Everything I Needed to Know About Ministry, I Learned At Folly Beach

For the last few weeks, I have written about Folly Beach and the youth retreat I led there for four years back in the late 70s. As I have noted, I was flying blind when I began, aided by a stellar group of adult sponsors of the youth group, and by an extraordinary group of young people who were open to the experience of community.

After thirty years of work as a minister and an Episcopal priest, I reflected on my life and work, surprised by one insight in particular that emerged. I discovered that I had been using the learnings of my first four years of leadership in youth ministry, distilled in my summer youth community work, for the entire span of my life.

As I now spend my time teaching and coaching ministers and priests across a variety of traditions, I thought it might be useful to share these insights in an abbreviated form. And for those of you who are parts of Christian communities, you might find this interesting to reflect on the state of your current group of believers. Surprisingly, these principles have been applied during my years of consulting in healthcare and other organizational development work in a variety of industries and non-profits.

I will keep the insights brief, urging you to contact me if you are wanting more specific details or additional experiential notes.

One: Vision- A clarity of where you want to go, or what you want to accomplish is the sine qua non, that is, in plain common sense, if you don’t do this, you are going to fail. Vision is the leader’s work of articulating what you are attempting to do in the work you are doing. In educational design parlance, it is your learning objective. In my break down talk it’s simple: it’s “what you want?” Keeping clear about this is important in most areas of life, a Ferris Buehler maxim, if you will.

For me at Folly, my desire was to provide an intentional experience of community while on a retreat to a beach setting. This represented a change from how this week was spent in the past, basically a free week of fun in the sun in a beautiful setting. There’s nothing wrong with a fun week of downtime, but I wanted more out of what I viewed as “prime time”. I was clear as to what I wanted but needed to sell my leaders on the notion, particularly in the first year which was to be a major change. I also needed to sell the young people as they had little expectation of the week other than a tan. I wanted to bring about a deeper change in the group and in each individual.

Making such a change happen is not an easy thing to accomplish. Luckily, I was naive and didn’t know what a long shot success was when I began this event. Obviously, my timing was just right and it came together. But in the real world, apart from Folly mojo, such clarity and planning through change is essential. And clarity of vision, its clear articulation, and careful building of a supportive scaffolding to support its execution is critical. I have spent most of my life studying the process of change in people, marriage, groups, and organizations, and there are some principles that make things move more smoothly, with the least amount of your blood on the floor when the counting is done.

Two: Always be clear as to the “Why?”. Every major change represents a movement away from the status quo, that is, what people are familiar with. Change entails moving away what is comfortable and moving to something new and unfamiliar. My experience suggests that people who can tolerate this, much less like it, are few. My mother put a sign up in the church’s infant nursery that quoted the Book of Revelation: We Shall All Be Changed. When I asked her about it, my biologist mother said that no one likes change, except babies with dirty diapers (I am cleaning her image up for you sensitive types) and even they aren’t real wild about it! I have found this to be an understatement, which was rare for my mother.

When I was teaching a group of seminarians in Austin, I would kid them by suggesting that there was a hundred year old parish, just waiting for you to get your seminary diploma so that you could come correct them and tell them how church should be done. Truth is most people are fairly content as to how it currently is going in their world. Anyone who is daring enough to propose a change had best accompany the change with a good explication of “why?”.

Communicating this “why?’ should be done early, clearly and cleanly, in a variety of ways, and repeated frequently. All five of these directives should be accomplished in your communication plan. Care should be taken to make sure that the “why?” is understood by the people and check to see how far down through the organization the message has traveled and landed. Did I mention the importance of communication?

Three: Community is the basic building block. The secret sauce to the time at Folly Beach was the small groups in which people were asked to relate to one another beyond the surface niceties. At Folly, we used basic questions that allowed the group members to say something about who they were, and what they cared about. The process banks on the fact that each person has a richness that is below the waterline of the surface. When we share with one another at this level, the magic of human intimacy takes place, and there is a chance for the experience of grace as one is accepted for who one is. Now the intimacy, the recognition of the other, the acceptance, and the grace are rare commodities in our culture. This results with the time and experience to be valued, remembered and cherished. The testimony to this is in the number of amazing responses I received from both the kids and sponsors who wrote to me after the last two posts to testify to the power of the Folly Beach in their lives, not to mention making an old broken down priest cry.

In the best example of a culture change I achieved, it was due to the role of covenant groups at Christ Church, Tyler. We gathered groups of people around a Bible study format but focused on sharing how the Scriptures touched the current issues of our life. We had trained leaders of the groups that would meet weekly for training in terms of how to form groups healthily and gave them opportunities to present questions and issues that had arisen in the group. Truth is, this was how we led our church into a time of growth, bringing in people who had never imagined that being in a church would be an option for them. This presented other problems as the “new” people started coming to worship services as well, but the “side door” to the church was to be invited into one of these small covenant groups. I first understood this critical dynamic through our experience at Folly.

Side note: With the current hunger for real intimacy in face-to-face relationships, not satisfied in cyber space, this use of small groups in church settings seems to be an easy strategic move for small churches to reach out to their community to provide a valuable service. The deep need has been lifted up by David Brooks in his recent analysis in his book, The Second Mountain, as our time in the cultural history of our country seems to be begging for opportunities for such a sacred space of meeting.

Four: The role of a covenant sets the boundaries of behavior. In the Folly Beach experience, we had a covenant, or agreement, as to what behavior was acceptable that we all agreed to. That way, our expectations were explicit and agreed upon. In the youth group, this meant being present for the group, to not go off on one’s on from our site, to have a buddy if you walked down the beach. Within the group itself, we has norms of being honest, not interrupting others when they were talking, and keeping in confidence the things said within the group.

In moving this out into a parish, an explicit covenant is healthy in offering and image of openness to all people and in maintaining a clear level of expectable behavior. It’s best to get the largest group of members to come up with a set of agreements. This can then be presented to a large group of the parish for ratification and agreement, either by a formal vote or by mutual assent. It’s good to have this covenant formally written on a board or paper, and then invite the members to sign it. Placing the covenant in some prominent display says a great deal about the spirit of this congregation and tells any visitor what to expect. It’s also a great way of onboarding new members and helping them know how we intend to live together.

Five: Make the space for celebration. We did this in a number of ways at Folly, the most pronounced was The Dance in which celebration was the main event, of enjoying our life together. The music doesn’t have to be Rumours by Fleetwood Mac, but music of such verve and excellence, regardless of genre, seems to be the grease for the wheel of community. Finding ways to share space and time in a celebratory way should be a high priority in the mind of a leader. Creativity is the juice that turns you loose, taking some chances that moves you beyond the safety of the known and expected. Moving over the threshold of danger tends to yield the most fruit in terms of spirit. Many church leaders seem risk adverse but the opportunities for fresh experience of Spirit beckon.

In the life of a church, some rituals provide the channels for this experience of spirit. I intentionally moved into the Episcopal church to make sure that I had a powerful ritual at my disposal. At the same time, I recognize that such ritual can easily devolve into routine that robs it of its power of possibility and surprise. This is the occupational hazard of ritualistic based leaders: that the form becomes the thing worshiped rather the Spirit that infuses it. The dialectical tension between Spirit and Structure is just a part of life and a good leader is always seeking an artful balance.

