Tag Archives: research methodology

My Coding Process

The following is a step-by-step description of how I coded the data. Please note that NVivo uses the term node rather than code. I will use the terms interchangeably from here forward.

Step One

I coded each document—audio transcript, email, notebook, and online post with either the node name “Phase One,” “Phase Two,” or “Phase Three” in order to create comparisons over time. I then subdivided Phase One into three sub nodes that represented the three types of meetings and their purposes. Phase 1.1 represented the first two meetings in which we had initial “base-line” discovery conversations to establish a general sense of where the RT was in their perspectives on the topics of Spiritual Formation, the Trinity, and Suburban Issues. Phase 1.2 represented the third and fourth session in which I introduced the social Trinity to the RT. Phase 1.3 represented the final four meetings of Phase One in which the RT planned their action projects for Phase Two.

Step Two

I went through each of the eleven audio transcripts and highlighted every place where each team member spoke and coded it with that team member’s name. I also coded all the emails, notebooks, and online posts with the individual team member’s name. This allowed me to analyze each team member’s responses over time: e.g. How did Phil talk about spiritual practices in phase one compared to his responses in phase three?

Step Three

I created a node for each of the major topics discussed throughout the project:  Dwelling in the Word, Spiritual Formation, Suburban Issues, and The Trinity. I went through each session transcript and highlighted the major sections of the meetings that were dominated by these major themes and attached the corresponding node. These codes allowed me to narrow my queries to examine how the group, and individuals, referred to each topic over time.

Step Four

The first three steps were codes from the “known.” I knew the topics that had organized the discussions, I knew the phases of the project and the intentions of each phase, and I knew the names of each team member. Now I was ready to listen and note topics that emerged from the data. I read through each transcript, email, notebook, and online post and coded topics that seemed to be important to the individual as I read. The hope was to observe a recurring theme in his or her data.

Here I must confess. This process became overwhelming with the amount of themes and sub-themes that each individual covered over nine months. I found myself drowning in seemingly irrelevant codes.[1] I had generated a long list of codes that had only one or two occurrences. This seemed to be a counter-productive process, so I decided to try a different approach.

Step Five

The long list of nodes was cumbersome and overwhelming. I had to find a way to sort through the data and organize it in such a way that it would be easier to discern obvious patterns that addressed the research question. First, I created sub-folders under the Nodes folder based upon obvious categories. The subfolders were: Discussion of Projects, Final Questions, Format (email, notebook, transcript, etc.), Phases, Potpourri Basket (the list of random codes from step four), Prescribed Topics (Spiritual Formation, The Trinity, The Suburbs, Dwelling in the Word), Session, and Team Members.[2]

I then narrowed my searches to focus specifically on the topics of the research question. I was interested to note if the increased awareness and understanding of the social Trinity had any impact on the ideation and praxis of spiritual formation in the team members. Therefore, I focused on each individual within the following specific parameters.

First, I analyzed the individual’s statements regarding spiritual formation and spiritual practices from sessions One and Two. I listed his or her stated practices and comments and coded them in one of three possible categories: (1) internally-personally focused; (2) externally-communally focused; (3) blended personally-communally focused.

Second, I noted the choice of action project that each team member created for Phase Two. I also coded the individual’s personal data throughout the course of phase two to detect emerging themes.[3]

Third, I analyzed each individual’s response to the final questions in phase Three, specifically related to the ideation and praxis of spiritual formation and how, if at all, the social Trinity impacted them throughout the course of the project.[4] I noted three categories of responses to this question: (1) no significant change in either ideas about the Trinity or in spiritual formation; (2) moderate change in awareness, but a sense of confusion and a desire to pursue the topics further; (3) a significant change from a sense of internal-personal spirituality to that of communal-relationship based spirituality. I further nuanced these data into a continuum of responses. No two RT members had the same response. Rather, they spread across the continuum where there were some on one end of the spectrum who felt no change and questioned the integrity of the research methodology, to others on the other end who felt significant change and a sense of liberation because of the experience.

Step Six

I realized that there was a parallel question/theme taking place within this project that did not necessarily relate directly to the interface between social Trinity and spiritual formation. It is the topic of suburbia. I analyzed the sections of data in which the RT discussed suburban issues and looked for ways in which the team believed that living in the suburbs was helpful to spiritual formation and ways in which it was a hindrance to spiritual formation. The team indicated a list in both categories. Their answers correspond to the meta-theory of radical individualism, isolation, and the demands and pressure on time and allegiances. However, they also noted the benefits of suburban living and the affluence, freedom, and privilege that it brings. These are assets that can be leveraged to help those who do not have these same privileges.[5]

Step Seven

It occurred to me that the codes noted in step three—Dwelling in the Word, spiritual formation, suburban issues, and the Trinity—revealed an important factor. Three of those topics—spiritual formation, suburban issues, and the Trinity—were similar in that I predetermined them as team leader. However, Dwelling in the Word was of a very different species. I did frame the Dwelling by choosing the text, but, because of the nature of the exercise, I was not able to direct what topics the team members would discuss. We spent 45-55 minutes out of each two-hour session practicing the Dwelling exercise, therefore, this specific data comprised a large portion of the overall data. The open-ended nature of these discussions, and the themes that emerged from these data, served to open the imagination of the RT to experience the indwelling of the Trinity without an overt, instrumental move on my part as the leader.

I was curious to know how the RT felt about the practice of Dwelling in the Word, so I asked for their reaction to the practice on three occasions during the course of the project. I noted their responses and gathered three major themes. The Dwelling exercise: (1) Helped the team to connect with strangers and learn the art of listening; (2) Gave everyone a chance to be heard; and (3) Helped the team to center and focus on the topic at hand.

Step Eight

It became evident to me that the most helpful data to make sense out of the project were the responses to the list of final questions. These questions created open space for the team members to address the research question itself.[6] I did a data analysis of the responses to these questions for frequently occurring words and noticed three dominant themes throughout the conversations. The first was centered on the word relationship. The data indicate that the RT focused on the importance of relationships between the persons of God, the individual with God, and the individual in relationship with the neighbor. The second recurring theme was reflection. The RT noted that the introduction of the praxis cycle was helpful for them to understand the importance of reflective thinking, journaling, and intentional conversation—both in the group and with friends—for spiritual formation.[7] The third recurring theme was that the RT noticed an increased awareness of the presence and activity of the Holy Spirit in the world. They indicated that the process of experiencing this project gave them new language to articulate their experience of the Holy Spirit.

Final Question Data Findings

Figure 14. Major Themes from Data

Table 2. Final 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?


[1] That is not to say that they were unimportant topics. They were irrelevant in the sense that they did not contribute to a dominant theme or to the main idea of the research project. I must note that the data created by the RT was rich and wonderful in its own right. Some of the journaling that was created fed me spiritually and I feel privileged to have read such intimate thoughts. While the specific data may not make its way into the dissertation, the process of having generated the data is the rich soil from which the findings were grown.

