FIVE CONVERSATIONS FOR CHANGING CHURCHES ON THE THEME OF BLESSING
4 Opening the door
You call us all to live, and see good days,
Centre in Christ and enter his peace,
To seek his Way amongst our many ways,
Find Blessedness in Blessing, peace in praise,
To clear and keep for Love, a sacred space
That we might be beginners in God’s grace.
(‘A Sonnet for St Benedict’, in Guite 2013)
The spirit of conversation
Here are five outline conversations on blessing, designed to accompany you as you seek to renew your practice of Church as blessed and blessing. Through a growing presence to God, one another, society and creation, expect to be led to:
• a spirit of mutual affirmation arising from gratitude;
• lament at the world’s pain;
• renewed understanding of your faith and appreciation of one another;
• new possibilities, arising from conversation;
• fresh energy for seeing an old ‘problem’ in a new light.
These won’t come in a neat linear way but unpredictably; through your willingness to be as present as possible. Assessing where you and your church are now, you will be invited to travel together towards God’s future calling for you all.
Each conversation requires a minimum of one and a half to two hours. You may decide to allow one conversation to last for several meetings or to space out the conversations over weeks or months.
Whatever you are facing, together and alone consider the following:
• How can you increasingly experience yourselves as a community blessed by God?
• How can you bless God more fully in the life of your church?
• How can you go beyond previous limitations and doubts?
• How can your church become more of a blessing to others, locally or globally?
The experience of these conversations will I hope encourage you to continue to integrate this approach by creating more conversations to address your needs as you discover renewed ways of being Church.
The role of the companion
In my experience, churches that have had the benefit of external consultancy have discovered fresh confidence to make the changes they realize need to happen. In group processes designed to envisage the future of churches, the role of facilitator is not the same as hosting or leading a group; rather it is walking with and inviting the group into a culture that includes respect and mutuality, in which everyone takes responsibility in some way. There are always at least four elements to be noticed and gently aligned:
• The task that the group has been given for the organization.
• The personal development of each participant.
• Awareness of the power dynamics at play.
• Discerning how to respond in the moment to the unexpected.
To become more adept at making such judgements skilfully is to develop an ‘ability to judge the fitting action to take within multiple possibilities and uncertainties’ (Christine Oliver and Graham Brittain, quoted in Lewis et al. 2008, p. 127). Personal gifts and experience have made some people naturals in this role of walking with a group. Instinctively they know how to be fully engaged at the same time as keeping an eye out for the four key tasks to be creatively woven together. For others this will be more of a learned art.
‘Companion’ is the best word I can think of to use for this role. Literally, it refers to one who shares bread with us. So he or she is both part of the group and has a particular role. The companion needs to be one who wants the ‘bread’ that is shared to be made slowly and carefully by everyone present. Attractive words associated with truly nourishing bread might be ‘organic’, ‘fresh’ and ‘locally sourced’. In other words, the companion is not one who will force the pace, offer old solutions from his or her own experience, ignore the actual people in the room or forget the very specific context in which these conversations are taking place.
It is, for me, an enjoyable though demanding role, and difficult to describe or define on paper. I believe many can grow the necessary skills and attitudes by practice and through reflection, review and encouragement. It seems to work best if companions have a certain detachment through perhaps being borrowed from a neighbouring church – and perhaps having learned appropriate skills at work. The more detached position of being an outsider, for example, makes it easier, with humour and gentleness, to challenge people and the group about the recycling of stories and attitudes that block movement forward. But given the realities of most churches, groups will be grateful that someone is prepared to give it their best concentration and love.
I’ve chosen to use the term ‘companion’ rather than ‘facilitator’ to emphasize that the benefits of the process of change are of the same character as the change we are intending to bring about. I understand the work of companionship to be the deliberate and gradual relinquishing of control of a group in order to encourage new energy and confidence through conversation and the group’s growing capacity to hold a conversational space. This requires that the companion is secure enough in herself or himself to trust the people in the conversation
• to learn the art of good listening to one another, rather than just waiting to talk;
• to focus on others rather than themselves;
• to listen to what they are themselves saying and to monitor how often they speak;
• to listen for new ideas that are emerging in the room;
• to support one another in becoming better listeners.
