Seekers Church: Case Study of a Progressive Christian Community|
Pat Conover, Ph.D.
New Wineskins Press
12 Wessex Rd.
Silver Spring, MD 20910
Copyright 2008 by Pat Conover
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Table of Contents
This Table of Contents was developed for the printed version of this document. It is presented here to give an overview and position of the contents to assist in finding desired topics. Any page numbers found in this document do not neatly correspond to the numbers found in this Table of Contents.
Personal Background 3
The Emergence of Seekers Church 5
Describing Seekers as a Progressive Christian Community 6
Mission Groups 9
Paid Leadership 11
Seekers Culture 13
Formal Culture 14
Informal Culture 18
Making it Work 22
All Ministers, No Clergy 26
Community, Network, and System 34
Philosophical and Theological Reflection 37
Seekers Church: Case Study of a Progressive Christian Community
This paper is intended to help people who don't know Seekers Church to gain some understanding of the distinctive way that Seekers understands itself and acts as a church.i While it is written for those who might want to grow in relating to Seekers, it is also written to encourage other congregations that are seeking revitalization or transformation, to contribute to networking with other progressive Christian churches, to students of ecclesiology (the study of church forms), and to sociologists or anthropologists of religion. Hopefully it will also be of some value to Seekers Church as it continues to grow in understanding and comfort with following the path it has begun. Above all else, I hope that this paper is one more witness to the creativity of God, God not captured by leaky old wine skins. Seekers is one kind of new wineskin but the value is not in the container.
Every Seeker has taught me something important and I thank them all. Special thanks go to those who read the first draft and gave me comments. Liz Gould-Leger helped me with copy-editing but the text has been changed since her work and any English flaws you find are my own. Seekers is gifted with at least ten substantive editors who provided comments that much improved this paper.
I do not claim that my perceptions or opinions represent a consensus point of view in Seekers. I certainly do not claim that at points of disagreement within Seekers that I’m right and others are wrong. It is part of the essence of Seekers as a community that our points of view are always under development. We have learned how to be and how to act before everything is fully clarified, before full agreement has been reached. This paper is one such example.
I bring my sociological and ecclesiological perspectives to this writing and, as you will see, the paper has the strengths and weaknesses of being a participant-observer document.
Seekers Church: A Christian Community in the Tradition of the Church of the Saviour, has a thirty-two year history as a successful expression of a distinctive way to be a Christian Church.ii In 2008 we have about fifty-three active adult members, including a core group of seventeen Stewards (see pages 8 and following), and usually about a dozen visitors, inquirers, and occasional participants involved in Sunday worship or other activities. We own an extensively renovated small building, and have an operating budget of about $280,000 a year. We have six part-time staff, including three who are part of a Servant Leadership Team, and no one in the clergy role (see pages 26 and following). The roles of preaching, teaching, liturgical leadership, church administration, and pastoral care are shared by a mix of stewards and members. We are commonly described as a high-commitment church. A summary of the sociological and ecclesiological factors that point to the distinctiveness of Seekers begins on pages 13. One early guide is that I see Seekers as grounded more in relationships than in programs.
I have experienced and observed vital worship, transformational conversations, deep friendships, searching inquiry, significant ministry, powerful healing and pastoral care, and a lot of fun in Seekers. The basic documents of Seekers Church are available through www.seekerschurch.org. Marjory Zoet Bankson has written an excellent historical analysis: Seekers Church: The First Thirty Years. Seekers Church has been described and discussed in Paul Wilkes’ book, Excellent Protestant Congregations, and in Hal Taussig’s book, A New Spiritual Home: Progressive Christianity at the Grass Roots.iii Seekers is progressive in the way it deals with Christian theology, in the liveliness of its worship, in the incorporation of the arts, and in pursuing justice and peace.
The orienting theme of this paper is that Seekers is an intentional community kind of alternate institution rather than a voluntary organization, the common form of organization of nearly all Christian congregations in the United States and most non-profit organizations as well.iv Voluntary associations have membership, an elected board of directors or its equivalent, and a paid executive director (paid clergy in the church form). To understand Seekers it is more important to understand our culture than our structure. This paper explores the distinctiveness of Seekers' structures, such as the tension between being intentional and being a community. But the center of social reality for Seekers is more in metaphors than guidelines, more in habits of listening than declarations, more in trust and caring than professional pastoral skills, more in perspective (mythology) than doctrine.v
A little personal background may help you, the reader, assess whether you want to bother with reading this and to have some sense of the biases I bring to the task if you continue on. It seems important to me to keep this section in the paper because I write more as a participant-observer and less as an external objective sociologist. You can also skip this section and move on to "The Emergence of Seekers," which begins on page 5.
I was concerned about, or involved in, alternative approaches to Christianity from my high school years on.vi In my Presbyterian youth group I learned about Koinonia Partners that was founded by Clarence Jordan.vii In the 1950s Clarence Jordan was a lighthouse for Southern anti-racist Christians. Stories of his face-offs with the Ku Klux Klan were legendary. I was also intrigued by his approach to Christian organizing. Koinonia Partners has been a Christian community, an economic partnership, a development corporation, and more. Clarence Jordan modeled creative work with the Bible as well by writing a wonderful translation of much of the New Testament in the Southern English dialect, with reference to Southern images, the "Cotton Patch" versions.viii For example, Jesus is portrayed as born in an apple crate and not in a manger.
During my college years at Florida State University I learned a little about the creativity that was emerging in the Austin Christian Faith and Life Community, a campus ministry and more;ix Reba Place Fellowship in Evanston, Illinois, the first contemporary intentional community in the United States that I know about;x the House Church Movement in England; and the Church of the Saviour gathered around Gordon and Mary Cosby in Washington, DC.xi
During my seminary career at Chicago Theological Seminary, 1961-1964, the earliest stages of the alternate culture (hippie) movementxii and the counter culture (radical demonstration) movementsxiii were heating up. I became interested in the alternate culture movement which was generating free schools, free clinics, communes, and much more. This was also a time of popularity for several books criticizing the limits of traditional Christian congregations and proposing alternatives.xiv
After getting my Ph.D. in sociology from Florida State University (1971) I took a faculty position at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro (1971-1977) where I had five small annual research grants for studying the alternate culture and alternate institutions. This led to about ten professional publications or papers.xv The orienting theme in all of these articles and papers was that alternate institutions were organized as communities and networks and were thus an alternative to bureaucracy.
While I lived in Greensboro, I put a lot of energy into helping to create Shalom Community, a contemporary residential intentional Christian community with eight adults and eight children.xvi We had a retreat ministry and I joined the North American Retreat Directors Association.xvii As part of NARDA I made several connections to the Church of the Saviour, including participation in two orientation retreats at Wellspring. Wellspring is part of the Church of the Saviour Dayspring Retreat Center in Germantown, MD.
During this time I had a deep conversation with Conrad Hoover, a thoughtful and active member of the Church of the Saviour. We discussed organizational instability in the Church of the Saviour and I predicted the break-up of the single congregation which happened a year later in 1976. The Church of the Saviour called the break-up the New Lands movement. It led to the forming of a cluster of small congregations including Seekers. I also remember a long conversation with Jim Rouse at Potters House. Potters House is the Church of the Saviour Coffee House that helped spark church-related coffee houses all over the United States. I also had conversations with Don and Gloria McClanen and with Judith Roark, all of whom made significant early contributions to the Church of the Saviour. They helped me understand more of the organizational dynamics of the Church of the Saviour. I also remember notably brief conversations with some Church of the Saviour leaders who clearly did not like my questions or comments on such things as gender inclusive language and on the limitations of adult volunteer ministry as a mechanism for changing the worldxviii.
In the 1970s I became aware that the Church of the Saviour did not fit my definition of an alternate culture or a counter culture organization.xix The Church of the Saviour was not a bureaucracy, and was not a movement in counter culture terms. It was not organized as a community, though a few intentional communities were parts of the Church of the Saviour. My primary analysis of the Church of the Saviour was that it was a gathering of people responding to Gordon Cosby and that Gordon did not want to build a large church or create a counter-culture movement even though he was a powerful critic of existing U.S. culture. The Church of the Saviour spun off voluntary organizations to do various ministries, and some of those, in turn, became fully bureaucratic and professionalized versions of voluntary associations. The clearest example of an intentional community within the Church of the Saviour was the Porter Street House, a group of young people living together with leadership from David Dorsey. Porter Street House was a residential Christian intentional community that shared expenses and upkeep responsibilities. I also saw Dayspring Church as an intentional Christian community that was partly residential. Dayspring Church operates the Church of the Saviour retreat center near Germantownxx
The Emergence of Seekers Church
I continued to learn about Seekers and when I moved to Washington, DC in 1986, I immediately became an active participant in Seekers. I was clear that Seekers was organizing in the alternate culture tradition as a community. I was supportive and reinforced the consciousness of Seekers as a community. One important mark for me was that Seekers named itself as "a Seekers Community" in its original call statement in 1976. (See footnote xxvii) This seemed to me to be an important correction to the emphasis on outer journey promoted by Gordon Cosbyxxi, as well as a correction to the emphasis on individual inner journey that was begun by Gordon Cosby and others and popularly extended by Elizabeth O’Connor.xxii Seekers added an emphasis on building community to the themes of inner journey and outer journey to create a three-legged stool, and I believed it would have much more stability as a result. One element of Seekers’ emphasis on community was attention to the inclusion of children and older members. This means providing programs and support within the community and not merely being a church primarily organized to serve others. Seekers has had as many as forty children and currently has eleven.
I didn’t arrive at Seekers until 1986, ten years after it was founded by Sonya Dyer and Fred Taylor as part of the New Lands movement.xxiii Soon after I arrived there was a crisis over the role of Fred Taylor as the primary preacher in Seekers.xxiv I thought this conflict mattered a lot to Seekers because the underlying model (vision) of Seekers was at stake in the choice to be made.
I had several conversations with Fred Taylor during that period. My reading was that Fred wanted the same role in Seekers that Gordon Cosby had in the Church of the Saviour and that Sonya and others were not willing to accommodate that desire. In any case, Fred left and Sonya continued. Seekers quickly expanded the paid leadership group, later called Servant Leaders, and continued to model shared leadership between men and women. In the process, Seekers chose to share the preaching among members and Stewards with no one paid for preaching. There has been a rough balance of women and men as preachers since and Celebration Circle, which organizes Sunday worship, has always had men and women as participants. The open pulpit, in addition to its liturgical and cultural implications, was such a highly visible mark that Seekers felt it did not need to have a clergy person as a visible leader.xxv
Sonya Dyer modeled the importance of face-to-face relationships and was herself the initiator of many such relationships. Sonya was important to the organizational character of Seekers, but she was not a charismatic leader in the sense of "great preacher" and did not dominate the out-front message as did Gordon Cosby. Sonya rarely preached, and much of her powerful leadership was through direct personal contact with members. Sonya shared feminist consciousness and modeled the importance of leadership by women. So I saw feminism as an important cultural grounding for Seekers.
Seekers had its worship life and many other activities in the Church of the Saviour headquarters building from 1976 to 2004. Seekers paid no rent but made an agreed upon contribution to the larger Church of the Saviour, used a few rooms and shared access to the worship space, the kitchen, and the dining room. Seekers did not have control of the Headquarters building and had to fit itself into time limits for worship and other programs. Seekers was invisible to the surrounding community and did not need to cope with the practicalities faced by congregations that own their own space.
Like other New Lands congregations, Seekers did not initially form a separate legal entity and functioned with a minimum of formal organization. Core Members, currently called Stewards, functioned as a community within a community to make decisions.xxvi Seekers incorporated in 1994 as part of the New New Lands movement.xxvii The language of the Seekers call statement is hardly hippie or alternate culture in style, but it is clear about the importance of building community. I believe that for most Seekers being a community means that we are not a bureaucracy, that we are not dominated by a single leader, that we do not have anyone in the role of clergy, and that relationships matter a great deal.
For the above reasons and more yet to come, I see Seekers as a highly successful example of organizing a church as an alternate institution, specifically a contemporary intentional Christian community. I understand the form of intentional community to have developed within the alternate culture of the 1960s and 1970s, and believe that Seekers moved toward this form as a result of adopting the anti-hierarchical aspects of the feminism of that time. I understand the emergence of feminism as occurring in complex relationship with other aspects of the alternate culture. (Those interested in this dynamic might want to read Joan Didion’s book Slouching Toward Bethlehem.xxviii) Some of our activities might look like the usual activities of Protestant churches, just as free schools have classes and free clinics offer medical care. The difference in form that makes Seekers an alternate institution lies in the way these activities are created and coordinated and in the culture and expectations that shape participation.
Describing Seekers as a Progressive Christian Community
This section begins with a bit of a perspective to place Seekers within the larger history of alternative forms of expressing Christianity in the United States. In colonial times, the United States had many small settlements that could be described as intentional communities. Some of these communities were made up of Christians fleeing persecution in their land of origin.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, the United States had an influx of intentional Christian communities, some of them best described as Christian communes. They include the Amish, the Hutterites, the Mennonites, and the Shakers.xxix All had residential and economic dimensions as well as religious fervor. The religious grounding can generally be described as pietist, anabaptist, and sectarian as defined by H. Richard Niebuhr.xxx One could also describe aspects of the earlier Pilgrim movement and the Quaker movement in similar terms.
Many Christian immigrant groups brought with them, or soon created, some informal aspects of intentional Christian communities, such as relationship based sharing of the work to be done. I’m thinking of some ethnic Roman Catholic parishes, some Protestant congregations that continued worship in an ethnic tongue, some churches made up of slaves and then of ex-slaves, and some immigrant-dominated small towns that were relatively closed communities for decades. One could also name the Mormon movement to Utah in this regard.
