August 1, 2012

Spiritual Desolation

[Post #2 of 5 - "Do You Recognize the Signs of Your Congregation's Spiritual Crisis?"]

Spiritual desolation occurs when we cease to experience and or question the reality of God's love for us. Augustine's words bring us back to our spiritual center, "our hearts are restless, until they rest in you."

Congregations in desolation are restless and experience extended periods of disquiet, anxiety and fear. They struggle with all their energies to merely keep their churches open, maintain some communal fellowship, and administer the sacraments. These congregations may experience communal fragmentation, mutual distrust, anger, severe judgment of others, and manipulation of truth for their short-term gratification. Congregations such as these are not available for alternative ministerial paths nor are they open to hear the call to new missions.

In spiritual desolation people and congregations don't have energy for mission as it takes all of their energy to focus on their own primary needs. Only with these needs met are people and congregations ready to explore God's call to meaningful ministry and work. Times of desolation are not ideal times to make any short-term or long-term changes to a congregation's identity or mission. At the same time desolation is not a time to cease all congregational activity.

Instead, desolation is a time to intensify congregational communal prayer, the ministry of healing prayers including abundant anointing, and shared congregational works of mercy and justice. A congregation needs spiritual leadership with an emphasis on intentional individual and communal discernment through reading the scriptures, shared reflections, and seeking the patterns of the Spirit's blessings to the congregation.

In this way congregational spiritual desolation is a counter-intuitive time. Counter-intuitive as it is not a time for anxious decisions that will bring quick correction to the congregation's sufferings and struggles. Quick decisions made in spiritual desolation are rarely of the Spirit or sustainable in ways that help the congregation flourish.

Here are a few preliminary reflection questions to assist you in the assessment of congregational spiritual desolation:

  • Are all of your vestry and ministry leaders tired after many years of service?
  • Do your vestry and ministry leaders desire a time for rest and renewal but cannot identify new leaders from the existing congregation?
  • Is the energy of the congregation spent on talk of survival versus your passions and joys?
  • Is it easy for your congregation to identify abundant examples of the gifts of the Spirit (joy, love, peace, gentleness)?

Follow Joe’s work at Congregational Seasons: A Resource for Transitions