Video: A Model for Discipleship at St. Michael’s Brattleboro
In 2017, St. Michael’s Episcopal Church tapped the Rev. Duncan Hilton to guide the church’s discipleship and discernment efforts, including the formation of several now-flourishing discipleship groups. More than a year after the groups’ inception, The Mountain sat down with Duncan and parishioners Jeffrey Hiam and Christy Fritz to hear what they’ve learned in their discipleship journey. Edited excerpts from the interview are below. The complete interview (15 minutes running time) can be viewed at https://vimeo.com/317534796 and is recommended for congregation leaders who may be interested in implementing a similar model. Contact Duncan (firstname.lastname@example.org) with questions.
How did the discipleship program begin?
Christy: Six years ago, the Rev. Mary Lindquist, the rector at St. Michael’s, engaged me and another parishioner in a conversation about dream-catching—the next stages for St. Michael’s as they’d just been through a building project. We gathered several parishioners on different evenings and had facilitated conversations. What came out of those discussions was a deeper desire for smaller gatherings of people outside of the communal worship on Sunday.
Why did you choose the current discipleship model?
Duncan: Hearing the desire for deeper relationships, some of the formative experiences in my own life, things that have helped me to deepen relationships, have been 12-step communities and their practices around creating depth. Anyone can lead a meeting if they’ve been to one before, so it’s really about shared leadership. Another piece that inspired me was Cynthia Bourgeault’s framing around Christian discipleship. When I researched small groups in The Episcopal Church, I learned that the Rev. Christopher Martin in California had been influenced by Benedictine spirituality, and he came up with seven disciplines or practices that people can engage in. Ultimately, we didn’t say, This is how you have to do it. We said, Try this on for three months see how it works. Today we have six groups, and each group has changed the format a little bit based on their own experiences with it. So, there’s a commonality around the basic theology. There’s a commonality around the disciplines and sharing from the heart.
How do you define discipleship within the groups?
Jeff: I think that ties into an earlier comment that Duncan made regarding his interest in the formative power of the 12-step model. One of the most important aspects of that model is a singleness of purpose. And in the context of the discipleship groups, specifically, what we mean by discipleship is to continue in the teaching and the fellowship of the apostles, to be to become disciples of Jesus Christ.
Do the discipleship groups have a set curriculum?
Duncan: There is no curriculum, per se. There are seven spiritual practices. We read each of them, and then there’s a period for people to reflect on how they’re using them in their life. And part of what we’ve tried to do is offer workshops for that anyone in the church can attend, but especially people in the discipleship groups, to go deeper into any one of the spiritual practices.
Talk about a powerful moment or experience you’ve had in a discipleship group.
Christy: As a mother with three teenagers that are in a discipleship group, something meaningful for me has been them coming home and sharing from their heart. Having support from their peers in a way that they feel safe is something very rare and touching for teenagers. It’s also been a real powerful moment for me, having been in discipleship groups and having experienced that.
Jeff: I was just thinking about how meaningful it’s been for me the times that we have gathered with all members of the various groups. When we’ve all gathered, it’s been really fun. The connection I’ve experienced with a group of people in the church that I may have nothing in common with other than belonging to this parish and being in this particular group pretty quickly develops into something that’s very like emotionally and spiritually close. That changes how I look at other people in some ways. I feel like I have either a real or potential connection with the people in the other groups and by extension everyone in the church. And so, the discipleship groups really have a broadening effect on my experience with people in the parish.