The centuries-long process in the United States when Christians, among others, moved from East to West presented numerous frontier communities with the opportunity to create churches that functioned mostly independently even when they had denominational ties. The Wesleyan movement, best known now as Methodist churches, is one example, and many of the anabaptist efforts that became Baptist churches is another. There were also a large number of independent initiatives, some of which started as house churches. Many of these independent groups called themselves simply Christian Church, and some joined together to found small denominations identified simply as Christian, really more network than denomination. Some of these independent frontier churches were inclusive and ecumenical in the sense of not having creeds and requiring only evidence of Christian character for membership. Though these congregations, when they became formally organized, were usually organized as voluntary organizations, their isolation and their lack of trained clergy led many to function informally as intentional communities, a pattern that was given up when they later hired clergy.
Seekers is more like the frontier churches than like the Amish or the Hutterites because Seekers does not share housing, nor does it run a business, a factory, or a farm. One might be able to argue that Seekers has some of the simplicity, humility, and modesty associated with pietism, but Seekers tends to affirm a body spirituality that is not close to asceticism. One could also argue that Seekers' independence and lack of clergy makes it sectarian, but Seekers has an inclusivity in terms of welcoming the contributions from many Christian traditions, and an affirmation of working with people who come with diverse religious traditions, that doesn't fit the divisiveness that H. Richard Niebuhr associated with the term. It is more fair to claim that Seekers has something of an anabaptist heritage through Gordon Cosby and Fred Taylor. One important aspect of that heritage for Seekers is an emphasis on the authority of the Holy Spirit as the most prominent aspect of the Christian trinity, the most popular way of knowing God among Seekers. For example, we are more likely to be interested in discerning the guidance of the Holy Spirit than we are to look to the Bible or historical church tradition as the authority for making decisions. But the ecclesiology of Seekers cannot be adequately categorized in Niebuhr's typology and all three aspects of the trinity are appreciated.
When Seekers moved to Carroll Street near the Northern tip of Washington, DC in 2004 it began to give more attention to the neighborhood where its building is located.xxxi But membership is still spread out over the whole metropolitan region, and we have electronic relationships that go much farther. Although it is building relationships with the Takoma and Takoma Park neighborhoods, Seekers does not have a parish (geographic) self-understanding.
Seekers' members have some financial interconnectedness. We give financial support to members to help them explore potential emerging ministries through the Growing Edge Fund, usually in the hundreds of dollars and sometimes to the extent of a few thousand dollars. Significant loans have been made between members and there are other examples of financial generosity between members and between the congregation and members.
The governance structure of Seekers represents one of the two models for successful alternate culture communes or intentional communities, as identified by Rosabeth Moss Kantor. Kantor’s research showed that communes and intentional communities have to have a fairly strong boundary to be successful, or they will be run over and dissipated by newcomers.xxxii The boundary can be at the point of initial entry into the community, an approach taken by the historical Christian communities described earlier and by the original Church of Saviour. Seekers follows the other option. It has a fairly open entry boundary, but a firm boundary between non-governing members and the Stewards who hold general governance.
Stewards have firmly held the center of Seekers and this has supported a culture of exploration for members who are not Stewards. Many explore and then leave, sometimes for general mobility reasons, sometimes because Seekers' participation expectations are experienced as too demanding, sometimes because a clarification of calling leads to a geographic move, and occasionally because of relationship difficulties. Seekers also experienced losses associated with moving from the Dupont Circle neighborhood to the Takoma neighborhood within Washington D.C. Seekers currently has seventeen activeStewards, plus onn elderly steward in emeritus standing. Stewards provide not only organizational stability but also a large share of the financial grounding for the Seekers budget.
People self-select to become Stewards. There are no elections and no size limits for the Stewards' group. There are, however, specified criteria that have to be met to become a Steward. Those who meet them are welcomed as Stewards. After joining, Stewards reconsider their commitments each year and choose to continue as Stewards or not. Such reconsideration is usually taken quite seriously. There are several current members who were Stewards but resigned to become non-governing members. This means that the number of people in Seekers who have met the standards to become Stewards is larger than the number of Stewards. (A description of the standards for becoming a Steward are presented on page 27 and following.) There are Seekers who became Stewards, went back to being non-governing members, and became Stewards again.
Some members develop a dislike of being shut out of the formal decision-making process concerning whole community directions and practices. It has often occurred that, when a particular member becomes most distressed, this is a sign that he or she is ready to make the final efforts to become a Steward. Stewards tend to regard community tension in this matter as mostly constructive tension.
The result of Seekers’ approach to governance is that basic community decisions are made by those people who are among the most committed to meeting Seekers’ expectations concerning the inner journey, the outer journey, and community aspects of Seekers’ life.
The creation of mission groups as a Christian process and structure is arguably the single most important innovation of Gordon Cosby and the Church of the Saviour.xxxiii A Church of the Saviour style mission group is a small group. In Seekers, a mission group is rarely more than 7 members and is often 3 or 4. Prayer and personal sharing are usual features of mission group meetings and some groups have study components. Mission groups are places of personal accountability in which members provide written reports, usually weekly, to a spiritual guide concerning their inner journey as a Christian.
The key distinguishing factor from other kinds of small groups in churches is that mission groups have missions as well as worship, study, support for the inner journey, and sharing. They are places for developing, supporting, and expressing ministry. While general policy in Seekers is determined by Stewards, ongoing operational decisions for most regular activities are usually made in mission groups. For example, the Learners and Teachers Mission Group runs the School of Christian Living.
In addition to Learners and Teachers, four other mission group address general ongoing functions in Seekers. Celebration Circle creates Sunday morning worship each week. Koinonia Mission Group supports hospitality activities that include connecting to visitors and helping them to become comfortable in Seekers. The Time and Space Mission Group is responsible for maintaining the building and managing relationships with the half-dozen non-Seekers groups that use the building on a weekly basis, including one full-time and one part-time tenant, and the dozens of groups that use the building occasionally. Living Water aims at helping members of Seekers deepen their inner journeys. These mission groups take on functions that are considered to be core responsibilities of clergy in traditional congregations: liturgy, preaching, teaching, spiritual guidance and administration. In turn, the mission groups share the work with members who are not in the mission groups. For example, Celebration Circle and Learners and Teachers invite all members to share in the work to preaching and teaching. The key point here is that the operational authority and responsibility for these functions resides in the mission groups. Interestingly, as Peter Bankson points out, this design means that members in mission groups have authority over Stewards at the point of their recognized call within the mission group. This moderates the sense that Stewards have authority over mission groups, a bureaucratic or hierarchic conception. Rather, Stewards have responsibility for the "big picture," and for resolving disagreements within the community that are not taken care of by conversations or within a mission group, while the authority of mission groups is recognized for carrying out important functions within Seekers.
Two mission groups support the individual ministries of their members. The Artists group supports and encourages Seekers members to follow their callings as artists. The members of the Artists Mission Group practice a wide variety of the arts and, in addition to supporting the individual journeys of members, have also supported a Seekers' Summer Art Camp and Seekers work with Bokamoso.xxxiv The Mission Support Group works with its members to discern and develop their callings as individuals, both within Seekers and in the larger contexts of daily life. One measure of the importance of mission groups to Seekers is that the Seekers Handbook for Mission Groups is now in its Eighth edition.xxxv
I have emphasized that Seekers is an intentional community. One important aspect of intentionality in Seekers is the opportunity to join a mission group and then reconsider this commitment on occasion. Most members of Seekers join a mission group or eventually leave the community. However, at any one time, there are some long-time members who are not in a mission group. One of the important intentions around joining a mission group is choosing to support the ministry of the group by taking on a role in performing the ministry. For some members this is the point at which taking on the self-identity of being a minister begins to feel real. This is a very different kind of self-understanding from being part of a crowd that worships together on Sunday mornings or that comes to church to receive services or participate in programs.
Seekers is a community of ministers. One result is that connections in Seekers feel more like connections between peers, peers who give and receive. This is a crucial contrast to the context in traditional congregations where clergy are hired to minister to laity and such ministry as laity offer is supplemental to the work of the professionals.
One important requirement for creating or continuing a mission group is that at least two Stewards must be members of each mission group. This guideline supports accountability for mission groups relative to Seekers' standards. There are multiple lines of accountability within Seekers, but the interactive accountability between Stewards and mission groups is central to appreciating the structural aspects of Seekers as a community.
Underlying all the structural aspects of accountability is the general cultural sense that people should be responsible for commitments they have taken on. For example, some months ago I reported to Stewards that I was not doing a very good job of managing the library and would be pleased to have someone else step forward. No one did and I am still sort of managing the library, but at least I have signaled that library management is an open space in Seekers.
Mission groups are structured, but they are not bureaucratically structured. They function quite differently from committees. Seekers considers mission groups to be the primary spiritual and emotional context for experiencing belonging within the church community. This takes time. Most mission groups meet weekly for an hour and a half. Two mission groups meet once every two weeks. Significant time commitments and high participation rates allow mission groups to provide intimate worship and sharing, as well as ministry, and thus to offer relational depth.
The mission aspect of Mission groups, as well as some house churches in other traditions than Seekers, help individuals make connection between the being and the doing aspects of their Christian faith. Sustaining both aspects of this dialectic tension generates spiritual power while at the same time helping such power stay in the context of being helpful and fulfilling.xxxvi. By balancing purposefulness with emotional and spiritual support, mission group members can experience both accomplishment and appreciation, a vitality that comes with sustaining the dialectic tension of individuation and participation. Because there are tasks to be accomplished, members feel needed as well as wanted.
Seekers has six paid employees, none currently paid for more than one day a week. Three have focused duties: a treasurer, a church school coordinator, and a building scheduler. Each of these three relate to a relevant Seekers group: the Treasurer works with the Financial Oversight Group, the Church School Coordinator with the Church School Support Group, and the Building Scheduler (affectionately known as the "Mistress of Time and Space") works with the Time and Space Mission Group. The key to understanding how these groups function with regard to the paid employees is to understand that both the employee and the group can and do take initiatives and the important concern is good communication patterns. Some of these focused jobs have been done without pay in the past and could be done again in the future without pay. It is also noteworthy for Seekers culture that some paid employees give more in contributions to Seekers than they receive in pay from Seekers.
The duties of the three members of the Servant Leadership Team are of two main types: picking up specific needs unmet by mission groups or in another way, and a mix of facilitation and coordination activities. The mix of these activities varies as the needs of the community vary. Listening to what is going on in the community is an important responsibility for Servant Leaders as part of the work of facilitation and coordination. Such listening often results in Servant Leaders being the first responders when urgent attention is needed, such as in the death of a member. Stewards recognize the importance of the listening function of Servant Leaders by designating to the Servant Leadership Team the important responsibility of organizing the agenda for Stewards meetings. The Servant Leadership Team commonly meets on a weekly basis.
All members of the Servant Leadership Team are members of mission groups and are Stewards. This makes it impossible to sharply distinguish which activity of a Servant Leader is a mission group responsibility, a Steward’s responsibility, or a Servant Leadership Team responsibility. One defining characteristic is that a Servant Leader does some things simply because they need to be done and not because he or she feels a particular call to that activity. As a result, it is common practice for a Servant Leader to take up a task and then pass it on when other leadership surfaces for that task. Like everything else in Seekers, social relationships and personal style matter. Members do not always turn first to a Servant Leader when a problem or need arises, but vulnerability to interruption is an emotional and a social price to becoming a Servant Leader.
When Seekers found it functionally and relationally challenging to make a transition to a new website design, and from a single webmaster to a Seekers Website Information Management Team, all three of Seekers Servant Leaders pitched in to help the design and migration process get accomplished and to see that relational healing received appropriate support and attention. As the SWIM Team gets things smoothed out with the new website, including the training of several members to manage different sectors of the website, the involvement of the Servant Leaders is likely to diminish.
Tracing the paths of authority and power is useful for categorizing Seekers as an intentional Christian community. I would summarize the marks of Seekers as an intentional Christian community as follows.
- Seekers has diffuse, but not loose, structures of power and authority.
- Seekers has a fairly open boundary around membership but a fairly tight one around participation in core authority and governance.
- Seekers does not have anyone in the clergy role and does not have a charismatic leader.
- Seekers is an independent congregation in legal terms and does not tightly follow a historic Christian tradition, a set of historic Christian doctrines, or a set of historic ecclesiological rules.xxxvii
- Seekers emphasizes relationship building and helping individuals develop individual callings to ministry, rather than relying on bureaucratic structures, to accomplish most functions of congregational life.
- Seekers is clearly Christian in the sense of understanding itself as part of the long Christian story begun by Jesus and growing out of Judaism.
- The core culture of Seekers supports high commitment and responsibility, as measured, in part, by the requirements for becoming a Steward, but in many other ways as well.
Seekers is intentional about its choices of how to be a church but also relies on habits and customs in relationships. The choice to rely on mission groups, with carefully spelled out expectations, is a major mark of such intentionality.xxxviii However, Seekers is well aware that it cannot rely on structure and following the rules to create a vital common life. Relying on the Holy Spirit leads us to risk trusting each other, lures us toward vulnerability, and helps us to forgive each other because we know and feel we are but creatures and not little gods. In turn, a culture of trust and vulnerability promotes personal transformation and group growth that could not be accomplished by merely following the rules.
Since I understand Seekers to be more an intentional community than a voluntary organization, more about relationships than programs, more horizontal than vertical in authority relationships because everyone is invited to understand themselves as ministers, I see Seekers culture (shared stories, guiding metaphors, styles of conversation, etc.) as more significant than organizational structure for grasping the essence of Seekers. Indeed, the very idea that authority relationships are social structures in organizations is so common that it is hard to understand authority relationships in the context of community. This section on Seekers culture begins with discussions of formal culture, moves on to informal culture and inclusivity, and ends with a discussion of how it all gets put together.