Communion and the Circle of Friendship are the forms that allow for the experience of both Transcendence and Intimacy. Our continuing time together in a group beg for new expressions and occasion. Creative leadership takes this seriously and looks to the horizon constantly for such opportunities. In my most creative moments, I imaged myself as an architect of human experience, planning and designing time and space for encounters between persons and God’s spirit. It sounds a bit esoteric as I write it, but it’s as simple as a moment to pause and reflect, as basic as the human embrace.

Six: Drive for engagement. The central win in any group’s life is the participation of the members. The old, infamous 20% rule states that only a small percentage of people really are involved and give to the life of the group. At Folly, there was an intentional goal to involve every person in the life of their small group. Leaders intentionally reached out to those who might be slow to engage in the life of the group. Reaching out to seek out those hanging on the edge frequently resulted in discovery and connection. The same thing was true for encouraging group participation while allowing the individual to choose to hang back. I prefer the image of “engagement” as opposed to inclusion as it signals an active participation as opposed to merely being folded in to some blob of community. Engaged people care and will go “the extra mile”, but they are also prone to not be compliant, which can seem threatening to leaders steeped in a more hierarchical model of leadership. Leaders in an engaged group need to put on their big girl/boy pants and get ready to rumble. Again, an agreed upon covenant of behavior helps us stay grounded within a lively community.

Seven: Seven is a magic number in folklore. I saved my number one factor for this last spot in my seven. Covey had his Seven Habits, I have my Seven Intentions.

Seven is the notion of self-awareness. It was the intentional goal of my entire effort at Folly. It was prompted by my study of human development, chasing down the seminal work of Erik Erikson who came up with the notion of identity, notably in his theoretical musings, an identity crisis. Adolescence is a time which is the threshold of discovering who one is, your identity. There is a way in which society and culture allow for this time of looking inward, experimenting outwardly with who one is and how you want to show up in the world. You receive prompts from your family, the stories they tell about your “folk” or kin, and the culture from which you emerge. That includes how you behave, how you interact, what you say and how you say it, what are the boundaries, and what are the obligations. The individual is embedded, like it or not, in some kind of context and has the tough work of deciding how to negotiate being an individual in the middle of being a part of the whole. Some will merely accept the identity as given, others will rebel against that very giveness and attempt to define themselves over and against those expectations.

I wanted Folly to provide an intentional occasion for this work of pausing and reflecting on who one is, this identity issue. This “self work” is not exclusive to adolescence but continues throughout one’s life as one exercises the human agency of reflection and decision as to how one will be in the world. Our culture had decided to extend adolescence into the early twenties, which includes a time in college for a hopefully more thoughtful time of serious reflection. But truth is, that important work continues throughout the course of life. Even in my mid sixties, I am pausing for reflection in order to gain more self-awareness as to who I am, what values I want to serve, and how I want to spend my time. Folly was to initiate that process in these young folks, a process that “had only just begun.” Rather than a mindless romp in the sun and sand, I was wanting them to pause, reflect in a mindful way….and then romp in the sun and sand. I think Folly was successful in that work and process.

In my book, church should continue in that process of providing moments and avenues of self-awareness. Church can be that special place where we pause from our busyness in order to assess where we are as well as where we want to go. This human act of deciding is the distinctive thing that humans have the capacity to do. Rather than going along with a prescribed program or agenda, we can decide who we will be. This includes cultural expectations, cultural trends, media prompts, party rules, and particularly religious certitudes. It is up to us to decide, the gift and burden of being a human in full. Churches have a unique opportunity in sponsoring and nurturing this process.

Finally, a word about leadership, which requires self-awareness. I have been shocked to find a lack of self-awareness among leaders, specifically in the church, but apparent in government, healthcare, business, and non-profits. Self-awareness requires persons to take a moment of pause to look in the mirror at one’s self and measure what one sees. It has to do with an honesty with one’s self as to the mixed motivations that reside in all human beings. Rather than posturing as having a “perfect” motivation, a self-aware leader is painfully aware of the mixed motives that are propelling their actions and decisions, some that can be self-serving. Some have called this Emotional Intelligence or EQ, and it is the basic requirement for a leadership that operates with integrity. A truly humble leader is not obsessed with proving one’s “purity” but rather has a firm grasp of the possibility that one might be self-delusional. Leaders who pause, who remain open to possibilities, are those that I trust to offer a style of leadership that is truly in service of something bigger than themselves. It is called servant leadership and is modeled in the person of Jesus.

I could go on and on about this last dimension as something that I learned in an experiential and existential way. My work these days is of coaching people through a process of self-awareness by which they can live their lives with more intention, with more authenticity and integrity, and with more verve and passion. Coaching is the new way that I am using to help people along the way. And most of what I learned and use in coaching, I learned at Folly. Imagine that.

Ralph Does Folly….

Last week, I wrote about about a special place for gathering the tribe of teenagers of First Baptist Church of Decatur. It’s called Folly Beach. It was fun to remember and write about an experience that was formative for me. I was in the middle of preparing for the funeral of one of my closest friends, Ron Lane, who had worked for me as a youth sponsor at Folly Beach. That made the story particularly touching to me and fueled my memory. The response after last week’s post from both kids and adult sponsors was gratifying, as well as confessionals from other former brave youth ministers.

I promised two more entries that emanate from Folly: a tale about the birth of a new person; two, my distillation of what I learned about ministry from my work at Folly. I hope you enjoy it.

My tale of birth comes from my first experience at Folly that I wrote about last week. It involves the birthing of a person whose name is Ralph.

The age grouping on my Folly trips were problematic and yet promising. It included a wide age span, including eight grade through graduating seniors. Truth be told, we also used Folly to train Day Camp counselors which included mostly college kids. So it was the definition of “wide”.

The older kids meant trying to maintain a modicum of control while encouraging the continuing development and beginning some critical thinking. Who am I? What do I believe? What do I care about? What might be worth my life? These are the questions that confront a young person, and gets filled out in young adulthood. For most of our kids, the palette of college would allow for a full portrait to be painted in striking colors.

The younger kids usually were of two types. One group had been counting down the days to be old enough to qualify as a member of the youth group. Those kids usually had older brothers and sisters who made the road ahead clearer. It was fun to watch them on-board and make their own way onto the scene, taking their God-given right to be here on this planet in this particular spot, Folly Beach.

The other group were the kids who had no clue. They defined my phrase “just loose and happy to be here”. Many times, I would get calls from their mothers prior to the event, making sure that their child would be properly outfitted for the week at the beach, prepared with doctor-certified sunscreen.

That was more than true for Ralph. Ralph’s mama called me three or four times to make sure she had properly outfitted young Ralph for his virgin week at the South Carolina beach. I remember feeling sorry for him as his mom bade him a tearful farewell at the bus there in the First Baptist parking lot. Ralph seemed to not be bothered by her attention, perhaps immune to it by now, and simply climbed aboard the bus bound for Glory.

