The Congregation as a Place of Spiritual Formation
by Robert Duggan
We Americans like to take care of things neatly and efficiently, preferably from a prepackaged solution that can get quick results with a minimum of hassle. Our cultural bias towards action and our get-the-job-done outlook impacts our approach to spiritual formation as much as it does a variety of other areas of life. Communities or individuals who are interested in the work of spiritual formation are quite likely to begin by looking for a program, a book, or a technique that will target the objective, focus resources on the task, and accomplish the mission with the maximum possible speed and efficiency. The self-help and business sections of the local bookstore are lined with shelves of books that demonstrate how we Americans prefer to get things done, quickly, efficiently, and with neatly targeted initiatives. The “spirituality” section is no exception to this pattern.
Members of the Shalem community recognize these tendencies in themselves, but we also hold an awareness of the counter-cultural nature of what is involved in the work of spiritual formation. The kind of authentic, deep work required for the formation and transformation of our spiritual selves is neither neat, quick, nor the result of single-focus approaches.
Spiritual formation is intentional and deliberate work, to be sure, but it must also be broadly pervasive, gradual and patient, and richly multifaceted. The ideal setting for this kind of effort is a faith-based community with its multiple structures, various kinds of interactions, and ongoing mission of support and concern for its members. Faith-based communities provide the kind of setting and opportunities for transformational learning that are needed for the task of spiritual formation, if only they are intentional about this work as a first priority.
I grew up in pre-Vatican II Catholic parishes where it was an unquestioned assumption that the job of the Church was to help its members “save their souls.” Such traditional language and individualistic focus lost favor in the years after the Council, as Catholics became more appreciative of community and more evangelically- and mission-focused. But there seems to be a renewed understanding today–across the ecumenical and interfaith spectrum–of the urgency of helping our nation, our ecclesial communities and even each of our individual members to “save their soul” by a recovery of spiritual values.
Putting those values into practice in every aspect of our common and individual lives is the work of transforming an entire culture. Such transformation is what congregations are–or should be–about, and a renewed, intentional focus on spiritual formation seems very much needed in a nation that in so many ways shows signs of having lost its spiritual moorings.
The familiar adage that it takes a village to raise a child reminds us of the deeply formative impact that communities have on their members. We are social beings, through and through, and the communities with which we interact shape our attitudes, our values, our beliefs and our behaviors in profound and lasting ways.
Congregations need to reclaim their power as agents of transformation by becoming more intentional and deliberate about the work of spiritual formation. Common worship is the most obvious place to start, since sacred ritual begs for spaces where silence allows those who worship to enter a deeper level of contemplative awareness and openness to the Holy.
Believers hold a special reverence for their sacred texts, and we Americans are desperately in need of learning to listen to the word proclaimed in those texts with a contemplative heart–to slow down the rush of mental activity enough to hear how the texts invite us into Mystery, rather than give us quick answers or shallow comfort. Congregations need to teach their members how to listen in this way.
Faith communities generally devote considerable resources to the work of religious education or catechesis. The major focus, understandably, is on conveying from one generation to the next the core beliefs of the tradition and the moral and ethical standards guiding right conduct. But too often neglected is deep spiritual formation, such as practical support and nurture of contemplative spiritual practices and contemplative prayer.
Virtually every aspect of a congregation’s life presents an opportunity for the community to do the work of spiritual formation. How that is accomplished will vary, of course, but there is little that a congregation does that cannot provide an opportunity for a more intentional approach to spiritual formation. The possibilities are limited only by the imagination, interest and will of those who are leaders in their respective domains.
The work of spiritual formation, especially contemplative spiritual formation, is subtle and often indirect, but that need not suggest it is insignificant or superficial. The more a culture of thriving interest in spiritual formation can be cultivated across the spectrum of a congregation’s life, the more ways that community will be able to reinforce a central vision of what is truly important in the business of “saving souls.”
Bob, a Catholic priest, is on the staff of Shalem’s Clergy Spiritual Life & Leadership Program.