Initial Interpretation of the Findings

This section will provide provisional interpretation and reflection on specific findings from the data. I said, in chapter three, that this research was done from and for a missional imagination of the church. It is with this perspective in mind that we frame our findings. More specifically, it is with the leadership of the local congregation in mind—both clergy and lay leaders—that we name our findings.

Our specific research question was: How might an increased awareness and understanding of the social Trinity impact the ideation and praxis of spiritual formation in suburban ELCA congregations? Therefore, we must first address the obvious question. Did the increased awareness and understanding of the social Trinity have any impact at all on the team’s ideation and praxis of spiritual formation? Then we can address the second, and more complicated question. If it did have an impact, how was it impacted?

Increased Awareness and Understanding

The first question is easy to answer. Yes. Every member of the team reported that they felt changed as a result of the project. This is an expected result. It would be highly unlikely for a group of people who spent twenty-two hours in large group conversation and nine months engaged in action projects to experience no change at all. So, it is not surprising that the process impacted the team.

However, before we move to the question of how the team was impacted, we must first pause and look more closely at the nature of the increased awareness and understanding itself. It is one thing to be aware of something. It is an entirely different thing to understand that thing. We asked how an increased awareness and understanding of the social Trinity might impact the team. One thing that the team agreed on was that the project definitely increased their awareness of the social Trinity. None of the team members had previously heard the terms social Trinity, relational Trinity, or entangled Trinity. Therefore, the fact that they watched the videos and engaged in the subsequent discussion automatically raised their awareness. This was a success. However, it became painfully obvious that our success in understanding the social Trinity was questionable.

Many team members expressed a sense of confusion, and sometimes frustration, over their struggle to understand the idea of the social Trinity. Sharon’s statement was the strongest critique and serves as a representative of some team member’s thoughts. She said,

I think the instruction suffered. I felt like we needed more instruction to understand the basis, the project, the terminology…There wasn’t a good grasp of social Trinity. I don’t know that everybody was on the same level with what is the Trinity, who is the Holy Spirit, what is that? So, I felt, more instruction, using Bible verses on what is the Holy Spirit. What was his role with the apostles? What were some examples of the Holy Spirit at work after Jesus left the earth, would have been a better foundation to go to the next step.

A critique like this has an initial sting for the teacher. Did we fail? One could argue that the research was not valid because the team did not actually understand the social Trinity. Some of the team felt confused and frustrated by the vagueness of the question and the intention of the project. I must acknowledge the possibility that my chosen method of introducing the social Trinity was inadequate to the task.

I presented the social Trinity in three ways.[1] First, I engaged the team in Dwelling in the Word that was focused on the Upper Room Discourse in the Gospel of John. Second, I created four animated videos which we viewed during session four and to which the team had unlimited access on the website. Third, I presented a narrative during session four of how my encounter with the social Trinity impacted my understanding of spiritual formation. This narrative was followed by a group discussion. I did not choose to present a traditional lecture-style lesson or assign heavy reading to the group. However, the team was aware of the DITB blog and some engaged in my ongoing conversation and writing about the Trinity on their own initiative. I must be open to the possibility that these methods did not help the team increase in its understanding.

However, one could also argue that the fact that the team experienced confusion and frustration was not as much due to the methods I chose to present the social Trinity, but is due to three other factors. The first factor has to do with teaching methods. I stated in chapter two, that I draw upon the theories and methods of Parker Palmer and Stephen Brookfield. Palmer contrasts the expert-teacher-centered model with the subject-centered relational model. The object of study, in the first model, is observed by the expert and is separated from the learners. The expert then turns around and inputs the knowledge of the object to the students, filling them up like empty vessels. The second model that Parker presents is the subject-centered model. Here the topic is not the distant object of observation but is the subject that sits as a conversation partner in the center of the circle of learners. The teacher, in this model, sits among the circle as a participant learner and simply facilitates the dialogical process of interacting with the subject.[2]

Brookfield’s methodology similarly calls for communicative action in the learning environment in which adult learners are allowed the freedom to engage with the subject on their own terms.[3] Perhaps the RT expected the teacher-centered model and equated that model with “further instruction” based upon their experience in modern educational systems. My use of the latter methodologies, and their foreignness to some of the team members, may have contributed to the feelings of fuzziness and frustration.

The second factor that may have contributed to the sense of frustration is related to the topic itself. How can a finite human understand the Trinity? One might argue that we should be more worried about the instructional methods if there was not confusion and frustration. If the team members felt a full confidence that they completely understood the Trinity then that might be evidence that my presentations did not educate the team, but indoctrinated the team by colonizing them with a particular understanding of the Trinity. In other words, an authentic encounter with the Trinity should always leave the student with a certain level of confusion and frustration. This is true regardless of teaching style or the level of education—from catechism lesson to doctoral seminar. We simply cannot fully understand the mystery of Trinity.