[2] These folders are organized alphabetically, not in order of frequency or importance.

[3] These codes went into the potpourri basket and made it possible to find emerging themes later in the analysis.

[4] See table 7 for the list of questions.

[5] See table 9.

[6] See table 7.

[7] The praxis cycle was introduced both explicitly and implicitly. I explained the definition and implications of praxis at different points throughout the project. This was the explicit introduction. The team implicitly learned praxis through the action of the project itself. They recognized this as they reflected on the experience.

A Brief Overview of the Data

The RT consisted of eighteen people: four women from Calvary Lutheran, four men from Bethlehem Lutheran, and ten people from Ascension Lutheran—seven women and three men. The team members share 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 team 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 one of the three congregations represented in the project.

Table 1. Demographics of 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 project ran from February 24, 2014 – November 17, 2014 and spanned three phases. Phase One began on February 24, 2014 and ended on May 4, 2014.[1] 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 serve to embody a reimagined spiritual formation in the suburbs in light of an increased awareness and understanding of the social Trinity.[2]

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 online discussion forum on the project website. Third, we held one meeting on August 24, 2014 to provide a check-in and an opportunity to update the team on each member’s individual progress. This meeting was audio recorded, transcribed, and distributed to the team in a PDF document via email.

Phase Three consisted of two final meetings and some emails sent among members between the meetings. The first meeting was on November 10, 2014 and the second was on November 17, 2014. The group discussed its final reflections on the project. The conversation was guided by seven questions that I distributed to the team prior to session 10. 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 course of the project and initially entered it into Scrivener. In August, 2014, I purchased a twelve-month license for NVivo for Mac and transferred all the documents into this program and organized them into the following folder structure. The main folders were: Phase 1.1, Phase 1.2, Phase 1.3, Phase 2, and Phase 3. Each of these major folders contained subfolders. Each session had a list of subfolders that contained the correlating session transcripts and personal notebooks. There was also a separate subfolder for the discussion thread comments and the emails that occurred during the time frame of the corresponding Phase.  I spent September, 2014-March, 2015 carefully reading all the data and following the qualitative coding guidelines in Charmaz,[3] looking for themes that might emerge from the data.[4]



[1] This was a change from the original design. The RT chose to meet two additional times. This extended phase one into the beginning of May.

[2] It is important to note that the four women of Calvary Lutheran dropped out of the project at this point. One simply disappeared with no explanation. Two encountered health issues and felt they could not continue. One was intimidated by the online discussion forum and felt discouraged by the direction of the action projects. I will discuss this dynamic later.

[3] Charmaz, Constructing Grounded Theory.

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

The Deep in the Burbs Project Narrative

I will use this section to provide a brief narrative of the project and pause to reflect on the findings in their narrative context.

Phase One

Phase 1.1: Sessions 01-02—February 24 and March 3, 2014

The first two team meetings were held at Bethlehem Lutheran. I will take a moment to describe the room set-up in detail, because it was important that the physical set-up of the room be conducive to communicative action. I organized the room and facilitated the opening questions according Peter Block’s advice.[1] I placed three tables in the corners opposite the main door. A circle of 18 chairs sat in the center of the room. We always held our large group discussions in a circle, because everyone is equal in this configuration. 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.[2] 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. This created a visual reminder of the purpose of our gathering.

I opened the meeting with this question: What led you to accept the invitation to this team?[3] Each person—including me—had the opportunity to say whatever he or she wanted to say. The responses to this question were fascinating and can be categorized into two types. First, many in the group were intrigued and drawn to the group because it was an opportunity to work with other congregations. Many of the team members expressed a sense of separation, and even unhealthy competitiveness, between sister congregations. They thought this project might work toward building unity in the suburban context. The second type of response had a general sense of dismay at how the suburban context made it very difficult to experience health and growth in spiritual formation.

Pat beautifully exemplifies the second type of response. Her words also reflect many of the assumptions that I brought 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.

We practiced Dwelling in the Word in John 14:15-24 for both sessions. Some of the team members had never experienced this exercise. Many of the members from Ascension had experienced it previously with me in different contexts. The members at Bethlehem had practiced Dwelling in their congregation as well. None of the Calvary women had experienced it before. All of the team members reported that the experience was very helpful for them to feel connected to the group.

These sessions were designed to allow the team space to construct responses to three specific questions. What are your personal practices of spiritual formation? What are your hopes and fears for spiritual formation in the suburbs? What is your definition of spiritual formation? I followed a similar pattern in both sessions. First, I invited the team members to assemble at the tables, and asked them to write their own response to the question in their notebook. Then I asked them to gather into groups of three and synthesize their responses into one response. Finally, I asked the groups of three to gather into groups of six and synthesize the two responses into one. Each group of six shared its synthesized response with the entire team.[4] Everyone turned in his or her personal journals at the end of the meeting. I captured each page in a separate Evernote note for each person and kept a digital record of all the hand-written documents produced during the meetings.[5]

Table 3 demonstrates the team’s collective feelings regarding the suburban context as it relates to spiritual formation. These data indicate a general sense of busyness, isolation, and a longing for community.

Table 3. 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 in 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


Table 4 reports the definitions created by the triads during session 02. 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. I must confess that I was surprised as to how much social interaction was indicated in these initial definitions. I had assumed that the team members would lean more heavily toward a radical individualistic approach to spiritual formation. However, their definitions and their personal practices indicate that, while individual practices did dominate the narratives, there was a definite acknowledgement that some form of communal activity was a necessary part of spiritual formation.

Table 4. Initial 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.


Phase 1.2: Session 03-04—March 10 and March 17, 2014

Phase 1.2 was designed to intentionally increase the RT’s awareness and understanding of the social Trinity through an educational process. We changed gears in three ways during these sessions. 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, thus shifting the nature of the group dynamic from a fully collaborative space to a more presentational space.[6] Third, we switched texts for the Dwelling in the Word exercise between sessions three and four. We dwelt in John 14:15-24 for the third time in session three and then dwelt in John 15:1-17 at the beginning of session four. These three changes provoked surprising responses from the team.

I posted the videos on the website during the week leading up to session three and invited the RT to view them as often as possible prior to the meeting.[7] We spent session 03, after the initial Dwelling in the Word, in the following pattern: (1) watch video; (2) personal reflection in notebooks; (3) large group discussion. We repeated this cycle four times, completed all four videos, and ended the session on time. I told the RT that this would be 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.