I have watched Seekers clarify its forms and structures over the last twenty years as discussed in the previous section. The clarification and strengthening of formal understandings is recorded in a variety of brochures, statements, and the Handbook for Mission Groups. This increasing formal clarity has supported rather than stifled creativity, growth of several kinds, artistic expression and general spontaneity. Since the bureaucratic version of formality often stifles initiative and creativity, noting the ways in which Seekers' formal culture is different from the formal culture of typical congregations may be valuable for those in the process of creating progressive Christian churches.xxxix
How is Seekers formal culture like and not-like bureaucratic formality? It is not surprising that Seekers has a strong written culture since most individual Seekers are college graduates or otherwise fully literate. This reality is one of the semi-permeable cultural boundaries of Seekers. One example of the importance of written culture is that I used to preach from notes and now I preach from a text so that the text can be posted on the Seekers website for absent Seekers and others to read. On the other hand, it is not uncommon for the "sharing of the Word" part of Sunday worship to be in some form other than a sermon with nothing recorded for our website. Another example is the care and creativity that go into the written liturgies used by Seekers in worshipxl. At the same time, perhaps the most moving part of Sunday morning worship comes in silence or in the prayers offered from the congregation during the time for prayers of confession, praise and thanksgiving, and petition or intercession. Another example of written culture is our Soundings newsletter. The newsletter is gathered and edited by a volunteer and reflects a lot of the stories of members rather than just being a place for announcements and reports on programs.
Seekers uses two other written tools that are similar to those found in voluntary organization kinds of congregations. First, we keep minutes of decisions by Stewards and occasionally refer to them. I was recently corrected in my understanding of a standard for mission groups by reference to the minutes from several years ago. Second, because Seekers needed the information to plan for the purchase and renovation of our building, Seekers sharply upgraded the quality of our annual written budget and financial record keeping to serve as a planning tool. Other congregations use a budget for planning purposes. Seekers saw budget improvement as a step toward transparency and an invitation to share in financial decisions. Even our children have sometimes appealed for financial support for their advocacy concerns. A "Save the Bonobo" project received funding, for example. Access by all members to the budget and the minutes supports transparency and accountability by Stewards to the whole community as they exercise their responsibility for general guidance.
In formal terms, the most important Seekers documents are the Statement of Call for the congregation, and the call statements of each mission group. One could think of these statements as being like mission statements in a bureaucracy, but that would miss an important distinction. As Seekers understands things, the call statements are also statements of authority at the point of call. This understanding grows out of recognizing and claiming the authority of the Holy Spirit as the most important basis of authority in Seekers. To claim a calling is to claim that one is following God’s will. In Seekers there is the additional point that to recognize a calling is to recognize the authority of those carrying that calling. Because of this recognition I feel free, as a member of Koinonia Mission Group, to take an initiative that is within the scope of the Koinonia call. There is lots of room for individual initiatives but the standard of confirmed calling brings creative energy into dynamic tension with community needs and existing commitments. The dynamic relationship between claiming call and recognizing call is fundamental to sustaining a constructive dialectic tension between individuation and participation.xli
Authority at the point of call also means, for Seekers, responsibility and accountability at the point of call. For example, people in Seekers who want to have something fixed in the building can ask the Time and Space mission group to take care of it. If it doesn’t get done, they can and do grumble about it to Time and Space. Grumbling, in a community based on relationships, is an important sanction. At a more informal level, the importance of relationships in Seekers as a community may lead a Seeker who notices a problem with the building to speak to one of the several individuals who are known as "fixers." If a fixer does not want to take on the fix themselves they can in turn suggest that the individual take their concern to Time and Space. Depending on what kind of fix is needed, Time and Space may in turn refer the problem to "Martha's Mob." Martha's Mob is mostly an invitation to Seekers to join in a more-or-less quarterly Saturday fix-up day. This maintenance "structure" actually works pretty well to keep down costs while keeping our building in good shape. When a problem is not resolved, or is too big for the informal process, Time and Space takes initiative to get the problem taken care of within a budget guideline approved by Stewards. A really big problem would be addressed by Stewards with recommendations from Time and Space. Perhaps the most important dynamic to notice in this process is that many individual Seekers get drawn into sharing in the work of caring for the building. This involvement, in turn, builds a sense of shared ownership, expands the list of "fixers," and shares appreciation for the building as a visible symbol of common caring. This primarily informal process builds community while at the same time taking care of a problem that would often be taken care of by a janitor or maintenance staff person. But the informality in process is nested in a fairly clearly defined structure approved by the Stewards and managed by a Mission Group.
The above description illustrates how, in Seekers, conversation usually resolves a problem. If a problem is large and intractable, then a process for resolution will likely become an agenda item for a Stewards meeting. In 2005, a Seekers overnight meeting at Wellspring identified four areas of concern that appeared to need general attention.xlii With attention to comments from the overnight meeting, and with additional comment solicitation, Stewards developed processes to address all four areas. Relevant mission groups had important roles in each of these processes and, in turn, involved other members of Seekers in the problem solving processes. Stewards did not approach the concerns as legal issues to be resolved by an appeal to one or another document. The nested formality of Seekers takes important issues to the Stewards when they are not resolved in informal conversations. Though Stewards had the authority to decide the issues on their own, they chose to develop a process that seemed likely to fit the concerns, gathered input from the whole community, saw that the issues could be managed by existing mission groups, and then let the solutions emerge over a couple of months. The result was not just a responsible decision, not just a good decision, but a process that led some members to withdraw and those remaining to come more closely together.
An important foundation document for Seekers is Mission Groups in Seekers Church, also called the Mission Groups Guide on the Seekers website. The 8th edition, published in 2004, was written by the Seeds of Hope mission group and was then broadly reviewed by the community before publication. It is an important educational document for new Seekers, a reference document for mission groups on how to do things, and an authority document when there is conflict about how to operate a mission group. For example, the document spells out what a mission group should offer to individuals and what individuals should offer to a mission group. While Seekers understands that authority resides with individuals who have been recognized as having a particular call, the Handbook spells out expectations for the exercise of call. This guides an individual who claims the authority granted in the recognition of a call to journey with the call with reference to Seeker's process landmarks.
There are three parts to referring to the Holy Spirit as authority for a call, whether for an individual, a mission group, or Seekers Church as a whole: discernment, consideration, and acceptance. It is expected that the people involved in developing a call will take time for prayer and for conversation that listens for the Spirit and discerns signs of the Spirit. This is not a pro forma expectation, and, since Seekers puts significant energy into the inner journey of individuals and groups, the praying and conversation is done by people who usually take this expectation seriously. After a call has been developed using these processes, it is put forward for broader consideration. At that point Seekers who were not involved in the development of the call can, and sometimes do, question the call. That can initiate a cycle of further reflection and development. The third step is acceptance of the call. Such acceptance includes both the acceptance of the call statement and recognition of the people who will carry the call.
Sometimes a Seeker asks for support in clarifying and affirming an individual call. The response would often come from within a mission group. Sometimes a new group, usually called a Clearness Committee, gathers for the sole purpose of helping an individual work through some aspect of a calling. Sometimes a support group forms in response to a request by an individual for support from the Growing Edge Fund. The Fund requires a grant recipient to develop an appropriate accountability relationship with some other Seekers. In addition to relying on the guidance of the Holy Spirit, conversations about call often include biblical references and references to church tradition such as the Call Statement of Seekers Church. For example, the development of the call of the Seeds of Hope mission group included repeated reflection on the Parable of the Sower.
The above description of authority and calling illustrates the way Seekers balances the dialectic tension of dynamics and form.xliii Seekers usually manages to sustain an emphasis on both freedom-from (creativity, initiative) on the one hand, and freedom-for (discernment, accountability) on the other hand. Developing an understanding and comfort with both sides of this dialectic tension takes time for most individuals. This is a significant reason that Seekers has implicit time requirements in its guidelines for becoming a member of a mission group and for becoming a Steward. The annual recommitment requirement also helps to keep fresh the issues of calling and authority.xliv As a result, Seekers is made up of members and Stewards who are mostly doing the things they are called to do. This produces distinctive group dynamics and depth of relationships in contrast to a group whose members are merely volunteering or taking on assigned duties. Seekers is not free of conflicts over power and authority, but those conflicts are taken on in a different context because of Seekers’ understanding of calling and accountability. Additionally, it is important to note that the issue of calling is spread through the whole congregation and is not focused on clergy.
Another way to understand how Seekers works with its formal structure is that Seekers is ready to embrace "failure." For example, it is common for a mission group to form and then dissolve after awhile for a variety of reasons, though some mission groups have been very long lasting. When a mission group dissolves it means that some area of ministry is uncovered or covered with less energy and clarity. Seekers regards such loss as releasing energy that will regather around other concerns. Stated alternatively, Seekers does not rush to fill holes or inadequacies. We have never had a choir mission group because no one has felt called to pull one together. We are happy in the meantime with such musical creativity and gifts as do show up and appreciate a member who provides coordination of music for Sunday morning worship and offers a monthly sing-along program. It is not so much that form follows function, more that form follows interest and concern. Seekers is more about taking care of the things that matter to the community than making sure that all the parts of some model, even our own Seekers model, have been covered. When we noticed we needed a better quality budget we created one.
While the formal side of Seekers culture is important, because I understand Seekers first of all as a community, the informal side seems to me to be even more important. In fact, many new Seekers complain that the formal aspects of Seekers are almost invisible. Typically asked questions are, Who is in charge? Who is the pastor? How do I know if I am part of Seekers? How do I get into a mission group? What are the mission groups and what do they do? Who and what are the people and groups that I hear about but don’t see? An important underlying question often is, How do I know if I belong, if I have been accepted?
In the last few years Seekers has made more effort to be transparent to newcomers. The formal side of this efforts is that numerous written pieces are now available for people at every stage of approaching and integrating into Seekers. The documents include: an introductory brochure, an introduction to worship at Seekers, an introductory piece about mission groups, a "Road Map into Seekers" that answers some of the questions in the previous paragraph, and a brochure about who and what the mission groups are. The written materials are posted on the website and also serve as part of Seekers' outreach. Programmatic aspects of this effort to be more transparent include Third Sunday discussion groups following morning worship and some classes in the School of Christian Living. Koinonia mission group, as part of its calling, takes particular interest in seeing that newcomers get the conversation and support they need in order to find people they can relate to so that they can learn what they are ready to learn about Seekers. This includes concern for the pastoral needs of newcomers who are not yet part of mission groups. Once again an informal process of conversation is nested in formal understandings.
The brochures and the programs can sound like words, words, words to newcomers. For example, the concepts of "call" and "mission groups" are often confusing to people who have not experienced Seekers. It takes some conversations, some experiences, some relationships, to get "inside" such concepts. For new and old alike, the quality of such conversations, experiences, and relationships are the true treasure in Seekers. Such conversations, experiences, and relationships can be understood in theological terms as an embodied (incarnated) sharing of the good news of Jesus as Savior. Such good news is shared in the caring and attentiveness of the conversations, whatever the subject matter.
When long-term Seekers initiate conversations with newcomers they are likely to focus on calling-related questions: What are you interested in? What are you passionate about? What are you hungry for? Where are you in your spiritual journey? Any answer from the newcomer would usually be regarded as adequate for the conversational moment. The habit of most Seekers would be to respond to an answer by inviting follow-up either with themselves or with another Seeker more likely to share common interests. The result is that newcomers commonly feel cared about and appreciated even though they don’t know much about how Seekers operates or about what is going on.
Hal Taussig names one of the marks of being a progressive Christian church as a lively intellectual engagement with important questions in contrast to passing on doctrinal answers.xlv Seekers embodies such an informal approach to intellectual issues in the name it has chosen for itself.xlvi Seekers, however, does not take an "anything goes" approach to important conversations. On the one hand, we feel it is important to respect the different starting points of everyone and to pay attention to the ways that people articulate their opinions and concerns. On the other hand, Seekers has a majority point of view on many concerns. It shows up in the conversations, the sermons, the School of Christian Living, and in liturgical materials. The larger point is that even a majority point of view is not treated as Seekers doctrine. It is just a common reference in conversations that can be probed and challenged.
The key to sustaining sharp substantive conversations without becoming divisive or contentious is in the quality of the listening in conversations. Seekers offers training in listening in various ways, listening that begins with genuine respect and caring for each other, a respect that shows up as letting people work with important questions at their own pace and by attending to the underlying living truth aspects of questions however they are initially phrased. This approach to listening is particularly helpful in responding to some traditional doctrinal questions that are presented in ways that ask for speculative answers. Do you believe in miracles? Do you believe that Jesus rose from the dead? In Seekers, a common way of responding to such questions begins with directing attention to the underlying living truth question. What matters to you about miracles? How do you think Jesus is present with us today? Good scholarship serves good conversation and is not an end in itself.
Art in Seekers is not confined to our gallery spaces or special programs. It shows up all over the building and in numerous ways in morning worship. Our altar presentations are not decorations or a collection of traditional symbols. Occasionally flowers are worked into the altar but the more defining images would be temporary sculpture and collage. Commonly, the images on the altar are extended to the whole worship space so that the feeling is one of worshiping inside an art experience. Every room in the building, even the closets and bathrooms, has a cross in it that was created by a Seekers member.
Art as performance is as pervasive as art as object in Seekers. Sacred dance, clowning, InterPlay, occasional Taize chanting, poetry reading, and more, are common. For example, it is not uncommon that the person taking up the offering and bringing it forward to the altar spontaneously steps into sacred dance or other expressive movement. The pervasiveness of art in Seekers has been nourished by the Artists Mission Group and in numerous other ways. As a result a majority of long-term members and Stewards have developed artistic and craft interests after coming to Seekers. In our small community we have several members who draw and paint, several who work with thread and fabric (knitting, crocheting, weaving, quilting, sewing), several who work with sacred dance, numerous poets and writers, numerous musicians and singers, several InterPlay leaders, clowns, wood workers, altar arrangers , people engaged in computer graphic design, and more. Seekers has published a book of poetry, has monthly sing-alongs, provides InterPlay opportunities, makes space available for concerts, plays, and other performances (commonly including a Seeker as a performer), and more.xlvii
The prominence of the arts seems to me to be more defining of Seekers’ style than the impact of good scholarship. In addition to the direct impact of the art on members, the presence of so much art, so many kinds of art, contributes significantly to the feeling of informality in Seekers. Seekers expression of itself in images, performance, and movement can be analyzed with concepts, and some are intentional about using the arts to express concepts, but the art itself is more experiential than conceptual, more inviting of engagement than analysis. In Seekers, art is more about habits and caring than it is about plan or strategy.
