Editor's note:

Mimi served as pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Golden, Colorado for 34 years. As part of a Renovare conference at George Fox University in June 2018, Mimi was asked by Richard Foster to share on her experience leading a community focused on spiritual transformation. The transcript is below.

Later in this conference Richard Foster gave his final major talk, Casting a Vision: The Past and Future of Spiritual Formation.

—Renovaré Team

As we begin our time together, I offer on all our behalf a prayer Dallas Willard prayed in his recently published book, Life Without Lack.

Lord Jesus Christ,
we are so thankful to You that You have said,
“Fear not, little flock,
for it is your Father’s good pleasure
to give you the kingdom.”
We are thankful for the ease with which You walked upon this earth,
the generosity and kindness You showed to people,
the devotion with which You cared for those
who were out of the way and in trouble,
the extent to which You even loved Your enemies
and laid down Your life for them.
We are so thankful to believe that this is a life for us,
a life without lack, a life of sufficiency.
It’s so clear in You, the sufficiency of Your Father
and the fullness of life that was poured through You,
and we’re so thankful that You have promised that same love,
that same life, that same joy, that same power for us.
Lord, slip up on us today.
Get past our defenses, our worries, our concerns.
Gently open our souls, and speak Your Word into them.
We believe You want to do it,
and we wait for You to do it now.
In Your name, amen.

“Imagine yourself as a living house.” C.S. Lewis wrote in Mere Christianity.

God comes in to rebuild that house. At first, perhaps, you can understand what He is doing. He is getting the drains right and stopping the leaks in the roof and so on; you knew that those jobs needed doing and so you are not surprised. But presently He starts knocking the house about in a way that hurts abominably and does not seem to make any sense. What on earth is He up to? The explanation is that He is building quite a different house from the one you thought of—throwing out a new wing here, putting on an extra floor there, running up towers, making courtyards. You thought you were being made into a decent little cottage: but He is building a palace. He intends to come and live in it Himself.

C.S. Lewis describes an experience that I expect is deeply familiar to us. I imagine that many of us became pastors with a certain idea in mind of what to expect, and it has turned out to be something quite different.

I became a Presbyterian pastor thirty-nine years ago; I’ve been in Golden, Colorado, for thirty-three of those years, serving as the pastor of First Presbyterian Church. In college I had a life-changing encounter with Jesus.

It was my hunger to know Him more deeply that drew me to seminary. Through the course of my studies, I heard Jesus asking if I would “come love His bride” as pastor of a church. I accepted, and He and I began what became a most unexpected journey.

The day before I was to be installed at the church in Colorado, I remember standing across the street with my father. He asked how long I thought I might stay at this church? I replied, “I would like to stay long enough to help shape a community devoted to Jesus that will be an encouragement to others.” It appears that the day I envisioned thirty-three years ago has arrived. I imagine that my father is smiling with me in that shared memory. Because of Jesus, it is a story worth telling.

As I began my ministry, almost immediately it seemed to me that nothing was what I had expected. From the outside, being responsible for a community of faith looked and felt very different than it did from the inside.

What I wanted was to communicate the presence and love of Jesus, but I could not tell if my efforts were having any effect. Even more concerning was the fact that my pastoral duties were requiring more and more of my time, which made it increasingly difficult to maintain my closeness to Jesus.

I was in over my head, and I didn’t know what to do.

Then a friend invited me to join her for a seven-day conference led by Richard Foster. That week Richard put language to my longing for Jesus—but what had the greatest impact was the example of Richard himself. He embodied an intimacy with God that shaped and informed all that he said and did.

I left the conference encouraged to recover my own lagging relationship with Jesus and ask Him to shape my ministry.

So who is that person for you? Who has encouraged you to keep your relationship with Jesus in first place?

Up to this point, my pastoral responsibilities had negatively impacted my relationship with Jesus. I was so busy working for Him, I had little time simply to be with Him. Richard helped me see that what people need most from us as pastors is to see Jesus.

Our people need to see us living our relationship with Him visibly and joyfully.

The first thing I learned about being the pastor of a transformative community is that as leaders, we go first.

Leaders Go First

Our people follow us into a deepening intimacy with our triune God. It does not happen any other way; we set the example by going first. We model for others what a life-with-God looks like in practice.

As we embrace the rhythms and disciplines of Jesus, the character of His life-with-God begins to manifest in us. “And as we let our own light shine,” Nelson Mandela said, “we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.”

People looking on begin see what is possible, and are drawn to follow our example.

Leaders go first.

So I started with our leadership body, the elders on session. I inherited what had historically been a contentious culture. The pastor who proceeded me encouraged engagement through confrontation.

I clearly remember my first leadership meeting. Whenever anyone brought up a subject for discussion, it immediately devolved into an argument about competing resources and values. Several of the leaders had special projects they wanted to support, and no matter what was being discussed at the moment, they would find a way to hijack the conversation and filibuster. The others seated around the table would push back their chairs, raise their hands in frustration, and look to me to take back control.

