This is the second in a series of interviews about spiritual formation (from a variety of Christian perspectives). Today’s thoughts come from Rev. Dr. Molly T. Marshall, President and Professor of Theology and Spiritual Formation at Central Baptist Theological Seminary in Shawnee, KS, and a member at Prairie Baptist Church in Prairie Village, KS. She blogs at Trinitarian Soundings and writes a bi-weekly column for ABP News at Thinking Theologically. Her faculty bio can be found here.
Why you should listen: There are some who bemoan theologians, suggesting they are somehow problematic for those of us who would live a life of faith and devotion. Thanks be to God for theologians like Molly T. Marshall, who point out the lies in such a wrong idea! Jennifer (my wife) says about Dr. Marshall, “She’s both the most encouraging and the most intimidating person I know!” Said another way, Dr. Marshall is “full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). She has been influential in my life by just such an example, exhibiting grace in a way that occasionally brings forth whatever God-given excellence might dwell inside me. I know of no person more Trinitarian in her theology or actions. (See, theology is important, because it affects how we live and, thus, who we are!) She has gifts of discernment (seeing the great potential/reality in people that many of us overlook), tenacity, humor, grace, leadership, courage – I could go on, but …
On to the interview!
How do you define spiritual formation?
Christian Spirituality is the capacity to respond to the movement of God’s Spirit; and spiritual formation is an intentional process of opening oneself to the presence of God’s transforming Spirit.
Spiritual Formation is a life-long process of becoming fully oneself and fully God’s.
What sorts of practices or disciplines are a part of your spiritual formation?
The four lectionary texts provide material for prayer and reflection each week. I start each morning by reading one of them and then writing a prayer that grows out of the Scripture’s guidance. I have kept a prayer journal for about 35 years; including the lectionary readings in those written prayers has been a discipline for the past 15 years.
I also listen to good choral music as a form of prayer. The longing for beauty expressed in lovely music is akin to longing for God.
I continue to read the great spiritual classics as well as contemporary writers; the wisdom gleaned from these sources calls me to greater depth.
How do corporate and personal practices relate to one another in your own practice?
Although I read the Bible in solitude, I also study the Bible in community. I am a regular participant in an adult Sunday School class at Prairie Baptist Church. Reading the Bible in community sharpens one’s hermeneutics, for the perspective of others challenges my assumptions about texts.
Praying in community also requires a de-centering of self. Although I regularly intercede for others in private prayer, praying with others allows a deeper sense of the pathos others carry. The “prayers of the people” at our church genuinely reflect an expansive array of concerns, albeit too often insular—praying for those within the community. Pastoral prayers can voice concern for the larger world, which helps bring balance.
How do churches fare at helping their members better engage in spiritual formation?
Of course churches can do better in teaching practices that invite spiritual formation. Some churches are teaching lectio divina, a key starting point for the practice of attentive listening to Scripture. Silence is essential to spiritual formation, but many congregations fear it and fill up every space with words.
Churches often sponsor retreats focused on spiritual formation, but usually these are too brief to imbed new practices. An effective way of teaching, however, is offering testimony (by laypersons) of their own spiritual practices. This tends to get a larger hearing than when ministers interpret their own practices, although this can be instructive.
Churches that highlight small group ministries provide effective contexts for spiritual formation—especially if an action/reflection model is pursued. It is important to remember the rhythms of ora et labora.
How can church leaders better help members with these sorts of issues?
Everything a church does should contribute to age-appropriate spiritual formation. Curricula, ministry-projects, worship, and fellowship should be measured by the goal of spiritual formation. For example, church leaders could focus on Christian maturity as a congregational theme for a year, or Lent could be devoted to learning spiritual practices.
It is also important to remember that members of the congregation have different temperaments, so planning varied elements for corporate worship is essential for the purpose of spiritual formation.
What would you say to a person who asked your advice as a sort of spiritual director?
I would seek to be a mirror to them in helping discern the ways the Spirit is at work in their lives. The Holy Spirit is the director; I can only serve as a companion to the one seeking advice. As a midwife of grace, I would encourage what I see struggling to be born.
As a reminder: I’ve asked each person the same seven questions. As I receive their responses, I hope to post them here every few days (not doing well so far). You are invited to add your own comments along the way. My hope is that these interviews will inspire all of us to approach the tasks of spiritual formation/discipleship with more thoughtful intention, that they will improve our ministries, that they will enhance the ways we talk and think about how our faith can progress from milk to meat (or from strained bananas to brussels sprouts, if you’re vegan!).
Next conversation: Rev. Gary F. Green, II – Orange Bowl Champion!