Pastor Susan Quinn Bryan first encountered the Church of the Saviour fifteen years ago. She was pastor of a small, struggling Presbyterian church in Houston, Texas. She was searching.
“You know who your real God is by where you go in times of trouble. Presbyterians go to the book store,” she says.
“I had read everything possible,” she explains, “but found nothing that was of any help.” She was studying under Rabbi Edwin Friedman who suggested that she take her holy book into a quiet place and pray and allow God to give her guidance. So she decided to listen to his advice, leading the church in a time of prayer and search for guidance. “We went through a two-year process of pruning away practically everything, asking God to show us the way and wondering what God wanted from us in that place,” she continues. Not only did God provide guidance, but also much to her discomfort, Quinn Bryan was given a vision.
“This is the part that many Presbyterians are uncomfortable with, and being Presbyterian I was uncomfortable with it, too. But I was given a vision, and it was from God and not from me,” she confesses. It was both energizing and terrifying. She shared the vision, which had to do with becoming a more committed faith community, with her prayer partner who told her about the Church of the Saviour and gave her, of course, two books to read.
The Church of the Saviour began in the early 1940s as an ecumenical Christian church located in Washington, D.C. Gordon and Mary Cosby founded it when they, along with seven others, became its first members. In 1994 The Church of the Saviour officially became a “scattered community” of eight small faith communities. Today there are ten such communities. Primarily located in and around the Adams Morgan neighborhood of Washington, D.C., just a few miles north of the White House, each of these communities seeks to embody its own mission and vision of its calling, while still maintaining a connection to the spirit of the original Church of the Saviour, according to the church’s Web site.
Quinn Bryan read the books, contacted Gordon Cosby, and visited the Church of the Saviour. One of the most striking aspects for her was the ministry being carried out, especially to the poor. “Crack houses had been restored and made into low income family housing and job placement. People were involved at a deep level — and they were not arguing with each other over who could be ordained and who couldn’t.” Seeing this gave her an overwhelming sense of hope for the church; she realized the church could nurture these kinds of disciples.
The Church of the Saviour, now through its scattered communities, has at its core the desire to discover how to be on an authentic journey with others, which, according to its Web site, is both the journey “inward toward our true selves rooted in Love and outward toward whatever blocks Love’s entry.” Its members intentionally welcome diversity in areas such as race, class, sexual orientation, age, and political affiliation, believing all to be called as ministers through the living out of their faith as vocation. Through the sharing of lives across perceived differences they hope to offer this as a witness to a divided and hurting world.
After spending more than a week observing The Church of the Saviour in action, Susan Quinn Bryan continued her learning by attending a retreat at Wellspring, a conference center of the Church of the Saviour. During that time she met with founder Gordon Cosby. “He gave me the best advice that anyone could give,” she remembers, “that I am simply called to be faithful to what God is calling me to do — God is calling me to plant the garden, so plant it.” Cosby also advised her against trying to simply re-create the Church of the Saviour. “What makes it so wonderful,” she recounts, “is that it has to do with integrity, spending time figuring out where God is calling them, and then living into that call.” Quinn Bryan realized that her struggling church in Houston could not simply replicate the Church of the Saviour, but that they could learn from its example of taking God seriously and trusting God to lead them.
The ministry practices at Church of the Saviour most prominently identified with it are the commitment to “integrity of membership” and their emphasis on Christian formation, typically through the Servant Leadership School.
The church’s process of membership can take anywhere from one to three years. Members review their covenant of membership on an annual basis and determine whether to renew or withdraw it for the coming year. This process is crucial to helping members and prospective members determine whether or not they are actually called to this commitment. The commitment is understood as an integration of two journeys — the inward journey to grow in love of God, self and others, and the outward journey to help heal and restore creation, The books exploring the church’s history and practices include Call to Commitment and Journey Inward, Journey Outward, both by Elizabeth O’Connor.
Says Quinn Bryan, “I looked at our church rolls and saw that close to 1,000 people had joined the church over the years, but that our congregation was at about 60.” Where were the rest of those people? “In the Church of the Saviour it takes three years to become a member and 15 minutes to become a preacher,” she adds, wondering if we in the Presbyterian Church get that backwards. “Our whole thing has been just to get lots of people in,” she observes, “but then when we get them in we don’t nurture them into discipleship.”
The Servant Leadership School is the primary path toward nurturing discipleship within the Church of the Saviour. The original Servant Leadership School was an ecumenical center for spiritual formation located in Washington, D.C. But as churches have followed the teachings of the Church of the Saviour, they often begin their own version on a local level. “The Servant Leadership School is so hard to explain,” Quinn Bryan says, “because you have to experience it — it feeds every part of you.”
The other aspect of Christian formation within the Church of the Saviour is the assumption that everyone will be involved in ministry, not just a token few ministers. Not only are all of its members actively involved in ministry, but also they all are asked to preach at least one sermon in their life, the understanding being that everyone has at least one sermon in them.
Gordon Cosby gave specific, helpful advice when Quinn Bryan asked about dealing with her church’s significant decline in numbers. “He told me, ‘I think that God may have shrunk you down to the size that you can use.'” God is a God of enoughness, she learned. So, whatever the membership and resources the church has they will be enough to do what God calls that church to do. “There is no longer this fear-based survival mentality,” she shares.
When Susan Quinn Bryan returned to Houston from her time with the Church of the Saviour the first thing they did was to begin a servant leadership school — and plant a garden.
“The church became very vital,” she recollects. “If we make an idol of the structure, that is going to be problematic,” she admits, but she also notes that “a lot of things happened at that church, once we got out of that scarcity mentality.”
She is now pastor of a church in Cincinnati, Ohio, where she has been for the past two years. After having a sense that it was time for a change, she was called to a church that is ready for a transformation similar to the Houston congregation.
Quinn Bryan advises other churches, particular Presbyterian ones, that might consider following in the model and ideas of the Church of the Saviour to pray. “Not telling God what to do,” she specifies, “but listening to what God wants them to do.”
She also recommends visiting the Church of the Saviour, through its outreach ministry, Wellspring. “It is not about being Church of the Saviour,” she cautions, “but it is about being committed at that deep level … to be a disciple of Christ, seriously.” More than any specific method, technique, or program, the Church of the Saviour strives to be an organic model for being church, “seeking always to embody more deeply the essence and nature of Jesus Christ, who brings good news to the poor, release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, and freedom to the oppressed,” according to its Web site, inwardoutward.org. The heart of its vision and mission is the idea of traveling together on both the inward and outward journey, listening to the leading of the Spirit, and being open to create the structures that are necessary to bring these dreams into being.
“I think God is dreaming new churches in many of us,” says Quinn Bryan, “but we don’t pay attention to those dreams. The part that is astounding is that the dream God has for us is exactly what we have been longing for.”
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Erin Dunigan is a seminary graduate and freelance writer/photographer living in Newport Beach, Calif.