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 (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. (accessed March 26, 2015)

[8] See appendix A to read this post. See the post as it was presented to the RT at (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. (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.