The Apostle Paul inspired groups of disciples to recognize themselves as fully functioning churches, filled with all the gifts and skills they needed. He instilled into them the values and purpose of Christian community; he trusted them to discover the leadership that would sustain and guide them locally; and he occasionally visited, and often corresponded, stimulating their confidence and courage in responding to God’s mission in particular situations. He would be well versed in social media in today’s world. Having had the intensive two-year experience of being companion to a range of very different churches, I am increasingly convinced of the value for all churches of having appropriate external support and stimulus as the norm. And I know that this may often seem difficult to achieve.
The role of companion does require certain skills, but it seems mainly to require a particular attitude that, for me, is rooted in the notion of trust; that is, trust in the power and fidelity of God and in God’s people, the local church. Paul trusted local churches to desire more of God’s purposes for them and to respond to information.
We are reminded in Ecclesiastes (3.1–8) that every season has its own requirements. Now I believe passionately that the present moment requires churches, regionally, to be developing ‘companionship’ for changing churches. Churches and leaders, regionally, need to discern who can fulfil this role in their churches. How can the generous exchange of resources within churches be expanded to include this vital ministry of companionship in change? There is a need for dioceses to recruit, train and make available those who can be effective companions.
My concern is whether the role can be sufficiently described in a book. I am aware of having had the privilege over decades of learning the art of companionship by watching and working with others. I would not be alone in naming with gratitude David Durston, Malcolm Grundy and other group-process pioneers within the Edward King Institute for Ministerial Development (EKI). The movement triggered by EKI in the 1980s and 1990s, now combined with current person-centred approaches to organizational culture, points out deficiencies in the churches’ responses to addressing the urgent management of change. In my recent research I have recognized that beyond skill is the question of trust – how can one intentionally be a companion for churches so as to increase their confidence, reduce their dependency and trust their own emerging voice? Paraphrasing John the Baptizer’s position with regard to his relationship with Jesus, ‘He must increase while I decrease’.
A companion is one with whom one shares bread. God calls his people to be his companions, the ones with whom he shares bread – his friends. (Samuel Wells 2006, p. 1)
In churches in the UK and in the USA, where an earlier form of this material has been used, the vital role of companion has been recognized. The road-testing process has also highlighted the difficulty of finding people willing and able to take on this role for another church. The groups were looking for fellow Christian travellers, preferably with the detachment of coming from a neighbouring church – someone who had at least some of the gifts of humility, the ability to ‘read’ a situation, being approachable, accepting what is, compassion, and patience as events unfold. Churches regionally could make a positive difference by identifying and making known potential companions for local churches.
Some key responsibilities of the companion
• to work with the church’s leaders to develop a clear framework of aims and objectives consistent with the material in this book;
• to negotiate with a group from the start ground rules and expectations, including confidentiality;
• to be prepared to hold boundaries for the group, ensuring its safety for all and its openness to creativity and the unexpected;
• to assist exchanges within the group with sensitivity, while challenging them when appropriate;
• to watch out for and listen to the participants and the dynamic of the group – when someone talks over others or takes up a disproportionate amount of the time, the companion may need to suggest sensitively that others also need to be heard;
• to expect the unexpected and be alert to going with the flow as well as defending the group from being dominated by an individual or pair;
• to balance the planned process, the needs of the group and the contribution of participants while choosing when to follow a lead off the map for a while;
• to encourage everyone to take responsibility for the liveliness and health of the group, for example by reading through the material for each meeting in advance and being willing to volunteer to read or contribute towards refreshments, as they are able;
• initially to lead group prayers and arrange for material to be photocopied, but then to move deliberately into a background position, drawing out others’ confidence;
• to gradually lead the group to trust in silence as well as in their own voice – if someone makes it clear that at first they’d just prefer to listen, that must be respected;
• to be a listening ear to anyone who needs to continue reflecting on something that has come up in the conversation – or to make sure that an appropriate contact is made with a church leader or friend.