I found the dynamic of this session to be very different from Phase 1.1. In those sessions we began with intimate conversations in dyads and triads that evolved into the large group discussion. Everyone had a chance to speak from the beginning of the meeting. This session led people from passive watching, to personal reflection, and then immediately into a large group discussion. The nature of the interaction made it seem like a different group of people. They were very reluctant to talk. A few people dominated the discussion while some people didn’t speak. This experience helped reinforce to me the importance of Block’s 1-3-6 principle and Parker Palmer’s suggestion that subject-centered methodology is preferred to teacher-centered methodology when facilitating adult learning. My voice in the video served as “the expert” voice, against which it is intimidating for the average adult to respond. Many team members later reflected that they felt overwhelmed and even ignorant when they were first confronted with the information in the videos.

The people who did speak during the large group conversation fell into three categories. The first category consisted 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. Phil represented the second category. He questioned the validity of theology as opposed to scripture. Is not, he argued, theology 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 represented the third category. 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 the option of multiple interpretations of doctrine is often disconcerting to her.

I was perplexed after session four. I posted some thoughts on the discussion forum and notified the team, via email, encouraging them to read it. I wrote:

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?

I received two responses to this post that changed the shape of the project. First, John 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.” His feedback further supports Palmer’s theory.

The second response came from Phil via the 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…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 Phil’s words to heart and posted my story on the website for the RT to read between session three and session four.[8] I then presented a live version of my story during session four by mapping it out on the black board and describing the evolution of my understanding of the Trinity.[9] 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. Phil’s words reminded me that people are motivated by narrative, not abstract ideas. Stories captivate the imagination. Perhaps that is why Jesus told them so often.

This narrative presentation also opened up a lively conversation about the nature and role of the Holy Spirit in the world today. I make special note of this because one of the key findings from the project data is that most members of the RT sensed an increased awareness of the presence and activity of the Holy Spirit in the world today. I believe this conversation was a key contributor to those data. I had not planned this presentation in the original design, and, had Phil and John not gently rebuked my methodology, it might not have happened. This is, I would argue, evidence of how the Holy Spirit works through the participatory action process to encounter people with the Word of God.

We ended session Four with an abrupt change of gears and began preliminary conversations regarding taking action in our suburban context. This was designed to prepare the RT for Phase 1.3. I asked the following question and invited the team to write responses in their personal 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? We also 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.[10] I offered this suggestion simply to prime the pump of a type of project they might consider.

These activities generated the data in Table 5. The data indicate that the RT has mixed feelings about the suburban context in relation to spiritual formation. While the suburban context does make it difficult to connect in community, the privilege of middle-class life empowers Christians to make a difference in the world with their resources.

Table 5. Helps and Hindrances of the Suburban Context[11]

Helps Hindrances
·  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.


Phase 1.3: Sessions 05-08—March 24, March 31, April 21, May 5, 2014

Phase 1.3 was designed to create a space in which each member of the RT could create an action project that would be carried out during phase Two. The project was supposed to reflect his or her experience with the social Trinity and spiritual formation in phase One. The original plan was to meet two times at Calvary Lutheran for sessions Five and Six at the end of March, 2014. The team did meet as scheduled, but it struggled to make a decision regarding the projects that would be carried out. The team elected to meet again. One member of the team had connections at the City Hall in the home suburb of Ascension Lutheran, so the team met in the lunch room of City Hall on April 21, 2014. The team, once again, was not able to make a final decision at this meeting. The team agreed to meet one more time in the lunch room of City Hall on May 5, 2015 and left that meeting with a sense of closure and direction for phase Two.

Each session of phase 1.3 followed a similar pattern to the first four sessions in the previous phases. We began the session with Dwelling in the Word. I have already mentioned that we switched to the second Dwelling text in session Four. So, we dwelt in John 15:1-17 for sessions Five and Six. However, the extra meetings allowed us the opportunity to add a third text to the list. We dwelt in John 16:5-15 at the beginning of session Seven. We did not, however, practice dwelling in the Word at the beginning of session Eight, since the team felt that the exercise often took up so much of the meeting time that we were not able to “get down to business” and make the decisions that needed to be made.[12]

There are three ways in which I would like to reflect on Phase 1.3. First, I will reflect on the process of decision-making as it relates to communicative action and leadership. Second, I will reflect on the Dwelling in the Word exercise and how it both enhanced the project and deterred from the project. Finally, I will mention an event that happened corollary to the DITB project that had a direct impact on my life, the members of Ascension Lutheran, and the data of the project.

Decision-Making and Leadership Issues

The first reflection will focus on the difficulty that the RT experienced in making a group decision. There was confusion as to whether the group was supposed to work together during phase Two, or whether each person was supposed to do his or her own project. Many of the team members were initially drawn to participate in the project with the hope that bridges could be built between the congregations. That expectation was set early on in session One. Others in the group quietly resisted that idea, but did not voice their own perspective until the end. I neither encouraged nor discouraged any idea, but attempted to facilitate and foster the ongoing conversation.

I led the group through two sessions in which we followed the same collaborative processes that we practiced in previous sessions, but when it came time to make final decisions, no one was willing to make a definitive stance. I struggled to control my desire to assert leadership and tell the group what to do. It was very difficult to watch the team get to the end of Phase One and sense such obvious frustration with the process. This felt like a failure to many of the team members. The team decided that it couldn’t leave things hanging and it had to meet again. I took this as a positive sign that the members were still invested in the process.

I sent an email to the team the day after session Six. I asked them to journal about their feelings immediately following the meeting. Then, after they had processed those feelings, I asked them to read the transcript of the meeting and journal again, reflecting on how their thoughts and/or feelings may have changed after reading the transcript. The email precipitated a great flourish of very long, thoughtful, and perplexed emails.

This is the general summary of the RT’s feedback expressed in these emails. 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.

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.” This is an important observation because one key finding from the project data, which I will report shortly, is the importance of reflection in the practice of spiritual formation. I would argue that this type of reflection—in which potentially hostile or volatile participants are invited to journal and re-evaluate the data—is an important part of communicative action. This reflects the communicative rationality that Habermas suggests is vital for constructing a preferred future.

The team regrouped two more times and eventually came to an agreement. They decided that it was never the original intention of the project to form one inter-congregational community project. Several of the team members indicated that they were committed to doing specific projects, but did not have time to work with a larger group project that would require more time. See table 6 for the final list of intended projects.

This experience of group tension, post-session reflection, and regrouping demonstrates the necessity and purpose for leadership. I was tempted to exert instrumental leadership during session Six, in which I swept in as a hero-leader and fixed everyone’s problems. By the grace of God, I did not do this. Rather, I facilitated a cognitive space in which the team members were invited to reflect—to meditate—on the data and find a third way. This is—I would argue—an example of the way power can be used to facilitate communicative spaces. It is also an experience of how the Holy Spirit mediates between polarized dualities to find the way of peace in community. Here, again, the research team was able to experience an increased awareness and understanding of the social Trinity by the process of participatory action.

