A few degrees of separation? (James Karran)

James Karran explores why leaders need to be 'outsiders' in their own community.

My most burning passion in ministry is to see communities of committed disciples that are authentic, real and honest. I long to be part of a place that is safe for people to come and be vulnerable, where they don't have to fear being used as guinea pigs by a bunch of amateur spiritual physicians who want to heal, save and liberate everything in arms reach.

In order to facilitate this environment as the leader, building relationships is crucial because without deep relationships, the community will never develop the intimacy needed for vulnerability.

But vulnerability is difficult. We have all been hurt and bruised in our stories, and the mind rebels against this idea of letting its guard down in case the bruises are ripped open to become deep wounds. Unfortunately, in so many people's experience of church, this is exactly what has happened. So we play at being vulnerable, we pretend that we are sharing our true and honest 'prayer concerns' with each other; knowing all the while that those things most important to us, those facets of our beings that are darkest, most messed up and most broken – those are things we could NEVER tell anyone. The potential pain is too great.

So, deep relationships are important. However, it's not as simple as that because there is real danger associated with it.

A leader wants to create relationships within the community so they throw themselves into the friendships, meeting up with folk for coffee, organising social events and cinema trips, nights out, meals – anything that would create the fertile ground for relationship to grow. This community becomes their main friendship circle, they invest in its members – and the members invest in the leader and each other. And it begins to work. Deep and real friendships grow. Vulnerability begins to emerge. The dream is beginning to be realised.

Here's the danger. In the midst of this process, somewhere in the milieu, the leader loses perspective and sense of purpose. The friendships become the goal; the reason for their necessity is forgotten. The little community is happily revelling in its own insular reality where everyone loves everyone and 'we' look after each other, where the universe is fine as long as we stick together. It becomes harder and harder to see anything outside this circle of loveliness.

The community becomes gated by walls of its sense of shared vulnerability. When it comes into contact with 'outsiders', the in-jokes and private conversations give a clear, if unintentional, message, "Sorry, if you're not one of us already you really can't be one of us, unless of course you prove to be 'our kind of person'. Then you can definitely be one of us". And because the leader is as much in the mix of all this as anyone else, there is no one to recognise what is happening. The community has become a clique.

This is something that I see as especially relevant to fresh expressions of church because the leaders are trying to start communities from scratch, often with a strong emphasis on relationship, so the temptation to get 'sucked in too far' is high. Also, many fresh expressions may be outside normal accountability structures; it is therefore less likely that the danger will be spotted (or understood) by those to whom the leader should be accountable.

I've come to the conclusion that a few degrees of separation between the leader and the community are necessary, and it is painful for me to say that because it is painful to do. Someone has to stand slightly outside the circle, to keep watch for the waifs and strays who God brings along, to remind the community of its purpose. This may mean that the leader will always feel slightly like an outsider in their own community, and possibly the other members will feel that of the leader too. Perhaps this is one of the burdens of leadership. I wonder if Jesus felt something of this as his lads were getting to know each other, laughing, joking and hanging out? I don't know. I do know though that the leader has a calling and responsibility, one that can weigh very heavily at times.

This is one of the hardest lessons I've learnt doing this pioneering ministry lark, and one that is a constant struggle to get right. But if vulnerability and relationships are still key, how does one facilitate these while maintaining something of a separation? Haven't quite figured that one out yet…

Llan – update May13 (formerly The Gate Faith Community)

Llan is an embryonic, new monastic community, meeting at The Gate in Cardiff. James Karran tells how its identity has been developing.

Palm Sunday together was our very first 'not-a-church' meeting. However, not-a-church meeting is a little bit of a mouthful, so instead we called it a 'community life' meeting.

Eight of us were present for this historic occasion, each of us with our thoughts, feelings, attitudes, moods, baggage and slightly different understandings of what on earth we were doing there. The first item on the agenda was to find a name for ourselves.

After we finally decided that the best way to decide on it was to have a vote, we came out very strongly in favour of Llan. When Christianity first came to Wales, the monastic pioneers would establish a llan – literally meaning 'enclosure' – at strategic locations, within which they would begin to build a base for mission, worship and prayer. This seemed to sum up exactly what we felt God calling us to be.

Llan - groupSo after seven months of meeting together, we had chosen a name. There was an almost palpable feeling of 'connection' in the room. It was as if the act of deciding on a name – which came from the collective group as opposed to being imposed by any one individual – was a kind of mortar that helped cement us together a bit more. We took one more step down the road of ownership, of community, of knowing who we are. 

The rest of the meeting included subjects ranging from thinking about our diary to asking what each of us individually wants from Llan and how we might go about getting it.

Since we started our community at The Gate in September 2012, I thought it would be a good idea to try and establish a rhythm of prayer, as it seemed like the kind of thing a monk would do. So I invited anyone who was up for it to meet at The Gate at 8.15am to pray a morning office. Initially it was just me and one other from the community who attended, and now… it's still just me and one other.