All this may seem too much. Each companion, with his or her own particular skills and aptitude, will do what is possible! Indeed as time goes on and confidence builds in a group, the need for interventions will decrease. Filling this role with sensitivity brings immense rewards. Companions can experience a deep sense of accomplishment when the group generates laughter, tears, friendship and a sense of new confidence. My hope is that in developing this role the companions will become a resource for the future as well as deepening the capacity of their local church to listen and connect their lives to the active presence of God in the world. ‘May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit’ (Rom. 15.13).
This will include:
• Who will take part? Who is recruiting? Clarify the make-up of the group (e.g. gender, age, abilities, commitment).
• What will your church and the participants gain from taking part?
• If the conversations are to be fully productive, experience suggests that words alone will be insufficient. Some physical movement or activity needs to be introduced. The varied resources in Macy and Brown’s Coming Back to Life (2013) may offer a lead into this.
• Do you or participants have special interests (e.g. music or art) that could develop the material provided and make it more accessible?
• Decide beforehand how you will use the material. How much of it? Will you make it available to everyone or not?
• Where will the group meet and who will be the host? Consider how the group’s interactive power may be affected by this territorial decision. Would a neutral space be an advantage?
• Consider whether the chosen date and time will make it possible for people to attend (depending on the time of day and location) or if it conflicts with some other commitment of the local church.
• What ‘contract’ do you have with church leaders and participants to make genuine time and energy for this process and to monitor its progress?
• What style will you bring to the sessions? How will you meet your needs as companion for this learning? Companions need periodic support from someone with the capacity to understand the dynamic of the group or able to help consider alternative ways to present some part of the material.
(Adapted from Rifkin 2010, pp. 21–2)
The role of the host
Church council members or leaders will need to invite someone to host each conversation group – whether in church premises, a home or somewhere else. The host:
• needs to create a suitable space, in consultation with the companion;
• arranges that 15 minutes before the meeting is due to begin there are sufficient chairs arranged so that everyone can see one another’s faces and the temperature is comfortable;
• makes sure everyone is greeted by name and that people can be reminded of one another’s names in the way that seems best;
• watches out sensitively for anyone who leaves the group without warning or who joins after the group has initially formed;
• can invite others to share in the provision of whatever refreshments are decided upon (throughout the conversation outlines there are reminders of these tasks);
• negotiates with the companion whether there will there be music playing, perhaps a lighted candle;
• checks if anyone would be glad of a lift to and from the group.
To follow the God of Jesus Christ means to worship him, to be his friends, and to eat with him: in short to be his companions: that is the nature and destiny of humankind.
(Samuel Wells 2006, p. 1)
Practicalities to consider in advance
The host and the companion:
• will have met previously and familiarized themselves with the positive approaches to holistic change explored in Part 1;
• will meet at some point after the meeting – or speak on the phone or by email – to review how it went and to make plans for next time;
• will decide whether to create a simple summary sheet for participants, making selective use of the material provided (will it include the text of Scripture passages referred to in each conversation?).
• will negotiate with church leaders on how people are to be drawn into the group;
• will carefully prepare the space for the meeting and be ready in good time to welcome people by name as they arrive;
• will decide if there will be refreshments before starting, during the meeting or afterwards, and how that will enhance the whole experience.
Opening a conversation
At the advertised time, the host welcomes everyone, including the companion.
The companion helps the group agree about when the meeting will close, explaining that it will be possible for any who wish to stay on a while longer.
Who are we? It cannot be assumed that everyone will know the names of others. The companion leads the group in getting to know each other. This can be done by inviting each person to say their name. They might add some brief words of self-introduction and say what they’re hoping for or anxious about – this is an exercise in listening not a discussion! Essentially it sets a tone for how the group will interact.
