The United Methodist Reporter is offering the latest headlines in the RSS format.
Intentional community: New monasticism encourages disciplined life Robin Russell, Sep 11, 2009
2009 DESIGN PICS PHOTO
Today’s new monastics practice spiritual disciplines that hearken back to their ancient counterparts, but also are intentional about serving their communities.
By Robin Russell Managing Editor
Ross Reynolds, 26, felt frustrated with ministry goals after graduating last May from Perkins School of Theology.
Like many seminary grads, he thought he’d end up serving a church. Yet he couldn’t picture himself as a typical senior pastor—preaching sermons, handling administrative work and being part of a United Methodist itinerate system where he might be reassigned every few years.
“I was really struggling with that,” he said. “I was interested in something that was more involved in people’s lives—and long-term. I liked the idea of being able to stay with a group of people.”
During an internship serving at-risk kids in Waco, Texas, his passion for ministry was stirred. He learned from Jimmy Durrell, pastor of the nondenominational Church Under the Bridge, about working with the poor and the marginalized.
“I loved it. I felt drawn to that, but didn’t know how it would work out within a Methodist system,” Mr. Reynolds said.
That’s when one of his seminary professors, Elaine Heath, told him about a new monastic community at SMU whose members were intentional about serving the poor. When Dr. Heath asked if he would he be interested in leading one of the New Day Ministry’s houses, his answer was an emphatic “YES!”
Mr. Reynolds is among an increasing number of young adults in United Methodism who are drawn to the intentionality of new monasticism: living out their calling through disciplined and contemplative spiritual practices, participating in community life, and serving God and others.
New monasticism defined
Unlike their ancient monks, today’s new monastics are not cloistered, nor do they take vows of obedience, chastity and poverty. They are ordinary people—single and married—with jobs in the community. But they do commit to follow a “rule of life” (for United Methodists, that often means living out their Wesleyan membership vows of prayer, presence, gifts, service and witness) and they immerse themselves in community life and service.
Their vision is simple: to incarnate the gospel message where they live.
It’s not about growing church numbers.
“The neighborhood is my parish, whether my neighbors become Methodists or not,” says Dr. Heath. “What matters is that they experience the kingdom of God coming near, and that they know it is a kingdom of love.”
And it’s not about formal ordination to the ministry, though several participants are candidates for United Methodist ordination. In new monasticism, there is no hierarchy of leadership; teams of lay and clergy who are theologically trained for the task lead the communities.
“New Day is a kind of incubator community at SMU,” Dr. Heath said, “so that students can see an alternative way of doing church that’s United Methodist.”
What it looks like
New Day Ministries is part of a growing monastic movement across the country that includes Shane Claiborne, founder of The Simple Way community in Philadelphia, and Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, founder of the Rutba House in Durham, N.C.
All new monastics practice a rule of life and worship together, but those who want a more focused experience might choose to live in a community house. New Day has launched two such houses for United Methodist young adults in the Dallas-Fort Worth area since summer 2008.
Typically three to four people live in a house. Members maintain their own jobs outside the home but eat and pray together, and are accountable for their spiritual growth—such as whether they’ve spent time in Scripture study and other disciplines, what their current spiritual struggles are.
At Epworth House, in a mixed-income neighborhood in Garland, three Perkins students last year practiced hospitality to their neighbors through monthly potlucks and helped organize weekly worship gatherings. About 30 neighbors attend the potlucks; out of that grew a women’s prayer group.
Megan Davidson, a Perkins intern at Epworth House, said hospitality is an effective way to live out the gospel.
“I see a large part of our work as helping those groups to interact, and to not be ‘those noisy neighbors’ or ‘those crotchety old women’—to know each other by their first names and know what’s going on in their lives.
“We’re not trying to convert people. If that’s something that comes from it, then glory to God. But that’s not our motivation. Our motivation is relational.”
A second group-living arrangement began in August called the Bonhoeffer House in Euless, near Fort Worth. Participants will work with at-risk kids as led by co-pastor Nate Hearne, who heads the truancy program for the local school district.
Sitting on almost a full acre, the Bonhoeffer House is shared by Mr. Reynolds, a Puerto Rican seminary couple from the Kansas East District and a Zimbabwean graduate of Perkins working on a doctoral degree at Brite Divinity School.
“We would love to have vegetable and organic gardens out back, and use gardening as way of ministry and healing for youth,” Mr. Reynolds said. “A quiet, safe place to do homework or just hang out.”
