. do-ers. Second, there was segregation between the congregations. Several team members noted that there was not enough time to develop relationships that would hold the group together beyond the DITB project. When it came time to making decisions, congregational allegiance and familiarity won over research team cohesion.

The third observation is that there was a marked difference between how people thought and felt about the meeting before they read the transcript and after they read it. This is important to note because I think it indicates how powerful emotions are in the memory of an event. The team members left with a feeling of frustration, and found that this feeling clouded their ability to remember the many thoughts and options that were presented in the meeting. Eleanor said, “What an amazing difference of feeling!! Thanks for this valuable suggestion [to reflect before and after reading the transcript]. I feel much more encouraged and positive after reading the transcript and/or the passage of time.”

A Curveball

There is a sub-theme that wove its way into the tapestry of the DITB project that is appropriate to mention at this point in the narrative. Ascension Lutheran was involved in a process called Holy Conversations throughout the school year of September 2013-May 2014. The Holy Conversations were a series of meetings designed to create space for the congregation to discuss the issue of allowing same-sex marriages at the church. The State had legalized same-sex marriages the previous summer and, since the senior pastor had been asked, on more than one occasion, to perform such a ceremony, and the fact that there were actively participating same-sex couples involved in the church, the church leadership felt it was appropriate to travel this path of discernment. The Ascension leadership team decided, in May, to permit same-sex marriages. Several members of the RT were closely involved in the process and some of them fell on opposite sides of the issue. The tension created interesting opportunities to experience listening and other-oriented love in the process of our DITB project.

Not only did the decision impact the inter-team dynamic, it also impacted my own life and ministry. A single benefactor had financially supported me during my doctoral studies. The support of this benefactor made it possible for me to reduce my work load at the church to three-quarter time so that I could have freedom to work on the DITB project. My benefactor lived in another state and was a contact from my previous ministry. The decision to support and perform same-sex marriage was not acceptable to the benefactor, and my support was discontinued. I learned of this decision in the time between Session 06 and Session 07. Not only did I lose my financial support, my wife also decided that she could no longer be part of this church, so she left. She did not leave me, but, her leaving the church in which I serve placed a great deal of stress on me. These events sent me into a brief period of panic. How could I continue without that financial support? What would happen to the DITB project? How can I be a pastor at a church my wife no longer supports when ministry has been at the center of our twenty-five year marriage?

The congregation rallied and a group of anonymous donors pledged to cover the support that I lost. My wife and I came to an understanding that allowed us to disagree on this topic and each be OK with our decisions to stay and to leave the church. We have reached equilibrium in a new normal.

I bring up this topic for two reasons. First, the conversation around the decision, both leading up to it and the fallout after it, wove its way into the narrative of the data. Second, one running theme throughout the narrative is the constant encounter with apparent dualisms. There always seems to be two opposing positions on everything and people spend a great deal of time choosing sides. One of the things we learned through this process is that the conversations about the social Trinity reframed our imagination to believe that there is a third way between these apparent dualistic poles.

Session 07 – April 21, 2014

Description

The Research Team met again, three weeks after Session Six. Sharon arranged for us to meet in the lunchroom of City Hall. The room is not ideal for the community circle, since it is a narrow room with a long conference table filling most of the space. It created a different feel to the meeting, for me, because I was at the “head” of the table. This changed the physical map of power dynamics in the room. The previous experience of the group dynamics compensated for this, however, and things worked well.

The weather was gorgeous. The previous Sunday was sunny and in the 70s. Monday, the day of the meeting, was equally nice. The room had three windows, so we were able to see outside. That makes a big difference.

We started the meeting with Dwelling in the Word. It was a new passage—John 16:5-15. It focused on the Holy Spirit. I felt, coming into the meeting, that we needed to take some time to refocus on the purpose of the research. I knew the Dwelling would be important, but I was moved by this particular experience of it. My intention, as we started, was to have only three pairs share. When the first two were sharing I got the strong impression that we needed to hear from everyone. So, we did.