Determined to change the culture, I called and made an appointment with Dr. John Stevens, pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Colorado Springs.

I knew of Dr. Stevens by reputation. He had served his church for many years and was kind enough to give a young pastor some counsel and guidance. For four or five years running, I went down annually to share with Dr. Stevens what was going on in my church, and seek his advice. He helped me to understand that pastors always go first.

We model for others; we lead by example.

Surprisingly, it did not actually take that much time for the contentious culture among our leaders to become first a cooperative culture, then, finally, a close-knit fellowship characterized by communion.

Jean Vanier explains the distinction:

Communion with others is very different from collaboration or cooperation. When people collaborate, they work together toward the same end. There is a common goal, but there is not necessarily communion between them. They are not personally vulnerable one to another. When there is communion between people, they sometimes work together, but what matters to them is not that they succeed in achieving some goal, but simply that they find their joy in one another and deeply care for one another.

I asked the elders on session if they were willing to adopt a different approach to our gatherings and process of making decisions. When they agreed, we studied the spiritual disciplines to help us deepen in our relationship to God and to one another. We explored ways to listen for the leading of the Holy Spirit through a process of corporate discernment. We agreed to retreat together annually to practice silence, solitude, and study Scripture as a means to discern God’s will for our church in the coming year.

As we embraced this new direction, the entire nature and quality of our corporate interaction was transformed. We began to experience what Jean Vanier calls “communion.” Something was happening, and members of the congregation were curious. We were taking our first steps toward becoming a transformative community.

Every Sunday I preached from Scripture with a single purpose in mind: to help our people grow in intimacy with the Trinity and learn to easily and naturally do what Jesus would do in their place. We talked about what is possible in our life-with-God, and I helped our people to understand that there were things they could do to cooperate with the Holy Spirit in their personal transformation.

This meant adopting the rhythms and practices of Jesus, so we instituted a series of congregation-wide “experiments” to help our people “try on” the spiritual disciplines of Jesus.

For set periods of time we experimented with silence and solitude, prayer, tithing, fasting, meditation, study; we engaged in corporate “God hunts” to strengthen our ability to recognize where and how God is at work.

As people began to see that these things were within their reach, they developed an enthusiastic “I can do this!” attitude.

When the One Year Bible was introduced in 1986, everyone purchased a copy to read and re-read. For thirty-two years now we’ve marinated in God’s written word. This has had the greatest impact in shaping our communion.

We designed a course of spiritual formation classes with two purposes in mind:

  • To deepen our knowledge of God’s Larger Story and how we fit into it;
  • To give people a place to “work out their salvation” in the company of others.

We offered autumn, winter, and spring classes, and 80% of our people chose to participate. At every level, in every context, we explored and strove to implement our life-with-God.

We vetted and provided opportunities for people to put what they were learning into practice in acts of service. Everything we did and have done is geared toward a deeper intimacy with God that expresses itself in our relationships.

Our leaders have taken the lead, and the congregation willingly follows.

Spiritual Formation Occurs in Community

Which underscores another truth: significant spiritual formation occurs in community.

Formation in Christ is not something we can accomplish on our own. It requires personal vulnerability and a dogged perseverance.

Christoph Blumhardt suggests that one of the reasons that the church has had trouble staying together and on track is that the members want to convert the whole world before they themselves are fully converted. It is simply not possible to gather hundreds of thousands of people into common fellowship before the members themselves are ready for this.

A friend who teaches stringed quartets confirms this principle. She explains that if one member of a stringed quartet leaves and is replaced, the new person quickly adapts to the others. But if two members of the quartet leave and are replaced, everyone has to start all over again.

It appears that the transformative capacity of a group has a lot to do with critical mass — whether it be a stringed quartet or a church. Everyone has to be “all in;” everyone must be willing to see and be seen.

Jean Vanier confides,

Over the years, the people I live with in L’Arche have been teaching and healing me. They have been teaching me about my own fears and anguish, my fear of being devalued or pushed aside, my fear of opening up my heart and of being vulnerable or of feeling helpless in front of others. At particular moments of fatigue or stress, I’ve seen in myself the capacity to hurt someone who is provoking me! That, I think, is what causes me the most pain - to discover who I really am, and to realize that maybe I do not want to know who I really am! I do not want to admit to all the garbage inside me. And then I have to decide whether I will just continue to pretend that I am okay and throw myself into hyperactivity, projects where I can forget all the garbage and prove to others how good I am. We all want to look good. The important thing is to become conscious of those impulses in us and to work at being liberated from them and to discover that the worst enemy is inside our own hearts, not outside!