It is important to note that we lost the women of Calvary at this point of the project. Pat disappeared half way through Phase 01. No one knew where she went. Eleanor and Christy both had health issues that complicated their ability to continue. Emilee had a passion for being part of a prayer group, but when the multi-church prayer project died, she decided that she would rather focus on her involvement in her own congregation. She also expressed to me that the digital media component of the project was intimidating to her. It had intimidated her from the beginning, but she thoroughly enjoyed the sessions of Phase 01. The thought of journaling electronically convinced her to drop out of the project completely. Christy, Eleanor, and Emilee wished us all well for the remainder of the project.

Reflections on Dwelling in the Word

The second reflection from Phase 1.3 has to do with the Dwelling in the Word exercise and the role it played in the project. I entered into session Seven knowing that the team was struggling with tension over the purpose of the projects and their inability to make a group decision. I had to make a decision as the facilitator of the meeting. Do we practice Dwelling together, which takes at least 45 minutes, or do we skip it in order to get straight to business? I chose to facilitate a modified Dwelling exercise. We would dwell in John 16:5-15, but only invite two dyads to share. This would shorten the process and allow more time for decision-making. When the first two dyads were sharing, however, I got the strong impression that we needed to hear from everyone. So, we did. The problem is that our subsequent conversations regarding the Dwelling exercise took up most of the meeting session and left us short on time for the stated intention of the meeting. We did not make a decision and felt forced to meet, yet again.

Why did I make the decision to take so much precious time to Dwell in the word…again? Some of the team members had expressed in their journals that they did not particularly like the Dwelling exercise because they are more action-oriented people. I felt their frustration during this session in particular. I honestly struggled with feelings of self-doubt after this meeting, because I had “failed” to accomplish the stated objective. Then I realized that this was exactly the type of thinking that my experience with social Trinity and my study of Kegan’s orders of consciousness was challenging. The Modern, Western—and particularly suburban—mindset is time-bound and fixated on goal-setting and achievement. I have learned that it is necessary to stop the tyranny of the urgent and practice slowing exercises, such as this particular moment of Dwelling, in order to counteract these tendencies.

I was very glad that we practiced Dwelling that night, and that I felt the prompting of the Spirit in that moment. 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.[13] She was in a difficult position as the board president during this landmark decision-making process. Jesus’ words to the disciples, found in our Dwelling text, brought her great comfort. Kelly came up to me after the meeting and told me that she thought she wouldn’t come that night. She decided to come, and the scripture was exactly what she needed to hear. Something good did from the meeting, even if it wasn’t the something that we had planned it to be.

An Outside Event that Impacted the Project

The third reflection on Phase 1.3 is related to the Holy Conversations mentioned in the previous section. The Holy Conversations was a series of meetings of the Ascension Lutheran congregation 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 congregation, the church leadership felt it was appropriate to travel this path of discernment. The process spanned the school year of September 2013-May 2014, therefore it overlapped with the DITB project. 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 decision to perform same-sex marriages did not only impact the inter-team dynamic, it also impacted my own life and ministry. I had been receiving financial aid from a single benefactor during my doctoral studies. This support 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, but 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 third way that leads to peace.

I choose to reflect on 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.

Phase Two

The purpose of phase two was to allow the RT members to engage in the action projects that they created in phase one. Table 6 shows the list of projects that the members intended to carry out. Not every project was completed, however the majority of the team members were very diligent in their pursuit of these projects.

Table 6. 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


What Do S’mores Have to Do with Anything?

I must confess that I was surprised by the nature of the action projects the RT created. It was my assumption that the team would create projects that would somehow reflect the process that we experienced in the sessions during Phase One. I imagined that they would gather friends, family, or neighbors to engage in Dwelling in the John passages, perhaps watch the videos, engage in conversations, and report a change in people’s ideation and praxis of spiritual formation. Fortunately, nothing like this happened.

I attended a dinner one evening, during the summer while the team was in Phase 02, at which several pastors and church leaders from around North America were gathered. The topic of the DITB project came up and I was asked to give examples of the types of projects the team created. I described some of the projects, including the Sunday Evening S’mores.[14] One of the pastors seemed uncomfortable with my research and asked me directly, “What do S’mores have to do with the Trinity? How can you demonstrate that any of this is connected to your theological proposal and not to something else, like intercessory prayer, or any number of things?” I was stunned at the moment and did not know exactly how to answer, but the question haunted me for the next few weeks.

I brought the question to the team during session Nine. “Help me connect these projects to the Trinity,” I asked. The team pondered this question and concluded that it was the experience of the relationality of God in the process of the DITB project that allowed them to imagine that these projects were a spiritual practice that embodied their emerging awareness.

We are not alone in this discovery. A growing body of research indicates that action research itself is a generative, Trinitarian, spiritual practice for the congregation.[15] Martin says,

Action research works well in a congregational setting by being deliberately transformative. Change is an essential component of action research.…[it] provides an approach to implement substantial organisational change through collaborative reflection and dialogue. The community-building, empowering nature of action research gives people a ‘voice’ and a say in the change process. Change is not imposed by either the pastor or an elite leadership team, but through collaboration and negotiation. In volunteer organisations, like churches, such a collaborative approach to organisational transformation is not only very appropriate, but virtually essential for authentic change to be initiated and sustained.”[16]

The data indicate that the increased awareness and understanding of the social Trinity impacted the RT 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 relationships and see what God is doing in those relationships by engaging the neighbor and listening first.

The Action Projects

I will now look at each project that was successfully completed and seek to understand what happened, what was learned, and how it fits into the overall scope of the DITB project.

Sunday Night S’mores.

Rob, Kelly, and Tiffany held an event each Sunday evening during the Summer months. The event took place in the parking lot of Ascension Lutheran. They used a portable grill to create a fire, provided the materials needed to make s’mores, and created a space in which anyone could stop by, make and eat s’mores, and connect. The idea came from the fact that many suburbanites spend the weekend at the cabin, thus miss the fellowship and connection of their local congregation. The Sunday S’mores event would allow those who had been disconnected to stop by the parking lot on their way back from the cabin and reconnect with a God-centered community before entering into the regular flow of the work week. Since the event was outside in a parking lot, it did not matter how a person was dressed, or whether they were dirty and grungy from the lake or camping. It was simply a safe place.

The original intention was to advertise the event in two ways. The first was through natural connections from the team via personal communication, a Facebook event page, and announcements in the weekly worship services at Ascension. The second was to prayerfully canvas the adjacent neighborhood and inform the neighbors of the event and invite them to participate. The team reports that they were successful in the first way, but never made the time to connect to the neighborhood.

The team followed through with the project and met every Sunday night in the summer. The attendance was very good. However, they noted that the attendees varied greatly throughout the weeks. Rob laments the failure to connect to the neighborhood, since he felt this was the heart of the missional piece of the event. However, he recognized that a seed was planted for a missional space. They intend to do it again next year and connect with the neighborhood at that time.

Regular Participation at Feed My Starving Children.