I was especially moved by Kelly and Stephanie’s insights. Kelly had just received a letter of condemnation that was written to her regarding the Holy Conversations. Jesus’ words to the disciples brought her great comfort. She is in a difficult position as the board president during this landmark decision-making process.

The Dwelling went for an hour. That left us only one hour to make decisions regarding the action projects. Then I made a decision that was, perhaps, a mistake. I felt so strongly that the group needed to refocus before making decisions, that I led them in another exercise that took a long time. I asked them to individually write down the answer to three questions. First, What are your practices of spiritual formation? Second, How does the Trinity connect to spiritual formation? Third, What might spiritual formation look like in the suburbs?

We finished at 8:40, leaving only 20 minutes to discuss projects. That’s when the meeting went downhill again. We ended up at the same place we did in the last meeting. One group wants to pray for the families of confirmands. They really want the whole team to do it. However, I knew that the whole team didn’t want to do that. I encouraged everyone, repeatedly, to not feel the pressure to stay together, but to go out and engage other people in the process. It is their reflection on whatever they do that is the data for this research.

Quaid moved to ask a protocol question. He and Jarod both led the group to decide to meet one more time. I promised that we would not do a dwelling exercise at the next meeting, but just “get down to business.”

Quaid mouthed to me, “It’s that tension between the inner and the outer.”

Reflection

I felt some tugs of embarrassment at the end of the meeting. I realized that people probably came to the meeting with the expectation that we would make decisions. Instead, we spent most of the time in the Dwelling and the “theoretical” realm.

The Dwelling was amazing for me. I felt God speaking to us through the process. However, I know that it is not that amazing for everyone. My self-doubt as a leader kicked in. Fortunately, I think I have matured enough, and have had enough experiences of success and failure, to not let something like that affect me too much. I have come to realize that every person is going to have his or her response to something, and that response is based more on what’s going on inside of him or her than it is about the reality of what I have done. I further realize that each person’s response changes as he or she continues to process the event.

Kelly came up to me after the meeting. I asked her how she was doing in the wake of the nasty letter. She had thought she wouldn’t come that night. She decided to come, and the scripture was exactly what she needed to hear. Something good came from the meeting.

I promised the group that I would post a new topic on the discussion forum. They promised to post their thoughts about the project they would like to do. This would make the next meeting more efficient.

Session 08 – May 5, 2014

Description and Reflection

We met in the City Hall lunchroom for the final meeting of Phase One. We did not practice Dwelling in the Word at this meeting, based upon the promise made at the end of Session Seven. I said, “We wanted one more night to get together to talk through and finalize what you guys have decided to do. And, I want to know which of you would like to take the lead to expedite this conversation?” Jarod volunteered and lead the conversation.

These are the ideas he listed on the board. Everyone agreed that these were the projects that various members of the RT would pursue sometime between that moment and November 10.

Table 6. Final Project Ideas Following Session Eight

1.     Breakfast or Pig Roast event open to community
2.     Prayer for confirmands
3.     S’mores or community bon fire
4.     Feed My Starving Children
5.     Hope 4 Youth
6.     Rallying the local neighborhood around a cause
7.     Befriender ministry
8.     Group Study of the The Book 7
9.     Fire Pit

 

I spent some time trying to bring closure to the group. I distinguishing the difference between practice and praxis. Practice is the habit of doing something repeatedly. Praxis is the process of reflecting on the practice. One can have practice without praxis, but not praxis without practice. We left that meeting ready to engage in the praxis of the action projects.

Phase Two

Emails, Journals, and Projects

The RT planned to engage in various projects from May through November. The team members completed some projects, and not others.

Table 7. Official List Of Intended Action Projects

1.     A prayer group for families of confirmation students – Emilee, Eleanor, Christy, Sharon
2.     A community pig roast – Phil, Rhet, Roger
3.     Trained in a befrienders ministry – Roger
4.     A reconceptualizing, or reconfiguring, of the whole adult formation curriculum that was based around Trinity. – Phil
5.     Sunday s’mores – Rob, Kelly, Tiffany
6.     Building a Haiti Mission team – Rob
7.     Study of the book 7 – Stephanie
8.     Engagement in Men’s ministry leadership – Jarod
9.     Connecting with neighborhood around service projects and issues – Jarod
10.  Group from outside of church regularly serving at Feed My Starving Children – John, Mary
11.  Journaling (as intentional project) – Heather, John
12.  Planning of the women’s retreat as a project to process these questions – Heather
13.  The Daniel fast – Heather
14.  Leading yoga classes – Phyllis

The team members were invited to post on the online discussion forum, and/or email their journals directly to me. Table 8 displays the number of interactions for each team member throughout the course of Phase Two.