Seekers documents emphasize inclusivity for membership, participation, and leadership and attention is given to living out inclusivity in practice. Women are prominent in leadership and sexual and gender minorities are fully integrated into the life of the church. However, Seekers is largely white and well educated. We are not doing so well in our desire to be more inclusive across race and class boundaries.xlviii
Some Seekers are moderate or conservative in their political perspectives but most Seekers are comfortable with a progressive political perspective. One measure of progressiveness is the choice of not-for-profit groups that receive donations from the Seekers $7,000 annual budget commitment to advocacy for systemic change, groups like the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy, the Coalition on Human Need, and the Washington Office on Africa. A few leaders in Seekers are intentional about balancing our progressivity with intentional welcoming and connection to newcomers with moderate or conservative political points of view. Some of the current subjects that are commonly part of Seekers conversations include local and international poverty, the war in Iraq, concern for the issues of women and children, environmental concerns, and the linked issues of animal rights and eating well. The inclusiveness concerns with regard to our theological and liturgical progressiveness are discussed in other sections.
One irony that catches our eye occasionally is that the desire to be inclusive is, in turn, a barrier for people who do not want to be fully inclusive. What are the boundaries of our desire to be inclusive? Though some might look at Seekers and see homogeneity, an inside perspective makes us aware of the challenges of our diversity. Our commonality in respecting the diversity of backgrounds, perspectives, and religious language is a form of homogeneity, but a homogeneity that is about embracing diversity. This doesn't feel inviting to some people who want to develop their faith journey in a more tightly defined faith tradition. Some come to Seekers with wounds or confusions from the previous stages of their faith journey, clarify their interests and direction, and move on to a more tightly defined tradition and path. On the other hand, the intensity and depth of our conversations has helped many individuals to spiritual transformation which, in turn, helps to create an appreciation of being a community. This includes the feeling of being on the same page with other Seekers even when we don’t share the same perspectives or language on some concerns.
Part of Seekers inclusivity is the recognition that we are called to be a church and not the church. Since so many churches are shaped by one historical faith tradition or another, Seekers can happily be a church that is distinctive in its inclusivity and creativity. Our inclusivity doesn't have to be all things to all people since people who want more focus and definition can go elsewhere. On the other hand, because we are inclusive and respect the starting points of everyone who comes to our community, we profit from the rich dynamics of multiple points of view and multiple ways of discussing our variety.
A commitment to inclusivity is no guarantee of increasing membership. At its largest in the mid-1990s, Seekers had about one hundred members. Now we are a little more than half that size and growing. Some of the losses can be attributed to the factors of aging and general societal geographic mobility. The Washington metropolitan area has a particularly high percentage of people coming and going because of the always changing federal government, which in turn affects the many groups responding and relating to the government. Seekers also sustained losses related to the disruptions and distractions of moving to a new location, a process that took 10 years and absorbed a lot of the attention of Seekers' leaders. Now, in 2008, it appears that Seekers has weathered the relational costs of the move and is in a period of growing numbers.
A commitment to inclusivity has not led Seekers to weaken or blur its structure and culture in an attempt to avoid membership loss. Some people find it difficult to navigate in Seekers because it is more a community than an organization. Many visitors, for example, expect to relate to a clergy person when they come to Seekers and when they discover that there is no clergy they are confused. Some do not like the variety and flexibility of Seekers' worship style, do not like gender inclusive language, or do not like the variety of music used in worship. Perhaps most importantly, some participants do not enter into personal relationships with other Seekers in a community that emphasizes personal relationships. Some do not see in Seekers people who are like themselves. Some do not choose to meet the informal goal of high participation modeled by the expectations that come with being part of a mission group. Some come to Seekers with specific needs and spiritual agendas, find what they need, and "graduate" to better pursue their more developed sense of call. Some grasp the goals of high levels of trust, honesty, and caring that are part of the Seekers ideals; but feel injured when Seekers does not fully live up to these ideals. We have come to think of our "graduates" as Seekers gift to the larger church. Even so, the investment in relationships with people who leave is experienced as loss, and loss from a community feels heavier than loss from an organization with less investment in interpersonal relationships.
Despite membership losses over the last few years, including the loss of a few Stewards, there has been an overall sense of strengthening as a congregation rather than weakening. Worship vitality is high, School of Christian Living classes are engaging and well-attended, mission group life is strong, individuals continue to grow and to be transformed, financial giving is strong, new people are coming toward us and integrating into the common life, and good ministry and witness is occurring. The new reality of owning a beautiful, highly functional, wheel chair accessible, and very well used building has been a sustaining boost in morale for those who made the transition. Pride is part of it. The fact that we financed the building completely from within our small numbers is part of that pride. But the morale boost of our building is not just about pride. We are at home in a space designed to work for the community we are and we can do what we want to do without having to clear it with anyone else.
Making it Work
The two prominent regular programs in Seekers, Sunday worship and the School of Christian Living, are central to creating and sustaining the balance between formal and informal culture in Seekers. While both have formal aspects, both have conversations built into them and the mission groups that direct them are attuned to their roles in supporting community growth and development.
Sunday worship begins with half an hour of gathering time in a general meeting area. After a brief prayer, the time is given to sharing personal stories and news, making announcements, introducing visitors, sometimes having a five-minute presentation of a person's individual call, singing Happy Birthday to individuals, practicing unfamiliar songs to be used in worship and otherwise preparing people for unusual aspects of worship, and finally lighting the peace and justice candle. Then the congregation follows the person carrying the candle upstairs and into the worship space.
Gathering time is an important way for newcomers to start learning about what is going on in the community and in the lives of individual members, a good time for old-timers to catch up on what is going on. Bits of Seekers history are often shared. In gathering time it is common to share updates on programs in the community and larger world that Seekers are involved in through direct participation or financial support. People are recruited for specific limited responsibilities, like signing up for making coffee on a particular Sunday. Such sign-ups are often the way a newcomer takes a first step into personal involvement. Things learned in the gathering time often become part of the community prayers in the worship space. Because of gathering time, we feel much more that we are worshiping as a caring community rather than as individuals in an audience.
The four members of Celebration Circle are usually the liturgists and a range of community members, often including fairly new community members, read the scriptures, sometimes offer music, collect the offering, and lead or otherwise participate in the "Word for the Children" which comes in a variety of forms. One of the richest parts of worship is the "shared prayers" time. It is common to have a quarter or a third of those present offer a prayer of thanksgiving, petition, or confession. Some of the confessional prayers model the depth of trust and transformation that are important to building the community. Finally, at the end of worship, there is usually a response time which commonly enriches the presentation of the Word, usually a sermon, or challenges or extends an idea or concern. This part of worship has the functional effect of reminding us that many Seekers have something to contribute to worship and both manifests and supports the growth of the community aspect of common life.
The School of Christian Living is shaped by the Learners and Teachers mission group. Members of Learners and Teachers offer classes, but many classes are led by others in the community. Teachers who are not part of the mission group are chosen in conversations that can be initiated by individuals who want to teach or by the mission group. The School meets on Tuesday evenings and begins with dinner. There is a brief time of worship and announcements and then one-and-a half hour classes begin.
There is no standard curriculum for the required classes, and most are not in a survey format that tries to present all the relevant points in lectures. The continuity of purpose is preparation for, and sustenance for, one's spiritual journey in Christ.
Classes usually include homework. The homework is not always reading but usually includes writing. The homework contributes to the class but this expectation is also aimed at getting people in the habit of weekly writing as preparation for the writing of weekly spiritual reports in mission groups. Intellectual or artistic content matters, but the most precious gift for the building of community is the passing on of a culture of deep sharing, trust, vulnerability, and caring. Sometimes classes include sharing from the homework which serves to link the inner journey with community building.
School of Christian Living classes hold up the commitment of Seekers to working with good scholarship and often present opportunities for nurturing artistic expression in one way or another. Themes and points of view of the teachers are generally in keeping with what Taussig describes as progressive Christianity.xlix Although progressive Christian thinking commonly frames a class, discussions take seriously the starting points of students. Some new participants need to be introduced to elementary Christian ideas and story. Whatever the level or nuances of content, whatever the variety of perspective of different teachers, from the point of view of church formation and growth, an intrinsic goal is to help students practice taking responsibility for their inner and outer journeys. This is a key concern for a do-it-yourself congregation.
Other intrinsic goals of the classes include experiencing the value of sharing Seekers style sharing, building a sense of community, developing critical thinking, and developing trust and vulnerability so that conversations can go deep. The content and grounding is Christian because members of the Learners and Teachers mission group, and the teachers selected to teach in the School, are Christians. But the classes model respect for non-Christian sources where that seems relevant and for insights that come from secular sources. For example, a recent theology class included a discussion of Erich Fromm’s distinction between freedom-from and freedom-for.l
There is another common theme in School of Christian Living that is dialectical in an informal use of that term. I am appreciative of Paul Tillich’s formal use of the term to work with concepts that are in dialectic tension such as being and becoming, centering and participation, and dynamics and form, among others. (See endnote xliii) Here I am merely suggesting that Seekers learn to live with the tension of unanswered, or partly answered, questions. Truths to live by are often in tension with one another. Is this a moment for healing or for striving, for confrontation or for patience, for sharing the Gospel message or for listening to how others are working with God concerns? Seekers has a sense that the important life questions keep coming around and that all the teaching or learning doesn’t have to happen at once. This informal understanding of dialectic thinking might be thought of as being in the tradition of Socrates, who pursued the truth with questions, rather than declaring the truth in monologues.
One of the difficult to describe aspects of the informal culture of Seekers is the feeling of excitement and passion that many Seekers share. For Seekers, the power of charisma, commonly associated with a single individual, is spread out over the whole congregation. As newer Seekers begin to let the community really matter to them, they begin to share more in this passion and excitement. In turn, passion and excitement help Seekers feel that high involvement is a joy and a blessing rather than duty or a burden. The downside of passion and excitement is raised expectations and that can lead to disappointment because Seekers is made up of people who are merely on a journey, not certified saints.
There is significant social space in Seekers for the explorations of newcomers, room for those in various transitions, room for those with demanding life commitments that limit participation, and room for those more wrapped up in intense outer journeys (sometimes with significant travel). Such space does not weaken the community because the excitement and passion of some Seekers for being in community sustains a high-commitment, high-participation culture. The downside is that some Seekers feel marginalized when they cannot match such participation and passion. Feelings of marginalization may be thought of as an informal and invisible semi-permeable boundary. Seekers cross this boundary of feeling, in either direction, with greater or lesser awareness and then make a variety of adaptations. Such self-selection and self-direction makes Seekers an open community but that does not mean that Seekers is a community with no boundaries, with no expectations. The boundaries shift over time as the community grows and changes. The strains that come with shifting boundaries reminds Seekers that it is a church and not the church.
There is a leveling aspect to Seeker’s informal culture that can be difficult for some members and Stewards. The traditions of no clergy and the nonhierarchical aspects of traditional feminism have contributed to a culture that leans against awarding much prestige to even the strongest leaders in Seekers. Modesty in presenting one’s point of view in conversation tends to be prized. There are plenty of expressions of appreciation for work well done, or things well said, but that is sometimes uneven, sometimes feels insufficient for people who make major investments of energy and resources in Seeker’s common life. Long-term satisfaction in the community often requires growing into significant humility, as well as repeated experience in forgiving and being forgiven.
There are numerous personal friendships among those in the community, and many members and Stewards invest a considerable share of their socializing energy in dinners, parties, and activities with other Seekers. Such friendship patterns are not evenly distributed and that can be uncomfortable for those who want more in the way of friendship than they are experiencing. An important balance to the significance of friendship networks is the recognition that inclusivity is a high value for Seekers activities. This is most prominent in the formal and informal expectations for participation of individuals in mission groups, in Stewards, and in School of Christian Living classes. The emphasis on building trust and vulnerability into conversations is another important balance to friendship as a basis for relationships. Seekers is large enough so that no one can have a close personal relationship with more than a small percentage of the Seekers population. Formal activities, such as Sunday worship, mission groups, and School of Christian Living classes, are not shaped around friendship and individuals can experience significant involvement in Seeker’s life without developing strong friendship ties.
Many Seekers have participated in typing themselves according to the Myers-Briggs and Enneagram typologies and the results show that there is no dominant personality style that makes one a Seeker, except that we tend to have more introverts than extroverts. It is, however, quite possible that some personality styles find it difficult to relate to Seekers. I felt the need to make some changes in my interactive style to feel more at home in Seekers and I have observed interactive style changes in others. One common change is learning listening skills. For this paper I will simply note that at least some effort, including a weekend meeting at Dayspring, has been aimed at raising consciousness about the needs and gifts of various personality types and at affirming that it is a complex matter to live up to the goal of being inclusive of people with contrasting personalty needs and expectations.
