Charis Program Commissions 16 New Spiritual Directors
Rev. B. T. Williamson was the guest speaker for the graduation and commissioning of the second class of spiritual directors to complete the Texas Annual Conference’s three-year Charis training program. The 16 graduates, along with their family and friends, came from communities as far north as Tyler, as far south as LaMarque, from College Station and Conroe, from Manville and Marshall, for the event held at First UMC Madisonville.
Newly returned from the UM World Conference in South Africa, Rev. Williamson reflected on his return-trip stop in the United Kingdom. There he visited the Bristol site where, in 1784, John Wesley consecrated Thomas Coke as the first superintendent of American Methodism and sent him forth “to offer spiritual direction in the new world.” The reference was especially meaningful in that the new Charis graduates are taking their new skills and spiritual growth into all regions of the Texas Annual Conference. Citing the parable of the sower, Rev. Williamson told the graduates that the most valuable gift they have to give others through their ministry is “to offer them Christ.”
Charis Coordinator Becky Oates explained to those assembled that the three-year program encompasses 450 hours of class time, including six three-day retreats at Lakeview Conference Center and 24 Saturday training days generously hosted at First UMC Madisonville by pastor Rev. George Wilson, a graduate of Charis class one.
“Spiritual direction is the process of companioning a person or group of persons on their spiritual journey,” she said. “It’s an ancient Christian tradition that dates back to Jesus himself and to the Desert Mother and Fathers of the first centuries.” Describing the curriculum, she spoke of various schools of spirituality, including Benedictine, Ignatian and Celtic. “But it’s much more than academic work. We study the convergence of personality and spirituality and we devote considerable time to subjects such as listening skills, inner healing, 30 different prayer experiences and discerning God’s presence in the midst of suffering.”
The training, she said, prepares participants to sit in sacred presence, in a loving and compassionate way, first with themselves, then with others. “This requires vulnerability – the willingness to do the inner work of forgiveness, reconciliation and recognizing God’s activities in one’s own life. As people of spiritual care and contemplative practice, spiritual directors teach and model the fine art of noticing God in our moment-by-moment experiences.
“You have accepted the call to a unique ministry,” she told graduates, “one that is just beginning to be understood throughout the Texas Annual Conference. Through one-on-one spiritual companioning, leading days of prayer and speaking God’s unconditional love, you have the opportunity not only to bring healing and wholeness to other sojourners, but to build up the Kingdom of God.”
Graduates came forward as their names were called to kneel at the prayer shawl-draped altar rail, where board and faculty members anointed them with oil and blessed them with prayers. “It was a holy and sacred time,” said Charis board chair, the Reverend Glynden Bode. “We shared a beautiful sense of community and presence.”
Contagious joy marked the reception that followed. Among the comments overheard: “In the beginning I was afraid, with no confidence. But the training made me feel loved and set my heart at ease that I was in the right place.” “The Charis training was a safe space to be held in the presence of the Holy Spirit.”
Mike Heller of Summit UMC in Marshall said, “The word that best describes my change in spirituality over the three years of training is focus. Charis has made me a better Christian and given me tools I am using every day to help those around me see God in their lives.”
Clergy graduates typically experience Charis training as valuable enrichment for their ministry. Prior to training, however, a common misperception is that seminary provides adequate preparation to sit in spiritual direction with others. Charis graduate, the Reverend Cynthia Hinson, pastor of St. Paul UMC in Conroe, said that early in her training she struggled to grasp the distinction between pastoral care and spiritual direction. By the end of her third, internship year of training, she had gained clarity. “Frequently pastoral caregivers are in ministry with persons at times of crisis or transformation, with a limited number of meetings before making a referral if needed,” she explained. “But spiritual direction is an ancient discipline … of traveling along an indefinite journey with a spiritual companion. It is a being with instead of a doing for. Spiritual direction is not problem-solving, counseling or teaching. It’s the process of being with persons as they yearn to grow closer to God.”
The Charis program was developed by a task force of United Methodist spiritual directors, who had received their training through other Christian traditions. Choosing the Greek word for grace as the program name, the founders created a program rich in Wesleyan spirituality and launched training in 2005. Now, with graduates of classes one and two, TAC offers 52 spiritual directors. “And we’re delighted to announce that Charis class three, composed of 14 men and women, has already begun their training with an opening retreat at Lakeview Conference Center August 25-27,” said Glynden Bode.
“Charis is among a modest, but growing, number of United Methodist spiritual director training programs,” she added. “We maintain relationships with the Fellowship of United Methodist Spiritual Directors and Retreat Leaders (www.fumsdrl.org) and with Spiritual Directors International (www.sdiworld.org), gaining from the wisdom available through other experienced spiritual directors and training programs. We are deeply committed to helping integrate this ancient spiritual tradition into the fabric of today’s churches.”
The Charis program relates to and is supported in part by the Faith Forming Relationships & Spiritual Formation Committee, Center for Congregational Excellence of The Texas Annual Conference. To learn more about the program or to receive a list of trained spiritual directors, contact Becky Oates, 979-690-9193; or Glynden Bode at 281-222-4385, or firstname.lastname@example.org.