Spring Forest is the church of my wildest dreams. There are sheep and goats grazing in our fields, and what could be better than that? Today, as always, the land is gorgeous with loblollies and beech, a woodland trail, whitetail deer, and tidy crops in low-till rows. A dozen kids and moms are in the outdoor kitchen with Farmer Gretchen and Chef Shanetta. They are learning to grow, harvest, and prepare delicious food through our weekly program, Grow It. This afternoon, the farm team will finish planning the launch of this year’s community supported agriculture or CSA partnership, which will connect our farm to community members who subscribe to a weekly box of produce and other farm products. The old shuttle bus purchased from the Presbyterians is just back from a tune-up, and not a moment too soon because there are more new families to take to their Global Friends English as a second language class on Friday—Global Friends is our program that supports refugee resettlement, including language classes, sponsorships of families, and temporary housing on the farm. Over at the Forest House, our interns make plans for Forest Feast, the monthly potluck and worship gathering. It’s going to be special: Taizé in the Forest, an altar full of icons, soft lights in the trees, a fire at the center of the gathering.

Everywhere I turn there is life.

The place we call Spring Forest is a new monastic community, falling loosely within the Fresh Expressions movement, but it was once home to the Occaneechi Band of the Saponi, who still reside in the area and whose powwows and other events we attend as we are able.[1] In the late nineteenth century, some 150 years after the nearby town of Hillsborough, North Carolina, was colonized by European settlers, a farmer built a two-story wood-frame house here, using stones collected from the land to create the fireplaces and chimney to heat the house. By the mid-1960s, a tobacco farm occupied a portion of this land, and the original farmhouse was in serious disrepair. The white property owner invited a Black family from Hillsborough who had lost their home in a fire to live in the old farmhouse. There was no indoor plumbing, and the two fireplaces were the only source of heat. An old privy stood fifty yards from the house. An outdoor pump provided water. The accommodations were rustic but well intended, and the family gratefully moved into the house.

After some time had passed, the property owner died, leaving the house and land to a relative who waited until the Black family was away one day and then set the house on fire. For the second time, the family lost their home and meager belongings to fire. This story was told to us by the mother and daughter who had lived in the old farmhouse until the arson. Not long after we moved in, they had noticed that the previously locked gate to the driveway was no longer closed, and after seeing it open for months, they had gathered some other family members for a final visit to the place where they had once lived, a place of compassion and violence.

Because of their story we held a healing ritual for the land. We dedicated the land around the old chimney as a garden for prayers of lament, loss, and new beginnings. We prayed that the unfolding ministries of Spring Forest would always integrate practices that heal land and heal trauma caused by racism, sexism, and all the other isms and phobias. To honor the last family who lived in the old farmhouse, we asked one of our oblates, the artist Gary Shockley, to write an icon of the Black Madonna, Our Lady of Spring Forest, which we will install above the gate into the garden that will encircle the old chimney. The chimney has been repaired, and money has been raised for the completion of the garden by October 2023.

By the time my husband, friends, and I moved onto this land, the tobacco fields were long gone, replaced by a beautiful mixed pine and hardwood forest and a basin-shaped meadow of grass. The property and an adjacent property that now form our community are anchored by three families with a small regenerative farm, two houses, several outbuildings, and that majestic forest. Our home is nestled in the trees, far from the road. It is a quiet, reflective environment with several outdoor gathering spaces for people who come for day retreats and other programs we offer. We have not built a church building on the land, and yet spiritual formation is core to everything we do here as we seek to foster healing of land, animals, people, and our larger community.

I am the founding abbess of the Spring Forest community, which I was blessed to plant with Francis Kinyua and a handful of friends in 2019. I am a retired elder in the United Methodist Church, having spent most of my ministry in academia as a professor at Perkins School of Theology within Southern Methodist University and then as dean of Duke Divinity School, from which I retired when we launched the church at Spring Forest.

After three years with us, Francis was appointed to First United Methodist Church in windy Scottsbluff, Nebraska. A veteran farmer and pastor from Kenya and my former student at Perkins School of Theology, Francis was invaluable in teaching us the rudiments of regenerative farming and in launching the early iterations of our missions so that our community, along with the farm, actually grew organically during the pandemic. One of Francis’s favorite sayings to us whenever we discussed the limitations of our budget was “God’s mission, God’s bill!” In addition to teaching us to farm, Francis and his wife, Agnes, modeled radical trust in God through a deep life of prayer. From the beginning, Spring Forest has been a community of contemplation leading to action.

This means, among other things, that our core community, or lead team, follows a rule of life together: prayer, work, table, neighbor. People from our local and dispersed community practice morning and evening prayer over video chat every weekday, and these daily rhythms of prayer form the heart of our worship together. We do not meet for a Sunday worship service because we practice Sabbath rest on Sundays and because we do not wish to compete with the churches with which we collaborate, whose primary gatherings are the same day. Participants in our digital ministries join us from California to England. Two cohorts of oblates from near and far gather monthly on Zoom for spiritual conversation and are busy planning their annual pilgrimage to Spring Forest.

There are fewer than two dozen people in our core monastic community, but we regularly engage over 1,500 people through our social and environmental missions, spiritual formation, retreats, activism, educational programs, and digital ministries. This level of engagement is made possible through a growing network of collaborative relationships with other congregations, coffee shops, nonprofits, and schools, and the only members of our community to receive a salary for this work are our farmworkers and part-time administrative assistant. This means that all the income that we generate for Spring Forest through our CSA, philanthropy, and grants goes directly into our social and environmental missions, which includes paying our farmworkers a living wage. We operate on a shoestring budget, and although we are making progress toward financial sustainability, we are never far from a financial abyss. Yet, as the Quakers would say, way keeps opening.