All Ministers, No Clergy
An earlier section discussed the emergence of Seekers from the clergy-centered form of the Church of the Saviour under the leadership of Gordon Cosby. Two things that Seekers continued from the Church of the Saviour are Gordon Cosby's emphasis on the transformative power of mission groups and the emphasis of Elizabeth O’Connor on individuals’ taking responsibility for their inner journeys. Taken together, these two themes empower the emergence and development of strong leaders. With this in mind, Seekers development of a congregation in which all are expected to be or become ministers seems obvious. Mission groups, and an accountable inner journey, help individual Seekers claim the saving power of the Holy Spirit so that a share of charisma is available to all leaders and ministers.li
The experience of Seekers demonstrates not merely that a congregations can get along without a clergy person, but that there are advantages to not having anyone in the clergy role. Most Christian ecclesiastical traditions make ministry the primary responsibility of a clergy person who is hired from outside a congregation to minister to a congregation. Lay ministry becomes seen as second-best or amateur ministry, usually to be supervised by the professional. Seekers are not lay ministers. We are just ministers with a mix of experience, training, and skills.
Most clergy look to other clergy as peers and look to their denominations for the context and means for advancing their professional careers. Such externality of clergy tends to disperse the ownership and context of ministry beyond the community instead of creating webs of feedback, support, and affirmation within it. The emergence and development of strong leaders within Seekers is empowered by the reality that ministry is the responsibility and opportunity of the whole congregation. Ministry within the congregation is based on relationships rather than credentials and it is expected that members and Stewards will learn the skills they need to follow their disparate callings.
Seekers has been blessed with several members and Stewards who have seminary degrees and more who have some seminary training. Seekers is attractive to some seminary-educated people who do not want to be traditional parish ministers. The appreciation of good scholarship, the opportunity to share in ministry in response to calling rather than as a responsibility of employment, and the lack of tension with someone else occupying a clergy role, all make Seekers attractive to people with seminary training. Some Seekers became inspired while at Seekers and pursue seminary educations. Just as important, numerous persons have non-seminary training that enriches the ministry of Seekers as artists, counselors, healers, legal advocates, and more.
Some may read the previous paragraph and dismiss Seekers as an unusual and unrepeatable congregation because it has such a rich mix of trained leadership. That would be a mistake. It is because of choices made in the formation and reformation of Seekers that the congregation is attractive to Christian leaders and generates new leadership. The Seekers' standard, following Elizabeth O'Connor, is that every member should feel that their ministry is wanted, expected, and respected.lii
The formal expectations to become a Steward are all, in some way, preparations for developing and expressing leadership and ministry, starting with a commitment to daily spiritual disciplines and reporting to a spiritual guide. Participating in a mission group provides guidance and support for developing one’s sense of living out of call, the beginning of ministry.
The experience of having other people respect one’s authority for ministry, relative to one’s recognized calling, helps with developing an understanding that everyone can indeed become a minister and makes the awareness of oneself as a minister more a matter of a developing sense of self than the claiming of a role. Such awareness is different from the self-understanding of being a volunteer in an organization run by professionals. This change in awareness also creates an understanding that doing good deeds is not an isolated act, not merely an expression of generosity or good will, but ministry that expresses a Christian sense of self, an embodiment of the great commandment to love one’s neighbor as oneself.
The requirement for financial tithing to become a Steward presents a decision point for many members about the depth of investment they are willing to make in Seekers. When one feels deeply invested in Seekers, financially and otherwise, ministry is offered as an expression of being part of a community and not merely as an expression of individual calling. The requirement of tithing also creates a sense of equality and interdependence among Stewards and that is a strong incentive, along with the sense of deep investment, to claim and develop one's calling into active ministry. The awareness of sharing the ministry of Seekers with other Stewards, in turn, powerfully reinforces the sense of peer equality.
The requirement for regular participation in worship, in a mission group, and in the four-hour long monthly meeting of Stewards provides a visible accountability for involvement. Resistance to such involvement is a prompt to a Steward that something is not working and needs attention. Showing up reinforces the trust of the community in the Steward, the sense that you can count on me, can count on my commitments to share in ministry, can count on me to do my part in making the community work.
The School of Christian Living offers two semesters of classes each year. In recent years the semesters are divided into two six week sessions and there are usually two classes per session.liii One of the two classes is in one of four subject areas required for becoming a Steward: Hebrew Scripture, New Testament, Christian Tradition, and Christian Growth. The requirement for becoming a Steward is two courses in each of the four subject areas. This means that the minimum time for becoming a Steward is a couple of months less than two years unless a waiver is granted and I remember only one time such a waiver was granted. In practice, most people who become Stewards take much longer than two years.
The class requirements for becoming a Steward have several implications for the creation of ministry. The intellectual content matters and the reinforcement of the importance of lifelong learning probably matters more. Many Stewards continue to take School of Christian Living classes long after they have met the requirement for becoming a Steward. The name of the mission group that manages the School of Christian Living is Learners and Teachers which reinforces the theme that we all have things to learn and things to teach.
The way that School of Christian Living classes are run models Seekers standards for sharing leadership. Classes are often taught by pairs of teachers. Each class has a shepherd, a member of Learners and Teachers who is responsible for class practicalities and for assessing when mid-course corrections might be helpful. All class participants are expected to share in dinner cleanup activities and, at least once a session, are given the opportunity to offer a meditation before classes begin. The fact that many Seekers offer classes in the School of Christian Living models an inclusive invitation to leadership. As a result, some fairly new members of
Seekers have led classes which provided an early affirmation of their leadership. Leading a class is also a good way to practice the skills and styles of leadership that work in Seekers.
The requirement of participating in a weekend-long silent retreat once a year, usually at Dayspring Retreat Center with other Seekers, underlines Seekers commitment to the inward journey and also creates a different kind of bonding experience for many Seekers. The emphasis on silence is in harmony with the Quaker understanding that the Holy Spirit is available to everyone. This is fundamental to spiritual empowerment. It is common for some retreat participants to use some of the silent time on retreat to deal with feelings and context that open up or reinforce ministry. For example, I used to spend some silent retreat time tending to a blackberry patch. That helped me feel grounded in Dayspring. The pruning also gave me a strong metaphor for guiding my ministry.
The final requirement to become a Steward is writing and presenting a spiritual autobiography in a Stewards’ meeting. This has sometimes proved to be a major hurdle for would-be Stewards and has delayed the completion of the path to becoming a Steward by many months, even years. Members who come to the time of writing their spiritual autobiography usually work with a Steward who helps them with the process. In the writing process it is common that some important questions come up that need resolution. Adequately engaging such questions is usually what creates the delays.
In addition to being a growth opportunity for would-be Stewards, the spiritual autobiography requirement has at least two other significant functions. It requires a vulnerability that is commonly sensed as profound. To be accepted after experiencing such vulnerability is often an important marker in one’s spiritual journey. At the same time, the sharing of a spiritual autobiography helps Stewards more deeply know the new Steward.
It is Seekers’ understanding that in the sharing of the autobiography the author becomes a Steward. The affirmations that follow the sharing confirm the joining. The sharing of the autobiography serves as a sacrament in the Seekers context. It is a moment when the Holy Spirit is understood to be present. The deep knowing, the bonding, the recognition, flow out of a sense of sacred togetherness. Seekers often talk about baptism, properly understood, as ordination to ministry. The reading of the spiritual autobiography could be thought of as a confirmation or claiming of one’s baptism. In any case, when the reading is completed the reader is welcomed as a new Steward.
Directing the responsibilities commonly assigned to clergy to mission groups and to Stewards corrects what I see as a basic structural flaw in traditional Christian congregations. Very few clergy are good at all the responsibilities they are assigned. Very few clergy feel called to all the responsibilities that are part of the clergy role. That can be partially solved in large churches by having large clergy staffs with specialized responsibilities. But that solution leads to additional internal hierarchy and expands the distance between clergy and laity, makes worse the deadening effects of status differentials between professionals and volunteers, and reduces the responsibilities and opportunities of non-clergy.
The Seekers understanding that everyone can be a minister, and that the community needs everyone to understand and claim their call to ministry, is not merely emotionally and socially empowering. Seekers embodies the lifestyle of the earliest Christian congregations long before there were clergy. Seekers affirms that a Christian community needs all the gifts of the Spirit and that all members have some gifts of the Spirit and are therefore able to grow into ministry. With awareness that such ministry is critical to community life comes awareness that responsibility and accountability are gifts of the community, not burdens and barriers to be resisted. Ministry is not merely about self-actualization or self-expression, it is also about taking on one part of the work that is needed.
Most progressive Christian congregations continue to have clergy, but both Wilkes and Taussigliv point out that the congregations they reviewed are likely to have some sharing of responsibility, or at least some sharing of opportunity, between clergy and laity. In such congregations the clergy person is more like a coach and less like a boss. In particular, leadership in worship is more likely to be partially shared. Seekers might be thought of as demonstrating how far you can take such transformation.
Seekers takes advantage of increased access to education that used to be available only in seminary courses. Whether in books, on the internet, or in conferences and retreats, an astounding array of scholarship and practical instruction is now readily available. Such availability is one of the things that decreases the importance of denominational programs and leadership. To the extent that denominations reinforce the theme that leadership is, and should be, the domain of clergy, they cannot appreciate, much less support, what Seekers is about. The experience of the Seeds of Hope Mission Group was that clergy or lay leaders who assume the clergy-led model of doing church find it difficult to really see, much less seriously engage, the things that Seekers so treasure as sources of vitality and transformation. .
Part of the blindness that comes with clergy dominance is the underlying mythology of a top-down approach to leadership. I emphasize the mythology, and not just the more obvious structural issues, because it is the feeling that congregational leadership belongs to recognized clergy that creates and reinforces the assertion of a status difference between professional clergy and amateur laity. The structural issues, and particularly the mythology, make it nearly impossible to distribute ministry, charisma, and leadership throughout a congregation no matter how many programs to train the laity are taught by the clergy. In contrast, Seekers models a community based approach that appreciates the gifts and skills of everyone and encourages everyone to discover, claim, develop, and offer their ministries so that the community can thrive.
The closest thing that Seekers has to clergy are the 3 servant leaders. We have had as many as 4 servant leaders and paid for as many 6 days a week of work. The need for paid Servant Leaders seemed particularly intense during the period of rehabilitating the building and moving the congregation. The current arrangement of 3 people and 3 days a week of work seems comfortable in 2008. Reducing the numbers of paid days a week is good for the budget but that has been a modest consideration since Seekers could clearly afford to pay for more. Figuring out just what kind of leadership should be paid for has been more challenging since our Servant Leaders also offer leadership as Stewards, as members of mission groups, and through individual interests and callings as well.
All the Servant Leaders were already Stewards and leaders in Seekers when they were selected and they continue to offer diverse kinds of leadership when they are paid. The particular kind of leadership that is wanted from Servant Leaders is identified in a report of a Team Needs Discernment Group that was revised and accepted by Stewards in 2002. In a section titled "Qualities of those called to the Servant Leadership Team," the following qualities are included: the ability to cultivate Seekers values in others, to cultivate leadership from the whole, to empower all Seekers, to understand and acknowledge the authority granted "in trust" for the whole community, a willingness to exercise initiating power but not ultimate control, to hold the vision for the community while recognizing that they share the vision with all Stewards rather than holding it alone.lv
The distinctions between servant leaders and clergy cannot be understood by merely comparing the roles and duties of servant leaders versus the roles and duties of clergy because such a comparison assumes an organizational rather than a community context for leadership. Servant Leaders take on some of the organizational-like duties in Seekers but those duties are also shared with others. The more basic point is that because Seekers functions more as a community than an organization, leadership is primarily relational rather than bureaucratic. This is true for members, Stewards, and Servant Leaders. There is a lot of conversation and shared problem-solving and little or no ordering others around. Conflict resolution, particularly for the more challenging conflicts to be resolved, is the final responsibility of Stewards, not of the Servant Leadership Team. Seekers never will need to fire a clergy person to solve a church problem. Every year at least one Servant Leader reviews the fit of her or his sense of calling with a Stewards appointed review group that keeps the needs of the community in mind.
The informal problem solving approach that is nested in formal understandings but has no clergy, can sometimes seem dysfunctional. For example, it took Seekers over two years to complete a process of ordering playground equipment that was authorized by Stewards during the rehabilitation of the building. There was not a great felt urgency to complete the process and different Seekers had different understanding of just what was wanted and moved in and out of participation in the conversations about choosing the equipment. The delay meant the equipment was not available to the children as soon as it might have been. The advantage was that, in the end, there was broad ownership of the decision by the adults and we still played outdoors with the children before the equipment was in place.
Seekers values both intentionality and community. This creates another dialectic tension that gives vitality to the life of Seekers. To be integrated into a community is to take on the habits and traditions of the community, to understand how to move, to know how to exist with comfort in a particular web of relationships. Communities feel good when there is continuity and harmony, but they feel even better when there is room for creativity and generativity within the harmonic style. To push the music metaphor another step, Seekers is more like a jazz ensemble than a string quartet.
Jazz is distinctive because it makes room for innovation and can appreciate different ways of working with the same tune. In Jazz there is more than one way to "get it right." But jazz improvisation is not free of guidelines and understandings. To the contrary, jazz works because it explores musical alternatives in harmony and rhythm, and, in doing so, points to the difference between music and noise. Jazz virtuosity can look radical and confusing from the outside but can come to feel ordinary when practiced on the inside. What seems confrontive or confusing when one is first coming into Seekers, such as the variety of recorded music used in Sunday morning worship, can come to feel obvious and usual once one has adjusted to life in community. The more a new participant understands what Seekers intends to accomplish, such as personal transformation and meaningful ministry as part of everyday life, the easier it is to appreciate Seekers' innovations, including its choices in recorded music. A good deal of what has been presented so far in this case study can be thought of as the social processes that help new participants accept and appreciate the traditions and habits of Seekers as a community while at the same time welcoming individuality and creativity.
Intentionality in Seekers includes a recognition that although the formation of community is important, it is only one of the three legs to our stool. The inner journey of prayer and meditation, when properly done in the Church of the Saviour tradition, leads not only to alignment and harmony but also to recognition of gifts and the acceptance of a call. To claim a calling for oneself, to commit to the calling of a mission group, or to join in the call of Seekers as a whole, is to live with intentionality. Taking up ministry is a way to express intentionality in action. Part of such intentionality is grounded in the recognition that Seekers does not exist for itself alone. To take on an outer journey often directs attention beyond the boundaries of Seekers as a community and brings feedback to the community about what is needed in order to serve well in the wider world. Even if the outer journey of an individual is primarily focused on service inside Seekers, there is still the awareness that Seekers as a whole must share in serving God by serving the larger world.