Table 8. Digital Interactions During Phase Two

RT member Discussion Post email Total Interactions
Phil 0 39 39
Heather 3 25 28
John 0 26 26
Rob 15 3 18
Roger 0 11 11
Kelly 6 3 9
Jarod 2 5 7
Sharon 1 5 6
Tiffany 5 0 5
Phyllis 0 3 3
Mary 0 2 2
Quaid 0 2 2
Emilee 0 1 1
Eleanor 0 1 1
Christy 0 1 1
Rhet 0 1 1
Stephanie 0 0 0
Pat 0 0 0

Session 09 – August 25, 2014

The RT team met one time at Ascension at the end of August in order to have an opportunity to check in with each other. Suburbanites in the upper Mid-west tend to scatter during the summer. Many people travel to lake cabins on the weekends. Some take vacations and try to be outside as much as possible. I felt it was necessary to reconnect as a team before we re-entered the school year and the last leg of our project. We spent the entire session in one large group discussion that I facilitated by asking specific questions.

The first question I asked attempted to connect to the root of the research question. I asked the team to think about themselves prior to our first meeting in February. What were their thoughts about the Trinity at that time? Now, has anything changed in their ideas about the Trinity and how it might relate to spiritual formation? We had a richly textured conversation. Everyone reported that they have experienced significant shifts in their thinking about both the Trinity and spiritual formation. In both cases the shift moved toward a heightened importance placed on relationships and listening to the other.

The second part of the conversation centered around the projects. I opened up space for anyone to share specific ways in which the action projects had connected to our research question. I mentioned that I had a conversation with a pastor at a conference and told him about our project. He asked me to explain to him how a Sunday S’mores project connected to the social Trinity or spiritual formation. I pushed that question to the group. Again, the projects emphasized the priority of relationships in spiritual formation.

I spent time talking about how the social Trinity attacks our radical individuality. I argued that the three persons of the Trinity cannot be persons in the radically atomized way that we tend to understand the individual person; otherwise they would be three distinct gods. I attempted to reconnect the group to the relationality of God. Phyllis commented that that picture of God would be scary to people. Rob retorted and said that it might be scary to Christians who were raised on classical Western Trinitarian teaching, but to the general population—who is increasingly spiritual but not religious—it may resonate better with their ideas of “The Force.”[17]

Heather responded to my statements with a helpful corrective. She suggested that my model is based on a critique from a masculine perspective. She said,

We’ve lacked part of the femininity of God. I am wrapped up in relationships. Totally. So much so that it is almost a detriment. A woman is born a little bit more with this idea of who we are in relationship to everybody. I’m so and so’s daughter. And that was how I was defined for many, many years. I was even “Lyle’s sister” in high school. That’s what people called me. That was just a joke. But then, all those years as a single person. Because, I was too old to be my father’s daughter, but nobody’s wife, you know what I mean? I had to wrestle with this idea. I saw it in my woman friends who were so wrapped up in their relationships. They would even call their children their “reason to live.” That would make me think: What’s my reason to live? I don’t have children.

That’s part of the feminine side of humanity. And something that culturally, and our faith, has been so masculine. God has been so masculine, that now, when you were describing that. I thought, Oh, that’s exactly the part—the feminine part of God—that God is wrapped up in this relationship.

Phase Three

The third phase of the DITB project consisted of two RT meetings. The meetings were intended to debrief Phases One and Two and attempt to make sense out of what happened. We wanted to determine, as a team, what God was up to in this process. I decided to facilitate these discussions by drafting a list of questions. I emailed them to the team ten days prior to the first meeting and invited them to respond via email prior to the meeting.

