Moving toward a more contemplative life
Trinity alumnus Paul Bradbury has recently written Stepping Into Grace, a book born out of his experience in pioneering mission. Using the narrative thread of the story of Jonah, the book argues for a ministry rooted in grace and more contemplative living—so that who we are becoming in Christ provides a foundation for our participation in the mission of God.
Q: What is your background in ministry? What experiences led you to consider writing this book?
A: I’m now working as a pioneer minister in Poole. I’ve been here eight years, having been invited by the Deanery to start something new in the centre of Poole that would be oriented toward connecting with unchurched people. I now lead a community called Reconnect which is about fifty to sixty adults and children. We gather in discipleship groups throughout the week and then at the weekend we gather for worship and also to connect with others. For example, on one Sunday a month we clean the local beach and advertise that locally. Members of Reconnect are also encouraged to use what they love doing to connect with others. So we have small communities emerging based on all sorts of things: creativity, walking, film, and brewing, for example.
It was the experience of travelling this pioneer journey that led into writing the book. It has been a very challenging journey personally for me. I had high expectations and ambitions when I started out and through the process of travelling this journey of mission I’ve learnt a huge amount for myself about what it means to be a leader of mission. I was finding too that so much of what I was learning seemed to be quite countercultural to the messages coming from the institutional church, particularly those around growth and how to go about it. So it felt increasingly important to me to write the book to add a different perspective that I think is crucial to the well-being of church leaders, but also the health of the church in general.
Q: What is ‘contemplation’?
A: In the book, I start by saying what contemplation is not. A lot of people think that contemplation is a technique, a way of praying, one that some people warm to, others less so, and one that some traditions embrace more than others. In fact, contemplation is much deeper than that. It is a way of life, a way of seeing life and therefore ministry as taking place within the grace and the presence of God. The contemplative life begins with the premise that God is already present and active. It is therefore related closely to practices that enable us to listen and be attentive to that presence as much as possible. Our task is to listen, be attentive and participate in the flow of life that is the grace of God in the world. Too often we turn life into a very mundane affair in which we acknowledge God from time to time, but essentially we are ‘practical atheists’, doing life by ourselves, unless things go wrong. And too often we turn ministry into an enterprise, with huge emphases on vision, strategy, aims and objectives, targets and outcomes, and with prayer oriented toward asking God to bless our plans and our initiatives. But, as John V Taylor once said, ‘the chief actor in the historic mission of the church is the Holy Spirit’. He is already at work, he has already initiated God’s mission in our context. We need to catch up with what the Spirit is doing. So our key task is to try and listen to what the Spirit is up to and join in with him.
Q: What has moved you in your own life and ministry toward a more contemplative life?
A: For me, I guess there were two key movements. Firstly, prayer became increasingly mundane for me when I was stuck in an intercession paradigm. As ministry developed, I realised that praying for everything I was involved in, worrying that if I didn’t pray for it then somehow that bit suffered, was a strange theology of prayer. Increasingly I came to trust that God was already involved in things, and my prayer life shifted toward simply being still with God, connecting with and listening to the presence of God each day before embarking on what the day held. Intercession frequently emerged from this focus on stillness as I perhaps sensed areas that were the focus of God’s attention, not just mine.
Secondly, failure. There were things that just didn’t work, or which turned out totally differently to what I had hoped or expected. I wrestled deeply with the question of what difference all my activity and effort was making. Would it matter if I did nothing? What was the relationship between my activity and my relationship with God? Then I discovered a key insight that enabled me to find a middle way in which any action on my part sought to be a participation in the activity of God, an activity which he has already initiated. This middle way is constantly sought through contemplation, through attending to the presence of God, and asking how we can participate in what God is already doing.
Q: In your book you mention the four key movements toward a more contemplative life—can you describe them?
A: Firstly, from hurry to hospitality. Hurry is a sickness of the soul which emanates from our need to be in control and to feel indispensable. Letting go of that, we begin to learn that the life of God’s Kingdom comes to us and invites us to offer welcome to it. In that sense it’s a move toward an attitude of hospitality toward the life and mission of God.
Secondly, from anxiety to attentiveness. There‘s a great deal of anxiety in the church at present. This pressurises us into ill-discerned activity. The contemplative life invites us to embrace attentiveness to God as the basis for all our action.
Thirdly, from reactiveness to responsiveness. Richard Rohr said that the opposite of contemplation is not action but reaction. That is the kind of hurried, anxious reaction we make when under pressure. Contemplation is not about inactivity, but about activity based on listening to the Spirit and participating in response to him.
Fourthly, from utility to humility. When the role of the leader trumps the activity of God’s Spirit in mission then we begin to see ministry through a utilitarian lens—it is all about what can be achieved, how to get things done. Those who are good at getting things done become exalted in the minds of the church. We cast around for heroes who can save our little bit of the church. Contemplative leadership is, by nature, humble. It invites us into a journey of downward mobility where our interest is not on what we can achieve but how we can best serve what the Spirit is seeking to achieve in our context.
Q: How do you think becoming intentionally more contemplative has impacted you as a leader, and impacted your ministry?
A: Enormously! The subtitle of the book is ‘moving beyond ambition to contemplative mission’ and that was very much my journey. I was very ambitious and driven when I started. As I say in the book, I don’t think ambition is necessarily a bad thing, but it needs to be brought under the will of God. At the beginning, my ambition was based around what I believed I could achieve, what I thought needed to be achieved, not necessarily what God was seeking to achieve. This ultimately led to near burn-out and a crisis in my identity as a Christian leader. Through that crisis, I began to understand and practice this new contemplative basis for ministry. Personally, I am much more content and at peace with the ministry I am carrying out. The constant feeling of urgency has gone, it is a day-to-day joy to listen to God and allow him to set the pace and agenda of my ministry. It has also impacted Reconnect hugely. We have found ways of practising contemplation in our decision-making. That has brought about some surprising decisions that have proved extremely fruitful. As a community we are now seeking all the time to listen, take our time and reflect on what God is inviting us to do. We are seeking to be a contemplative church.
(Reprinted from the Spring 2017 Trinity News)