Intentionality is critical to becoming free of old traditions and to investing in new ones. When members make a common and intentional investment in Seekers it reshapes Seekers. Refusing to invest leaves freedom empty, even burdensome, a source of alienation at the personal level and a lack of grounding and appreciation at the social level.
The intentionality required to move to Carroll Street sharply raised awareness in Seekers that the community has both freedom and destiny, yet another dialectic tension. Instead of just a here-and-now focus, Seekers had to imagine a future, build commitment to that vision, make a plan, gather resources and commitments, and then had to work through substantive disagreements. The investment created a sense of mutuality that has strengthened the bonds of those who made the move and thrived in the transition. For Seekers, intentionality is not merely about individual will or social commitment; it is a choice to continually seek the guidance of the Holy Spirit. It is intentionality about process and dynamics, and that is a lot more than creating a formal plan. It is this kind of intentionality that makes journey as well as circle key metaphors for interpreting Seekers to itself and the world. Currently, intentionality is growing that Seekers needs to decrease the emphasis on building community that was so critical in the move to Carroll Street and refocus more energy on ministry to the world.
The outward journey for Seekers intentionally differs from the tradition of the Church of the Saviour in that the congregation as a whole is not focused on a common corporate ministry. Most members of Seekers pursue an outward journey through employment or through ministry commitments in the context of family or citizenship. These are activities not designed or controlled by Seekers or by one of the Church of the Saviour ministries. Both in our worship services and in our conversations we remember, acknowledge, and give thanks for the outer ministries of our members.
Some members do join or create groups in Seekers to participate in outer journeys. One example of such a common effort is the previously discussed support for Bokamoso. Another example is a group that works with Silver Spring Interfaith Housing Coalition to support and mentor a local mother who has returned from prison and is rebuilding her familylvi. Some of those who participate in the Bokamoso and Housing Coalition efforts also express ministry through their employment.
The Mission Support Group and the Artists mission group provide contexts for individuals who are claiming and expressing individual callings but who want the benefits of being part of a mission group. Each of these mission groups also contribute to the common life of Seekers or to a common outward ministry. The Mission Support Group, as an occasional part of Sunday worship, provides opportunity for individuals to share their understanding of their callings with the larger community. The Artists are key to supporting the Bokamoso ministry.
Community, Network, and System
In previous sections the focus has been on describing and explaining Seekers as an independent community. To be independent is not the same as being isolated or unconnected. The connections between Seekers and other congregations and ministries, between Seekers and the secular world, are not so much structured organizational links as networks of relationships. Such networks are an alternative to denominational connections or formal ecumenical connections. Because many of the important links are informal they may be invisible to casual observers. Following are some examples of Seekers participation in networkslvii.
Seekers has one set of formal organizational linkages. It is with the nine other congregations that are recognized as being in the tradition of the Church of the Saviour. The formal aspect of this relationship is that the Stewards of Seekers are also recognized as voting members of the Church of the Saviour. The primary formal reality of the Church of the Saviour in 2008 is the joint ownership of two valuable properties: the Headquarters Building and the Dayspring Retreat Center. Management of the properties, and a few other matters is done by an Ecumenical Council made up of representatives from the 10 congregations.
The most important linkage is the informal connections between individuals from the different congregations who know and care about each other. This is particularly strong for some older members who used to be together in the original Church of the Saviour congregation. Some Seekers have a deep appreciation of Gordon Cosby, who founded the Church of the Saviour. Since Seekers worshiped in the Headquarters building of the Church of the Saviour from 1976 to 2004, the memories of sharing space are alive for perhaps two-thirds of the current congregation. Some Seekers have been employed by, or have volunteered in, one or more of the 30-plus formally incorporated ministries that have arisen from the Church of the Saviour.
A quarterly newsletter, Diaspora, shares news among the congregations. There have been gatherings of the ten congregations at Dayspring. Seekers has worked with the Festival Centerlviii in offering interpretive programming about the Church of the Saviour. Seekers has annually provided meaningful levels of financial support for one congregation and several ministries of the Church of the Saviour through the common Seekers budget and by direct giving and investing from individuals in Seekers. Taken together, the network relationships of Seekers with the congregations and ministries of the Church of the Saviour are more substantively significant than the denominational connections of some institutional churches. The difference is that Seekers considers itself to be an independent congregation and relates as it wishes to relate.
Seekers has relationships beyond the Church of the Saviour. Seekers reputation has been growing and other congregations are modeling at least part of their own life on Seekers. Visitors from other congregations and communities come to get an understanding of how things work at Seekers, to get a feel for the Seekers culture that is so difficult to communicate in words. We have had denominational leaders, international visitors, pastors on sabbatical, seminary students, and more. We have had extended conversations by internet and phone. We have told our story at conferences and seminars and done consultations with local churches. In addition to being featured in the books by Wilkes and by Taussig, we have been visible in numerous Faith at Work conferences and in the Faith at Work magazine.lix The Seekers website (www.seekerschurch.org) gets substantial traffic including people who like our liturgies and sermons or are interested in our basic reference documents. Seekers also sustains relationships with some of the "graduates" of Seekers who have relocated around the United States. Such interest in Seekers is an encouragement to the congregation to hang in with its core vision.
Stewardship is one important aspect of networking by Seekers. The total Seekers budget for 2007 was $270,000. External giving was raised to $81,000: $51,000 for domestic giving and $30,000 for international giving. External giving includes $7,000 for public policy advocacy. We have an additional line item of $5,000 for Dayspring and make additional external gifts through our Christmas offering.lx Part of the vision and intent for buying and rehabilitating the Carroll Street building was to support other religious and selected non-profit groups that rent our space, sometimes at a subsidized rate. This has led to significant sharing of the building, which we understand to be part of our outward ministry. Seekers owns a time share in the Rolling Ridge Retreat Center in West Virginia, another example of space sharing with ecumenical partners.
Seekers Church is listed as an affiliate of the Center for Progressive Christianity.lxi The Center lists eight points that it considers definitional of progressive Christianity. Some of them read as if they were borrowed straight from a Seekers sermon. For example, Point Six reads, "We are Christians who find more grace in the search for understanding than we do in dogmatic certainty - more value in questioning than in absolutes." Networking with other progressive congregations is weak, whether through the Center or through other efforts, primarily web-based, that aim at increasing visibility and connection. Most Seekers could not tell you that Seekers is a Center affiliate.
Seekers developed its theology, worship style, and and community structures and processes decades before the the Center for Progressive Christianity, or any other progressive Christian network, became visible and active. Seekers has wrapped thirty-two years of experience and development around affirmations such as Point Six on the Center’s website. We are not wishy-washy about affirming Christian traditions. The point for Seekers is not so much freedom from dogma as freedom for kerygma (saving truth). Seekers did not get to its current condition by following a grand plan. As was developed in the previous section, Seekers theology and intentionality is grounded in currently felt existential concerns. Seekers theology links up with a felt hunger for salvation within the life we know. Any speculation about life after death, or life after the end of the world, is more an expression of curiosity or hope in the face of mystery. The most that can be said about Seekers affiliation with the Center for Progressive Christianity is that it can be counted as one more mark that Seekers stands within an emerging nationwide movement of progressive Christianity and contributes to that movement.
Most of the networking connections for Seekers Church are through individuals in Seekers rather than through organizational commitments or initiatives. For example, we make regular budgeted contributions to the Afghanistan Institute of Learning because one of the Stewards did Peace Core work in Afghanistan and has a sustained interest in the Institute. All Seekers external giving is to organizations where a Seeker has a personal connection.
Seekers samples many streams of information through the internet, publications, conferences, and a mix of personal and professional connections. Seekers contributes information, art, worship resources, perspectives on issues, and more through the same channels. While Seekers is interested in the emergence of Progressive Christianity it also connects to a variety of more traditional Christian expressions. One member teaches and runs an art gallery in a traditional seminary. Another is a peace maker in the Middle East working for a traditional non-profit advocacy and service organization. Another is on the Board of Directors of a national sacred dance guild. For a small congregation, the number and diversity of connections is quite dramatic. I see this connectivity as one of the fruits of being a congregation in which most of the members are intentionally pursuing diverse Christian callings.
The diverse connectedness of Seekers does not lead to the diffusion and confusion of an eclectic model or culture. Seekers sustains the kinds of conversations that weave the diverse threads into a felt tapestry of shared caring and orientation that support ministry and involvement in many places with many concerns. Such conversations are grounded in intentionality, listening skills, and disciplines. For example, several members have diverse counseling and healing skills. They share informal meetings, occasional classes in the School of Christian Living, and conversations that are mutually supportive and serendipitous rather than competitive or doctrinaire. This is good for the healers and a resource for pastoral care in the community.
When thinking of Seekers as a system, the leading descriptive quality is openness. Whether we are talking about Seekers connections to the wider world of Christianity, to the wider worlds of scholarship, to healing or organizational skills, to opportunities for ministry, to art and liturgy, and more; the connections are multi-directional, and are mediated by members and Stewards with diverse personal religious histories. Since Seekers is largely non-hierarchical and has no clergy, the conversation and the processing of ideas and opportunities is diverse and rich. The challenge for following up on such richness is that most members of Seekers are already busy with callings and ministries.
With thirty-two years of history, Seekers’ worship services, mission group meetings, and conversations are not so much experimental as flexibly engaged. Since tradition in Seekers includes the expectation that concerns will be addressed with freshness and depth, tradition can hardly be considered the enemy of liveliness as it is in some congregations. While Seekers connects in an open system style with the wider world, and while creativity and freshness are typically valued, diverse input is commonly met with discernment and sometimes explicit challenges. Respecting individuals is not the same as respecting every idea that comes along. Such diversity can lead to disagreements and conflicts and Seekers does not handle all disagreement and conflict well. But Seekers is thriving, in large part, because disagreements are more likely to result in creative tensions within the community than in denial and suppression. The challenge is to keep interpersonal respect and relationships strong while taking disagreements seriously.
Philosophical and Theological Reflection
It is tempting to assess Seekers’ style of progressive Christianity as a response to the pervasiveness of post-modern philosophy in contemporary scholarship.lxii Seekers resists authoritarian and hierarchical structures and critically engages various texts: the Bible, its own texts, and the contemporary world of research and conversation. So it would be fair to say that Seekers seems to express postmodern sentiments.
The Church of the Saviour and Seekers, however, were founded before post-modernism became a significant philosophy in the United States. More importantly, any grounding in skepticism , suspicion, and critique, is balanced by an affirmation of the kerygma (saving truth) of the Bible. My perception of the dominant point of view is that Seekers believes the Bible is scripture because we have experienced the useful guidance it has given for shaping our individual and common lives, not because of speculative argumentation about divine inspiration. Said alternatively, the Bible helps guide us toward, and helps us to appreciate, the living presence of the Holy Spirit.lxiii In turn, the experience of the Holy Spirit helps us to understand just how valuable the Bible is for us. We do not define the Holy Spirit but we pray that the Holy Spirit will define us. We have come to trust that the Holy Spirit can lead us into self-understanding and relational engagement that we appreciate as precious. For Seekers, in contrast to Post-Modernists, it is what we can muster of humility, rather than suspicion and skepticism, that makes us cautious in our assertive language and informs our commitment to listening. We are eager to share what we know to be precious, but understand that conversations with each other, and with non-Seekers, have to begin from where people are rather than from some ideal Christian perspective. Understanding this point is a key transition from old liberalism to progressive Christianity: a valuation of life-giving questions and hopes over doctrinaire answers.
While Seekers tend not to be very interested in speculative theological arguments, we do tend to have a healthy respect for mystery so that, coupled with our interest in life-engaging theology, we are content with being creatures who cannot see what God sees. Humility in the presence of mystery is quite different from humanism or agnosticism. We just work with the received gifts of orthodoxy in existentialist and dialectic ways. We focus on the kerygma, the saving truth, the good news brought to us by Jesus our Christ and the many Christians who have worked with such truth down the ages. We are interested in what we are saved from and what we are saved for. Saving truth, as we understand it, is not appreciated as long as it merely held at arms length for analysis. For us, the saving reality of God is not an assertion to be argued about but an invitation to explore loving and being loved, an invitation to accept and relax into forgiveness. It is about imagining hope, facing up to individual and collective sins, and so much more.
Sonya Dyer claimed feminism, which can be understood in part as a post-modern critique of patriarchal culture and assumptions, as a basis for gaining respect for what women had to offer in church leadership. However, for Sonya and others, a resistance to patriarchy and hierarchy was not presented as radical ideological feminism that included a hostility to all things masculine. Instead, Sonya Dyer joined Fred Taylor in issuing a call to a congregation with shared leadership and an inclusive welcome to participation. An event in the 1980s helped sharpen this awareness for Seekers. An ideological feminist was invited to Seekers for a weekend of seminars and then to preach on Sunday. She showed no respect for how Seekers was working out gender relationships and generally alienated both men and women, including myself and others who had initiated the effort to bring her to Seekers. In contrast, Sonya Dyer’s vision, echoed by other key women leaders, was that Seekers should be a community that worked for everyone, that respected everyone, that valued the positive contributions of everyone.