How I can I describe Ralph without turning him into a cartoon character? I can’t. If you were wanting to go to casting central and get a young nerd for your new come-of-age movie, you would have Ralph. He was an awkwardly tall, skinny kid, with a bookish pair of classes that made him look like a prematurely born Buddy Holly. His mom had purchased a kind of formless bucket hat. She provided some slip-on shoes for his casual walking, which Ralph wore on his beach walks. Obviously, Ralph’s family beach trips were highlighted by the collecting of sea shells, a reasonable thing to do at the beach, but Ralph made it into a science. He would take long walks by himself with his bucket hat on, Buddy Holly black glasses, his slip-on Keds, his orange plastic bucket to gather his shell treasures and would carry a net on a stick. You got the picture? Full-tilt nerd.

I was so proud of my group that embraced the young, fledgling, quirky Ralph without laughing at him or making fun of him. This was my first experience with this group, and while I had laid out expectations of care and inclusion, I had no idea if this would be like most church mottoes that would become laminated slogans on a wall somewhere, forgotten, gone with the wind. Not here. They made a point to include Ralph at meal time. Folks talked with him during down time and made him feel welcome in his small group. Slowly, Ralph was lightening up on his daily regimen of shell search, and was content to talk with new found friends. It was the beginning of his long, strange trip into personhood. It was like watching an egg hatch, with the baby chick pecking his way through the protective shell. This is the STUFF of youth retreats, the birthing of a new person, and we were the mid-wives in the messy process. God, I loved it.

The crescendo came on our last night at The Dance. We had cleared the floor and set up the stereo on a table at the end of the hall. As I mentioned in an earlier article, this was the summer of Rumours, the break-out album of Fleetwood Mac, with the inimitable siren voice of Stevie Nicks and strong, pensive croon of Lindsey Buckingham. There were obligatory Motown songs, new twists by Stevie Wonder, no longer little. But what I remember from that summer was Rumours.

Pause. A musical interlude.

The first side of Rumours is arguably the best record side of songs ever produced. It begins with Second Hand News, which begins with a killer beat, that begs you to dance, invites a fall back to the Bump of the early 70s. Then a little Stevie mood music with Dreams, images of thunder, a soulful bass underlying the lyrics of dreamy connection, with players only love you when they’re playing. Never Going Back Again, with some tasty guitar licks from Lindsey, provides an acoustic break. Don’t Stop kicks ass, so much that Clinton resurrected it for the march of hope to the presidency in 92. I stood on stage with Bill in Tyler, and remembered the enthusiasm of the night at the beach with this song blasting…..it’ll soon be here! Ah, youth. Don’t you look back! But I can’t help it. Go Your Own Way follows, with a driving beat, and stunning vocal harmonies. The first side of the album, ends with Songbird, one of the more pensive cuts on the album, with Christine McVie’s thoughtful reflections. We generally skipped it, dropping the needle back on the first track. By the way, boys and girls, the needle is on a record player that Joe Biden is fond of referencing. The second side has You Make Loving Fun, I Don’t Want to Know, keeps the world rocking. Gold Dust Woman gives some mega dosage of reality and reminds you of life back home from the beach, even though I was loving the bass line of John. Did she make you cry, make you break down, shatter your illusions of love? Why yes….yes she did. Stevie owned this song….and my heart.

Back to Ralph.

The dance was a huge success with lights down and the sound up. Kids were on the dance floor rocking, adult sponsors losing inhibitions without the help of artificial substances. It was a great night as our hero, Ralph watched from the side. digging it in his own special way. His body bobbed in a rhythm only he knew but he was definitely getting is groove on. His drink of choice was a grape Fanta, of a recent vintage, if I remember correctly. It left a tell-tale wisp of a mustache over his lip, giving him an Errol Flynn rakish style, as he just might grab the chandelier and swing into action.

It was a beautiful set up as if the gods of adolescence were conspiring to break open this shell of life.

And then it happened. A junior girl, a cheerleader in fact from the Druid Hills Devils, to load the metaphor bases, came over to Ralph and asked him to dance. Now, where I come from, this just doesn’t happen but that night, it did. Beth rocked Ralph’s world by dancing with him to Go Your Own Way…and Ralph did! Beth ably assisted him in his dance, moving him persuasively but without scaring the horses. It was a beautiful thing. Ralph’s smile was as wide as the road from Charleston to Savannah.

Lots of great things happening that week, but the thing I remember was the birth of Ralph, on a windswept night, to the rhythm of Fleetwood Mac urgings: Don’t stop thinking about tomorrow.

Not a bad mantra by which to lean into life.

We all need people to help us make our way to the dance floor. We all, in different seasons of our life, particularly when we are transitioning into a new unfamiliar zone of being, need some help along the way.

Sometimes, we need a mid-wife, like Beth, who can take us by the hand, lead us onto the dance floor of life, and let us find out beat, our particular and peculiar rhythm. For me, that is a good description of what I do as a coach with people trying to find their way through a tough transition, or trying to rediscover the deeper Spirit that they lost along the way. It’s the thrill of my life assisting in the birth of the Spirit that is waiting in all people, just waiting to be born.

We are all Ralph at heart, wondering about ther world we find ourself in, waiting to be invited to the dance. That’s why people love this story about Ralph as they know that it whispers the promise of the new, and reminds us: don’t stop thinking about tomorrow.

Folly Beach

For a number of summers, I was responsible for a youth beach retreat for adolescents from Decatur First Baptist Church. It was a large group of hormone-gorged kids, gathered on a Southeastern Stages charter bus, bound for a South Carolina beach. I was struck by the bus company’s theme: Who Knows Where We Goes. Boy, that was true.

This group of sixty five kids were bound for a youth retreat just after school got out for the summer, so they were locked and loaded, as someone in supposed leadership just said. My initial goals were fairly simple: one, to keep my spirited adult sponsors from debauchery while exposing kids to their wisdom and passion; two, to provide a developmental experience for the young people; and three, no teen pregnancies.

This was not my first rodeo as I had chaperoned a beach trip to Panama City where my Southside East Point teens roamed the Miracle Strip, smuggling beer back to the film noir Plaza Motel. Lack of planning and my misplaced trust resulted in a minor disaster for me as upright parents were shocked, I say shocked, at the libertine behavior of their free slaves liberated and having their run of the Red Neck Riviera. Guess who got the blame? Lesson learned, we say in the business world.

This time, I was going to carefully plan and make sure my PCB experience was not repeated. I designed my first Folly Beach retreat from scratch one month after my hiring, with the goal to survive. This youth group went every year to this beach retreat house on Folly Beach, the place being owned by the First Baptist Church of Charleston. There were all kind of stories about this setting: killer undertow that resulted in several deaths each summer; the tendency of youth to leave unsupervised, the paucity of programming, and the lack of any productive community building. My real goal for this first one was to survive, that is, more specifically, that I survive.