The third factor that led to the sense of frustration may be related to the term understanding itself. Is it possible to measure understanding? Perhaps this speaks to the difference between the terms understanding and explanation. The modern mind has a desire for clarity.[4] It seeks to explain things through scientific language. However, there is a distinct, and theological, difference between understanding and explanation. To explain something is to approach the object with a sense of superiority and complete knowledge of the object. To understand something is to approach it as a subject, like another person, whose complexity defies explanation. To understand something is to come into relationship with it and to engage in an ever deepening, experiential knowledge of it. Parker Palmer says that the goal of the educational process is to know as we are known.[5] God knows us, not as an object to be summarized and explained, but as a person to be loved. Perhaps Sharon’s desire for more instruction was more reflective of the modern desire for explanation, than a true critique of our understanding. We, as finite humans, can never explain the Trinity. Her critique begs the question: How much further instruction would have been enough to reach an adequate level of increased understanding? There will always be fuzziness, vagueness, and a frustrating sense of mystery in the study of Trinity.

Heather offered a helpful perspective that brought balance to this question. She said:

In those first weeks, you presented the ideas, and then, whether we examined ourselves, or not, that had to be up to us. You couldn’t have made any of us examine ourselves. And, just by presenting the material, the only logical place to go is to examine your own thoughts to see where it fits. So, I think you presented complex ideas and presented them well, and then, going into projects and things…there was…I’m not exactly sure how to say it…there was a vagueness to that. And I don’t know if you could have done anything different about it. But, sometimes it kind of felt floundering. And if you intersected, then that means we’re not letting the Holy Spirit, do it. In some ways it would have been nice to have more direction, but in other ways…maybe its better if you’re not the one telling us what to do.

Was there an adequate increase in awareness and understanding of the social Trinity for the team to experience an impact on their ideation and praxis of spiritual formation? The completely honest answer is that there is no way to know. However, the data seem to indicate that the RT authentically engaged with the difficult subject of the social/relational/entangled Trinity to the point that it affected the way they think about and approach the practice of spiritual formation.

There is one saving grace in the way the question was presented. We did not set out to gain a complete understanding of the social Trinity. That, as we have already discussed, is impossible. We simply set out to increase the awareness and understanding of the social Trinity. Given the discussion above, it is safe to say that the RT did experience an increase in both awareness and understanding of the social Trinity that led to a change in the way they think about and approach the practice of spiritual formation.

How was the Team Impacted?

So far we have established that there was an adequate increase in awareness and understanding (in various degrees) of the social Trinity. We have also determined that the process of increasing the awareness and understanding did have some impact on the RT’s ideation and praxis of spiritual formation. Now we must ask the more complex question. How was the RT’s ideation and praxis impacted?

The answer to this question is complex. The RT consisted of nineteen individuals, including me. Each of us came into this project with a lifetime of stories and relationships that have shaped who we are and, specific to this project, how we think about the Trinity, spiritual formation, and the suburban context. Each one of us engaged in this project at various levels of intentionality as we juggled the rich textures of our daily lives in the frenetically busy suburban context. How can I possibly represent the impact that happened in each team member’s life in the confines of this limited dissertation? I wrestle with the balance between, on the one hand, writing a paper that expresses my own perspective, in my own voice, about what I perceive happened to the team members, or, on the other hand, allowing the voices of the team members to speak without filling reams of paper with their words in verbatim.

Ultimately, this is my paper and I can only ever understand from my perspective and speak in my voice. So, I must acknowledge that the findings and implications for leadership that I will share in the next chapter are primarily my own synthesis of the total research experience. However, I think it is appropriate that I allow space for each team member to summarize their findings in their own words. Therefore, I have included an extended summary of each team member’s journey in appendix D. This appendix cites extended verbatims of each team member at the beginning of the session, notes the specific projects in which they were involved, and highlights his or her own summary of how s/he was impacted by the project.[6]

A Directional Shift

I cannot articulate each individual’s journey within the confines of this dissertation. Therefore, I will attempt a simple synthesis of what the research revealed in direct relation to the research question itself. The data seem to indicate that an increased awareness and understanding of the social Trinity impacted the ideation and praxis of spiritual formation in the RT members in two primary ways.

Vertical-Personal Spirituality

First, it provided new language and attentiveness to the active presence of the Holy Spirit in the world. Each team member entered the project with some awareness of the presence of the Holy Spirit. The team members most able to express the presence and activity of the Holy Spirit, at the beginning of the project, did so in such a way that the Spirit was the presence of God that helped guide the individual in either (a) personal devotion and relationship with God, or (b) the process of making life decisions. The ideation of the Holy Spirit, prior to the DITB project, seemed to reflect one of an internal and personal relationship with God. Let’s call this a vertical-personal spirituality in which God is perceived as being up there and the Holy Spirit is in here, within the individual. The role of the Holy Spirit, they reported, is to help the individual look up to God and grow spiritually in an internal manner. This vertical-personal relationship does not negate the horizontal, social relationships that individuals have with others. In fact, many team members indicated that small group involvement and corporate worship were important parts of their spiritual practices prior to the DITB project. However, the important dimension of the vertical-personal spirituality is that the horizontal relationships with others are not necessary to spiritual formation. In other words, it is possible, in the vertical-personal spirituality, to have a relationship with God through the Holy Spirit apart from social interaction with other people. This, I would argue, reflects the typical, modern, Western individualism that is especially expressed in the suburban context.