A third house is being launched in rural Kaufman, Texas.
The North Texas Conference has provided funding for Perkins interns to develop more New Day communities. Dr. Heath is also developing a certificate program through Perkins to provide leadership development.
Appeal to the young
Ms. Davidson said the structured living within new monastic communities helps give young people meaning and purpose, and also helps sustain their faith through college and career years.
“I think some people would call it idealism, that we can live very holistically, holy lives,” she said. “In a world where transience is built into our lives, having a rule of life whereby you can stay connected to God and those around you is extremely important.”
Young adults also want to pour themselves into serving others, even sacrificially, says the Rev. William Thiele, spiritual director of the School for Contemplative Living (SCL) in New Orleans.
“Their goal is not capitalism,” he said. “Their goal is, ‘I really want to make the world a better place.’”
Amy Laura Hall, an associate professor of theological ethics at Duke Divinity School, says new monastic communities are often located intentionally in neighborhoods that have been marginalized. As such, they model “what it looks like when mainline Protestant, white kids decide to take the cushion out of their life.”
“Some of these students knew that their churches were somehow missing a real piece of what it means to be in the body of Christ,” Dr. Hall said, “and this was one way to live it out.”
Monastic movements, of course, are nothing new. Church history shows that monastic groups arise when people see a disconnect between “the call of Jesus and the lack of disciplined holy community in the church,” writes Scott Kisker, an associate professor of the history of Christianity at Wesley Theological Seminary, in Longing for Spring: A New Vision for Wesleyan Community (Eugene: Wipf and Stock), a new release he co-wrote with Dr. Heath.
And monastic renewal, he added, often comes from lay people, not clergy.
Early Methodists, for instance, encouraged Christian formation through small groups called classes and band meetings. They practiced a rule of life together (following Wesley’s General Rules) and ministered to the poor. Lay people led the class and band meetings, cared for the poor and the sick, and preached the circuits.
“New monasticism is a holiness movement that resonates deeply with the Methodist soul,” Dr. Heath says. She describes new monastics as a “new breed of old-fashioned Methodists.”
“Living in intentional community with others sort of forces you to not be able to hide,” said Ms. Davidson, who lived with two other students last year. “It requires of you a vulnerability that is not something everyone will be able to embrace.
“Certainly our Methodist roots demand of us a certain amount of accountability—how you spent your days, and how you spent your money. We’re trying to bring each other back to that kind of intentionality.”
Challenges to the system
But there are obstacles for United Methodists who want to live a new monastic life. While a “rule of life” for St. Benedict and other ancient monks involved stability, the United Methodist appointment system typically prevents long-term involvement at the same church.
The church also prohibits its elders from being bivocational, but new monastics say having another job to support your ministry is essential to reach a poor community—without expecting payment in return. For Mr. Reynolds, that means pursuing ordination as well as applying for a firefighter position with the City of Dallas.
“It’s hard because I really do still feel that call to be ordained and serve the sacraments—that is a frustrating part,” Mr. Reynolds said. “One of my goals is to continue to discern with the United Methodist Church on how we can look at a new model of ministry that can incorporate both.”
Ms. Davidson agrees. She has just started the process as a candidate for ordination in the North Texas Conference.
“Conceptually, there is not a conflict there for me. Institutionally there is. So I’m going to have to see how all of that plays out in the future. And we’ll be patient in prayer, and in conversation with lots of people about what that might look like.”
New monasticism is also an ecumenical movement rather than limited to just one denomination, Dr. Heath said. So participants cannot have “turf issues.”
“We cannot think that way,” she said. “This is about mission. This is about church. What is the Holy Spirit calling us to do to take God’s love to the world?”
Hope for impacting UMC
Ms. Davidson hopes the denomination-at-large sees the possibilities for ministry and attracting young people through new monasticism. By attracting young adults, new monasticism might even help sustain Methodism, she said.
“I think Methodism is in my blood. So I feel like if I just went out and did it on my own, in some ways I would be cheating our history because 200 years from now, students who are in United Methodist seminaries might be reading about what I’m doing now. I feel like the Methodist Church needs us.”
Dr. Hall says new monastics are already having an impact on their denomination by showing what it’s like to live out their faith in community.
“It’s really, really hard work, and it’s messy and difficult,” Dr. Hall said, “but they give us a picture of embodied life with all its warts and all its messiness that we all in various ways are called to live.”