I decided to feature small groups that I would select, with a mix of age, gender, and high schools…..a fearful prospect as the group tended to segregate around home teams. I decided to select and train my adult sponsors who would be responsible for leading these small groups. We would have a structured Bible study provided by my amazing boss, the pastor, Dr. Bill Lancaster, a legendary Baptist minister and gifted storyteller. Small groups after dinner. A movie on the huge porch after sunset, around nine. Free time the rest of the day. Let’s see what happens, also spoken by said someone in supposed leadership.

They had never done small groups before, which met with some initial resistance. But it proved to be my “secret sauce” over the course of four years as it allowed for some very real sharing of concerns and feelings of teens who were not normally asked what they thought, much less, how they felt. The cross-fertilization (sans teenage pregnancies) between schools, and backgrounds was magical. People made friendships that crossed normal lines, and found compassion within a community that was intentionally caring. The groups proved to be laboratories for people trying on new ways of being in the scary time of adolescence, where human beings first wake up to the fact that other people are looking at them. The Copernican revolution of adolescence is just this: I see you, looking at me, looking at you. It’s downright scary, and results in an acute awareness of how I am presenting myself to the world, literally, the advent of self consciousness.

The movies I showed in the evening were my biggest investment in dollars and my own risk. I chose some of my favorites. To Kill A Mockingbird started it off. A comedy, Kotch, about an old man, starring Walter Matthau followed. Cool Hand Luke with Paul Newman as the Christ figure, and Drag, George Kennedy, standing in for Peter, was next. And we finished it off with Godspell, a musical filmed on the streets of New York City. These movies primed the pump for discussion, in the groups and informally. And Godspell capped it off by planting the seeds for my producing it later with these talented kids as a play, staged in the sanctity of the church house. Brilliant and risky, movie night became the greatly anticipated event of the day.

The remaining structure evolved as we went, one of my strengths. Luckily, we enjoyed the music of Rumours by Fleetwood Mac specifically, along with some Stevie Wonder. Lot of music around the meals and songs sung with my lame three chords and a grin. After a week of relaxation and community, we would break down the dining room and set up the dance floor. I thought you said this was Southern Baptist!? That why they call me Dangerous Dave. That wouldn’t be the last time the parents from Dirty Dancing tried to shut this boy down, but I stand undefeated!…..or now sit.

Then, on the last night, we would build the proverbial bonfire on the beach, and form up in a circle. We would sing some of the songs we had learned, and then I would share my reflections on our week together, pressing the theme of community and love. I would take bread and grape juice (this is Baptist y’all), remember the scene of Jesus and his disciples on their last night, pray over the elements, remembering Jesus’ words, and then serve communion around the circle. Lots of emotions, lots of smiles, lots of tears. The spirit of God felt especially present in that moment, as was each person who shared the space.

After communion, we sang a couple of songs and then began what I call the Circle. We would go around the circle, greeting each person, sharing a hug, and hand shake, a laugh, a cry….some way of noting our connection to one another before we broke camp to return home. It was another form of communion, just as powerful as any historical sacrament in some medieval cathedral.

This was the stuff of Folly, a magical kingdom where we lived like a community of loving sisters and brothers. I still feel a wistful note lingering in the sea breeze from that night. I was to produce it three more times before exiting for my doctoral work. This first one was so special because I was flying by the seat of my pants. I had no choice but to trust a Spirit that was beyond me, trust my fellow leaders who brought their abundant love for these kids, and these kids themselves who responded to my call to be present. All in all, a miracle at Folly.

In the next few weeks, I will share two additional articles from this experience. Next week, a look at the magic of the dance in which a child is birthed into a person….no teenage pregnancies occurred during this dance, as far as I know.

The following week, I will recount my learnings from this time at Folly which I title “Everything I Needed to Know About Ministry, I Learned At Folly Beach”.

I need a trip to Folly to refresh and renew this old sagging sack of Spirit.


Making friends has always seemed easy to me. It’s part of my nature it seems, to reach out quickly to those I encounter. In my heart, I don’t think I am natively an extrovert but you couldn’t tell if from observing me. It’s what is enigmatic about me, and what confuses some. How can someone who is so outgoing be so intent on seeking solitude?

I am quick on the uptake to reach out to those that I find sharing in my space. I am sure it was drilled into me by my mama to make others feel welcome. Maybe it was a defense against my own loneliness, making friends as insurance against the gathering isolation. Truth is, I love my solitude, but on my terms, when and how I want it. Yep, I figured it out in therapy that I was a socialized extrovert, an introvert that school and church taught me to work the crowd in order to get my value confirmed. That turns out to be a blessing and curse, a true dialectical tension in my soul.

So, I have a lot of friends that I have collected, people that I have met along the way. I keep a list actually that I review weekly. These are the people that have meant something to me at various moments in my life. I look at the list on Sundays and actually pray for them, each one by name. I don’t know how the cosmic lottery works with this prayer thing but I do it nevertheless. I name them singularly, with a prayer of blessing.

I remember my childhood friends, from Lakewood Heights and Carriage Colony. My neighborhood crew that resembles the cast of Sandlot still plays ball in my mind. The characters from College Park, Adams Park, and Lakeside that I played golf with in the hot Georgia sun. And the caddies in the caddy shack with their homespun wisdom are part of the cast of actors in my memory.

I count the folks who went to Emory with me, particularly my fraternity brothers. Living with them in the fraternity house taught me a lot about friendship as well as leadership, learning how to share space and time with people with differing talents and temperaments, and yet bonding over certain values, some holy, some perverse.

In reflection, a lot of my friends came out of church settings. The first was Oakland City Baptist where my grandfather took me to be a part of the “old men’s class”, called the Friendship Class. I would help my granddad lead the singing, which for those of you not versed in psychopathology is termed premature identity closure. My fate was sealed. These old men loved on me, and gave me a passel full of surrogate fathers. I found that I always “kept” an older man to serve as a mentor figure to point the way through the fog. It’s becoming harder to find that older person these days as I receive the blessing of years.

Dogwood Hills Baptist was where I learned about the darkness associated with religion, and the tell-tale gap between what we say we believe and how we live. In the sixties, it was most present in racism as our pastor was fired due to his stand on opening the doors of the church to blacks. Most of my friends were of my age, who shared the confusing journey into sexuality and what to do with ourselves. Sunday school, choir practice, Wednesday night suppers, and summer retreats were more about socialization and testing boundaries than true religion, but soul work nonetheless.

My crew at Decatur First Baptist changed my world. I took a job because of a maverick Baptist preacher, Bill Lancaster, who had the audacity to speak truth into tough, pressing social issues. My friend and roommate, Wendell Brigance, had a spirit of adventure and a love of life that was infectious, and pushed me to get real with my platitudinous religion. I had the best team of youth sponsors that joined me in trying to assist in the development of young people and of college students. And the kids I worked with were the best, looking back on those halcyon days. Decatur shaped my sense of church, and more importantly, community.

Same is true for the parishes I served. They became the treasure trove of friendship and collegiality that would make my time worthy. St. Luke’s in downtown Atlanta, the Cathedral of St. Philip, Christ Church in Tyler, Texas, even my Waterloo at Holy Innocent’s, in the East Cobb suburb of Sand Springs brought me many fine people to play with and interact.