Table 9. Final Questions For The Research Team

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?

Session 10 – November 10, 2014

Description

The RT met at Ascension once again. It was questionable whether anyone would attend, since the first snowstorm of the season decided to blow through town and dump ten inches on us. Two members chose to not attend the meeting, due to the storm. Ten members attended. The Calvary women dropped out completely. Eleanor officially withdrew and sent a nice email to let me know. She never completely recovered from her eye surgery. I think Emilee became discouraged and quietly dropped back. Christy struggles with health issues, so it is unclear why she withdrew. Pat simply disappeared. The men from Bethlehem were all engaged, but only Rhet was able to make the meeting. That means Session Ten was essentially an Ascension meeting.

I spent the first few minutes walking through the visual guide to our project via the Prezi I made.[18] Then, I simply walked through the questions I had emailed to the RT earlier that week. Everyone got to answer the first question. Then I opened up the next three questions for anyone who wanted to answer.

Reflection

I left this meeting with the following thoughts and feelings. First, I felt like the research question was too difficult. Stephanie said that she still struggles 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. She was stumped.

Another indicator that leads me to think that the question was too difficult is the nature of the projects that were created 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 the question, 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) struggling to make a connection to 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. The team all agreed that the biggest take-away from the experience was their increased awareness of the importance and primacy of relationships. The types of relationships in which they engage, and the understanding of relationship itself, shifted for them. Previously, they thought of relationships as a transaction between two autonomous beings. They might have said that we need to build relationships in order to get people to either come to church or accept the Gospel. Now, however, it seems like the team understands that relationships are not an option in life, but are the primary essence of our being. We must begin with the 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 is a combination of both ideas listed above. It is true that the team didn’t fully grasp the question. The truth is, I am left wondering why I even asked the question. Yet, in the asking, and the reflective processing of it, space was created in us to reimagine ways of being in the world and the Spirit formed us in new ways. Is this not spiritual formation?

There is one other initial observation upon which I would like to reflect. It was also a comment made during the question: What surprised you during the process? Tiffany said that she was surprised because she didn’t have a big “aha” moment. She thinks it is because she has been exposed to my teaching in the past and these things have already been cracked open for her. She said the “aha” moment came in the Life of Jesus class.[19] She further said that, because of that teaching, and other teaching she has had from me, the social Trinity simply made sense and gave her clearer language for something that she had already begun to process.

This raises an interesting question regarding my role in the RT and the fact that I have prior history with one of the congregations in the team. The Ascension members have taken classes from me and have listened to my preaching for a few years. They were primed for the social Trinity, even though they had never heard the term before the DITB project. I am not sure how this affects my research. Perhaps this familiarity skews the data. Or, perhaps, it reinforces the idea that spiritual formation is a slow, progressive journey that requires a spiritual formation leader who is willing to engage a congregation in the praxis of action-reflection-action that deepens and expands us over time.[20] The DITB project was one piece of a larger thing that God is doing in, with, under, against, and for the Ascension congregation and me.

Session 11 – November 17, 2014

Ten team members attended the final meeting. My advisor had asked me a cautionary question during the week between Session Ten and Session Eleven: How could I empower the team to lead? As I drove up to the building, I had a thought. I decided to divide the group into three small groups. I numbered them off 1, 2, 3, 1, 2, 3…around the table. The three groups were sent to different parts of the room. Each group was tasked to come up with a collective answer to each of the four remaining questions.[21] This allowed them each more time to speak freely than if we had held the entire meeting as a large group. The smaller groups came together with one answer per group, per question. Once the official reporting was finished, each team member had the opportunity to share his or her nuance to the reported answer.

The conversation that took place in this final meeting was complex and interesting. Each comment carried a sense of gravity that was not always present in previous meetings. Perhaps this heavier tone was due to the fact that these were our final words as a team. Each person attempted to capture the essence of what he or she had learned, and how he or she had been impacted by the experience. It is impossible, nor practical, to attempt a description of the conversation in this section. I have compiled the synthesis of each team member’s findings in chapter four.

