August 3, 2012

Spiritual Consolation

How do congregations decide the spiritually ripe time to make their most difficult decisions?

Many Episcopal congregations are facing urgent decisions on the ways they can grow their parish, increase their pledges, and bring in more young families. Some Episcopal congregations have the added concern of asking if they should try one more growth initiative or decide if it is time to close their church building due to a steady decline in attendance and extensive operating costs. These are hard decisions that leave many Episcopalians with a mixed sense of dread and urgency.

The first critical discernment step is identification of the optimal time for congregations to make non-anxious, Spirit-centered decisions that lead to congregational vitality and viability. Our discernment of the process of knowing the right (Spirit-centered) time to make decisions begins immediately! The tendency of readers for centuries has been to interpret this Ignatian movement from spiritual desolation (post #2) to spiritual consolation (post #3) as a permanent rise out of the spiritual valleys to a place of enchanted peace and love. Apologies to readers if spiritual consolation provokes for you the perception of this false hope. Spiritual utopia cannot be sustained. Consolation is indeed a joy and as necessary to the development and maturation of our spiritual life as spiritual desolation. The spiritual movement for people and congregations that necessarily complements Spirit-centered decisions is the movement into spiritual tranquility (see post # 4 next in this series). Desolation and consolation are respective valley and peak experiences that ultimately lead to the same end in unsustainable decisions and weak relationships with each other and with God.

Consolation occurs when we experience the ecstatic love of God through Christ and the Holy Spirit. Some congregations rely on spiritual consolation to keep them going. Consolation can easily become a source of dependency and pride that distorts a more centered and balanced spiritual life. The way a congregation experiences ecstatic light and spiritual joys versus tranquil joys is crucial. Central to congregational discernment is being able to differentiate between lows (desolation) and highs (consolation) and the process of finding their center in their relational tranquility. As you will see in the next post of this series tranquility is where spiritually mature people and congregations live most of the time and where we are most able to trust that our decisions will be led by the Spirit and not by valley distractions or peak motivations.

Consolation would seem like an ideal time for a congregation to make their most difficult decisions. Times of extreme spiritual valleys or peaks are not the time to make sustainable decisions that lead to vitality, viability, mutuality and mission. Indeed, congregations that make decisions in the valleys or at the peaks experience a constant turmoil and turbulence. These congregations are inclined to make fitful decisions, but often these decisions emerge out of self-will not through listening to and discerning a call from the Spirit of God. On the other hand consolation when it deepens into a selfless joy in our relationship with Christ is the beginning of the movement into spiritual tranquility. The spiritually mature congregation is available for bold mission and has the spiritual energy to withstand unexpected losses and sudden changes. The deepest level of spiritual maturity finds its center in Christ alone.

Spiritually mature congregations have the spiritual freedom (post # 5) to go to places they may rather not go (John 21:21-23), but are called to go. Whereas congregations who make decisions solely out of spiritual consolation and highs may only follow their own good feelings and spiritual highs. The crucial timing difference is only discovered through patient discernment.

Here are a few preliminary reflection questions to assist you in assessing if your congregation is experiencing consolation:

  • How long has your congregation been enjoying peak spiritual experiences?
  • Is your congregation attached to joy and if so, do you have a history as a congregation of members leaving due to sudden crisis?
  • Does your congregation enjoy making frequent, impulsive decisions?
[Post #3 of 5 - "Do You Recognize the Signs of Your Congregation's Spiritual Crisis?"]