2017 marked the 500th anniversary of the Reformation – and the church of the 21st century is again experiencing significant change.
“The church needs help and leaders need help with an imagination of something different, because it’s going to change, and the walls are coming down,” said Dr. Heidi Miller, director of Neighborhood Seminary at Duke Divinity School and a spiritual director and supervisor.
The current “attraction model” – where people come to the church – has created a subculture in which most of those who become part of that culture never go back out and re-engage in their communities, she said.
Now, Dr. Miller said, “the church is moving to much smaller church bases and alternate forms of being church.” Those shifts raise the possibility of a new model: “What if
the church became a hub that is a sending place?” she said.
And in line with that vision of church as a “sending place,” Gateways to God – a two-year certificate program in spiritual direction for clergy and laity – is changing as well. For one thing, Dr. Miller is taking over for Gateways leader the Rev. Wendy Miller, her mother, who retired this year.
The 2019-20 Gateways to God, Dr. Miller said, focuses on a missional spiritual direction model, and “builds on what has been happening and fans it further.”
The program is organized into three retreats a year over two years. It uses a small-group format combined with large-group instruction and worship as well as time for quiet reflection. Gateways takes place at Rolling Ridge Retreat and Conference Center in North Andover, MA, where the next two-year cycle will begin with a retreat Feb. 22-25, 2019. Applications are due Nov. 1, 2018.
In Western culture, Dr. Miller said, spiritual direction most often happens one-on-one; “here’s the lit candle and you formally get together.” And Gateways to God will equip participants for that model of spiritual direction, as well as “those who are saying ‘I want to have the posture of a spiritual director on the move,’” she said.
People like Susan LaSante of Littleton, MA, who completed Gateways in April. At her first retreat when asked what brought her to the program, LaSante told her small group, “What I want to do is learn how can I live spiritual direction in the world … but I don’t want to be a spiritual director per se.”
“[I] found Wendy and the leadership incredibly encouraging and flexible to help me find a path that maybe looked different from other people’s,” she said.
In the “scaffolding” for every retreat (titles are in the brochure), Dr. Miller said, there will be a movement from Imago Dei, the images of God, to Missio Dei or the mission or sending of God.
“Being made in the image of God leads to being sent out in the name of God, so it’s very much like what Jesus did with the disciples: ‘I’m going have you go deeper as you put down your nets, and you’re going to recognize there’s something really holy at work, and come, come and see – and I’ll have you fish for people.’”
This missional spiritual guidance approach, Dr. Miller said, leads to recognizing how God is at work in another and, further, the ability to discover the image of God in another in the least likely places. Those discoveries help us tap into the gifts that are right in front of us.
That is exactly what the Rev. Janet Smith-Rushton, retired, who just completed Gateways, was looking for: “I was pretty clear that this experience would help me discern places in ordinary life – [with] the person delivering the mail, the neighbor down the street, at the farmers market – those openings for conversation. The awareness that there was this moment of opening, this space when people went deeper.”
These conversations, Rev. Smith-Rushton said, happened “not just with Christians. Some exploring faith, some resistant, some in different faith traditions. And that was just such a gift, to have this heightened awareness of these moments, and if I paid attention to those moments and gave people some space to see what was going to unfold … it was just astounding the journey.”
Dr. Miller drew an analogy to Lectio Divina, which she described as “Learning that reading of scripture and noticing what’s shimmering and staying with that … [asking] ‘How do I pause and really sit with that and go deeper?’”
The next questions, she said, might be “How might I walk my neighborhood and use a Divina approach in my neighborhood? How can I slow down long enough to notice what’s shimmering around me?”
Neighborhood is wide and specific both, Dr. Miller said, “It’s the immediate context, the neighborhood of my life, and also the neighborhood around me.”
For Cheryl Nolan of Gorham, NH, and co-lay leader of the New Hampshire District, one neighborhood is the local library.
“When people come into the library … it’s just looking people in the eye and smiling and connecting, and it feels like such a holy moment,” Nolan said. “And many times, they’ll just smile. You can feel that wall around them … I can just tell – they just need something to break that, and they just open up.”
Ginifir Giddinge is a licensed local pastor serving Good Shepherd UMC in Gray, ME. Pastor Giddinge said she’d recommend Gateways to clergy for many reasons.
“When you’re clergy, people want to talk to you all the time,” she said, and it can be hard not to be distracted by all the responsibilities and demands. Gateways to God, she said, “makes you a better listener.”
“I think it’s a good place for clergy to let down and to care for themselves – you’re equal. Everyone’s equal here. And that I found very comforting,” she said.
That sense of equality – of everyone participating on even footing – was something that struck Bonnie-jean Rowe, a layperson from Framingham, MA, as well
“We were partners with each other in not just learning, but healing each other,” Rowe said. “In our small groups, not only did we learn from what each other was saying, but we were healing each other – sometimes just by listening.”
Natalie Guzman of Grantham, NH, said she also felt that everyone was learning and processing together.
“I would like to encourage those who don’t have a ministry background, but who have the desire to get into ministry or to expand their involvement beyond their local church attendance, not to feel intimidated,” she said. “The work is very doable – even though we were exposed to stuff we’ve never been exposed to – all of us grappled with that.”
Whether they become spiritual directors or not, Dr. Miller said that she hopes those who participate in Gateways to God will come away with “a primal sense that God is at work. A living God. … and the re-embrace of their own story in the relationship to God’s great story, and a sense in which God’s story goes all the way down and wide.”
“When I say that, what I mean is sometimes the God that we have marketed is not a big enough God for the reality facing people’s lives. And so when people give up on God or give up on whatever, often too, it’s giving up on an image of God that’s much vaster and wider than what we understand or can comprehend at the time,” Dr. Miller said.
Those trained through Gateways to God are people “who are poised to listen to people moving through the stage of orientation to disorientation to reorientation,” she said, and who can “stand in the disorientation, and offer the space of presence.”
People who are needed, Dr. Miller said, as we are “in that disorientation spot as a church and in the world.”