Years ago, while working at the Salem Baptist Church of Chicago, I met Mindy Caliguire; a brilliant consultant who, at the time, was advising our leadership team there about implementing small groups and exploring other creative ways to reinforce community in our Church. I was intrigued by how well she seemed to balance “spiritual discerner” with “wise practitioner” as she consulted to our ministry for several weeks, and simply stepped back as we applied the tools she helped us to build. Just before we began to implement our work plan, she conducted a Strengthsfinder workshop with our staff. The experience affirmed me and my calling to the Kingdom in unimaginable ways; but the biggest impression I was left with was “I think I would enjoy doing what she does.”
Watching her work, and the work of one of my mentors, Dr. Samuel Chand, encouraged me to begin praying about full-time ministry consulting. Of course, I would eventually do just that, and start my own consulting firm, Marshall and Associates. I would later let Mindy know how she impacted me professionally, and she graciously maintained contact with me over the years.
Fast forward to 2010, when Mindy began to get me involved in the work she was doing as the Director of Transformation Ministry with the Willow Creek Association. My connection with another longtime mentor, Pastor Harvey Carey, had long before introduced me to the “World of Willow”, but Mindy and I began increasingly engaging in conversation around the topic of helping Churches focus on the important work of Transformation: leading people into life change through Jesus Christ. We shared how critical it is for spiritual leaders to provide followers of Christ with a process that helps them evolve into more devoted followers, and to lead in such a way that this process is not just taught but also modeled. We definitely shared similar thoughts as it relates to technique and practice, but we also shared a joy in just talking about how sometimes, beyond even our own reasoning and capacity, God glorifies Himself and does the work through us if we only yield to Him.
That’s the only way I can imagine Mindy deciding that I was somehow qualified to lead a session at Willow Creek’s first Transformation Intensive, an amazing event in which several hundred people representing a select group of Churches gathered together for three days in teams to develop a biblical framework for leading their congregations in the process of Spiritual Transformation. The event embraced the diversity of the local Church while equipping leaders with sound, practical tools for leading people through life Change.
Mindy asked me to lead a session entitled, “Practicing the Presence of God” (you can download a copy of my presentation here). I happened to go on a 30-day sabbatical prior to the Intensive, and while on sabbatical I prayed about how I would lead the session topic. At first I got nothing, and then, one day, while I was at a retreat facility, seated in silence, I clearly heard the Lord whisper to my soul, “would it be okay if I led your session?”
How do you argue with God? (Well, I know…never mind…)
Anyway, I began, with a great deal of awe (a mix of holy reverence and true fear) to design the session by following the peace that the Holy Spirit was giving me. I was given approximately 2 hours and 15 minutes. I built into the session 30 minutes of unplanned time, following God’s lead, at the beginning, and about 15-20 minutes of silence at the end. I also revisited the classic collection of writings by Brother Lawrence on the topic, and found a great deal of confirmation as to how I was being led.
My thesis for the session was built around Psalm 46:10, which says “Be still and know that I am God.” The literal meaning of this verse is to sink deeply into an awareness of God. As leaders, we must understand that Transformation begins by abandoning our awareness of all things that are earthly, and engaging God’s presence by sinking deeply into an awareness of Him, and letting this be a rule of life.
So for the first 30 minutes, I wanted those in my session to have an experience with this, then unpack it. I allowed people to gather in groups and share stories of significant moments that happened in their spiritual journey. After about 5 minutes, several nervous people started looking at me (obviously fearing I had lost control of the moment). After about 15 minutes, some had gotten up and began walking around. After about 20 minutes, those who disengaged from their groups began to re-engage as they heard some incredible stories. When I checked in at 25 minutes, one of the groups asked for more time. I granted their request and gave them a total of 40 minutes. At the end of this time, I invited them to share some of the most significant stories they heard. As they spoke, some of the most incredible experiences with God were shared in the room, and the space was flooded with “WOW” and “Praise God”. I then announced that they had just engaged in a practical application of Matthew 18:20, which says, “where two or three are gathered together, I am among them.” Our awareness of God deepens when we commune with other believers, and we thus practice His presence. Their responses to the God-moment stories were also a practical application of Psalm 22:3, which reads that God “inhabits (or dwells) in the praises of Israel.”
From there, we explored other practices that enable us to engage the presence of God, or sink deeply into an awareness of Him, such as the altar call, which provides a symbolic approach to sacred space where congregants can engage God personally, and silence, where we quiet our souls to listen to His voice. As we unraveled the mystery of engaging God’s presence, and revisited the wisdom of Brother Lawrence’s simplicity for practical application, there was a deep and humbling awareness of God’s presence in the room and a space for Transformation was created. Glory to God.
As the session concluded, people came up to affirm me and express gratitude for whatever it was that they thought I did. While talking to them, and finally leaving, I couldn’t help but be reminded of so many years before, when Mindy led the staff at Salem through the Strengthsfinder exercise. I realized that what I was feeling at Willow, in that moment, was reminiscent of what I felt years before as Mindy spoke: a deep gratefulness for the space that she had created for me to engage God, my creator, and for Him to engage me, His son. And I realized, finally, that in both moments, I was more affirmed in who I was because I was more aware of who He was. It didn’t matter to me at that point what the evaluations would read, or what people would say. It wasn’t about what they would say about me, it was about what God had done through me AND to me. I had the very clear realization that I had just taught a session to leaders on how to Engage the Presence of God for Life Change, and as I did so, my life was changed.
I remember praying as I left the room, “Lord, please let every moment I serve you in ministry feel just like this.”