“Christian community is founded solely on Jesus Christ and in fact, it already exists in Christ. It is not an ideal which we must realize, it is rather a reality created by God in Christ in which we may participate.” –Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together
It is much easier to talk about community—and even try to create community for others!—than it is to actually experience it at the leadership level. The truth is, most of us are not very good at maintaining our commitment to community once we get together to lead something. We find it more natural to resort to the subtleties of posturing and maneuvering and “working the system” when caught up in the dynamics of organizational or church life.
When we experience disagreement, we are better at creating lines of division, voting each other off the island, or leaving each other than we are at finding ways to come together in unity. Sometimes we even lob lawsuits at each other, subjecting spiritual community to a secular court system that has little understanding of the values and commitments associated with Christian community—a move expressly forbidden in New Testament Scripture.
A Deeper Calling
Spiritual community among leaders is challenging, at best, given the dynamics that inevitably come into play when very human people get together to lead. The ability to transcend our most primal human instincts amid the challenge of leading with others does not happen by accident, nor is it a capacity that is maintained and cultivated in a haphazard way. Cultivating community at the leadership level is a fully-orbed commitment that goes far beyond a perfunctory prayer at the beginning of a business meeting. Such an endeavor is led by leaders who are devoted to the values that undergrid community and who are willing to live out these values through concrete practices that can sometimes seem like a radical departure from the “business” of board meetings and strategic planning sessions.
Christian people who come together to carry out Christ’s purposes in the world—whether it be a church, a denominational gathering or a ministry organization—have a deeper calling than mere teamwork. In fact, we are called to move beyond teamwork to spiritual community in which we allow our leadership to be grounded in—and emerge from—our commitment to live as a Christian community with distinctly Christian values and practices.
An Important Distinction
One of the fundamental differences between a team and a spiritual community is that a team gathers around a task; when the task is over the team disbands. A spiritual community gathers around a Person—the person of Christ present with us through the Holy Spirit. The bond of Christian community is a permanent reality in which we continue to be transformed by the presence of Christ so that we can discern and do the will of God both personally and together.
In spiritual community we discover that spiritual transformation is not an end in itself, but rather leads to the ability to discern and do the will of God (Romans 12:1, 2). Often a mission will emerge as we participate in community together; this is to be expected. But the mission grows out of our commitment to gather around the presence of Christ in life-transforming ways and to listen deeply for his direction in our lives. This is the essence of spiritual community as Jesus defines it (Mark 3:34, 35).
A Constant Tension
Years ago the Transforming Center began as a small community of leaders who gathered together on the basis of a shared desire to experience deeper levels of spiritual transformation in the context of ministry. From the beginning, we committed ourselves to gathering in such a way that we were constantly opening ourselves to the presence of Christ by engaging in spiritual practices of prayer and study, self-examination and confession, rest and work, celebration and service to others. And we did indeed begin to sense God calling us to do something together, so we crafted a mission statement that captured our sense of calling to serve others in a particular way.
However, it didn’t take long for us to experience the stress and strain that all leadership groups experience when the mission (and what it takes to carry out the mission) threatens to overwhelm our life together as a community in Christ. We, too, have struggled with the temptation to allow the demands of ministry to compromise our commitment to community. It is a constant tension.
At times, we have made decisions too quickly and without enough time to listen fully to the wisdom of the whole community. We have made strategic plans and then struggled to keep up with the pace of life those plans required. We have missed opportunities to stop and celebrate together what God was doing among us because we were rushing on to the next thing. At times we have gotten so caught up with what we were doing for others that our personal and corporate disciplines have suffered and the soul of our ministry has started slipping away. We know what it is like to claw our way back to the most essential place when we have slipped from it.
But despite the challenges and our many failures along the way, we have learned a few things about what it is like for leaders to commit themselves to living and functioning as a spiritual community. In the next eReflections, we will share some of the practices that help keep us anchored in the deepest reality of who we are—a community gathered around the presence of Christ for the purpose of being transformed in that Presence so we can discern and do the will of God.
©Ruth Haley Barton, 2012. This excerpt is from Pursuing God’s Will Together. Not to be used without permission.
Ruth Haley Barton (Doctor of Divinity, Northern Seminary) is founder of the Transforming Center. A teacher, spiritual director and retreat leader, she is the author of numerous books and resources on the spiritual life including Pursuing God’s Will Together, Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership, Sacred Rhythms, and Invitation to Solitude and Silence.
Do you agree or disagree with this distinction between teamwork and spiritual community?