Practice of Christian Mindfulness as an Imaginative Challenge in Parish Ministry
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Project under the direction of Professor Julia Gatta In an age when anxieties around church attendance and participation prompt pastors and lay leaders alike to explore myriad leadership resources, there is another, more prayerful way to address this challenge. Within the broader spiritual climate of church decline, there nonetheless exists a keen interest in mindfulness practice as long-taught in the Eastern religious traditions. Rather than ignoring or dismissing this interest, we can engage the practice through the Christian contemplative tradition. By bringing Christian ascetical theology and practice to bear on a version of Christian mindfulness, we can more faithfully and effectively address the pressures we face as leaders within congregations. Grace Episcopal Church in Gainesville, Georgia, has encountered its own particular struggles with leadership, growth, and attendance. After difficult transitions over the past couple of decades, the resource-sized parish reached a pivotal point in its common life. During the last four years—a time span including the search process that brought me to Grace and my early years there as rector—the leadership of the parish reoriented Grace Church by exploring what we call the “mindful church model.” Rather than continue the long-standing program-maintenance model that focused on a more business-style approach to parish leadership, the community has risked a way of leading and ministering that is steeped in prayer and the contemplative practices long held by the Christian tradition. This paper lays out a theological reflection on our communal development, paying special attention to a Christian understanding of mindfulness practice. Chapter One lays out the particular challenges within this parish community. These include the discernment process in the search for a new rector as well as initial conversations about persistent mistrust from previous years and the bourgeoning potential for growth and expansion within the community. Chapter Two delves more deeply into the dynamic of “discernment and imagination.” Drawing on insights from my ongoing work with the Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation as well as the founding documents of the Ignatian tradition, the chapter advocates for a more imaginative engagement with both leadership and discipleship in the church. In Chapter Three, there is a more thorough exploration of mindfulness practice in general, noting the intriguing juxtaposition between various concepts of mindfulness and Christian perspectives on conversion of life. Chapter Four focuses on patristic development of the notion of “watchfulness,” comparing and contrasting it with Buddhist understandings so that one can appreciate both Eastern perspectives on mindfulness as well as the potential for growth through the Christian contemplative tradition. Chapter Five explores how such a transfigured awareness, shaped and informed by the ascetical dimensions of discernment, imagination, and conversion, awakens our desire for God; at the same time, we begin to perceive God’s desire for our fullness of life. This chapter highlights the contributions of Anglican theologians as well as others in the broader Christian tradition. While the precise experience of Grace Episcopal Church is unique to our community, this paper seeks to lay out a theological reorientation possible within any Christian community. The Christian Church faces challenging days, to be certain, with decreases and distractions from many angles. We would do well to focus more intently on the contemplative dimensions of our tradition as we address the pressures and anxieties that we face. By seeking a transfigured awareness, we come to rely more fully on the Holy Spirit’s guidance in our individual lives and in the lives of our communities of faith.