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Spiritual Formation in the Context of Community

By Gail Johnsen

Gail is an ordained Assemblies of God minister, mother of four, author, mentor, life coach, and speaker. Holding a master's degree in spiritual formation and leadership from Spring Arbor University, she currently serves as the pastor of spiritual formation and women at Faith Assembly in Pasco, Washington.

"God is up to something," I said. Those were the only words I could use to describe the stirring in my soul when my friend, Jodi Detrick, asked, "What's God up to in your life?" As we chatted over coffee and caught up on life and ministry, I was finally able to acknowledge what had been simmering in the side streets of my heart.

After 25 years in ministry, an unexplainable emptiness has settled in my soul. It actually felt more like an ache or longing. Unknowingly and unintentionally, I had replaced knowledge about God for knowing God. Somehow, I got lost in the technicalities and mechanics of church leadership. It's amazing how much we can do for God with little or no interaction with God himself. I was so busy preaching God's love for everyone else, I had overlooked my own belovedness in God. I became desperate for an authentic encounter with God that did not include me trying to manipulate or manage that encounter.

The problem was I didn't know how to do that. I knew that all my previous personal strategies for "spiritual success" would not be adequate to respond to this new spiritual journey to which God was now calling me. So with no other goal than to make room for the Holy Spirit to do what only He could do, I began to take long, silent walks. In these walks, I found peace, rest, safety, quiet, and healing. Almost imperceptibly, I began to sense it was a space where my soul could stay focused and alive to what God was doing.

I began to linger with the Word, bringing my whole self to the text with openness, vulnerability, curiosity, and wonder. I was no longer content with reading mere words on a page and having no meaningful connection to my life. By reading, pondering, and reflecting, I began to meet God in the text. Eventually my days were marked by an ongoing awareness of Christ's abiding presence. I had a keen sense of keeping in step with a dance I was not leading. This dance led me to pursue an online master's degree in spiritual formation from Spring Arbor University. Being linked with seven others in this program over a 3-year period was the beginning of my discovery of the possibility of authentic online community. These online friends became intimately interwoven into my life.

Recognizing it is God's nature to seek us out and draw us to himself, I figured there were others with a percolating hunger for God. Soon after I graduated, I invited six women from my church to join me on a 12-month spiritual formation journey. Meeting weekly and in the context of friendship, honesty, and vulnerability, we thrived together. That doesn't mean it wasn't messy. It was. Shattered dreams, crippling physical health, distorted views of God, and personal insecurities were just some of the nuances of our group. Admitting what was most real about us became our refrain. Living authentically is where our healing began.

Community will expose you. It will reveal not only the yet-to-be-redeemed places of your own soul, but others as well. Yet learning to live gracefully with one another becomes the seed of our own transformation. It is in laughing, weeping, learning, teaching, celebrating, forgiving, accepting help, and in admitting and owning our human brokenness with one another that we discover we are the ones who are being healed. In the place of mutual need, we experienced the restorative and redemptive presence of Jesus. That is how community transforms us. As Henri Nouwen wrote, "Apart from a vital relationship with a caring community a vital relationship with Christ is not possible."

Twelve months turned into 2 years. At the end of that journey, one woman in our group wrote, "There's something about all of this that nurtures my soul, and I desperately needed this place of being real with God, myself, and others." We had come to realize we were made to thrive in relationship; our formation in Christ is never fully developed or matured outside community.

After that I began a new spiritual formation group that morphed into not only a weekly meeting, but an ongoing dialogue via e-mail during the week. This actually increased our connectedness and sense of community as we were able to react in real time to needs and events. A job promotion or job loss, the infidelity of a spouse, an unexpected suicide, and a long-anticipated adoption — we cared for one another in the trenches of life. We found in this small community of women a place where our deepest questions could be answered, a place where our hearts could be exposed and cared for by others who deeply love us — all the while learning to let Christ be the transforming presence in our lives.

At the same time, however, I had an increasing desire to reach out to those in ministry, who, like me, experience the hazards of ministry life. Perhaps, like me, they were unknowingly ministering from a place of depletion and a soul untethered from its centeredness in God. So I invited a small group of women ministers from my district to join me on a spiritual formation journey. To my surprise, they all accepted. We met over a 12-month period in a hybrid approach. First, we met three times in a retreat format (which meant travel for most of us). In between retreats, I posted weekly assignments, and we continued the conversation by e-mail during the remainder of the week. Retreat and regular weekly online attendance was expected. When we met, one of our main rules was not to attempt to fix others' problems. In our attempts, however noble, to alleviate pain we can miss what God has for us. Our goal was to be present with the person as they process where they sensed God in the midst of their pain. All of this became a way of engaging our hearts together, and gave the Holy Spirit room to do the great work of transformation that only He can do.

At the end of our journey I asked everyone to write a summary of what the journey had meant to them. These are a few excerpts of their words:
"I realized that God wasn't looking for my dramatic gestures, just me."
"I take away with me the possibility of freedom from a whole lot of stuff, the possibility to be content, and the possibility to wholly grasp, to know, believe, and feel that I am God's beloved."

"I want to live this way — healthy and whole. It's just so dangerous what I might have been bringing to people for so long — a stressed out, insecure, controlling, and manipulating person. I'm feeling a greater sense of responsibility for my own health."
Several of those who have completed this journey are now leading other women leaders and those in their churches on similar journeys. I have continued to lead other groups, including one with the Northwest Ministry Network for pastors' wives called Alongside. Part of the requirement of every group I lead is recognizing that our formation in Christ is never just about us. The practical outworking of becoming like Jesus is that we are moved to loving action into the world that God loves. Before the conclusion of every group, I ask each member to identify how this has formed them, and what God might be calling them to now.

The wonderful prayer of Paul's in Ephesians 3:14-21 intimates this idea of our wholeness in Christ is subject to and dependent on our connection to community. Paul writes, "I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord's holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of God (verses 17,18, NIV). It seems the ability to grasp God's infinite love depends on it being discovered in community. Apart from community, we cannot experience the fullness of His love. Early Christians believed that to live by the law of love that Jesus called them to required community because we cannot practice love in isolation. Alone we are a very poor reflection of God. But in the bonds of community through mutual compassion, caring, and forgiveness, the love of Christ is released in us, transforming us to incarnate Him to the world.

In the sacrificial work of ministry, the care of the minister's soul is tantamount. My passion to see more and more ministry leaders learn to live and lead from a healthy soul in the context of authentic community. With that in mind, I am hoping to extend this invitation of a spiritual formation group to all women in ministry on a national level. It would be a year long journey, meeting for two to three retreats at a central location. If this is something you would like to participate in, please contact me at gailj@clearwire.net. The group size will be limited, so please respond soon.

Addendum: The spiritual formation year-long community group for women in ministry being offered on a national level is now more accessible. In addition to the retreat format of meeting 3 times a year in a central location, the retreats will also be offered in a Skype-kind-of format. This new format would allow more women the ability to participate without the restrictions of travel (and the time and expense). For more information, please contact Gail Johnsen at gailj@clearwire.net.

ENDNOTE
1. Henri Nouwen, Donald P. McNeill and Douglas A. Morrison, Compassion: A Reflection on the Christian Life (New York: Doubleday, 1983), p. 61.