John and Mary chose to commit to serve at Feed My Starving Children[17] on one shift per week. They intentionally invited people from their workplace who were not involved in a church. They followed through with this commitment and plan to continue doing it. They made two observations about this experience. First, it felt very natural and was not a forced sense of sharing their faith. Second, the fact that they placed an open invitation to join the event on the bulletin board in their workplace opened up spaces for faith conversations that would have never otherwise opened up in the work environment. Many workmates joined their regular FMSC team and constructive faith conversations naturally emerged.

Participating in the Planning of Women’s Retreat.

Heather was invited to be on the Women’s Retreat Planning Team at Ascension. The retreat took place at the beginning of November, just before the DITB project officially ended. She had been thinking deeply about the social Trinity throughout the course of the DITB project and decided to bring the social Trinity into the planning and teaching of the Women’s retreat. She wrote this introduction for the retreat:

Within the acorn is the potential for a towering oak tree, strong and rooted, able to weather any storm. God the creator made it so. There is a profound mystery in a seed. In fact Juliann of Norwich once held a hazel nut in her hand and she had the revelation of a deep truth about all of life. Basically, what she heard was this in relation to the seed: God created it. God loves it. God sustains it. One of the things this acorn must do before it can accomplish its purpose is to stop. Stop moving. Stop rolling around the yard. It needs to pause and basically come to a still spot, and then God can start unfolding the miracle that is in the seed. The seed needs to rest in the creator before the sprouts come out or the roots start developing. When the acorn finally comes to stop, and even is buried in a way, when it dies to itself as an acorn, it is then that God can provide nurture and support, and then the acorn will be transformed and will begin its purpose of becoming a mighty oak. This seed can be like our calm in the chaos of life. Before we develop that sense of deep calm and trust, we too, have to basically stop running. We too have to die to ourselves in a way so that our Creator can transform us in the same way he transforms an acorn into an oak tree. Not that we have to stop doing all the things that are out there for us to do. So much of what keeps us busy is the very vocation that God has called us to do. But God has called us to our work to be an extension of God’s grace and love in this world. If we push on too strong, if we never stop to just be in the presence of our creator, if we do not allow ourselves to be buried in a way and then nurtured, we don’t really know where God wants us to send our branches. So again, today is a day about stopping, in order to be nurtured, in order for God to help us grow our roots a little bit.

Designing of Adult Formation Plan.

Phil is a retired Lutheran pastor and has a penchant for theology and teaching. He proved to be a healthy interlocutor throughout the project and often sparred with me on the website chat forums. He was openly resistant to the idea of the social Trinity at the beginning of the project, but consistently expressed his disagreement with a spirit of grace and constructive critique. His openness to entertain the ideas and wrestle with them throughout the course of the project was encouraging to the other RT team members and humbling to me as a pastor and scholar.

Something clicked for Phil along the way. He found my addition of the relational and entanglement language to be a helpful corrective to the social language.[18] Phil began to see that the relational/entangled Trinity was the dynamic structure of the universe and he imagined an entire Adult Formation Curriculum and System constructed around the Trinity, the images of Trinity within our own human nature, and the relationality of our existence with God in the world. He was prolific throughout the months of the project and generated hundreds of pages of ideas and course outlines based on his newly revised understanding of the Trinity as it relates to spiritual formation.

Phil’s language demonstrates, in my opinion, the strongest shift from the dualistic thinking of the traditional Western Trinitarian model to the relationality model we discussed in the DITB project. He stated on the first night that he was interested to see how the Trinity, which is “up here” (said while holding one hand above his head), connects to spiritual formation, which is “down here” (said while holding his hand below his waist). He could not see how they connected. Then, after the weeks and months of wrestling with Trinitarian praxis, he reported that his understanding of spiritual formation had changed.

Reflection on the Leading of Yoga Classes.

Phyllis is a yoga instructor. She teaches a daytime yoga class for preschoolers a few times during the week and an evening class for adults. She intentionally creates a time for Dwelling in the Word as part of the meditation process. She reports that the majority of the members of her class are not from the ELCA. They enjoy the yoga classes because she included a time of Dwelling in the Word. They would tell her, “I’m so glad you do that, because we don’t have that ability any place else where we ‘exercise’ where we can incorporate our faith.”

Intentional Journaling

Heather, Sharon, and John each regularly journaled throughout the months of the project and emailed their journals to me. Each of their journals was unique to their personality and place in life, yet each of them, in their own way, reflected a genuine interaction with the social Trinity, spiritual formation, and their everyday lives. Heather’s journals included lengthy, well-written, reflective narratives that integrated her own life experience as a missionary, a health care provider, and a mother into her reflection on the Trinity, the use of gender to imagine God, and the relationality of life.

Sharon is a local politician. She reflected on her interactions with suburbanites as she knocked on over four thousand doors during the months of the project. She saw the multiplicity of stories, the loneliness, and the need for connection among the people. She felt the presence of the Holy Spirit working in, with, and through her as she simply listened to people.

John had never journaled before. He began his journaling by keying in one simple sentence a day on his iPhone and emailing me the weekly “Urinals”—as he called them—to me. His thoughts and observations expanded and deepened as the months progressed. By the end of the project his Urinals contained thick, deeply philosophical and theological paragraphs for each day. His sense of God’s presence in everything deepened as the journaling exercise encouraged him to be more observant of how God was present throughout the ordinary flow of life.

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. This meeting was not part of the original design, but I felt it would be helpful to keep the RT connected. 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 told the team that I had a conversation with a pastor at a conference regarding our project, as I mentioned in the previous section. The pastor 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, during session Nine, talking about how the social Trinity attacks our radical individuality. I argued that the three persons of the Trinity could not 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 the relationality 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.”[19]

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: Sessions 10-11—November 10 and 17, 2014

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 7. Final 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?



The RT met at Ascension once again for the final sessions. Ten team members were present at each meeting, with a total of thirteen team members in attendance to at least one of the final sessions. Only four team members completely dropped out of the project, all of whom were from Calvary Lutheran. The final attendance was remarkable, especially for session 10, since the first storm of the season decided to dump ten inches of snow on us that day. These final sessions were structured around the seven questions. I simply walked through the questions I had emailed to the RT earlier that week.

The data from these sessions became the primary focus of my final coding process, as I described in Step Nine above. I coded these transcripts for dominant themes, ran a word occurrence analysis, and cross-referenced the results with a similar analysis of the potpourri basket node. The result of this analysis revealed three major themes and two topics for reflection.[20] The themes are: (1) The primacy of relationships; (2) The necessity of reflection; (3) The increased awareness of the presence and activity of the Holy Spirit in the world. The two topics for reflection are: (1) Pedagogical Issues, and (2) Leadership Issues. I will address these findings in the next section.


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

[2] My wife was kind enough to provide the snacks for the first two meetings. The women from Calvary volunteered to provide the snacks for sessions 03 and 04. This was a positive sign that they were investing in the process.