My thinking today about friendship were prompted by two moments last week. One was a phone call from my best friend in Tyler, Texas, Dr. Dan Toney. The other was a call from the son of one of my best friends, Ron Lane, who had died after a struggle with cancer.

Dan called to tell me that his mother had died. Mama Toney, as she was known to me, was just a few weeks away from her hundreth birthday. She had been the organist at her home church in Cooper, Texas for a long time, from back before Jesus was a carpenter in Nazareth. Dan loved his mama, that has been clear to me since I first came to know him. He had cared for her in the latter years like a faithful son should. The call was not a surprise, I mean, she was OLD, even older than me. It would have been probably more of a surprise if he called to tell me she was still alive. So, the call was not a shock.

The thing that touched me was that my old friend Dan, who I love like a brother, would pause in the wake of his mother’s death to reach out to me. It was a sign of our deep connection that transcends time and space. It was a moment of meaning that happens rarely, but affirms a depth of linkage that affirms the power of the past, the magic in the now moment, and the promise of the future. That call from my old friend meant the world to me and caused me to smile, even in the face of death. I caught my breath in the wake of that call, thankful that I had such friendship.

The death of my friend, Ron, was one that was expected. His health had been in decline for some time. His family had gathered for an anniversary a month or so before and gave us an occasion to talk of his life and his expected death. He was eighty five years of age, by the damn calendar, but his spirit was timeless. He had a youthful verve that defied carbon dating, as his childlike enthusiasm rocked the people who shared his space. It came as no surprise to me that he was made “King” of his retirement residence as he has the type of personality that attracts others. He was one of those people I think of as “mayor”, a person whom attracts groups and provides a center of gravity that holds things together.

As a part of Dogwood Hills, he was one of the first adults that treated me like I was a person, not just a kid. I got a profound sense that he valued me and my being, which is a priceless gift to afford to a stumbling adolescent. Ron made me feel like I counted, that my thoughts were of value. He did this mostly by listening, which conveys value. I learned that truth from him and it’s what I tried to do with the kids I worked with in my ministry. He was my model.

I have three specific memories of Ron. The first was when I was in college. Ron invited me to join him at his favorite bar, Clarence Fosters, naturally located on fabled Peachtree Road. I remember him ordering his favorite drink, a Brandy Alexander, which felt so sophisticated to me as I ordered my obligatory 7&7. Ron had that kind of exotic air, like I was meeting Tennessee Williams for a drink to discuss the literary landscape. Faulkner, Flannery, or Faith were possible subjects for our conversation, a different agenda than most of my fraternity talk. Again, the gift was the accord given by time and listening, our talk around things that mattered. It was holy space that I valued, and then tried to recreate with others throughout my life, but it started there.

The second is a trip to the Southern Baptist conference center, Ridgecrest in the mountains of North Carolina. We were “forced” to stay in a hotel off site, “no room at the inn” as the story goes. It allowed us a pool and the opportunity to share a bottle of wine, which forbidden on the holy ground of Ridgecrest. T. Lee Stephens, our Associate Pastor, Ron, and I had come to attend a curriculum conference to look over possible resources for Christian education. As we arrived, we found the wine inventory to be quite limited at the Mini Mart, so we wound up with the WORST bottle of wine ever produced on God’s green earth. It was made by Gallo, if I am not mistaken, but it was a terrible type of sweet wine, Ron’s choice, called a Pink Chablis. This was horrible, but it became our signature gift to one another through the years at momentous times in our lives, such as my wedding, Lee’s coming to work with me in Tyler, and Ron’s retirement. It’s not that easy to find these days, which only proves that the universe does indeed bend toward a moral goal.

My favorite memory is from a time when I was leading a youth retreat at Folly Beach. One of my counselors had to bail at the last minute leaving me a small group leader short for the week. I called Ron and asked if he could fill in. In a Baylor Bear heartbeat, he said “yes” and flew into Charleston to come to my assistance. I picked him up at the airport in my green CJ 5 Jeep, with the proverbial rag top off. Ron threw his duffle bag into the back and down the highway we flew for him to meet my kids, his new best friends. Turning to the side to fill him in as we drove, I witnessed the unceremonious flapping in the breeze of his toupee, a sight that did not last long as he removed it before it flew away into the humid Charleston air. That is a memory that I can not “unsee”, thank God.

I have been asked to eulogize Ron at a memorial service at his Episcopal church a week from now. Preparing for that moment, my memories of Ron and other friends have been dancing in my mind. I have no doubt that I will fail in conveying his essence in the words I craft in the crucible of my writing about this marvelous mystery of a human being. But I hope I can capture just a breath of the grace he gave to me, the grace all of my friends grant as they give me the precious gift of connection called friendship.

I am most grateful. Gift, indeed.


To write “one true sentence” was a nugget, a commandment if you will, that I took from an American writer. I am reminded this week, watching Ken Burns’ work on country music, of the homespun poetry of songwriters who weave a story that nestles truth. Writing has always been a love of mine that, like any lover, demands my best energy and attention. This past year has allowed me time to work on two manuscripts, one on my theory and practice of leadership and another on my stories of being a priest. My love demands time and focused energy, but it’s a labor of love and soul satisfying.

But I also am enjoying spending a good bit of my time coaching. This is a new means of delivering care and help to others, assisting people in developing both professionally and personally. Coaching is often thought of as something one does for athletes in sport, but it has a more general application to coming alongside a fellow person and assisting them in doing whatever they are wanting to do. This new means and mode of helping others has my attention.

I have been coaching all my life, be it a youth soccer team, young couples preparing for marriage, or training freshly minted clergy who are beginning their careers. My work of helping people grow began formally as a psychotherapist, working with individuals who had hit a rough patch in their road, or were looking to be more intentional in their negotiation of a transition in their life. This therapeutic work with individual persons was a rich part of my life, being entrusted with the sacred stories they brought to tell me where they had been, why they are as they are, and where they want to go in their future.

Extending that work to couples when I served as Canon Pastor at the Cathedral, I enjoyed helping young couples prepare for marriage in a workshop format as well as working in couples therapy sessions. For many couples, it was after “the fall” that happens predictably as the illusion of having married the “perfect” person wear off, or having the so-called “dream” marriage break down in a variety of ways. The couple comes in seeking to repair the break and get their relationship back on track. It’s hard work, but incredibly important. I was able to do some creative work, dealing with families and the dynamics in play as they seek to be a healthy unit of care. But the individual person seeking to grow was always my favorite within the context of the intimacy of the therapeutic alliance.

I began work as a consultant early on in my time in priesthood working with congregations that were troubled. Facing the daunting reality of change in leadership at the Cathedral, I studied the discipline of change management and applied it to the specific transition happening at the largest Episcopal parish in our country. The lessons I learned through that change I later applied to my work at Christ Church, Tyler and to the change we were enacting in the Diocese of Texas. Change and transformation has been the theme that has been the consistent focus in my work, in people, in marriage, in families, in congregations, in organizations, and even in cities.