Post-modernism is much stronger on the critique side than on the affirmation side of philosophy, more interested in freedom from constraints than freedom for investments. The culture of Seekers is not merely committed to exploration and discernment, interests shared with Post-modernists. Seekers also aims at embodying and collectively building understandings and relationships that embrace life's meaning and joy. It's fine to deconstruct texts to illustrate the limitations of human communication, to point out that it is difficult to achieve objectivity, to indicate the many ways in which interests shape rhetoric. Seekers is also interested in listening and discernment, but Seekers also has a Christian word to say, a word of salvation to say, however limited and imperfect the framing. The key difference is that Seekers is not focused on having its particular construction heard and accepted. Our words are offered as invitations to try out the experiences of hope, trust, vulnerability, caring, love, and so much more, for yourself. If you can appreciate such experiences you are on a path to salvation and we have a lot more to talk about, however imperfectly. Beyond the particular words or grammars we choose, we hope that others will become curious because they sense the seriousness of our creative efforts, the depth of our transformations, and the joy and courage of our embodiments. You can assess the phenomena of Seekers but you can also experience for yourself the reality that Seekers points to, hopes for, risks towards.
The clearest example of Seekers’ non-authoritarian approach to important texts is our positive valuation of contemporary biblical scholarship. Such biblical scholarship is probably the high point of post-modern emphasis on the critical assessment of texts, though it is hard to imagine that assessment coming from the lips of secular post-modern scholars. While Seekers values the contributions of textual criticism, historical criticism, and form criticism, we are not primarily interested in knowing about biblical texts. Instead, members of Seekers are interested in what can be known of Jesus, despite great distance, as he spoke and embodied life-giving truth. Gaining an understanding of what Jesus himself offered, in contrast to the interests and perspectives of those who wrote the New Testament and non-canonical texts, is a challenging intellectual project and an even more important spiritual challenge. For example, Seekers values the parables of Jesus not merely for their deconstructionist power relative to the society and culture of his day, but also for the guidance available to every Christian generation. Critical conversations can be helpful, but the important goal is to claim the good news that life can be powerfully different and better right now despite appearances to the contrary.
Instead of measuring Seekers theology against post-modernist philosophy, the better connection to intellectual history can be understood as taking up the challenge presented by Paul Tillich: to reclaim and restate the saving truth in every generation.lxiv My repeated efforts to draw attention to the engagement of both poles of dialectic tensions to help explain the vitality, commitment, and passion in Seekers comes straight out of Tillich's theology. The more important point is that there is no magic in theological forms, not even in the vitality that comes with an appreciation of how apparently disparate goals and perspectives can be held together in dialectic tension. The best of Christian theology and the best of biblical scholarship creates new space for Christian intellectual creativity. Seekers is trying to demonstrate how such intellectual creativity can help to encourage and discern the embodiment of salvation, the mutual creation of Christian community.
Seekers claims its place in the centuries long relationships, conversations, and hope that goes back to Jesus. We proclaim a salvation that embodies (incarnates) what is life-giving. Seekers has a lovely cache of testimonies, examples, metaphors, and stories to share, but our greatest treasure is respect for, and engagement of, the life-giving questions that are available to human beings. We can speculate and we can analyze, but the really important questions have to be lived-into, tried out, shared.
Although Seekers’ conversations and practices are grounded in Judeo-Christian story, Seekers also enjoys dialogue with other sources of wisdom: other religious traditions as well as scientific, historical, literary, artistic, and cross-cultural traditions. This is modeled in School of Christian Living classes and expressed in some of the sermons and conversations of Seekers.
Seekers live out one way to be a contemporary progressive Christian community. As the Wilkes and Taussig books indicate, there are many other progressive churches that embody forms and cultures quite different from Seekers. There are not many current examples of Christian communities like Seekers, and even fewer examples that can claim a history of long-term vitality and stability. The most similar examples are probably the Quaker Meetings that have no clergy. This raises the questions of whether the Seekers experience and forms are repeatable, whether they are desirable.
For a while, Seekers had a Seeds of Hope mission group, of which I was a member, that aimed at sharing Seekers’ story, and, more important, at sharing what Seekers believes to be the life-giving questions that can help other congregations claim more of what we experience as precious. While Seekers values its own particular solutions, forms, and disciplines, we do not believe that the sum of them is what is precious. It is living engagement, deep and active engagement, with the Holy Spirit and each other that matters. It is the meaningful life that comes with claiming one’s calling and taking up one’s ministry that is precious. Seeds of Hope was determined not to package the Seekers story in the next church renewal recipe book, program of eight seminars, etc. We like books and seminars and retreats but do not want to offer prepackaged answers.
Seeds of Hope found numerous congregations with some leaders who clearly have the kind of hunger and passion that could lead to transformation, deepened commitment, and joy. Sometimes it was a group of laity. Sometimes it was a clergy person. But we found only one congregation that might have had both a clergy person and a significant group of laity that shared such hungers. Sadly, Seeds of Hope messed up our relationship to that congregation by getting too excited about sharing the Seekers experience and answers despite our warnings to ourselves on that very point.
Seeds of Hope also tried to relate to church renewal professionals in a progressive denomination. We quickly came to the conclusion that commitments to clergy leadership and programmatic solutions made it impossible for denominational professionals to really appreciate what Seekers is doing. An even more basic challenge was that we found it difficult to explain to interested people just what we were offering. The organizational culture of programs and solutions is so pervasive that Seekers experience of the freedom, creativity, and joy that comes with going deep into questions seems invisible, weird, or impossible to many.
Seekers has done better with individuals who have come to sojourn with us. They often get excited about what we are doing. But then they are stuck with carrying that excitement back into organizations that have not had similar experiences.
We know some denominationally affiliated congregations with clergy leadership are trying to radically remake themselves and that others are not so shy in offering church renewal programs, even church transformation programs. We know there are congregations that are working out organizational answers with some similarities to what Seekers is doing. For example, there are congregations that have given real authority to committees for planning and implementing Sunday worship. Seekers would ask such committees if they are hungry for the dynamics that would lead them to become mission groups. Seekers would ask such congregations just how far they are willing to respect and trust every member's call and ministry. And Seekers would ask the clergy and the seminaries just how far they are willing to trust the experienced presence of the Holy Spirit for truly valuable hope and guidance, to offer their gifts hands up and fingers extended.
Is Seekers repeatable? It certainly is. Any congregation can transform itself by moving toward the above forms and new congregations can profit from the thirty-two years of exploration by Seekers. But the key is not in the forms, however valuable. The fundamental point is that the Holy Spirit is available, knowable both in judgment and in grace. You can’t capture the Holy Spirit in a building or a program. You can’t capture it at all. You have to let the Holy Spirit capture you.
- i.Seekers Church should not be confused with the "seeker churches" that are being sponsored by the Willow Ridge Community Church, a model that has been supported by some conservative evangelical seminaries.
- ii.A great deal of information about Seekers Church is available at www.seekerschurch.org. The Seekers building is located at 276 Carroll Street NW, Washington, DC, about 100 yards from the Takoma stop on the Red Line of the Metro train system.
- iii.Wilkes, Paul. Excellent Protestant Congregations: The Guide to Best Places and Practices. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001. Taussig, Hal. A New Spiritual Home: Progressive Christianity at the Grass Roots. P.O. Box 7268, Santa Rosa, California: Polebridge Press, 2006.
- iv.See pages 32 and following for a discussion of intentionality in Seekers.
- v.The distinguishing marks of Seekers as a progressive Christian community are summarized on page 13.
- vi.For an international list of current Christian communities see http://www.newcreation.org.uk/nccc/links_index.shtml
- vii. Information on the history and current activities of Koinonia Partners is available at www.koinoniapartners.org.
- viii. Clarence Jordan published four books in the Cotton Patch series. The Cotton Patch Version of Paul’s Epistles. New York: Association Press, 1968. The Cotton Patch Version of Luke and Acts. New York: Association Press, 1969. The Cotton Patch Version of Matthew and John. Chicago: Association Press (Follett Publishing Company), 1970. The Cotton Patch Version of Hebrews and the General Epistles. New York: Association Press, 1973.
- ix The Austin Christian Faith and Life Community was created in 1952 to encourage students at the University of Texas to become progressive Christian laypeople. One offshoot of this community moved to Chicago and created the Ecumenical Institute. Two sources mention this community: Rossinow, Douglas C., The Politics of Authority. New York: Columbia University Press, 1998; and "The Thereness of it All," Time Magazine, May 5, 1962.
- x. Reba Place Fellowship was founded in 1957 and is still alive and well. They still pool incomes and live simply from a common purse. Their website is www.rebaplacefellowship.org.
- xi. The story is well told by O'Connor, Elizabeth: Call to Commitment, New York: Harper and Row, 1963.
- xii. For example, Yablonsky, Lewis: The Hippie Trip, Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1968.
- xiii For example, Rubin, Jerry: Do It!, New York: Simon and Schuster: 1970.
- xiv. Including: Berger, Peter L.: The Noise of Solemn Assemblies, Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1961; Gustafson, James M.: Treasure in Earthen Vessels, New York: Harper, 1961; Webber, George W.: The Congregation in Mission, New York: Abingdon Press, 1964; and later Boyd, Malcolm (Ed.): The Underground Church, New York: Sheed and Ward, 1968.
- xv. For example: Conover, Patrick W. "An Analysis of Communes and Intentional Communities with Particular Attention to Sexual and Genderal Relations." The Family Coordinator. 24(1975):453-464.
- xvi. Shalom Community bought 46 acres of land in 1974, rehabilitated 3 existing dwellings and several out-buildings and built a new shared residence called Pala after the island in Island by Aldous Huxley, New York, Harper and Row, 1962. The formal organization of Shalom Community was as a congregation of the United Church of Christ. The few acres that contained the dwellings were rented from Shalom Community to the Pala Housing Cooperative so that we could pay appropriate residential taxes.
We worshiped together, taught Christianity to our children, supported each other while working or going to school, created a large common garden, and offered a variety of spiritual retreats and organizing conferences around progressive improvements in public education. We were responsible for out own finances but there was a lot of helping out of various kinds and major sharing of resources to buy the land, build Pala, buy a tractor, etc. We supported one member in going to Africa for a year to work in a dietary education ministry that lifted up the value of traditional native foods.
- xvii. Accessible now at www.nardacenters.org.
- xviii The Church of the Saviour has a wonderful record of service programs based on adult volunteer ministry. The latest Friendship Directory lists 52 missions: housing, health care, social services, and other things. Many of these missions have become full scale service institutions with real estate, hired professionals, and commonly a voluntary organization form of management. Much as I respect and value this magnificent accomplishment, I also greatly value community organizing and political organizing as approaches for dealing with the concerns of poverty and racism that animate typical Church of the Saviour missions.
- xix For the primary account of the early Church of the Saviour read Elizabeth O’Connor’s Call to Commitment. New York: Harper and Row, 1963.
- xx. Check out www.serve.com/dayspringretreat/ Some members of Dayspring still live on Dayspring property and many aspects of community are still in evidence.
- xxi. Gordon Cosby emphasized the importance of being called to ministry to low-income people as volunteers in mission group projects or in the institutions that sometimes grew out of such mission groups. Seekers emphasizes calling to ministry in more contexts, particularly through vocations.
- xxi. O’Connor, Elizabeth. Search for Silence rev.ed. Philadelphia: Innisfree Press, 1986. This is just one of several of her books that emphasize the inner journey. I do not mean to imply that either Gordon Cosby or Elizabeth O’Connor were one-dimensional thinkers or leaders. My point is a matter of emphasis.
- xxiii. While the New Lands movement led to the initiation of several functioning congregations the Church of the Saviour continued as a legal entity. Members of the recognized congregations were also members of the Church of the Saviour but the membership never had an official meeting until the New New Lands movement which led to more formal division and separate incorporations. Gordon continued to preach in on Sunday mornings to an "Ecumenical Service" which was not part of an organized congregation and was "ecumenical" in the sense that members of any recognized congregation could come and participate.
The Church of the Saviour continued to own the Headquarters building which was controlled by Gordon Cosby and administered by Gordon, Elizabeth O'Connor, and Bill Branner. Income from the Ecumenical Service helped to pay Gordon's and Bill Branner's salaries and Gordon raised money from other sources to keep the Headquarter's building functioning. In this way, Gordon kept firm control of the overall structure and image of the Church of the Saviour while allowing other leadership to lead "recognized congregations."
- xxiv. When Fred and Sonya became the first two paid staff of Seekers Fred was paid to preach and not paid for general pastoral duties or administration. Sonya took on many pastoral duties. There were perceived inequalities in pay and work level which contributed to community tensions that gave additional energy to the move to the open pulpit.
- xxv. Fred Taylor was an ordained Southern Baptist minister and Sonya Dyer had no clergy credentials.
- xxvi. The distinctions between members and Stewards and the functioning of Steward within Seekers is discussed in several later sections of this paper.
- xxvii. The Call of Seekers Church
The life of Seekers Church is defined by our call:
Our call is to be a "Seekers community" which comes together in weekly worship rooted in the Biblical faith, with shared leadership; and disperses with a common commitment to understand and implement Christian servanthood in the structures in which we live our lives.
By "Seekers community" we mean an intentional body which sees Christ as our true life source. Koinonia with one another and genuine self-giving to the world are the ways we can be in Christ today. Seekers are not persons who have arrived, but persons who are intentionally on the way.
By shared leadership we mean empowering the gifts of women and men to help our worship flow out of and feed into the life of the community. We are committed to evoking and giving space to new gifts of preaching, liturgical leadership, creative worship forms, giving, mission and other acts of faith.
For us, Christian servanthood is based on empowering others within the normal structures of our daily lives (work; family and primary relationships; and citizenship) as well as through special structures for service and witness. We desire and welcome participation in Seekers of women and men of every race and sexual orientation. In Seekers Church we will equip and support each other in all of these areas and seek a balance among them.
The Seekers community sees itself called into Christ's ministry of deliverance from bondage to freedom in every personal and corporate expression. We recognize the value of each individual and seek to heal any wounds of discrimination inflicted by our society and church.
Seekers is committed to participation by persons of all ages. We see children, youth and adults of all ages as valuable and valued parts of our community, and desire their inclusion in our care, our ministry, and our life together.