The Death of the Team

All good things come to an end. Every life runs its course and gives way to the next generation. The Deep in the Burbs Research Team is finished. I am left with mixed feelings. I am sad that it is over, because, as I have stated from the beginning, this is not merely an academic exercise for me. The DITB was a spiritual formation exercise for all of us. We connected as human beings, and connected as congregations. The relationality of the experience impacted us. I believe we engaged in Trinitarian praxis. I am also happy that it is over. Reflective action requires a great deal of time and energy. Spiritual formation is not easy. It is time to rest from this specific project.

There are seasons in life. There are seasons to be focused and intentional, and there are seasons to be relaxed and to re-create. There are seasons to collect data and there are seasons to reflect upon and write about the findings of data. It is to this reflective and reporting task that we turn in the fourth and final chapter.

Footnotes

[1] See chapter two The Trinity Frame.

[2] Simpson, “No Trinity, No Mission: The Apostolic Difference of Revisioning the Trinity.”

[3] See chapter two The Missional Frame.

[4] It is important to note some inherent dangers in formulating a research question in this manner. I entered this research with a heavy bias and prejudice that the social Trinity does have an impact on spiritual formation. Many researchers might argue that this bias will distort the data since the researcher must enter the research process with objectivity and a hermeneutic of suspicion. I fully acknowledge my bias and would argue that my research is valid for two reasons. First, I am aware of this prejudice and have taken great pains to not manipulate the data through instrumental reason. The participatory action research methodology allowed me to be transparent to the research team regarding my own experience and allowed the team to fully disagree with me and craft the project in its own way. Second, it is my contention that objectivity in research is a myth, and that the acknowledgement and transparency of one’s own prejudice carries more integrity than perpetuating the pretense of objectivity.

[5] https://wordpress.org/ (accessed January 20, 2015)

[6] https://buddypress.org/ (accessed January 20, 2015)

[7] https://wordpress.org/plugins/membership/ (accessed January 20, 2015)

[8] Kathy Charmaz, Constructing Grounded Theory (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 2006).

[9] The eleven two-hour meetings produced 470 pages of typed transcript. The emails and online discussion forums produced over one thousand pages of data.

[10] Block, Community: The Structure of Belonging.

[11] I learned this language and process from attending Jessica Duckworth’s workshop at the Mid-Winter Convocation at Luther Seminary, January 2014.

[12] It struck me that I was exerting a great deal of leadership in this group. Was this contrary to a democratic, communicative process? Block says that leadership is convening. It requires a great amount of leadership, planning, and coordination to make a meeting like this happen. However, my leadership is not telling them what to think or how to behave. Rather, I am facilitating optimal spaces in which they can have constructive conversations.

[13] I had posted the videos on the website during the week, thus allowing the team the opportunity to view them before the meeting. The videos remained on the site for the duration of the project and the team members were encouraged to view them repeatedly, share them with neighbors, and discuss them with as many people as possible. The videos can be viewed at http://www.deepintheburbs.com/theoretical-frames/trinity/ (accessed December 11, 2014). Please see appendix B to read the full transcript of the videos.

[14] See appendix A to read this post.

[15] Mark Scandrette, Practicing the Way of Jesus: Life Together in the Kingdom of Love (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2011).

[16] Jen Hatmaker, 7: An Experimental Mutiny against Excess (Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing Group, 2012).

[17] He was referring to the universal power that animated life in the movie series Star Wars.

[18] http://www.deepintheburbs.com/a-visual-guide-to-making-sense-out-of-the-deep-in-the-burbs-project/ (accessed January 21, 2015)

[19] This is a course I taught at Ascension in the Spring of 2012. I introduced the class to the idea that the Kingdom of Heaven is more about how we live our lives on earth than about a future utopia. I also contrasted the monistic cosmology of the Hebrew worldview to that of the dualistic cosmology of the Greeks. http://www.stevethomason.net/studies/loj/ (accessed January 21, 2015)

[20] It is interesting to note that Tiffany sent me an email reminding me that she was not in the PTWOJ experience.

[21] See table 7.