Twenty years ago, as a young minister in my early thirties, I hit a wall in my spiritual life. I was exhausted. I was driven. I was disillusioned. I had sucked every last bit of marrow out of the dry bones of traditional quiet times, noisy church services, chatty small groups, and Christian self-help books. When I was honest, I had to admit that I wasn’t changing in the deep inside places of my being.
Those of you who know my story know what happened next. I connected with a spiritual director—someone who was more experienced in the ways of the soul than I was and who seemed to understand what was going on. This part of the journey was good and hard. Good because I was experiencing the presence of God again and knew I was changing. Hard because it required the dismantling of so much that I had come to believe about myself, about God, and about the nature of the spiritual life. It was disorienting, it was frightening and it was spiritually fruitful, all at the same time.
The knottiest aspect of this whole thing was the knowledge that my church was not a place where I could share what I was going through. Somehow I knew that being too open about the doubts, questions and longings stirring within me could mean the death of my “career” as a professional Christian. In addition, I was vaguely aware that some well-meaning Christians might think I was embracing Buddhist practice or New Age philosophy if they discovered I was exploring solitude, silence, and more contemplative aspects of prayer. And yet I was so desperate for more of God and for deeper levels of transformation that I really didn’t care.
Usually, at this point, I launch into teaching and guided experiences on the spiritual practices that have become so crucial to my spiritual well-being but today I want to broach an entirely different set of questions. What if my church had been a place where I could have found guidance for this well-worn leg of the spiritual journey? How might my story have been different if leaders within my church circles could have heard my questions as an important part of my spiritual journey and had been prepared to guide me into the practices of solitude, silence, Sabbath-keeping and spiritual direction I so desperately needed? How many seeking souls are looking outside their churches for the spiritual guidance they need at different stages of their spiritual journey?
Potentially, quite a few. In a recent Barna group survey probing the degree to which people say their lives have been changed by attending church, the findings were disturbing, to say the least. Nearly half (46%) of those surveyed said “their lives had not changed at all as a result of churchgoing.” One of the most significant gaps uncovered by the research was the fact that most people cannot recall gaining any new spiritual insights the last time they attended church. When asked to think about their last church visit, “three out of five church attenders (61%) said they could not remember a significant or important new insight or understanding related to faith.”
We Can Only Imagine
While these statistics are perplexing, we are not driven to despair. In fact, these days we are letting our imaginations run wild. We are imagining churches and Christian ministries whose members are experiencing transformation just by being part of that community. We are imagining leaders who are on a serious spiritual journey themselves teaching and guiding their flocks in a variety of spiritual practices that open them to God’s transforming presence at different stages of the spiritual journey. We are letting ourselves envision leadership groups who are deeply attentive to their own process of spiritual transformation so that they can discern the will of God rather than relying solely on strategic planning and human striving.
We are imagining it and we are starting to see it happen through the Transforming Church™ initiative—a growing movement of clergy and Christian leaders committed to cultivating communities of spiritual transformation that discern and do the will of God, starting with their own journey of personal transformation.
Transforming Churches Everywhere
Becoming a transforming church is not primarily about introducing new programs; it requires a culture shift radiating from the leadership center out. And leaders can’t do it alone—which is why we are committed to providing relationships (through the Transforming Church™ network) and resources (through the new Leading a Transforming Church program) that will equip and empower leaders to take this next step in their leadership journey.
Our passion is to see every church and ministry organization become a center for spiritual transformation… for the glory of God, for the abundance of our own lives and for the sake of others. Will you stand with us as we seek to call forth communities of spiritual transformation through the Transforming Church initiative? Will you join us in praying for Christ’s church and all who lead within it—that we will each do our part to cultivate transforming churches that discern and do the will of God? If so, let us pray together:
O God our Wisdom, who eternally makes all things new;
encourage by your Holy Spirit
those who seek to discern your will
that we may labor together for the building up
of your world and your Church;
counsel us when to act and when to wait;
turn our hearts always toward those in greatest need,
and away from our own preoccupations and fears;
help us never to forget that love and mercy are your
greatest gifts, given us all to offer one another
as we see them in Jesus Christ who alone
is our joy, our way, our truth, and our life.
 Bishop Jeffery Rowthorne, Octave of Prayer for General Convention 2006, Day 5.
©Ruth Haley Barton, 2012.
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.