• briefly explains to the group the purpose and style of the conversations;
• invites the group to recognize that churches always have critical questions and that these conversations may be a good place to consider such questions;
• helps the group to make a pact of confidentiality: we may take away anything we learn about God, ourselves, faith and church – but nothing personal about others in the group;
• encourages each member of the group to take responsibility for how things go by reading through the material for each meeting in advance and being willing to volunteer to read or contribute toward refreshments as she or he is able;
• makes available large-font copies of the Scripture reading and any other material chosen.
Welcome to a learning journey
Let me, for a moment, open the door into a conversation. Clustered around a space sit seven or eight people at different stages on the Christian journey. They might be in someone’s home, a pub, a shop, a church, a prison or a school. At the centre of the circle, on a coloured cloth, lies an informal arrangement of a lighted candle, a cross, a picture and an open book of the Gospels. As music fades away, someone offers a prayer, inviting the Holy Spirit’s active presence. The group sing or listen perhaps to one of Bernadette Farrell’s interpretations of a psalm. They listen carefully to a Scripture passage and begin a conversation with God and with one another on living as God’s beloved ones, in order to be a blessing to others.
• Here is a place to talk with, rather than be talked at.
• Here is a time to be present to one another in the light of God’s abundant ways with the world.
• Here is an opportunity to slow down and ask again how to respond to God’s call.
• Here it’s normal to be vulnerable, doubting, struggling and discovering. Mary, now in her eighties, laments cheerfully, ‘I thought that when I got to my age, all would become clear. But it hasn’t.’
• Here, untidily, are acceptance, laughter, tears, excitement and hope.
The Franciscan friar Richard Rohr concisely sums up the new opportunities for communal learning in a time when we are recognizing the limitations of passive, individualistic and merely head-centred education:
The form of education which most changes people in lasting ways has to touch them at a broader level than the thinking, reading mind can do. Somehow we need to engage in hands-on experience, emotional risk-taking, moving outside our comfort zones, with different people than our usual flattering friends. We need some expanded level of spiritual seeing or nothing really changes at a cellular or emotional level. Within minutes of entertaining a new idea, we quickly return to our old friends, our assured roles, our familiar neural grooves, our ego patterns of response, and we are back in business as usual.
(Adapted from Rohr 2012, pp. 43–4)
A pilgrim prayer
Although your spirit may not know where
your feet will carry your heart,
Another is coming to meet you,
and is searching for you
so that you can find him in the sanctuary
at the end of the pilgrimage,
in the sanctuary deep inside your heart.
(‘He Is Your Peace, He Is Your Peace’, carried by a South African pilgrim and presented at Refugio Gaucelmo, in Müller and de Aránguiz 2010, p. xxix)
5 Conversation 1: What is blessing?
The archetypal scriptural notion of blessing is found in the call of Abraham – ‘in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed’ (Genesis 12.3). The fulfillment of blessing comes in finding one has been a blessing to others.
(Samuel Wells 2006, p. 221)
Loving Father, we thank you for our lives, our faith and this opportunity to talk together. May your Spirit surround and encourage us as we meet and help us to listen to you and to one another. We pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.
Learning to abide in God’s love
As the Father has loved me,
so I have loved you; abide in my love.
If you keep my commandments,
you will abide in my love,
just as I have kept my Father’s
commandments and abide in his love.
I have said these things to you
so that my joy may be in you,
and that your joy may be complete . . .
I do not call you servants any longer,
because the servant does not know
what the master is doing;
but I have called you friends,
because I have made known to you
everything that I have heard from my Father.
(John 15.9–11, 15)
Someone in the group reads this passage slowly.
In a time of quiet, the companion invites everyone to pick a word that especially stands out.
After three minutes all are invited to tell the others – without interruption – which words they chose, and why. The passage is read a second time, and the companion invites a short exchange of responses and questions.
Food for the journey: blessing in everyday speech
In two groups, remember together phrases we often hear used about blessing. See how many you can add to this list.
• Bless you! (to save our soul escaping when we sneeze!)