Llan - cross and bibleMany folk might see the routine of having to come to the same place every day to say the same prayers as just another religious rule that doesn't mean anything but that is not my experience. Coming to this same place at this same time, we go through the ritual of:

  • setting up our (very) makeshift chapel – complete with print of Rembrandt's Return Of The Prodigal Son, stone Celtic cross and tea light;
  • spending moments in silence to bring to mind God's love that is 'new every morning';
  • saying the same words from Psalms and other ancient sources;
  • holding our loved ones before God.

This all becomes something more than the sum of its parts. The light begins to represent God's presence with you in that place, the words begin to seep into your inner being and set your soul on fire with their truth, the picture begins to speak of God's mercy in a language that communicates directly with your spirit. That place, that time, that rhythm… it has become a thin place for me, a place where I meet with God.

I really, really hope that more people will come to see the mystery and power in rhythms and practises like this because they're not dead, they're very much alive.

The Gate Faith Community

Baptist minister James Karran is looking to develop a new monastic community at a Cardiff arts centre. He tells the story so far.

I used to be part of a fresh expression called Solace, a bar church in Cardiff that I started with Church Army officer Wendy Sanderson in 2007. Sadly, Solace came to an end four years later but what didn't come to an end was my vision of incarnational Christian communities that meet in pubs!

The idea of setting up a new monastic community was inspired by a retreat I went on to The Northumbria Community in August 2011 at a time when I was considering where God was leading me next. While there I was thoroughly impressed by the type of community they modelled: namely one defined by openness, acceptance – and, most of all – hospitality. It was this coupled with a long-standing desire of mine to see pubs and bars in Britain 'redeemed' from the bad reputation they currently have that led me to the concept of a new monastic community that was based in a pub or bar.

After the initial inspiration, I began prayerfully pushing doors and this led me to a conversation with the executive director of The Gate Arts Centre in Cardiff, Paul Hocking. Paul, a retired evangelical minister, shared the same vision for authentic, hospitable and incarnational Christian community. The idea of starting a new monastic community at The Gate emerged out of this conversation and the proverbial ball started rolling.

The Gate - cross and communionThe Gate is perfectly situated to be the soil in which a new monastic community could grow because it has all the key elements – a good reputation, people who regularly come in, existing Christian connections and a bar! There are also amazing opportunities for ministry amongst the groups already connected with the venue.

We had our first community meeting in September 2012 and there were five of us, none of whom really knew each other or had much of an idea of how this would work. All were Christians, but mainly Christians who had been wounded by – or else fallen away from – mainstream church in the past. Since then we have grown to 11 members; some are already followers of Jesus but others have never been to church in their life before. We are currently developing a rhythm of prayer and a 'way of life' for the community to live by, as well as learning in general what it means to be a community of spiritual pilgrims who come from diverse backgrounds.

Our meetings take place on Sunday afternoons at 4.30pm in the Cafe Bar of The Gate and they are always based around a meal. We each contribute an item of food and fit in elements of worship, prayer and reflection around our eating, laughing and chatting together. In this, the meetings resemble something of the Sedar meal of Jewish tradition. The meal element is extremely important and illustrates the emphasis on hospitality that we want to place. Jesus is the ultimate host, inviting us into the great celebration of his resurrection, and we want to incarnate this in the small corner of the world God has placed us in. In this way, the meal also becomes central to our understanding of outreach.

As a community we live by a code of three principles:

  • learn from Jesus as best we can – become an apprentice;
  • serve others selflessly – become a host;
  • never judge anyone for where they are on their own life journeys but to help them discover where God is leading them to next. – become a pilgrim.

The Gate - FeastThis whole venture is non-stipendiary so I have no regular income though I do run a tentmaking enterprise called Solace Ministries – as part of which I conduct religious and civil weddings, blessings and funerals. I am still exploring a vision in the longer term to see a new monastic community that is based in, owns and runs a cafe bar/pub. The 'abbey' or 'Monastery Pub' would be a home, hub and base for the community, providing a centre for meeting, mission and ministry. It would provide a centre to go out from and come home to.

A number of 'new monastic communities' in Britain are geographically dispersed but bound together by a common rule and set of core values. The community I envisage would be of this type. Some members would (by necessity) be geographically located in proximity to the 'abbey', but many others would be elsewhere and find their sense of identity through adopting the community's 'way of life', taking an avid and prayerful interest in the life of the community and 'returning home' to the abbey for family worship celebrations at certain important seasons during the year.

As well as the dispersed community, eventually local communities would be established around the country for localised accountability, prayer support and worship. These smaller communities, known as 'cellae', would be bound together and to the larger community by the way of life, but would also undertake pilgrimages to the abbey at certain times. Establishing these local discipleship communities would be the primary focus for the community's missionary activity.