The last decade, I have worked specifically in healthcare in the work of transformation, using a turnaround model developed by Dr. Robert Miles and employed by my firm, Galloway Consulting. I have worked with CEOs and various C suite leaders to transform the work of health organizations to become more adept at delivering higher quality care in a more efficient and less costly way. This remains a most challenging work that my colleagues and I strive to make a significant contribution to our nation’s effort to do better and be more responsive to this human need of healthcare.

In this work, I have used a method called coaching, in which I come alongside a leader to assist him/her in the work and art of leadership. I had added to my expertise by training in the discipline of coaching, becoming certified by the leading organization of coaching, the International Coaching Federation. With that, I have been teaching the discipline of coaching as well as consulting with others who are training to be coaches.

The coaching I do is a bit of a hybrid model, bringing both a coach specific process that relies on the native gifts of the client to set the agenda and direction of the work, as well as bringing my specific expertise to inform that process in concert with my client. It’s a much more practical work as it assists the real life work of my client in the present moment and in his/her plans for the future. I believe in the modality of coaching as an excellent way to address the way people can develop as human beings in their personal lives as well as in their professional work.

One of the things I value about coaching is that the starting point of the work assumes that the person has all the answers within the self, needing some assistance in becoming more aware of those gifts and then deciding on how best to use them. This is the key: coaching assumes that people are naturally creative, resourceful, and whole. Unlike traditional psychotherapy that has a starting point of fixing or managing pathology, coaching assists in the person’s native ability and instincts as to where he/she wants to go. The coach helps the person decide how to get there. For me, this is exciting work.

Presently, I am enjoying the variety of clients I am engaged with in coaching. I work with the CEO of a major healthcare organization in planning the effectiveness of his leadership, the evolution of his team, and his own life as a husband, father, and person.

I am working with a wide variety of clergy who are looking for ways to be faithful pastors and leaders in this most challenging of times. I do this both for individual clergy, but in a group context as well as we support and challenge one another in the context of a community. One of the gifts I am able to bring to this work is an independence from denominational structures that may have specific agenda and limiting perspectives.

I am working with a variety of non-profit leaders who are seeking to grow their organizations. As a former leader of a non-profit, the landscape of leadership is particularly challenging with the use of volunteers as major resources in the life of the organization. I have learned a lot from working with non-profit boards that must be faithful to fiduciary concerns while simultaneously desirous of being creative in their responses to the needs of their communities. The area of leadership has always been a source of energy and fascination, continuing to energize my spirit.

I am working with older professionals who are negotiating an impending retirement. How do they “end well”, setting up the next chapter in their lives for continued enjoyment and personal development. Having been in my own process of ending and new beginning, this is an exciting new piece of work for me.

I have been working with persons who are in transition from one career to another. For years, I worked with folks who had “first acts” in one career that left them “dry” and wanting more meaning. These intrepid souls dig deep, finding the courage to move into a new venture that promises to be more satisfying personally. This can be dangerous work but also exciting to assist in the birthing of a new life of passion.

Another birthing of sorts happens in my old world of working with the stories of those who are seeking to grow spiritually into a life that is prompted by the Spirit, calling one into a new way of being. I have done this for years as a spiritual director for clergy, even monks, who are wanting to grow as faithful persons, but now I am finding myself doing this with “all sorts and conditions” of folks, notably lay people who now find their life structure is providing a new found freedom to break out of the moorings that have constrained them in the past.

This work of coaching is claiming my best time and energy these days. I still write, and hope to keep doing that with a passion to meet that Hemingway challenge of writing that “one true sentence” from which all good work flows. I am sure that Ken Burns work will inspire me as he exposes the truth of country music: three chords and the truth.

If you are interested in finding a coach to help you move more intentionally into the next chapter of your life, I would be happy to help you find the right coach. Just drop me a note here or write to me at drdavidgalloway@msn.com . A good coach can be the catalyst that will propel your story into a new chapter.

South of God?

Dreams can become nightmares if you are not careful. I shared two significant dreams over the last two weeks, dreams that pointed the way in my decision making. I continue to pay attention to my dreams, my inner work of reflection, and journaling. And meditation provides a centering that I would hate to be without in my life. But, I also have valued the power of good old fashioned reason in terms of making decisions. De-ciding mean literally killing off some options for one’s life, a necessary fact of life. Saying “No” to somethings frees you to say a big “Yes” to your passion.

Today, I want to walk you through a long process that I went through in making a life decision. It has both reliance on focused and careful attention on the outer world as well as openness to promptings of the inner life. I am also hoping to to answer some questions that some readers have asked, notably one: why South of God? Where did you come up with that odd title?

Obviously, I grew up in the South, even though Atlanta is a bit of an oasis, an island, or a isolation cell, depending on your perspective. The South, like it or not, is the context of my thinking, my starting point. I mostly treasure my Southern heritage but have also recoiled when I am brought face-to-face with its atrocities. South is where I am fated to begin my story.

So South of God. How did that phrase emerge? I had completed my college, seminary, and my doctoral course work. I had spent time as a youth minister in a great community of Christians, South of God, that is, Southern Baptists, according to my mentor, Carlyle Marney. I had even tried going as an associate pastor to a South of God, Higher Than Roman Church, Northside Drive Baptist which was Jimmy Carter’s church when he was Governor. It had all the trappings of Catholic worship, but not the spirit. I used to kid the members that they were a bunch of Baptists who were looking for a church that did not clash with their Mercedes. It was quite tony, on the edge of the Buckhead disttict of Atlanta. And while I loved the people and the setting, there was just something missing.

For some time, I longed for a sacrament-centered worship with the weekly Eucharist providing a spiritual grounding. I won’t bother you with historical or theological reasons here. It was what I  intuitively knew I needed for the road ahead. Of course, the natural answer was the Roman Catholic Church. Since I had some familiarity with the Trappist monks and Ignatian spirituality, I hesitatingly  entertained Rome as a real possibility.

As I seriously studied and investigated the possibilites, interviewing a number of priests and even a bishop, my doubts about this course emerged. After a brief flirtation with the Roman Church, I became clear that this boy was not going to be able to fade the celibacy clause in the contract of being a priest. Soon after making this decision, I met my wife. Her name was Mary. Now, I can’t begin to tell you the massive amount of grief my Trappist monk friends and Dominican priests gave me when I told them I was in love with a girl, a maiden, named Mary. Of course you are, they laughed.

With that decision made, where might I live out my life in ministry? Maybe I would teach in a seminary…you didn’t have to be a priest to do that. I was well on my way to that. All I needed was to find a community, a place to worship.  I had been attracted to the Episcopal Church by some television broadcasts from a downtown Atlanta Episcopal Church, St. Luke’s. There was cherubic-faced priest who would talk about Jesus that was familiar, that made sense, that made me feel connected. His name was Tom Bowers and he had started a revolution downtown, making the city more humane through the presence of the church.

