I (Darrell) recently returned from a wonderful learning, sharing, prayer, and worship experience at the national Discipleship Group Retreat at St. Paul's Episcopal Church in San Rafael, CA and the Ralston White Retreat Center in Mill Valley, CA, from February 22 through February 25. The Discipleship Group movement is led by Fr. Christopher Martin, rector of St. Paul's and author of The Restoration Project, a book that provides the background and spiritual basis for the movement (Benedictine). St. Brendan's Discipleship Group uses The Restoration Project and the Benedictine 12 Steps of Humility described in the book as a guide for our meetings at St. Brendan’s.
St. Brendan's Group is one of three Groups in the Pittsburgh diocese; the other two are at St. Peter's and are led by Kim Karashin, Canon for Missions, and Jenny Geisler, wife of Canon Jay Geisler. Jenny also attended the Retreat, and I got to meet her and spend some quality time during our three days together.
Kim believes that the Discipleship Group approach offers great potential for in-reach and spiritual growth within our diocese. Bishop McConnell also supports the movement and knows Fr. Christopher Martin.
The settings for the Discipleship Group Retreat, in Marin County, just north of San Francisco and a short bus ride over the Golden Gate Bridge, were beautiful. We lodged in the Ralston White Retreat Center, a converted mansion near the top of a mountain, surrounded by redwood trees.
Meetings were in St. Paul's, a very old church with an all-wood interior and many stained-glass windows, including an extraordinary rose window at the back of the church. It looks rather like an upside-down boat. It is quietly dark, a very sacred and peaceful environment.
With around 40 attendees from 11 states, plus a large contingent from St. Paul’s, all together I think we were 70-80 people. And everything was perfectly orchestrated! Fr. Martin said that his team spent two years in preparation (the next Retreat is in 2020) and it showed. The accommodations, the food, and the plentiful wine were excellent! The accommodations were only exceeded by the people themselves.
Most of the meetings and discussion centered on the 7 disciplines (vows) that all members of Discipleship Groups make. There are specific goals for daily prayer, regular worship, service to others, generous giving, and regular scripture reading, listening for God's call, and the feeding and caring of the Discipleship Group. We ask God's help in reaching these goals in the opening liturgy of every Group meeting. Fr. Martin delivered a reflection on each of the 7 vows and asked us to consider some key questions. Then everyone broke up into their assigned Group and met for an hour or two. Discussions were led by experienced Group leaders from St. Paul's, who rotated from Group to Group over Friday and Saturday. My Group got to have Fr. Martin's wife, Chloe, as a leader for one session. These discussions were key to the learning that took place, and we all had ample opportunity to share our thoughts and experiences.
I got to meet some extraordinary folks with a passion for this movement. Everyone I talked to had been touched in a meaningful way by their Discipleship Group, and many were willing to share their stories. A woman from one of St. Paul's Groups talked about her service commitment as a regular visitor to a death row inmate. She has been visiting this inmate every weekend for 12 years. They pray and read scripture together, and her family members visit him when she can't. I found this an amazing commitment. And she is not the only member of St. Paul's who has made this commitment to death row inmates. I heard so many amazing stories that truly inspire.
Saturday morning Fr. Martin invited me to be a member of a three-person panel. Each panel member described something significant about their Group. I shared how we got started at St. Brendan’s, what we focus on in our meetings, and how we have recently looked at where we are with our Group and what we have accomplished. I explained the process we used was intended to make sure we were still on track and meeting everyone’s expectations. Later, I had several questions about this process, and everyone seemed to agree it was a good one.
Sunday morning Fr. Martin led us in a beautiful Holy Eucharist service, and the sermon was preached by one of the attendees, the rector of All Saints Church in Indianapolis. She was a powerful preacher!
All in all, the Retreat was a wonderful experience, and I’m very grateful I was able to represent our Group there. If you would like to hear more about all that I learned, please stop me when you see me at church, give me a call, or send me an email.
I close with the prayer with which we open each of our Discipleship Group meetings:
By God’s grace I will look for the presence of God’s Spirit in my daily life and learn to give thanks, with weekly ‘worship in the beauty of holiness’ as my guide and support.
By God’s grace, I will set aside time regularly for prayer, meditation and spiritual reading, ‘praying to my father in secret,’ working toward twenty minutes a day.
By God’s grace, I will endeavor to serve others everywhere I can, working towards giving an hour a week in service, remembering that Jesus said ‘surely as you did it to one of the least of these, you did it to me.’
By God’s grace, I will be a good steward of my money, working towards giving ten percent to the church and those in need, mindful that ‘where my treasure is, there my heart will be also.’
Peace and blessings, Darrell
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