[3] This is a question from Block’s process of building community.

[4] Here I utilized Block’s method of collaboratively constructing ideas. He suggests to have each individual craft a response to the question. Then the individuals meet in groups of three and synthesize their answers into one. Then the groups of three meet in groups of six and synthesize the two answers into one. This process proved to be very effective in allowing each member of the team to feel that they had a voice in the construction of ideas.

[5] 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. Palmer, Brookfield, and Hess call these “holding spaces.” 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.

[6] The videos can be viewed at http://www.deepintheburbs.com/theoretical-frames/trinity/ (accessed March 24, 2015). Please see appendix B to read the full transcript of the videos. 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. The online presence also contributed to my ulterior motives of creating communicative space with the team and the world through digital media and the internet. 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.

[7] A Short, Animated Introduction to the Social Trinity. http://www.deepintheburbs.com/theoretical-frames/trinity/ (accessed March 26, 2015)

[8] See appendix A to read this post. See the post as it was presented to the RT at http://www.deepintheburbs.com/the-importance-of-storytelling-the-story-behind-the-research-question/ (accessed March 24, 2015)

[9] This was the one and only time throughout the project that I ever made a lecture-style presentation.

[10] Scandrette, Practicing the Way of Jesus: Life Together in the Kingdom of Love.

[11] See appendix C for the exhaustive data from this question.

[12] This indicates a running theme. The team felt some tension between the action/task oriented members and the relational/being oriented members. I believe this demonstrates the further conversation regarding the objectivist tendencies of modernity and their impact on spiritual practices.

[13] This was the nine-month conversation happening at Ascension Lutheran about whether the church would perform same-sex marriages.

[14] See the description of this project below.

[15] See the work being pursued at Heythrop College. Helen Cameron, Deborah Bhatti, and Catherine Duce, Talking About God in Practice: Theological Action Research and Practical Theology (London: SCM Press, 2010).

[16] Bruce Martin, “Transforming a Local Church Congregation through Action Research,” Educational Action Research 9, no. 2 (2001): 264.

[17] Feed My Starving Children is a non-profit organization that gathers volunteers to combine dry food goods into “manna packs” for distribution to hunger relief organizations around the world. There is a packing station in one of the suburbs in which the DITB congregations dwell. See the Feed My Starving Children website. https://www.fmsc.org/ (accessed April 24, 2015).

[18] I continued to grow in my understanding of the social Trinity during Phase two of the project and progressively blogged about my research. One particular discovery helped me to use the metaphor of Quantum Entanglement to discuss the social/relational Trinity. I will explore the impact of this exploration—specifically with Phil’s interaction with the my blogs—more fully in the final chapter. See Simmons, The Entangled Trinity: Quantum Physics and Theology.

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

[20] See figure 16.

The Research Project Design

2014 Journal P122

I designed the Deep in the Burbs project around three phases. The first phase would consist of six large group meetings. The group would meet for two hours on six consecutive Monday evenings, starting on February 24, 2014 and ending on March 24, 2014. The second phase would run from April – October, 2014. The RT members would carry out action plans of their own creation during this period and reflect on their experience in these projects through journaling. The journals would be sent to me via email and/or posted in the online discussion forum on the project website. The third phase would consist of two meetings in November, 2014 in which the RT would come together to communicatively make sense out of their experience in the project.

Phase One

Phase 1.1

Phase one was further sub-divided into three groups of two meetings each. We will call these Phases 1.1, 1.2, and 1.3. Phase 1.1 would consist of two meetings. These meetings were structured around three topics: Spiritual Formation, the Trinity, and Suburban Issues. I would ask the group open-ended questions that would invite them to describe their previous experience with spiritual formation, the Trinity, and the suburbs. They would also define their understanding of spiritual formation and describe their current practices of spiritual formation. Finally, they would name their hopes and fears for the church in regard to spiritual formation in the context of the suburbs.

I must, again, confess my own evolution throughout the course of this project. My original intention for Phase 1.1 was to establish a type of “base-line” in the topics of Spiritual Formation, the Trinity, and Suburban Issues. I entered the project with the expectation and assumption that the RT members would indicate a particular way of discussing these three topics that was similar to my paradigm prior to my experience with the social Trinity. I even entered the project with predetermined categories of inward-focused spirituality and communal-focused spirituality, anticipating that most of the RT would be more inwardly focused coming into the project. I was aware, theoretically, that I must guard against instrumental reason, but my lack of experience in PAR, combined with my previous tendencies, made this an internal battle throughout the project. I will discuss my surprise and continued evolution in chapter five. For now, let it be known that my initial design was flawed and colored by my lack of understanding regarding the true nature of PAR and the open-mindedness necessary for good PAR to happen. It is by the grace of God that the methodology itself allowed for good data collection throughout the process. This allowed me to redeem my distorted perception in the end and process the data according to PAR methodology.

Phase 1.2

The middle two sessions were designed to introduce the RT to the social Trinity. I chose to utilize my skills as an animator to create four short animated videos that presented the social Trinity.[1]⁠ I would post these videos on the project website and make them available to the RT to watch at any time, and as often as desired. We would spend two sessions processing the information presented in these videos and relating it to spiritual formation in the suburban context.

Phase 1.3

The final two sessions were designed to allow the RT space to create action projects that would be carried out in their own congregations and/or neighborhoods/spheres of influence during Phase Two of the project. The creation and implementation of action projects invited participants to imagine practical ways that the engagement with social Trinity impacted the RT members’ ideation and praxis of social Trinity. I would provide one example of a possible action project to prime the pump of their imagination, but, other than that, the RT was free to create any project that they wanted to pursue.[2]

Phase Two

Phase Two was planned to run from April 1, 2014 to November 9, 2014. The RT members would be invited to engage in their chosen action projects and provide data in two ways. First, they would journal and email the journal to me directly. Second, they were encouraged to participate in the discussion forum on the project website.

Phase Three

Phase Three would consist of two large group meetings in November, 2014. The purpose of these meetings was to regroup after having completed the action projects and communicatively make sense out of what happened. These two meetings would serve, not only to debrief the group, but also, hopefully, to launch the RT on further plans of action that would take them beyond the limits of the research project .

I must revisit my earlier confession regarding the evolution of my understanding of PAR methodology. It was my continual struggle to resist trying to either manipulate the RT to have the same experience that I had with the social Trinity, or to “prove” something about the relationship between the social Trinity and spiritual formation with the project. It was crucial to the integrity of the project that I facilitate a space in the final phase in which the RT felt completely free to critique the project, question the methodology, and create their own meaning out of the experience. I would craft a list of open-ended questions to facilitate this type of conversation.