His assistant, Father Charlie Sumners, led the Folk Mass, playing his guitar, leading the congregation singing, Jeremiah Was A Bullfrog. Besides helping him drink his wine, I found a spirit of joy that had been missing, all centered around a communal celebration of the Eucharist, or as it was known in my South of God past, holy communion.

My wife, Mary (remember her from the monks) and I decided to try on this new way of worship on and enrolled in the Confirmation class led by Dan Matthews, who followed Bowers at St. Luke’s, and presented a winsome picture of the Christian faith. He had surrounded himself with an awesome group of talented, bright priests who made Luke’s an exciting place to be. I later accused Dan on “skewing” me by leading me to assume that all Episcopal churches had bright, courageous clergy.

Mary and I quickly became a part of the community at St. Luke’s, worshiping on Sunday, sitting on the  left side, halfway down, right behind the Girardeau’s, Jean Cobb, and Doc Willis. The fresco at the front of the church became an operative image for me, that of the Good Shepherd, who leaves the ninety-nine in order to find the lost one. I loved that radical notion of God’s love and it was what St. Luke’s was incarnating in its ministries in Atlanta.

I found myself doing clinical work at the Training and Counseling Center there and working with the street people that St. Luke’s fed through their daily soup kitchen. It may have been the most creative time of my life.

After a year in the parish, I expressed my interest in exploring a vocation to the Episcopal priesthood to Dan, my Rector. There was a highly structured program in the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta to help one make that decision, at least that was the party line that they told me. Truth was, the Vocational Testing Program was a nine month process that could weed out the folks who should not be ordained and inflicted upon the good people of the Episcopal Church.

It consisted of four quarters, just like a football game. At the end, the supervisors would decide who could go on to seminary to train to be a parish priest. And, they would help the folks not approved for seminary to find a way to exercise their ministry as lay people in their home parish.

The nine months were the most rigorous and taxing time I have ever gone through. Part of it had to do with the stakes on the table. Every person who entered the process had talked to their local priest about their sense of being called to ordained ministry. They had gone through a local committee process of discernment in which one’s fellow parish members asked the tough question: why in the world do you want to be a priest? And then ask a tougher question of themselves: can I see this person as my priest? So after this, a person’s desire to be a priest is made public, which is sort of a precarious place to be.

After the parish approved aspirants, a fancy name for “I want to be a priest!”, one would begin a process of discernment, experiencing a structured series of activities that are designed to raise pressing issues that are relevant to life in the priesthood.

The first quarter was comprised of being in a hospital, visiting sick people with a badge that said Chaplain. It was a highly structured time of being in an institution with some necessarily strict rules. Each week, you would meet with your fellow aspirants along with two  supervisors who would ask pressing questions about your motivation and note the issues that arose internally. This quarter was designed to discover how one dealt with institutional structure. Would you lay down in compliance, would you rebel, consciously or unconsciouly, or would you find a way of being that both respected the structure while moving gracefully within it?

The second quarter was just the opposite. Rather than structure, the aspirant was asked to create his/her own urban experience. How might you experience the reality of the city that might press your level of comfort? What could you do to help you understand the urban setting in a fresh way? Unstated, the quarter was asking the question of how you deal with freedom. Could you be creative in the context of ambiguity? Many people decided to go into the night life scene of Atlanta to see what might emerge internally. Some orchestrated a ride in a police patrol car. Some went to strip bars or to a trans show bar, such as the infamous Sweet Gum Head. I did it all. I even spent a night on the streets of Atlanta without any ID or money. Time of your life, huh kid? said Guido the Killer Pimp.

The third quarter was a little more expected. We were to spend time in a parish other than our own. We were to negotiate with the local priest as to our function, teaching a class, administering communion, leading prayers, something that would let us “try on” the role of a symbol bearer. I decided to return to my home town of East Point to the Episcopal parish of the Resurrection, which was just down the street from my home church, South of God. The priest allowed me to preach which proved to be a touching moment and time of affirmation of my gifts. For other aspirants, it was  a profound moment of discomfort and painful awareness that this just didn’t “fit”.

At the end of the third quarter, the supervisors announced their decision as to whether the aspirant got the approval to go on to seminary. Those who did not get the approval took the time to figure out how they might reengage their ministry back in their home parish. The supervisors gave me their approval so I was able to move toward ordination in the Episcopal Church. But one of the supervisors gave me a worthy comment as to what she saw in me. She thoughtfully offered the thought that she could easily see me in the role of a prophet, that is, one who stands on the edge of the faith community, a person in the margins, reminding the Church of the needs of the world and calling them to be faithful. She paused and then offered another insight, which rang in my mind and soul for some time: I wonder about you being a priest, because a priest’s role is to stand in the center of the faith community and gather them. She had read my mail.  I had allowed her to see my soul, and she called it right. It was to be my perennial issue, seeking to balance the priest/prophet identity. Her words haunt me.

Truth is, nothing prepares you for the work and life of a priest, but this process gave me a clearer sense of vocation, a call to that life’s work. It has formed my notion of “calling”, or vocation, as a “fit” between one’s particular and peculiar constellation of gifts with the current needs of the community. For me, it is a pragmatic thing, a functional definition of my role within the church, although the symbolic dimension is undeniable. All the words in this sentence are carefully chosen and refined, but seem true. It gave me the courage and resolve to say a “yes” to the call I had wrestled with in my life. The life I chose to live gave me both a blessing and a limp.

This was how I made the decision to become a priest in the Episcopal part of the Church that attempts to follow the Christ. I have been able to serve the street people of Atlanta, the wealthiest elite of Atlanta, the swaggering Texans of Tyler, and the cocooned suburbanites. They have taught me volumes about the human condition and even more about my self. I have found and claimed intellectual freedom in my time, as well as a profound dependence on the Spirit that resides in Creation and connects us all. It’s been quite a ride for this pilgrim treading the path of faith in this world. What a long, strange trip it’s been.

But, make no mistake, I come from the Southside, that is, the southside of Atlanta, and of course, South of God.

Look in the Mirror, My Friend

I’ve been focused on dreams during the last few weeks, recounting a few, and teasing out a basic way to track them and your inner life. Thanks to so many of you who have shared your dreams and your intent to try on journaling as a method to center your life.

Be kind to yourself, as moving into this discipline is often daunting and frustrating. Just trust the process. If you forget to journal, gently return the next chance you get. When I start to beat up on myself for not being faithful to the promises I made to myself to do this, to do that, I remind myself of an admonition of a Texas friend of mine: Don’t be so hard on yourself. That’s what we’re here for!

Last week, I shared a LONG dream with three parts, the longest dream I have ever remembered, although other persons seem to do that regularly. I point you to a book by Robert Johnson, Between Heaven and Earth, in which he included numbers of dreams that are lengthy. Those interested could dive into Carl Jung’s own memoir, Memories, Dreams, and Reflections for a rich journey into the inner world. My lengthy, three part dream occurred on the night before my ordination to priesthood at a holy space in my life. You could say, the bases were loaded.