vertical-personal spirituality

Figure 15. Vertical-Personal Spirituality

Horizontal-Communal Spirituality

The DITB project provided the RT with new language and a new awareness of the presence and activity of the Holy Spirit and, in my interpretation, helped them shift from a vertical-personal spirituality to a horizontal-communal spirituality. The horizontal-communal spirituality does not diminish the vertical-personal relationship of the individual with God, but expands the horizon of that relationship to become multi-dimensional. The RT team members expressed their increased awareness of how important, and even essential, relationships are to spirituality. The RT related that, when they began to use the language of relationality and entanglement to discuss the essence of God, and the possibility that it is the relationships of the three persons of the Triune God that creates and sustains life, it helped them to imagine how the Holy Spirit could be actively at work in the world apart from their own individual lives and even apart from the church. God’s presence was expressed in terms like air, wind, fire, and energy swirling around, in, and through us. The horizontal relationships that each of us, as individuals, has with everything and everyone around us is not only reflective of, but also essential to the essence of God. This kind of language was new, exciting, somewhat confusing, but also liberating to the majority of the RT.

_0025_Horizontal-Communal All Creation

Figure 16. Horizontal-Communal Spirituality

A Wholistic Umbrella

The second way that the social Trinity impacted the ideation and praxis of spiritual formation in the RT team is that it helped the team realize that all activity in life can be included under the wholistic umbrella of spiritual formation. This second point greatly overlaps with the first point. The shift from vertical-personal spirituality to horizontal-communal spirituality opened up the RT’s awareness that being attentive to the neighbor and to the environment is as much a part of spiritual formation as the classic disciplines of Bible study, prayer, and meditation. This is a subtle, but important shift for similar reasons to those stated in the first point. A vertical-personal spirituality views the horizontal relationships as secondary and/or derivative to the primary relationship of the individual and God. In other words, the individual disciple must first cultivate the personal relationship with God and then the fruit of the Spirit will overflow into the horizontal relationships with others. The shift to a horizontal-communal spirituality places the horizontal relationships on an equal level with the vertical-personal relationship and disrupts the linear progression of God-individual-other. A horizontal-communal spirituality recognizes that it is only through loving in the horizontal relationships—family, neighbor, enemy, environment, etc.—that we can actually love God in the vertical relationship.

We must pause and acknowledge the limitation of the terms vertical and horizontal. These terms may be helpful in one way to describe the difference between God and creation, but it is equally problematic because it creates a false dichotomy between the two. The encounter with the social Trinity offered the RT language to understand how the love of neighbor is both different from loving God and the same as loving God. We love God by loving the other, and we can only love the other when we are connected to the love of God. This is not a linear, top-down flow of God’s love and power, but is a multi-directional, capillary, perichoretic flow of God’s love and God’s power in the world.

The evidence for the shift to a more wholistic umbrella of spiritual formation is found in the nature of the action projects that the RT chose to pursue. One would think that, if a group was heavily dominated by vertical-personal spirituality, it would have created projects that emphasized the more classic internal spiritual disciplines. Further, one would think that if the RT engaged in the social Trinity purely as an abstract idea—as an object of study—that they would have created projects that would have engaged others in the pursuit of studying the object of the social Trinity. The opposite was true. The majority of the action projects involved the RT engaging in relationship with other people for the purpose of creating community and/or providing service. Granted, some of the projects were a form of personal journaling. However, the content of the journal reflections revolved around the idea that God is actively involved in every aspect of life, not just those activities that have been traditionally considered sacred or spiritual.


The key findings from the data report that the RT noted the importance of relationships, reflection, and an increased awareness of the presence and activity of the Holy Spirit in the World. This chapter attempted to analyze the “successfulness” of the project and synthesize these findings into a simplistic structure. The next chapter will turn toward theological reflection and implications of these findings for the academy and missional church leadership.


[1] I will explore these methods further in the next section.

[2] Palmer, To Know as We Are Known: Education as a Spiritual Journey.

[3] Brookfield, Understanding and Facilitating Adult Learning: A Comprehensive Analysis of Principles and Effective Practices; Stephen Brookfield, Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher, 1st ed., The Jossey-Bass Higher and Adult Education Series (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1995); Brookfield, The Power of Critical Theory: Liberating Adult Learning and Teaching.

[4] Read Descartes’ desire to dissect the object to its basic components and, thus explain it with the clarity of looking through the optics of the microscope.

[5] Palmer, To Know as We Are Known: Education as a Spiritual Journey.

[6] I must acknowledge, however, that I am the editor of these statements. I read through all the data from each individual and made a choice about what I thought best captured their experience of transformation as a result of the project. Yes, these are the quotes from the individuals, but I, as the author, have set the frame. Thus is the nature of all knowledge and communication. It is framed, limited, and open to interpretation.