- Issued by Seekers Founding Members in July 1976
- Revised by Seekers Core Members in November 1989
- Revised by Seekers Core Members in May 1991
The words "in the tradition of the Church of the Saviour" were agreed to by the ecumenical council at the New Lands time to indicate that offshoot churches should not claim direct inheritance.
- xxviii. Didion, Joan. Slouching Toward Bethlehem. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1968.
- >xxix. Hostetler, John A. Amish Society. 1963 Hostetler provides a strong analysis of pietist intentional Christian communities. A similar group, the Bruderhof, formed in the early 20th century. They were communes in the sense of holding all the buildings, land, and business in common, sharing a close community life, and carrying forward a simple lifestyle in contrast to surrounding cultures.
- xxx. Niebuhr, H. Richard. Christ and Culture. New York: Harper and Row, 1951
- xxxi. Seekers worshiped from 1976 to 2004 in the Headquarters building of the Church of the Saviour in the Adams Morgan neighborhood of Washington, DC.
- xxxii. Kantor, Rosabeth Moss. Commitment and Community: Communes and Utopias in Sociological Perspective. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1972.
- xxxiii. Cosby, Gordon. Handbook for Mission Groups. Word Books, 1975
- xxxiv Bokamoso is a "street theater" youth group that is part of the Tumelong Ministries in Winterfeld South Africa. They tour annually in the United States with the support of several groups, including Seekers. In addition to helping Bokamoso create their plays and music, Seekers also support Bokamoso members with school tuitions and job preparation activities. Seekers has also contributed on-site and financial support for building a guest house and related ministry for Tumelong and helped to generate small business activities.
- xxxv. The 8th edition of Mission Groups in Seekers Church, which functions as Seekers "Handbook" for guiding mission groups, is available online from www.seekerschurch.org. Some might enjoy comparing comparing this handbook with Gordon Cosby’s Handbook for Mission Groups. Word International: 1975. For further discussion in this paper see page 16.
- xxxvi. The traditional English house churches in the 1960s were small groups within larger Anglican parishes that met for worship, bible study, and mutual support. They were thus similar to Methodist small groups that were at the heart of Wesleyan and Quaker reforms. In Tallahassee as a college student I helped form two such groups in the context of First Presbyterian Church. Later, as a graduate student, I had leadership in reforming a college coffee house based on the Potter’s House Coffee House of the Church of the Saviour, which was both a congregation and mission groups, with different mission groups having responsibility for different nights.
In Chicago I initiated two house churches as parts of Essex Community Church, a congregation of the United Church of Christ. In one sense the Essex Church house churches were traditional English house churches which focused on worship, Bible study, and mutual support. But the members were deeply involved in block clubs and in The Woodlawn Organization with powerful and demanding outward ministries. The Essex Church house churches were action oriented even if the program of the house churches did not have a formal action commitment.
- xxxvii. I would count other congregations with clergy as contemporary Christian communities, even if they are part of denominations, so long as they actually function in ways that emphasize shared authority and recognize the equality of all ministry.
- xxxviii See page 16 for a discussion of the 8th Edition of Mission Groups in Seekers Church.
- xxxix. I am focusing on form at this point in the paper and to simplify the exposition I am not pointing out that there are some minor aspects of Seekers that are bureaucratic, such as the structuring of our written budget. I am also well aware that congregations which have the form of voluntary associations have some community aspects, some informal ways of getting things done, some lay people who offer significant ministries, and some clergy who share power and authority. The goal of the paper is to illustrate the distinctiveness of the forms and dynamics of Seekers life with particular attention to the concepts of community and network that are the distinctive marks of an alternate culture institution. My primary reference for the form and dynamics of alternate institutions are the communes, intentional communities, free schools, free clinics, house churches, free churches, and similar groups that had some popularity in the United States in the 1960s and 1970s.
- xl. The liturgies and sermons of Seekers are posted on the Seekers web site: www.seekerschurch.org. Many of the visitors to the web site come for these resources and the Seekers web site is listed on several international worship resources websites.
- xli. On the one hand people draw on social and cultural resources to develop and communicate a sense of self. On the other hand, the multiple contributions of individuals, make up and change social and cultural realities. Polaric understanding challenges the independence of the concept of self on the one hand and community (society, culture, etc.) on the other hand. The fundamental reality is "individual-in-relationship." The boundaries around the concepts of self, or of community, are not hard boundaries but better conceptualized as semi-permeable membranes with multiple layers or dimensions of exchange.
- xlii. Wellspring is one of the ministries of Dayspring Retreat Center. It has three residential buildings and a large meeting room and eating facility. Dayspring is the Church of the Saviour Retreat Center and is owned by Seekers Church and the nine other recognized Church of the Saviour congregations. In addition to paying for using the facilities at Dayspring for four regular activities a year, and hosting or participating in other activities, Seekers also supports Dayspring with a regular line-item gift in its budget.
- xliii. The discussion of polarities in this paper is based on my understanding of the discussion of polarities in the dialectic theology of Paul Tillich as found in Systematic Theology, Volume III (Part IV. "Life and Spirit," Section 1.B), Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1963. Three basic polarities are being-becoming, dynamics-form, and individuation-participation.
- xliv. For Seekers, Recommitment Sunday is the third Sunday in October. Preparation for recommitment commonly includes study questions, liturgical engagement, group and paired conversations, plus prayer and meditation. Stewards are expected to spend at least one hour in silence in our sanctuary or another suitable space and members are invited to such practice
- xlv. See footnote iii.
- xlvi. The name "Seekers" is based on a phrase from Robert Greenleaf’s 1970 book, Servant as Leader. The key phrase is, "The variable that marks some periods as barren and some as rich in prophetic vision is in the interest, the level of seeking, the responsiveness of the hearers. The variable is not in the presence or absence or the relative quality and force of the prophetic voices. Prophets grow in stature as people respond to their messages." A more complete discussion may be found in A Guide to Seekers Church which is available on the Seekers’ website: www.seekerschurch.org.
- xlvii. One of Seekers’ primary outreach efforts involves a member who is in active collaboration with a troop of "street theater" young people called Bokamoso in Winterfeld, a highly deprived township in South Africa. For eight years Seekers has helped sponsor and support annual tours by Bokamoso groups to the Washington metropolitan region. Their music and their plays about AIDS, and about domestic violence, offer a precious missionary outreach to youth in the Washington area.
- xlviii While the membership of Seekers is predominantly white we have created some interracial fellowship by opening the use of the building to two small predominantly African-American congregations and are engaged in some common efforts and social interaction. All three congregations use our building on Sundays and occasionally all three make adjustments in schedule to accommodate special events, a sign of mutual respect and support.
- xlix. See footnote ii.
- l. Fromm, Erich. Escape From Freedom. New York: Henry Holt, 1941.
- li. The classic discussion of charisma as a social process is to be found in Max Weber's Economy and Society, Volume One, pages 241ff. New York, Bedminister Press, 1968. Weber's basic point is that a charismatic relationship begins a a strong emotional tie between a charismatic leader and audience members when the leader touches on deep and unconscious emotional needs in audience members. Because the needs are unconscious it seems to the audience member that the power for healing is in the leader rather than within themselves. It is only when the healing power within an individual becomes conscious and claimed that the charismatic power of the leader becomes diffused in an audience.
In Seekers, claiming access to the Holy Spirit for everyone, and a community emphasis on supporting the spiritual journey in each other, a spiritual journey that addresses the existential challenges of life here and now, is well-suited to this diffusion of charisma and a resultant authority transition that supports the leadership of the whole. Governance by Stewards who have met spiritual requirements helps to sustain this reality, but Seekers believe it is repeated engagement of the Holy Spirit, and not the forms of spiritual requirements, that give vitality to charismatic diffusion.
- lii. See, for example Elizabeth O'Connor's, Journey Inward, Journey Outward, New York: Harper Collins, 1968, page 28ff; and many elements of her Eighth Day of Creation, Waco Texas: Word Books, 1971.
- liii. The old tradition was two semesters with each offering two12 week classes.
- liv. Wilkes, op cit. Taussig, op cit.
- lv. Findings and Recommendations of the Team Needs Discernment Group, Revised and Accepted by Stewards September 8, 2002. In addition to the qualities quoted, the report also refers to a similar 1993 report, Call to Leadership of the Whole, which named the following desirable qualities for Servant Leaders: listening and enabling, including in community life persons of all ages and abilities, being grounded in a sense of mission, being centered, facilitating, and having a mature sense of sexuality and being comfortable operating in a community that values the leadership of men and women. In 2002 Stewards added the theme of holding up or working with issues of marginalized people in our society. Additionally, the 1993 report recommended that the Servant Leadership Team as a whole should have members who have the following qualities: evangelizing, pastoring, administering, including managing a physical plant, being a visionary/prophet, being a visible leader, and being a biblical/theological student.
- lvi. Perhaps the language in the 2002 report that most directly aims at clarifying the difference between Servant Leaders and clergy is the following. Members of the Servant Leadership Team should embody an authentic spiritual authority that is recognized by the whole community but does not claim power over others. They should know the "dance steps" relative to different points of authority within the community: when to step forward to encourage, when to step back and let new growth blossom, when to fill a void and when to let the void be.
- lvii. Our work with SSIHC shows a willingness to work with groups not in the tradition of the Church of the Saviour whereas many of our sister churches are focused on Church of the Saviour ministries and institutions.
- lvii. In addition to the network relationships discussed in the body of the paper, individual Seekers provide network relationships to numerous Christian and service organizations: Faith @ Work, N Street Village, the Rostropovich Foundation, health care advocacy organizations, the United Church of Christ Justice and Witness Ministries, Hope and a Home, Sarah’s Circle, L’Arche, several retirement communities, Department of Defense Domestic Violence Prevention, Communities in Schools, National Cathedral College, Wesley Theological Seminary, Holy Cross Hospice Services, Child and Family Services, the Department of Health and Human Services, plus other connections through alumni and friends of Seekers. Some of the alumni and friends relationships are quite lively.
- lviii. The Festival Center is a Church of the Saviour congregation that operates a seminary-like program to train laity and clergy in inner-city ministry. They have a large building in the Adams Morgan neighborhood where many of the Church of the Saviour initiated ministries operate.
- lix. Faith at Work www.faithatwork.com/ is an independent national spiritual renewal movement. Marjory Bankson, a Seekers Steward, helped revive Faith at Work and then served as its Executive Director for many years and then as an editor and speaker. Doug Wysocky-Johnson is the current Executive Director and was a member of Seekers when he lived in the Washington D.C. area. Several Seekers have served on the Board of Directors of Faith at Work. Through Faith at Work, Seekers has participated in a small network of congregations in several denominations that has focused on lifting up the importance of ministry through daily life which is a staple of both Faith at Work and Seekers.
- lx. The total income for Seekers in 2006 was about $271,000, of which $240,000 was from individual contributions. Individual contributions came in at $20,000 above expectations and expenses for the building, staff, church operations and program came in about $24,000 under expectations. Such income above expectation and expenditures below expectations have been usual for Seekers for the last ten years. Part of the reason for low operating costs is that it is fairly common for some Stewards and members to forego reimbursements or otherwise make in-kind contributions. For the last ten years Seekers has commonly had about $50,000 a year to put into buying and rehabilitating the building on Carroll Street, and then to reduce the debt. At the end of 2006 we have about $82,000 for that purpose beyond the $20,000 set aside for specific commitments of principal and interest.
The total cost for buying, rehabilitating, and furnishing the Carroll Street property came to about $1.6 million dollars. About half of that was raised in contributions and the other half was raised in loans from members and Stewards. We are ahead of schedule in paying off the loans and some of the principal and interest has been forgiven.) Seekers considers a significant part of the building related expenses, including the purchase, rehabilitation, and debt expenses, to be an expression of outward mission and service for the community. Collectively, non-Seekers groups use the building much more than Seekers. We could also count some of the staff expenses as outward mission since one of the staff positions is exclusively focused on managing the sharing of the building and the Servant Leadership Team spends part of its energy relating to groups that share our building. Seen in this way, Seekers considers more than half of its budget to be devoted to outside mission. When the building debt is paid off in a few years the amount devoted to outside mission should be more than three-quarters of the budget.
- lxi. The website is www.tcpc.org.
- lxii. Post-modern philosophy is not easily defined, in part because its primary activity is the deconstruction (critique) of other texts, institutions, societies, etc. While it is easy to say that post-modernism is a critique of bourgeois elitist culture, it is harder to say just what it is for. Jacques Derrida is commonly cited as a leading author and here is what he says as his leading "nutshell" statement in his book, Deconstruction in a Nutshell, New York: Fordham University Press, 1997, edited by John D. Capputo, page 31. "The very meaning and mission of deconstruction is to show that things – texts, institutions, traditions, societies, beliefs, and practices of whatever size you need – do not have definable meanings and determinable missions, that they are always more than any mission would impose, that they exceed the boundaries they currently occupy. What is going on in things, what is really happening, is always to come."
- lxiii. While Seekers' understanding and appreciation of the Holy Spirit has been repeatedly pointed out in this paper< it would be misleading to think of Seekers as a charismatic congregation in the common usage of that term. The charismatic movement in the United States has emphasized the special gifts of the Spirit, particularly speaking in tongues (glossolalia) and spiritual healing. Seekers does not practice speaking in tongues but understands that some communication is about expressing understandings and feelings that don't link up easily with words. Similarly, Seekers does not practice traditional charismatic faith healing but does appreciate that prayer, spiritual sharing, and other approaches to body spirituality, can have a profound impact on our lives and that can include direct and indirect encouragement of body healing as well. For Seekers, our interest in the direct experience of the presence of the Holy Spirit is more about whet the Bible describes as the general or usual gifts of the Spirit: inspiration, courage, discernment, trust, love, and hope.
- lxiv. Tillich, Paul. Theology of Culture, Chapter XV. New York: Oxford University Press, 1959.