Spiritual Transformation, Community, and the Church
David Johnson is senior pastor of Church of the Open Door in Maple Grove, Minnesota. The website describes the mission of the church as follows:
God invites us to take Next Steps inward. We use the word discover to describe the journey inward. There is no greater journey of discovery than to personally discover how good our God really is! To discover that your God is for you that no matter what, God loves you with an unbreaking, never stopping, never giving up, always and forever love and even though you forget God and even run away sometimes. God is watching, waiting and longing for you to come home.
But to discover God in this way, you must be willing and intentional about taking a journey inward. Willing to be brutally honest about what is real in the deepest part of you. The Bible calls it your “soul,” and makes it clear that caring for your soul is of utmost importance (Matthew 16:26).
How does a church community become centered on this journey inward? What does it take to build the kind of community that can help deepen and facilitate this kind of journey? And what prompts a pastor to send numerous members of his church staff through Ruth Haley Barton’s two-year Transforming Community experience? Conversations editor Cindy Bunch was curious about all this and more, so she had a conversation with David Johnson about how a pastor moves his or her community inward.
A CONVERSATION WITH DAVID JOHNSON:
Conversations Journal: In your years in ministry, what have you learned about the significance and value of developing community in leadership teams?
David Johnson: It’s not easy. Community is a funny word for me. People have differing ideas of what it is. I like the word connectedness to take away some of the heaviness of the concept. With community people are often looking for a friend. That may or may not be what we experience.
I have never been about creating community. When it’s good, it’s a result of doing something else.
I believe that community happens around mission. When we are all on the same page in terms of ministry goals and values, really good friendships happen. We move in one direction as a cohesive group.
Back in the day I worked very closely with a particular copastor. There were things happening in the church within his area of expertise, and together we experienced great fruit in ministry. We became like best friends, but we would have never been drawn to that friendship outside the church. It was doing the mission together that brought us together.
CJ: What is the impact on leadership when you don’t have community?
DJ: When there is no connectedness, people are off doing their own things. They live in their own silos.
CJ: Is the kind of community you are describing a friendship, or does it take on a different quality when it is focused around ministry partnership?
DJ: It might be interesting to interview the whole staff and see what they say, but to my mind we are very good friends. Our friendship matters a lot to me. A couple past situations with individuals on staff come to mind.
In the first instance we were kind of moving in on a staff member in terms of some of his deep issues. We raised issues about his performance, and he ultimately did choose to leave the job. The great thing is that he left with incredibly good relationships intact. In this case I could see that the community was doing its work. There was something profound in him that formed in him as we held him accountable in his job.
In contrast, other staff members have departed with the same set of experiences at play and yet left angry and hurt. We created the same environment for all of our staff members, but for some the spiritual formation takes hold, and for others it doesn’t seem to take hold.
In another instance a staff member left in a surprising and painful way. It’s never easy to have such a transition. There are always places for bitterness and misunderstanding that open up. But I do remain friends with that former staff member, and we stay connected. If you want to have that kind of relationship, it also means having hard conversations. When we talk about community, people may picture something different. The key is to stay in it and let people “dig in your dirt.” And yet they can still be invited to stay around the fire when we are just hanging out on a Friday night conversation. It’s easy not to make the choice to stay around after a hard conversation. But if we are committed to community, we can make that choice.
CJ: I understand that you have committed members of your pastoral team to go through the Transforming Community experience with Ruth Haley Barton. What led you to make that decision?
DJ: I have been at Open Door for thirty-four years and can look back at our different seasons over the years of the life of the church. A long time ago Brennan Manning came and affected the DNA of the church, as did Leanne Payne’s healing prayer ministry at a later time. Then Dallas Willard was huge for us in defining the gospel and the gospel of the kingdom. What Dallas gave us was the theology and teaching. He told us that the most difficult discipline is solitude and silence. What Ruth Haley Barton did for us through her Transforming Center ministry was to say, “Here’s how you do it. Here’s how you do it in a church.” We had this hunger for spiritual formation in the church.
It all started about four years ago. We were reorganizing our leadership team, and we ran into the book Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership. After I read it and brought up how much it had impacted me with our senior staff, I learned that I was the last one to read it. So we started taking more staff through her book. We would take an hour-and-a-half out of staff meeting every other week to discuss the ideas in the book.
Then a number of us went to the “Discerning the Will of God” retreat she led in Chicago. It blew me away.
The thing about Ruth is that she just gets ministry. She’s deeply rooted in the Word. But what I also understood is that she’s been kicked in the gut a few times herself. She understands how hard it is.
I was fascinated by the two-year process she offers. Then two of our staff went through the two-year Transforming Community.
One of Ruth’s basic things is that when you are dealing with trying to bring some of these practices in is that you need to bring in the senior leaders. So we decided my wife and I and some of our elders would sign on for a community experience. After that we sent a group of nine who will complete the next community cohort.
We are very excited about the growing relationship with Ruth, and we feel like we are friends. We are growing in trust and confidence together. We feel that we are not just clients for her. Ruth has visited the church, and the whole congregation knows her. It is always powerful, but the last time it felt like she had a word just for our context.
CJ: So the formation of community includes Ruth Barton’s relationship with those who take part in the Transforming Center?
DJ: That’s right!
CJ: What pushback have you had from staff as you began asking them to spend time on spiritual formation rather than ministry tasks?
DJ: At first there was some. But for most of the staff it started to feel like a process that fit who we are. Some of the men on my team didn’t want to light a candle, so I told them to light a cigar. I am serious about that! I meet with a group of men every week who smoke cigars and talk about the false self. This stuff can work. I often hear “men won’t like this,” or “it’s for the elite.” But I think these rhythms are teachable and accessible. When I talk to my son and his friends, they just can’t get enough.
CJ: What is the impact on the church when you have real community?
DJ: What we are learning as a community is helping to shape the future of the church. Our succession plan has shifted from being focused on who the next leader will be to becoming a people who are being formed in Christ.
As a church we have been an audience. People think that sermons are the only way to hear God—and I have helped people to fall into that trap. The beginning of my ministry focused on rebelling from legalism. What I have discovered is that disciplines create space in your life where you can hear God.
We will be starting a center for formation within our church for our church members. Our motto is “Radical transformation for the sake of others.” We want to hold a group of people together in community through the experience as we have seen how community adds to the formation.
When you go through a Transforming Center Community, you feel a tremendous connectedness to people you have just met. The reason is that we are all coming around Jesus and our own formation in his image.
What we experienced in the Transforming Communities were disciplines that we hadn’t been going down deep into, like shutting up when we pray to listen to God. These are the deep things, and yet my teenage son can do them as well. This is not for the spiritual elite. It is not just for pastors so they can have an expanded soul.
CJ: How does one change a church culture?
DJ: Change flows from leadership team into the whole church. We are just at the beginning of seeing the fruit of that in our people.
You can purchase a physical or digital copy of the journal at Conversations (Issue 13.1).