• Bless! (on seeing someone coping despite problems).
• It was a mixed blessing.
• She was blessed with a strong singing voice.
• We were blessed with this terrible manager at work.
• Count your blessings!
• I’m blessed if I know!
Consider together for a minute or two:
• When have you felt blessed?
• When have others told you that you have been a blessing to them?
Now take a few moments to exchange your stories of blessing, paying careful and respectful attention to each person. When everyone has shared their experience, what positive questions might help to deepen their learning?
Take a break – time for refreshments?
Blessing in Scripture
Below is a brief reminder of how some of our ancestors in faith have lived in blessing.
For ten minutes, in twos or threes, choose one of the following passages and themes. Then share your findings.
• Beloved – knowing that we are God’s beloved: believed in, desired and affirmed by God (Luke 1.41–45, 46–47; 10.21–24; 11.28; 24.52–53).
• Liberated – the intimate movement between God and all creation (Eph. 1.3–14); God exercising power and respecting human freedom.
• God recreating the world – God’s present activity in the world, inviting human participation (Gen. 1.26–30; 2.18–19; Luke 24.47–53; Acts 3.25–26).
• God for us – God bringing newness through affirming and building up rather than threatening and defending against others (Luke 6.27–42; 23.24; Rom. 11.32; 12.14).
• Transformation – a breaking through to hope, reconciliation, service and joy. It is to be followers of Jesus in referring the whole of our living and dying to God the Father, in the most intimate way imaginable. Jesus refers to the Father as loving, generous, and boundlessly forgiving (Matt. 4.23–25; 10.40; 11.27; 18.15; John 15.15; Heb. 2.9, 14–18; 7.25, 27; 12.22–28).
• Commissioning – after the resurrection, Jesus entrusts the disciples with his own work, based on the pattern of his ministry. Fear and joy, praise and worship create an intensity that is a force for the world’s flourishing (Matt. 28.8–9, 17; Luke 24.41, 52).
• Community of God’s beloved – a community of unique disciples are called to be one in Christ, each delighting in the other to bring hope to the world (Matt. 6.12; John 13.20; 15.13; 17.17–19, 20–23; 21.15–17; Acts 2.43–47; Rom. 5.2–5; 1 Cor. 14.1; Eph. 1.3–14; Gal. 3.28; Col. 1.24; Heb. 13.15–16).
• Eucharistic living – to bless God is to enjoy and thank God for all our benefits and healing, as ways of being drawn towards God (Luke 17.11–19). The Rabbis of Jesus’ day used to teach that to benefit from food or shelter without blessing God was to rob God. Small eucharistic communities grow into and reveal a world transfigured in Christ.
(Note to the companion: you may choose to use this material over the course of more than one meeting and adapt the suggested timings as needed.)
The whole of Jesus’ ministry, to the cross and beyond, was a demonstration of God’s overwhelming blessing, against the odds.
Reflect on these passages:
I have said all these things to you while I am still with you. But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you. (John 14.25–26)
In the last days it will be, God declares,
that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,
and your sons and your daughters will prophesy,
and your young men shall see visions,
and your old men shall dream dreams.
In twos and threes, take one or two of the following questions and then share with the others:
• What would it mean for us to be the corporate body of the risen Christ – resonating with the words ‘The Lord is here!’ in us?
• How can we amaze ourselves by becoming a blessing to all those among whom we live?
• How does it help to recall that, thankfully, it is God who creates us as Church, occasionally with some help from us?
• What is your response to the idea that blessing – which includes praise, joy, thanksgiving, happiness, the final beatitude of creation – and our sense of being loved by God is the vital springboard for any plans we may have for making a better job of being Church?
• How far do you agree with the idea that God gives us more than enough to be God’s friends and witnesses?
• If you think you don’t believe you have enough ‘ministry’, would it help to consider whether you’re looking in the right place?
In the group:
• Tell of one thing we are especially proud of about our church life.
• In turn, ask each person how our church could become even more of a blessing.
• What else would be needed?
• Where would we find it?