Roy Hession agrees,

The first effect of sin in our lives is always to make us try to hide what we are. The only basis for real fellowship with God and with one another is to live out in the open. Spurgeon defines it in one of his sermons as “the willingness to know and be known.” We must be as willing to know the truth about ourselves from our brother and sister as to know it from God. When the barriers are down and the masks are off, God has a chance of making us really one. There is also the added joy of knowing that in such fellowship we are “safe.” There is no fear now that others may be thinking thoughts about us or having reactions toward us, which they are hiding from us.

The requirement stressed by both Jean Vanier and Roy Hussien is safety.

People can risk being transparent only when they know that they are safe. And safety takes time to develop—lots of time.

We discovered that significant transformation occurs over the course of years, not months. It may be possible in a few months to grow a squash, but it take years to grow an oak tree.

We were surprised to discover that transformation takes time; we were also surprised to learn that the process is not linear.

Transformation is Not Linear

Early on, I expected that change would occur steadily over time, like a long, slow crescendo, and that it would be visibly measurable: there would be more of this, less of that. But our experience has been that significant growth often remains concealed until some precipitous event exposes it—like a crisis or a sudden loss. As a consequence, transformation is exceedingly difficult to measure.

Blaise Pascal observed that when everything is moving at once, as on board a ship, nothing appears to be moving. Lacking a fixed point of reference to mark our passage, we cannot tell how we are doing or how far we have come.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer offers this perspective:

Only God knows the real state of our corporate sanctification. What may appear weak and trifling to us may be great and glorious to God. Just as the Christian should not be constantly feeling his spiritual pulse, so, too, the Christian community has not been given to us by God for us to be constantly taking its temperature. The more thankfully we daily receive what is given to us, the more surely and steadily will fellowship increase and grow from day to day as God pleases.

Community shaped by transparent communion develops slowly over time as we submit to the transforming work of the Holy Spirit among us.

For our part, we choose to be authentic; we choose to be vulnerable; we choose to stay. Staying put in community is essential for transformation to occur, which is why Benedictine monks make stability their first vow.

I participate in three intentional communities.

The first is Renovare. For over twenty years, this disbursed community has been a spiritual home to me.

My second community is comprised of eight church leaders from the Denver-metro area who meet bi-monthly for reflection on Scripture and fellowship.

My third community is the pastors in Golden. We meet weekly to pray and listen for the voice of the Spirit.

Stable community where we are safe enough to be vulnerable with one another and speak into each other’s lives is a requirement for spiritual transformation to occur—both our own and that of the communities we serve.

The Narrowing Way

A third truth I have learned about pastoring a transformative community, concerns this warning from Jesus:

Enter by the narrow gate; for wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction and there are many who go in by it. But the way to life is very narrow and the road is difficult; and only a few find it. —Matthew 7:13-15

Jesus warns that this road we choose is a narrow way. In my experience, it is a narrow path that keeps narrowing as we go along. Circumstances squeeze us, like a toothpaste tube, forcing what is hidden inside to the surface. Because of this, a transformative community should expect to experience set-backs and losses.

Arthur Gish says,

We cannot simply come together and carry the cancer of the old society with us. Community is only possible to the extent that we leave our old selves behind and are cleansed. God keeps asking more of us than we are able to give. After it seems like we have given every last bit of ourselves and our energy, God still asks more of us. But every time it happens, God gives us a new strength we never expected. The Christian calling is a cross on which all our desires, ambitions, and possessions are put to death. It means surrender, yieldedness, vulnerability, serenity, and peace. It is the meekness of those who have been broken by the Spirit.

Being part of a transformative community is accepting an invitation to “come and die.” The process is messy; it is a death scene, and that is never pretty.

When I first started down this narrowing road, I expected that any opposition and resistance we might face would come from outside the fellowship. As a consequence, I was completely unprepared for what happened.

After over fifteen years of development as a transformative community, some of my friends in the church organized with the expressed intent to challenge my leadership and our commitment to transformation. They contended that my emphasis upon Jesus and spiritual formation to be like Him was unrealistic, a goal that no one could achieve.

They argued that if I would focus less on Jesus and the cross, if I would support a more pluralistic approach, our church would benefit.

As members of the group pressed their case with our elected leaders and sympathetic parishioners, the session, members of staff, and I did our best to listen.

We brought their concerns to the Lord in extended times of confession and prayer. It is impossible to convey just how discouraged we were.

For my part, I labored under two unexamined expectations. The first was that I believed it was my job as pastor to keep the community happy and together. It was my job to give everyone a voice and a place to stand.

My second unexamined expectation was that anyone who saw Jesus would fall in love with Him — as I had done. They would see Jesus and love Him. The result? Revival! But it felt like it was all coming apart.

I took the blame. My prayer life collapsed into five repetitive words: Jesus, I am so sorry. With all my heart, I had wanted to show them Jesus. Despite all my effort, I had failed.

