Introductory Note:

The use of symbols and rituals may feel unfamiliar or uncomfortable to some folks who have not spent much time in sacramental church contexts. But one of the treasures of the Incarnational Stream is an appreciation for physical matter, embodied actions, and transcendent art that helps us interact with a God who is Spirit.

The prophets often warned against empty ritual—ritual for tradition’s sake and ritual devoid of meaning. But ritual can also be rich with meaning. Professor, pastor, and Renovaré Institute teacher, Rev. Dr. Kurtley Knight, has written an essay for our readers on how very meaningful rituals and stories can be for people experiencing disorientation in their lives.

Renovaré Team

Spiritual Leadership in an Age of Disorientation

Our church was preparing to return to indoor worship after meeting in parks for eighteen months due to the threat of Covid-19. Needing to find a way to both mark the transition and make meaning of our exile outdoors, the lead pastor and I led worshippers in an ancient symbolic practice on our final Sunday in the park. 

We handed out stones that day to everyone in attendance. Then after sharing in a short liturgy, we invited each person to a spot just behind the altar to lay their stones in commemoration of God’s faithfulness. Adults, youth, children, even visitors — everyone came forward. I will never forget one woman who came to place her stone with tears in her eyes. Laying the smooth rock on the stack of others, she looked at me and said, I haven’t cried at church in years.” 

Despite the disruption of the times and the disorientation of the place, something powerful happened that day. This simple act helped people to encounter God. Upon reflection, I believe an essential function of spiritual leadership was enacted—naming spiritual reality. 

The Importance of Naming

Today much of leadership is about developing. Whether directly or indirectly, we are encouraged to develop programs, grow people, and establish structures. This is good, as we are called to go and make (or develop) disciples (Matt 28:19 – 20).

Yet spiritual leaders are called explicitly to the often-forgotten task of naming, as a way of helping people notice and engage with the world beyond the senses — with that which is invisible and nonmaterial — especially with the presence of God. Interestingly, one of the first things God invited Adam to do in the creation narrative was to name the animals as an acknowledgment of God’s creative work (Gen 2:19 – 20). In another example, after Joshua led the children of Israel across the Jordan, he commanded the people to lay stones from the middle of the river in their camp as a way to name God’s miraculous provision of safe passage (Joshua 4). In yet another episode, after God delivered the Israelites from the Philistines the prophet Samuel constructed a memorial called Ebenezer” (Rock of Help) to name God’s intervention (1 Sam 7:12). In each of these cases, naming was the way of pointing to a deeper reality — the spiritual reality of God’s active, faithful presence. 

This type of leadership is critical in today’s disoriented and distraught world. The pandemic and the watershed cultural moments of the last several years have caused confusion and hopelessness. As a result, many people in our worshiping communities are left wondering what they can trust, what is real.

In this space, the role of the spiritual leader is to cultivate spiritual meaning. One way to do this is to name where the Holy One is actively at work so that people do not miss God. Holding the sacramental frame open, our job is to help people see ordinary spaces and events as opportunities for sacred connection. We can name the spiritual reality of God’s active presence for people through narrative and ritual.

Naming Through Narrative 

That last Sunday in the park was preceded by months of storytelling. In public and personal conversations, the lead pastor began to depict our worshiping outdoors as a type of wilderness wandering,” with God as our guide. The lectionary was a primary resource in shaping this story, as many of the Old Testament readings narrated Israel’s wilderness experience. Week after week, we heard the sacred accounts of God’s provision for the Hebrew people in the liminal space between Egypt and the Promised Land. In fact, we became so enculturated by the stories that we began to adopt the biblical vocabulary. As the setup crew began their weekly service, they would sometimes quip, I guess the pillar of cloud has us here today.” And when we had to encamp” in a new park, the lead pastor would draw a connection to our spiritual predecessors in Israel, often saying something like, Look at this cathedral that God has provided for us!” The heap we built on that last Sunday had spiritual meaning because we were already living a similar story. 

The truth is that the narratives we tell shape our awareness of spiritual reality. From the words we use to define the gospel, to the scriptures we select to preach from, even the church vision statements we articulate — all of these provide people with interpretive language. The stories we tell provide the frame by which we see the world. Thus, the role of spiritual leadership is not to fabricate a new narrative but to continually point towards the grand story that God is writing in and among his people.

At a time when a plethora of cultural narratives compete for the minds of God’s people, providing them with alternative interpretations of their lived experience, it is up to spiritual leaders to name the spiritual reality through the stories we tell. These narratives form the individual and collective identity of the people we lead, giving them vocabulary and theological categories to imagine a different way to interpret the world.”1 In our disoriented age, this is a critical function of Christian leadership. 

Naming Through Ritual 

The same power of naming through narrative can also be attributed to rituals. If narratives are the oral means by which spiritual reality can be explored, then rituals are the visual means used to seek meaning. As JR Woodward describes, rituals are procedures or routines that are fused with meaning.”2

The communal act of piling up stones after a long collective struggle was a ritual that helped us frame our experience within the overarching narrative of God-with-people. Together we had lived through a pandemic, an uncertain economy, historic wildfires (that destroyed some of the property of those within our community), and a contentious presidential election. There was much to commemorate. As individuals and as a community, we knew God had been our Provider.

The ritual that helped name the spiritual reality among us also helped to name that same reality within us. Something became clear and poignant for the woman who cried when she placed her stone on the heap. The ritual performed in community served as an invitation for worshippers to discern and give thanks for the numerous provisions of God in their own lives. As the stones were being laid, I overheard several testimonies of what God was doing in our lives: families relaying their thankfulness to each other, people who live alone describing their gratitude for friends who had visited during isolation, and elderly men and women expressing thanks to God for the church members who had stayed in contact with them throughout the pandemic. The ritual provided a sacramental lens to discern and name the invisible nearness and tenderness of God, incarnated in the tangible care of community members. 

The Eucharist (Communion or The Lord’s Supper) is the central ritual of the Christian faith. But it is not the only one. The Bible is filled with examples of rituals designed by God and inspired by God that use visible means to connect humans with invisible realities. As spiritual leaders, we can harness ancient rituals and develop new rituals born out of the lives, stories, and contexts of our faith communities. These sensory experiences can provide the people of God with new ways to interpret their lived experiences while inviting them deeper into union with the Trinity. 

In times of disorientation, what our churches and communities need most are leaders who can discern the presence and name the provision of the living Christ within and among us. 

  1. Scott Cormode, Making Spiritual Sense: Christian Leaders as Spiritual Interpreters (Eugene, OR: 2013), 11. ↩︎
  2. JR Woodward, Creating a Missional Culture: Equipping the Church for the Sake of the World (Downers Grove: IL, 2012), 38. ↩︎

Photo by Artem Kniaz on Unsplash

Text First Published January 2022 · Last Featured on January 2022