The dream I want to share today is much shorter, compact, but actually more consequential. It happened one night when I was ending my seminary education and was trying to decide where I wanted to go to pursue my doctoral studies. I had been working with Jim Fowler, a leading figure in the psychology of religion. He had taken the developmental psychology of Jean Piaget, and the extension of that work into moral reasoning by Lawrence Kohlberg, and extended it further into how people make sense out of life, that is, how they come to have faith, or not.

Fowler maintained that faith is a human universal, that is, we all have it. Pause and and wrap your mind around that for a second. Do you think it is a natural thing for people for have faith? By that, Fowler is pointing out that faith is a way of seeing the world as a trustworthy place, not necessarily filled out with religious images and stories, but an orientation to life. For Fowler, faith is what humans do in answering the basic question of what is the nature of the world in which we live and how we live in it. This is true of all human being be nature of living.

He went on to postulate that there are predictable stages of faith that we move through during the course of life that parallels our the development of our cognitive structures, that is, the way we know the world. He dedicated his life and his research at the Center for Faith Development at Emory to articulate six stages and then did cross-cultural research to validate this theory. For more depth, go to his seminal work, Stages of Faith.

Fowler came to Emory after completing his doctorate at Harvard and teaching there. He had filled out some of his theory about how we come to faith during his work at Interpreter’s House, a retreat center for ministers at Lake Junaluska, North Carolina. That work was led by Dr. Carlyle Marney, a noted Baptist minister who had been an huge influence in my life, affording me space to live and think beyond my cultural limitations.

Fowler and I hit Emory about the same time and I found myself naturally drawn to his work. In fact, my “life question” had become the perplexing query: why do some people have faith and others do not? I was curious, with a self interest driving my quest: Why do some people sense the presence of the Divine, even in the face of great tragedy? Why do some leave a gaze at the reality at the universe and intuit a Creator, and others do not. What’s going on with all the variety of religious experiences that people talk about? What am I to make of the highly choreographed ritual of a formal religious setting as well as the free-form dance of a Pentecostal tent meeting? These questions more than fascinated me but were existential in nature, given my own experience: what was I going to do with God, a reality that was infused in my Southern way of life? What do I make of this?

So, here I am with this pressing issue, and along comes this tall, bearded man with his own considered idea of what faith is. The timing was perfect, synchronistic perhaps. Fowler was looking for a hungry, ambitious student and I was looking for a mentor. It was a natural connection, made “in heaven” as they say.

Jim Fowler had developed a doctoral program that would focus on the faith development theory as well as the wider field of the psychology of religion. He talked with me early on about me being one of the first students in that program as it was set to get underway after I had graduated from seminary. The Woodruff grant that came through for Emory would not only fund my doctoral studies but also pay a stipend for me to serve as his graduate assistant. It sounded promising and yet there was a rub.

I had been a Baptist student at a United Methodist seminary. If I planned on staying in the Baptist stable of horses (leave the quip of “asses” out please), it made sense for me to do my doctoral work in a Southern Baptist seminary in order to render me kosher. I had made an earlier significant connection with Dr. Glenn Hinson, a professor at Southern Seminary in Louisville. Glenn was a specialist in spirituality though his credentials were from Oxford (England, to my Elvis fans) in patristics. Glenn had a saint-like quality for me, and the thought of being his graduate assistant was more than a little seductive.

So I was entering this final year of seminary with two clear options: stay at Emory and continue this ground-breaking work with Fowler, or, go to Louisville to sit at the feet of a hero in faith.

Two notes need to be made. First, Fowler was a big man, a hulking figure that moved surprisingly nimbly through the halls. He spoke with a particular lecture style, noted for his use of hands, making his points with flair. And one other thing: he had a beard. When I first got to Emory, I had brought my baby face with me, but soon grew a beard. Although I claimed I had grown it for a part in a play, I am pretty sure it was an unconscious way to follow my leader. My size and my beard, even my way of talking with my hands, earned me the appellation of “Little Jim”, something I dug early on, but would develop a resistance to as I needed to develop my own identity.

The other thing to note is my sense of the Baptist church. There had been a recent run by more fundamentalist voices in the Southern Baptist universe that was, in fact, threatening intellectual freedom on the campus at Southern. Conservative students were known to tape the lectures of professors, attempting to expose their liberal ways to the wider Baptist world. It was ironic that these forces targeted such holy people like Glenn Hinson to face their wrathful attacks. While Southern was known as having a world class faculty and intellectual integrity, this onrush of a reactionary witch hunt colored the reality of that campus, and make me wonder how I would fare.

With these two factors swirling in my mind, I found myself torn as to which way to go. Those options danced in my head as I went to bed one night after a night out with friends at a local restaurant.

In the dream, I got up from my bed in the morning and proceeded into the bathroom to get ready for my daily trip to the library. I went through my normal shower and rituals, only then to look into the bathroom mirror. There I saw that I had shaved off my beard. I looked first in surprise, and then in horror. I had taken off a distinctive part of my personality by shaving my face. I began to weep, and woke in tears.

It does not take much to get the message in this bottle. After recording my dream and my accompanying feelings, I spoke to a couple of friends about the experience. And then, I drove to the monastery to talk with my spiritual director, whose casual laughter at the comic scene helped me to gain perspective. something Tom is so good at.

As you can imagine, the connection, or warning, seemed clear. The facial hair was a clear link to Fowler and his work. The warning seemed to urge me to be careful in letting that go. It urged me not to take the expected path, but to intentionally choose where I should invest my time and energy. It would not be the last time I would have to make that kind of critical decision.

I made my decision to remain at Emory and Fowler, prompted by that dream. I feels odd to admit that now, though I have always said it, half jokingly, but absolutely. Something from deep inside was telling me, warning me, to be careful in giving away my soul.

Truth is, dreams are rarely clear. The images bring multilayered meanings and are only suggestive. However, they are important to pay attention to, and I have made a point to “tend” to them to see what insights they may bring.

How do you “tend” to dreams? One suggestion is to take the images that are in the dream and begin by free associating, writing down all reflections that may come to mind. Let me put an emphasis on the word “all”. Try not to censor any idea that comes and just write it down for further reflection. The notion of “playing” with those images has worked for me, prompting me to move into a deep reflection on what is going on in my present context, what things in the past might the image recall to mind, and to what future might the dream point.

Let me encourage you to try it out for the next few months. Try to remember your dreams. I once heard one person suggest that one make a statement or a prayer before going to bed, that you would remember your dreams from the coming night. Write the dream down upon awakening in a journal that is private. And then invest the time in rereading the dream later, processing it in a time of wonder and curiosity.

Some people find that a “trusted other” is valuable in this process, such as a coach, a therapist or a spiritual director. Others find it helpful to meet in a group that shares their dreams and collectively reflect on the image. Or you may feel more comfortable doing this dream work in solitude. Regardless, why not open up to the inner life that may whisper wisdom. Let me know how it goes.

Dreams offer us insights into our inner world. Sometimes the messages seem clear, and others seem like clues to the workings within our deeper self. It is easy to become overwhelmed by busyness in our outer lives and activities that we miss what’s really going on. As my patron saint, Ferris of Buehler, reminds us: In life, you have to slow down sometimes, and pause, or you might just miss it.