By Jim Hunter
Most of us can pinpoint a time in our journey when God’s Spirit was allowed to break through the ordinary of the everyday. Some, like me, will admit that it’s been a while, maybe years, since such an awe-inspiring spiritual awareness has been present. Sure, I’ve been with people of faith who have admitted a special re-connection with the divine; and I’ve been witness to those who have come to a relationship with Jesus from no particular connection to anything of faith.
Yes, I am a pastor. So isn’t it my job to have constant, open connection to God? The simple answer is yes, but my recent experience at a Dawnings retreat helped me explore facets that I have been missing from both my personal and professional life in faith.
It didn’t take long for me to realize Dawnings isn’t the typical program we in church work have come to expect from visioning gurus. I’ll admit I spent a few moments thumbing through the retreat journal in search of the materials order page. I just couldn’t believe there was no prescribed playbook for bringing this idea to fruition within the church. Yes, I’ve been through a few playbook approaches.
Instead, the retreat began with an invitation to seek God. This sounds simple enough, but the Dawnings experience invites the individual to approach church through allowing God to shape the vision through prayer, silence, reading, listening, holy conversation, worship and journaling. So often I have approached the church through shaping a vision with thoughtful, calculated planning, and then engage God by asking God to bless the plan.
Sure there’s a plan with Dawnings; but the plan isn’t a playbook, and the plan isn’t primary. That’s where my divine conversation began.
During a colloquy exercise we Dawnings retreat participants were invited to engage Jesus in a dialogue which reflected what Jesus might be doing and thinking as he watches the life of our churches. My dialogue began with Jesus stating he hadn’t given up on my church. This spiritual realization addressed the fears and failings the church I serve has been focused on over the past few years. Declining attendance, apathy within the ranks, trips down memory lane to better times; so what’s the plan, pastor? How do we fix this? Sound familiar?
My spiritual dialogue continued with questions I have regarding my own feeling of hopelessness regarding the church’s future, as well as my feelings of inadequacy as a leader in the church. Through colloquy I began to hear an answer from Jesus which both refreshed and relaxed me, “Let me lead.” Each query produced the same answer, “Let Me lead.” So, the following Sunday, I did.
Prior to the Dawnings retreat I had put the finishing touches on a sermon from Matthew’s take on the Parable of the Lost Sheep. The original sermon sought to address our challenge to be aware of God’s penchant for those who go astray, but didn’t ring as true after my Dawnings experience. Early Sunday morning I had an epiphany regarding the message for the worship service, and it wasn’t to go ahead with the original plan. After attempting the rest of that morning to talk myself out of the epiphany and back to the plan, I set my sermon notes aside, and shared my heart.
I talked about the truths of my spiritual journey. I talked about the fears and disappointments I shared with many of them who have a life wish for the church. I talked about connections between the Parable of the Lost Sheep and the church’s challenges to serve those who have gone astray. I talked about my epiphany that what the church needs is a God-shaped vision, rather than church shaped plan, and the assurance we have that God is present. It was exhausting and exciting. The people responded to this honest, risky approach with affirmations that my emphasis on God’s vision was shared among them as well. While shaking hands in the narthex one church member shared with me that since my arrival just over a year ago she had taken on the task of praying for me each day, and that her prayer is for God to lead me as I help lead the church. She said, “After today’s message I felt that this was the right day to tell you.”
There’s no playbook, and no predicting what the Dawnings retreat experience will do to refresh the faith. That’s the God part, the unpredictable presence of the Primary from whom our hopes and dreams find footing.
Jim Hunter is the pastor of Peakland Baptist Church in Lynchburg, Va. He attended a Dawnings retreat this spring in Virginia.