People at Trinity Episcopal Church Moorestown are already trying new things. The vestry does bible study at each of their meetings; “Friends with Jesus” groups meet regularly; the Paul classes on Sunday morning continue with rich discussions. In private conversations with Mother Emily, parishioners express their desire to explore ways toward deeper spiritual understanding.
In the Episcopal Church today, there is clear evidence that spiritual growth is the center of every kind of growth for a congregation: attendance, participation, volunteering, giving, everything. The promises we make in the Baptismal Covenant ground us in a journey of spiritual growth. Growth, change, and movement are part of the Christian story from day one. Trinity Church is a part of that story.
Spiritual growth can be a new, possibly uncomfortable idea for many of us. But the Book of Common Prayer calls us to spiritual growth in the Baptismal Vows we renew for ourselves at every baptism, and our promise to help the newly baptized to grow in the full stature of Christ. Our faith rests in spiritual growth.
Another way to understand spiritual growth is to compare it to our physical health. To take care of ourselves physically, we cannot just go to the doctor once a year for a check up. We have to actively participate: exercise, eat well, and take medication. It is the same for spiritual health. Weekly church attendance is not enough to take care of ourselves spiritually. Spiritual growth calls for our active participation.
In the fall of 2018, after thought, discussion, and prayer, the rector and vestry determined to undertake an organized process to assist Trinity in both making a difference in our congregation’s spiritual life, and facilitating a deeper relationship with God. They committed to working with Forward Movement’s program RenewalWorks.
In January and February of 2019, 162 congregants participated in the Spiritual Life Inventory. Based on our average Sunday attendance of 188, our response rate was 86%. That’s more than double the standard response rate! The strength of our response is an indicator that we are ready for resources for spiritual growth.
Mother Emily appointed a committee of fourteen parishioners to study, and analyze the data derived from the program and the results of RenewalWorks’ assessment of Trinity’s Spiritual Life Inventory (SLI). The committee prepared a report that was presented to the vestry in May 2019.
What We Learned
Based on data from hundreds of thousands of survey respondents from over 2,500 congregations of all denominations (including nearly 300 Episcopal congregations), RenewalWorks has mapped the spiritual journey as a movement between four stages of spiritual life:
Exploring Life with God (about 19% of Episcopalians, 27% of Trinity survey respondents)
In this first stage, people are taking their first steps in an intentional spiritual journey, exploring basic beliefs and practices. They believe in God but may not be sure who Jesus is for them. Faith is probably not yet a significant part of their life.
Growing a Life with God (about 56% of Episcopalians, 51% of Trinity survey respondents)
In this stage, people are more committed to their Christian faith, but still have a lot of questions. They believe in Jesus and are working on what it means to follow him. Their faith is closely linked to their church community.
Deepening in Life with God (about 21% of Episcopalians, 20% of Trinity survey respondents)
This stage is more dedicated to spiritual practices outside of the church (like reading the Bible at home, taking time in prayer and solitude). They feel close to God and depend on God’s power and presence in their lives.
Life with God in the Center (about 4% of Episcopalians, 2% of Trinity survey respondents)
Faith is at the center of life and guides everything they do for people at this stage. They may talk about giving their life to Christ, or to God.
These stages aren’t meant to categorize or define people, but as a road map for growing deeper and stronger and more joyful in our faith and spiritual life no matter where we seem to be on the journey. People at the centered stage keep growing just as much as people in any other stage, and people move at different paces. Growth isn’t linear. We all wander off, drift backward at times, and sometimes make great leaps. This road map is meant to help us understand how to support and encourage one another all along the journey.
Further data from the survey, analysis from RenewalWorks, and discussions from four workshops with the RenewalWorks team resulted in the following conclusions:
- Trinity Moorestown is typical of many Episcopal Churches. We are highly educated, suburban, have higher than average annual incomes and have an average tenure in the parish of more than 10 years. We are also typical of a healthy, functional congregation.
- Trinity’s members have an expressed interest in maintaining the status quo and are quite comfortable with our current situation. This is not unusual in congregations that haven’t previously been invited on a spiritual journey. We are “habituated” and “accustomed” to our practices and not seeking dramatic changes while we are open to spiritual growth, with interest in growing spiritually through relationships with others, new engagement with scripture, developing our prayer lives and relationship with Jesus, and thought-provoking worship in the Episcopal tradition.
- Trinity parishioners express strong positive feelings toward our clergy, staff, wardens, vestry, and lay ministry leaders. This trust provides a strong foundation for initiating some simple changes and rejuvenating the overall spiritual health of our congregation.
- As Trinity begins our journey toward spiritual growth the leadership team must model a firm commitment to increasing opportunities for learning and for active participation for a greater number of our congregation.
- In order to begin our deeper spiritual journey we must concentrate on our core Episcopal beliefs and practices found in the Bible and The Book of Common Prayer. A deeper understanding of all that we do will help us live out our baptismal vows.
Take a look at the posters around the church for a visual representation of the RenewalWorks spiritual growth pattern that was described above.
Keep your eyes open for some new resources, opportunities, and initiatives coming in early June from the RenewalWorks team, based on what we learned about the best practices of spiritually healthy and growing congregations, and on what Trinity is already seeking spiritually.
The spiritual journey upon which we embark is not an endpoint or defined destination but rather an ongoing discovery of our faith which continues throughout this life and the next. Let us join together joyfully as we move ever forward into greater communion with God, with each other and with the world.
Your RenewalWorks Team:
Julie Bathke, Melissa Clemmer, Simone Cochrane, Megan Culbertson, Joan Dighton, Bob Litsinger, Bruce Lovejoy, Bill McBride, Jim Morley, Esther Pearson, Don Smith, Steve Sweet, Cora Williams;
led by Kristina Van Name and Mother Emily Mellott
Keep reading and view the next summary: RENEWAL WORKS: PLANS FOR SPIRITUAL GROWTH AT TRINITY