Dwelling in the Word

One way in which I attempted to cultivate a safe, communicative space for the RT—and to increase their awareness and understanding of the social Trinity—was to begin each large group session with a Dwelling in the Word exercise.[3] I planned to dwell in John 14:15-24 for the first three sessions, and then dwell in John 15:1-17 for the last three sessions. The process would run as follows: I would frame the exercise by asking the group to either (a) pay attention to where their imagination was captured during the reading of the text, or (b) think of a question that they would like to ask a Bible scholar regarding what they heard in the text. Next, one male and one female would read the passage out loud, allowing time in between each reading for silent reflection. Then the group would break into dyads, connecting to a “reasonably friendly looking stranger,” to discuss what we heard in the text and “listen each other into free speech.”[4] We would, then, gather as a large group and each person would report to the large group what his or her conversation partner had said. Finally, we would have a large group discussion about what we had heard as we listened to each report.

Why Dwelling in the Word?

Dwelling in the Word has a two-fold purpose that offers a corrective for the Western church and fit nicely with PAR methodology. First, it is designed to deconstruct the Modern Western fixation with talking. It retrains us to listen to another person, no matter who that person may be.[5] Listening, I would argue, is a key component to the missional church and a necessary aspect of PAR.[6] The second purpose is connected to the phrase “a reasonably friendly looking stranger.” Dwelling in the Word demonstrates that theology is a public act and anybody can do it. Everyone can hear a text and have either their imagination captured or have a question about it. This kind of conversation can happen with a stranger on a bus or in a coffee shop. This lesson attempts to break down the public/private schism in the West in which faith—and any conversation about God—has been relegated to the private enclave.[7] The church, in its gathered worship, is called to imagine itself, not as a private gathering of family members, but as a public forum in which strangers are welcome.[8] PAR is a public gathering of reasonably friendly strangers to discuss important topics. In our case, the topic was biblical and theological, thus the Dwelling exercise was a perfect fit.

Since the purposes of Dwelling in the Word matched so closely to PAR and the nature of the DITB research project, I chose to begin each session with it for three reasons. First, it would open up communicative space for people to engage the Word of God in the text and in each other.[9] Second, it would implicitly create a biblical foundation for the social Trinity rather than an explicit imposition of this idea onto the group. In other words, I chose texts in which the three persons of the Trinity are named in relation to each other, thus confronting the RT with the biblical paradox of three-in-one implicitly rather than explicitly stating the issue. Third, the exercise would cultivate a space in which the RT members could get to know each other throughout the course of the project in ways that may or may not have happened spontaneously.

Why the Upper Room Discourse?

Most Dwelling in the Word exercises focus on Luke 10 and the story of Jesus sending out the seventy disciples. I chose to focus on the Upper Room Discourse found in John 13-17. I made this choice because I believe this passage presents relational ontology through the perichoretic relationship of the Triune God with the world. However, this is a large passage and it was difficult to determine which specific section in which to dwell. I decided to run an experiment in the months leading up to the launch of the project to explore this dilemma.

I called the experiment Dinner with Jesus and offered it as part of the adult formation opportunity in my local congregation in the Fall of 2013. The idea was to create a space in which adults would gather to experience the Dwelling in the Word process in the Upper Room Discourse. I simply facilitated the process and took notes on what everyone shared in the large group sessions. This was a type of pilot group experimentation for the Deep in the Burbs Research Project.[10]

Lessons from the Experiment

I learned three important things through the Dinner with Jesus experience. First, on a practical level, I learned that the dwelling is most effective when a single passage is dwelt in for a minimum of three sessions. My original design was to dwell in the entire Upper Room Discourse, so I divided all five chapters into 8 readings and planned to dwell in one per night. After the first three sessions I realized that this was ineffective because people were only scratching the surface of the passage in the first session and then moving past it. After the third session I modified my plan and spent the remaining sessions dwelling in two passages for three weeks each. This made a dramatic difference in the level of insight and conversation the people experienced. This helped to reinforce, for me, the true purpose of Dwelling in the Word. The process has one of its greatest impacts when people realize that every time you dwell in a particular passage you see a new dimension of God’s Word at work. This reinforces the power of slow reading and the fact that Dwelling in the Word is a form of lectio divina. It deconstructs our Western compulsion to conquer and acquire the text as mere factual data and invites us to slow down and encounter the Word of God that is present in the scripture and in the community, and then bring it into a process of discernment in dialogue with the World.

The second thing I learned is also practical and connected to the first. I needed to focus my choice of texts for the RT to two passages so that we could dwell in each of them for three weeks per text. This was a difficult task. How could I decide? I chose John 14:15-24 and John 15:1-17. The purpose for dwelling in these texts was to provide a way for the RT to engage with the scriptural witness to the three persons of the Trinity naturally, rather than having me present the idea directly. John 15 focuses on the indwelling of the Father, the Son, and the disciple. However, John 15 does not explicitly name the person of the Holy Spirit. That is why I chose John 14:15-24. It names the Holy Spirit and describes the functions of the Spirit. I thought that, between these two texts, the team would have ample opportunity to have “an increased awareness and understanding of the social Trinity” while safeguarding against my use of instrumental reason and power.[11]

The third thing I learned is that I was wrong about how people learn about the Trinity. I was amazed to discover throughout the Dinner with Jesus experiment and the RT Sessions, that people did not find the language of the three persons of God perplexing. I expected people to immediately have their imagination captured and their questions framed around the obvious problem with the fact that Jesus talks to the Father and the Father sends the Son. I expected them to exclaim, “How can this be?” in rational disbelief. They rarely did. Their imagination was captured in so many other, much more tangible and everyday ways. I will discuss this further in the next chapter.

The Use of Digital Media

Another way that I attempted to cultivate communicative and participatory spaces in the project was through the use of digital media. There are three ways in which I used digital media in this project. First, I created the deepintheburbs.com website. This site served several purposes. One purpose it served was to create a safe, private space in which the RT could communicate when they were not physically present with one another. Another purpose it served was to allow me a public outlet for my scholarship.[12] I structured the website to be a public, interactive expression of my dissertation as I was creating it. I shared my research journal entries as blog posts. I also posted an illustrated and annotated book review of over one hundred books and articles that related to the project. These posts and pages were shared via Facebook, Twitter, and Linked In. It was my hope to engage with a larger audience of scholars, congregational leaders, and community members along the course of the project.[13] The website also served as a time-based chronicle of my research progress that would both demonstrate my work, and also safeguard any proprietary issues that might arise in the future.

The second way I used digital media in this project was through illustration and animation. I have been a professional illustrator/animator since 1990 and have produced digital art since 2002. I created four animated videos for the purpose of introducing the RT to the social Trinity. The website is full of other animations that seek to visualize complex ideas and/or articulate the arguments of specific books or authors. These animations are posted both in the website and also on the corollary YouTube channel, where they have engaged thousands of people[14]. I have also created illustrations and visual maps of nearly every book that I have reviewed on the website. I am a visual thinker and must process concepts this way in order to make sense out of them. The RT had access to all this information and often interacted with it of their own volition.

