General CBF

Personal Prayer Retreat – Ministers as Spiritual Guides and Churches as Schools of Love

By Tommy Bratton

Hinson and Sears

Dr. E. Glenn Hinson, emeritus professor of Spirituality and John Loftis Professor of Church History at Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond, Va., and Johnny Sears, Director of the Academy for Spiritual Formation, The Upper Room

I often function in survival mode. It is easy to get caught up in what Quaker mystic Thomas Kelly describes as “our absurdly crowded calendars of appointments through which so many pantingly and frantically gasp.” When I step back and when I am honest, I must admit that I am easily distracted from listening to God and from seeing the world as God sees.

The pre-Assembly Personal Prayer Retreat gave me the opportunity to re-center myself, to step back from my busyness and to recognize the presence of God’s Spirit that is always near.

On Monday, over 40 participants gathered in Greensboro to glean from the wisdom of Dr. E. Glenn Hinson, one of the most respected teachers of Christian spirituality in Baptist life, and Johnny Sears, who serves at the Director of The Academy for Spiritual Formation at The Upper Room.

The three-day retreat, jointly sponsored by CBF, the Baptist Seminary of Kentucky and The Upper Room Academy for Spiritual Formation, followed the grace-filled rhythm of prayer and worship, lecture and learning, silence and reflection, rest and holy conversation.

Our guiding theme throughout the retreat was the desperate need for contemplation, best understood as attentiveness to God, in a world that values action and serves up a myriad of distractions that compete for our attention.

Retreat participants were challenged to deepen our calling to be spiritual guides rather than utilitarian producers. As spiritual guides who care for the souls of others, we were reminded that it is vital for us to do our inner work that we might live from the depths of our center, reminded of our identity as beloved children of God.

Sears acknowledged that some may view spiritual practices as just another item to check off their “to do” list. Rather, he defined spiritual practice as those things that help us “stay awake and keep us attentive to God’s presence in our lives and in the world.”

We explored the importance of crafting a “Rule of Life,” or rhythm for living our days, exploring how we relate to time. Time becomes a gift to be received, rather than a task-master. In the rhythms of our daily, ordinary lives, we create markers to help us pay attention to God’s presence in our lives and in the lives of others.

Quoting Sister Kathleen Flood, Sears suggested we need to shift our understanding of how we function in the world. Flood says, “Instead of being in the world for God, be in God for the world.” Being in God begins with Jesus’ own challenge to us in John 15 to abide in him and allow his love and energy to flow through our lives.

Dr. Hinson later shared the essence of his life-long spiritual quest by quoting theologian Henry Nelson Weiman, who said, “We ought to live each moment as if all eternity converged upon it.”

Because Baptist sources have not traditionally focused on mindfulness and contemplation, Hinson turned toward other, unexpected sources such as Fr. Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk, and Douglas Steer, a Quaker philosopher.

“Attentiveness to God is,” Hinson learned, “what spirituality is all about.” He suggested practices that cultivate attentiveness may include spending time with people who are hurting, getting to know God through nature, reflecting on history and the experiences of our lives and drawing back to spend time in solitude and silence.

As we mature in our attention to God, our Inner Guide helps us integrate contemplation and action so that we might open up to God and others in every moment. When we do our inner work, we tap into the energy of love. The goal is that all of life becomes a prayer, so that God’s love flows from us.

Jesus taught us to love God with all our heart, soul, strength and mind and our neighbor as ourselves (Luke 10:27). This invitation means that a vital and healthy spirituality will balance experiential, intellectual, social, and institutional dimensions.

Sometimes, however, our churches and institutions seem to function in survival mode. They become easily caught up in the business model of increasing numbers, growing budgets, and improving facilities. Churches also may find it difficult at times to accept the wideness of God’s mercy.

Following the language of St. Bernard of Clairvaux, a 12th Century monk, Hinson suggested that churches would do well to think of themselves as schola caritatis, or “schools of love.” This reframing of the church’s purpose sets an intention to practice “the Christian life in a way that opens up persons and communities to the transforming effects of God’s abiding love and presence.” It is remembering the why of church and the practices of ministry.

Hinson says, “As schools of love, churches can create a culture of confirming what is deepest in others by attention, acceptance, association, and affirmation.”

So my challenge this week is to pay attention to God’s Spirit, to seek to confirm what is deepest in others, and to abide in Christ’s love and grace.

The Academy for Spiritual Formation was founded in 1983 and offers experiences of disciplined Christian community emphasizing holistic spirituality — nurturing body, mind, and spirit. Those who have attended either the Five-Day Academy or the Two-Year Program talk about how it was life-changing and life-giving. To learn more about the Academy for Spiritual Formation, visit

Tommy Bratton is the Minister of Christian Formation at First Baptist Church of Asheville in the beautiful mountains of western North Carolina. He presently serves on the CBF Ministries Council.

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