I went away on sabbatical for three months. During that time, Jesus put this Humpty Dumpty back together again. I returned from that extended period of silence, solitude, and prayer in a different place than I had been when I left. This is some of what I learned:

  • Jesus told me that the conflict was happening not because I had failed to present Him, but because I had presented Him clearly, and people where choosing. Jesus said: People get to choose.
  • Jesus explained that it is my job to introduce others to Him, but then what people do after that is between them and Him: It is none of my business.
  • Jesus assured me that I was right where He wanted me to be, doing what He wanted me to do: Just keep going, He said, and take courage.

When I returned from sabbatical and gathered the leadership body, I encouraged us to keep our hearts open and attentive to what the Spirit was doing; to trust God for the outcome.In the months that followed, things got a lot worse as the crisis slowly came to a head.

But what I can say now about that period—with humility and deep gratitude—is that the Holy Spirit used the momentum of opposition to expose the reality of our helplessness, obliging us to spend more time in prayer and dialogue, making us understand that the community is more than just a human reality, that it requires the Spirit of God to live and deepen.

Jean Vanier contends that Tensions often mark the necessary step toward a greater unity. Every tension, every crisis, can become a source of new life if we approach it wisely, or it can bring death and division.

Our crisis, which lasted nearly two years, drove me and our church deep into prayer and strengthened our reliance upon God. We emerged from the conflict in a stronger position than we entered it. And finally, thank God, our long winter thawed into a springtime of promise.

Which introduces another hard-won lesson: formation includes seasons.

The Seasons of Formation

Our “winter” of conflict felt barren. Cold. Unrelenting. Dark.

Overcome by dismay, we had little energy for anything else. On the surface it appeared that nothing good was happening, everything appeared to have frozen in place. The Holy Spirit gave us strength to endure the onslaught of controversy with grace.

As our winter thawed into spring, beneath the soil, our roots were stretching deep into the Trinity, and at the heart of our fellowship, another ring was growing; signs of new life began to emerge. We reveled in the sheer abundance of God’s goodness. We basked in it and sang the songs of Zion.

As summer turned to autumn, we reaped the abundance of summer’s fruit and began to replenish our depleted reserves. Our current season is characterized by a shared sense of deep gratitude.

But early on, we didn’t know to expect conflict. We didn’t know to expect seasons in our formation. So when winter arrived, we were confused and profoundly discouraged. We did not understand the importance of pruning, of diminishment. We did not know that winter, as fruitless and desolate as it appeared to be, was giving us the opportunity to build our core strength and spiritual resiliency. 

Today, while we may not exactly welcome the season, we understand the value and importance of winters’ sabbath. A transformative community learns how to read the seasons, what to expect, and which of the disciplines are specific to the challenges and opportunities of a given season.

I will pause here to reflect on a couple of questions.

  • Which season are you personally inhabiting right now?
  • Which best characterizes that of your congregation?
  • The winter of pruning and deepening your dependence on God?
  • The spring of preparation and planting?
  • The summer of fruitfulness and growth?
  • The autumn of reaping, gathering, and giving thanks?

Why are you here?

Might it be to identify the season of your formation and those disciplines particular to where you are?

A transformative community is perpetually watching and listening for where and how God is present. We are grounding our smaller story in God’s Larger Story, we persist in prayer, we practice forbearance, and extend hospitality.

We name and celebrate the particular talents of individual members which are like tiny stones that form a great mosaic, a masterpiece greater than itself. With increasing clarity, we can identify the gift in each other and call it forth in service.

Together, we are getting well, and we carry that wellness with us into the world.

God’s Call to Bring Wellness to the World

Which brings us to my final observation about being a transformative community.

Any careful reader of the Gospels is bound to be struck by the obvious effort of Jesus to make His hearers understand the nature of His cause. He told His followers that they were the salt of the earth, that they were the light of the world, that He had turned over to them the keys of the kingdom.

At first the variety of these figures is puzzling, but a powerful insight comes when we realize, suddenly, what they all have in common.

The purpose of salt is to penetrate the meat and thus preserve it. The function of light is to penetrate the darkness. Keys open doors!

These illustrations make absolutely clear what the function of Christ’s company is meant to be.

God’s plan is that our life-with-Him find expression in compassionate identification with our neighbors, with the poor and the marginalized—our lives poured out in compassionate service.

The church is never true to itself when it is living for itself; its main responsibility is always outside its own walls in the redemption of common life.

To summarize, I have learned several things about pastoring a transformative community:

  • Leaders must go first,
  • Spiritual formation occurs in community,
  • Transformation is not a linear process,
  • It is a narrow way that continues to narrow as we go along,
  • There are seasons in formation, and
  • It is God’s intent that we carry our wellness into the world as salt and light.

This is what I have learned as pastor of a transformative community.

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