The third way that I used digital media was through Prezi.[15] I created visual, interactive bibliographies that go beyond the interactivity of hypertext technology and allow the viewer to pan and zoom through images and animations that illustrate the bibliographic material of particular topics.[16] For example, I would show the image of the front cover of a book, and embedded within the book cover are my illustrations of the book, an author biography, key quotes, and a hyperlink to my review of the book on the website. These Prezis exist on the website, but also on exist on the Prezi.com site and are searchable by anyone. They can be downloaded and used by anyone for any purpose.

It was my assumption and intention that these digital media would embody the relationality of the social Trinity and spiritual formation that the research question attempts to explore. It was my desire to experiment with these media as a means to explore community building in the ever-flattening digital world of the twenty-first century. This, I believe, has important implications for both the academy and the missional imagination of the church.

Data Collection and Analysis

The data generated through the project would be collected in four types. The first type would be audio transcripts from each large group session. I would record the sessions using a Zoom flash recorder, transfer the audio file into Express Scribe[17] on my Mac, and transcribe the audio into a document in Scrivener.[18] The second type of data would be collected via personal notebooks. I would assign a small 8.5×5.5” notebook of ruled paper to each RT member and ask him or her to write in them in response to various prompts throughout the large group sessions. I would collect the notebooks at the end of each session and either type them into Scrivener, or take a digital photo of each page and store it in Evernote.[19] The third type of data would be gathered through online discussion forums on the deepintheburbs.com website.[20] The fourth type of data would be collected via direct email to me. Each RT member would have the option to send his or her journals directly to me if s/he did not want them to be read publicly.

I planned to take all four types of data and enter them all into NVivo for Mac to be organized and coded. The data types would be placed in large folders under the headings “Phase One,” “Phase Two,” and “Phase Three.” Further subfolders would be created under each of these folders to sort out the session transcripts, personal notebooks, discussion comments, and emails. I would follow the basic qualitative coding methodology outlined in Charmaz to detect dominant themes that might emerge across the various data.[21]


[1] See appendix A for a full transcript of each video. The videos can be viewed at http://www.deepintheburbs.com/theoretical-frames/trinity/ (accessed March 20, 2015)

[2] I offered a sample of action projects practiced by the group at Re-Imagine San Fransisco. Mark Scandrette, Practicing the Way of Jesus: Life Together in the Kingdom of Love (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2011).

[3] Dwelling in the Word is a specific exercise developed and utilized by Church Innovations. See Patrick R. Keifert, Testing the Spirits: How Theology Informs the Study of Congregations (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans Pub., 2009); Pat Taylor Ellison and Patrick Keifert, Dwelling in the Word (St. Paul: Church Innovations Institute, 2011).

[4] I place these two phrases in quotation marks because they are important aspects of the Dwelling in the Word process. I made it a point to speak these words each time I facilitated the Dwelling exercise at the beginning of each session.

[5] The modern Western anthropology is based on a narcissistic, atomist, radical, buffered self. We are trained, in the West, to understand ourselves as radical free agents in the universe whose primary goal is self-sufficiency and survival. This buffered self, as Charles Taylor calls it, cannot afford to listen to the other, unless listening to the other can provide an angle to oppress the other for selfish gain. Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007), 170-71.

[6] Simpson proposes that the church is called to be a prophetic public companion with the world. Gary M. Simpson, Critical Social Theory: Prophetic Reason, Civil Society, and Christian Imagination, Guides to Theological Inquiry (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2002). Hunter makes a similar argument that, if the church wants to make significant cultural changes, perhaps it should take a generation to stop talking so much and start listening and engaging with the stranger. James Davison Hunter, To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 281.

[7] Newbigin frames this as a plausibility structure of the modern world in which only reason and empirical science are submissible as public discourse. Faith and theology are quarantined along with fantasy and fairy tales, appropriate only for the weaker minded in society. Lesslie Newbigin, Foolishness to the Greeks: The Gospel and Western Culture (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1986), 35.

[8] Patrick R. Keifert, Welcoming the Stranger: A Public Theology of Worship and Evangelism (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992), 96.

[9] See my comments on encountering the Word of God in chapter three.

[10] I expanded the opportunity and advertised that I would also offer the Dinner with Jesus experience on Monday evenings at 7:00pm, Tuesday mornings at 6:00am, and Wednesday afternoons at 2:00pm so that more people might be able to access it. Forty people came to the Sunday evening forum, a small group of women that was already meeting used this opportunity as their study on Monday nights, no one came to Tuesday morning, and a handful of retired women attended the Wednesday afternoon session.

I was inspired to offer these alternate times after I heard a presentation from Jannie Swart at a Dwelling in the Word conference in the Spring of 2013. He said that he used this method with a church when he first came to be the pastor as a way to open up the communicative space of the Word for the congregation.

[11] It could be argued, of course, that I am demonstrating power in the simple fact that I chose the passages in which we would dwell. This highlights the necessity and reality of power and leadership issues in spiritual formation.

[12] I used the Membership and BuddyPress plugins for WordPress. Membership Plugin https://wordpress.org/plugins/membership/ (accessed March 20, 2015); BuddyPress plugin https://wordpress.org/plugins/buddypress/ (accessed March 20, 2015)

[13] The site was created in November, 2012. It has 333 posts, 43 pages, 322 comments, and has received 16,506 visitors and 35,766 views as of March 20, 2015.

[14] One example is an animation I created to explain Kegan’s theory of the five orders of consciousness. I posted it on the deepintheburbs.com site on October 17, 2012. It has received 9,431 views as of March 20, 2015 and has been cited in one PhD dissertation and one Masters Paper, to my knowledge. It has also received many comments as to its helpfulness in understanding this theory. Steven P. Thomason, “Thketch of Kegan’s Five Orders,” (2012).

[15] The Prezi website. http://www.prezi.com (accessed March 20, 2015)

[16] See the Visual, Interactive Bibliography. http://www.deepintheburbs.com/prezi-helps-me-study-for-comprehensive-exams/ (accessed March 20, 2015)

[17] Express Scribe Transcription Software by NCH Software. http://www.nch.com.au/scribe/ (accessed March 20, 2015)

[18] Scrivener is a writing software produced by Literature and Latte. http://www.literatureandlatte.com/scrivener.php (accessed March 20, 2015)

[19] I have been using an Evernote Premium account throughout the course of this dissection to collect and organize my resources. http://www.literatureandlatte.com/scrivener.php (accessed March 20, 2015)

[20] The Research Team members were given personal accounts and access to a private discussion forum that I created using Membership and Buddypress plugins on the WordPress platform.

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

Again, I think you might want to reflect on how you had particular intentions that maybe even sought to ensure that something was to happen, but your commitments to the methodology forced you to back off a bit and see what would emerge, and to listen when your participants objected to what you were doing, or raised issues.