Our community farm consists of five acres under agricultural production with an additional four acres of lovely hardwood forest. Over the past two years, we have transitioned to low-till farming, using all natural methods of pest control and other regenerative practices such as rotational grazing.[2] Our farm is not certified as organic, but our crops and animals enjoy a peaceful life that is free from pesticides, herbicides, and other poisons. Our livestock are raised humanely, with much love and care. For our barn cats, our stock dog, Dill, and our Labrador, Lilly, Spring Forest is paradise.

Our practices of caring for the land and its other-than-human inhabitants are one of the primary ways we conceive of Christian discipleship, a term that has been warped nearly beyond recognition. The original meaning of the Latin word discipulus is simply learner or student. In the context of Jesus and his students, there were no classrooms, books, tests, or grades in the way we think of education today. They learned as apprentices, going where Jesus went and doing what Jesus did. They fought among themselves the way children do, and they listened to Jesus teach through parables and scriptural interpretations that were heavily influenced by agrarian imagery and homely, workaday life. Jesus’s students watched and wondered at his wisdom as his critics asked trick questions to try unsuccessfully to trap him. Some of the most powerful learning for them was their relationship with Jesus itself. He, their rabbi, even washed their dirty feet. I suppose we could call it relational discipleship, but there were no strings attached—Jesus was not merely trying to move them toward a religious goal, a misguided motive that has all but ruined our understanding and practices of evangelism, mission, and discipleship.

Jesus loved well. His students saw him love all kinds of people. They experienced him loving them in ways that were stunning, and honest, and transformational. Discipleship—being a student of Jesus—was and is an on-the-move school of love, contextualized in our own everyday lives. Significantly, the New Testament uses the word Christian only three times, but the word disciple appears over two hundred times.

All of that to say, at Spring Forest we understand discipleship as a lifelong path of learning to love well, with Jesus as our beloved teacher and ourselves always in process. Being a student of Jesus in a community of other students is inherently relational. Through our personal prayer practices and through reading and reflecting on the Bible together during our gathered prayer each morning, we try to pay special attention to how Jesus shows up in the world and how he behaves, allowing that to shape our interpretation of his words and, indeed, all the words in the Bible. We attempt to notice, for example, all the ways that Jesus’s love challenges unjust systems while he heals and helps individuals because we are trying to overcome our indoctrination to the harmful individualism of US American culture. Some of the many teachers who influence our approach to the Bible are Ched Myers and Elaine Enns.[3]

Those of us who identify as Christian at Spring Forest hope that our capacity to love well in the way of Jesus will give Jesus a good reputation. Given that we have studied the tragic history of colonization in the name of mission and because many of us have suffered directly from church-sanctioned and -perpetuated patriarchy, racism, classism, queerphobia, xenophobia, and all the other phobias and isms, we know that we have a steep hill to climb to overcome the harm that has been done by the church. That said, we are far more interested in becoming the kinds of disciples the world needs than we are in getting our neighbors to agree to a set of doctrines we believe about God. Our focus on making disciples is more about holding ourselves accountable for how we live so that others will experience divine love through us. This means, to borrow a phrase from Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, we endeavor to practice evangelism (and discipleship) through fascination rather than force.[4]

Our community believes that the land is sacred in its own right and that God speaks to us and loves us through the land. This theology finds an anchor in Franciscan spirituality and Celtic Christianity, among other sources. Many people in our area have longed to be part of a spiritual community that loves the land in these ways. They generally have not turned to the church to find that community because their experience of the inherited church is not one of Christians caring for the earth and its other-than-human inhabitants but a rejection of such priorities as new age or pagan. So it is that in addition to providing healthy produce for people through our CSA and local food banks, our farm provides a welcoming space for people to work on the farm as volunteers or take nature walks with Tim, our resident naturalist. Burned-out clergy can come to Spring Forest to reconnect with God by walking through the forest and spending time with actual sheep and goats. Children’s groups come to Grow It, our weekly young family wellness program. An eclectic group of folks have a drum circle here once a month. People in recovery from trauma come here to breathe. The forest, as Christine Valters Paintner says, is our cathedral. There, the trees, in an intercessory rhythm, breathe in our toxins and breathe out oxygen, giving us life.[5] This land, our place, is sacred. It is a living word of God, new every morning, trembling with life.

All sorts of people come to Spring Forest.  We are United Methodist, but we are ecumenical. Our beloved community includes people of other religions and no religion and more than a few who are allergic to religion. This kind of diversity is made possible by our being, first and foremost, a community of practice rather than a community of dogma.

Some of the visitors to Spring Forest stay for the long haul—they may teach ESL classes or help middle-school girls learn to cook slow food or work to support Indigenous rights. Others visit once or twice, intrigued by the church without a building, the lack of Sunday services, and the general absence of most of the things they have traditionally thought of as church.

“But when are your worship services?” they ask in alarm.

“Morning and evening prayer, Monday through Friday,” we say. “There isn’t a sermon per se, but our reflections on Scripture stay with us throughout the day, and we see so many answers to prayer. We gather on Zoom so people near and far can join in. Oh, and we gather once a month on a Saturday for a potluck dinner and worship. We usually meet outdoors, so it’s called Forest Feast.”

“But what about church? Do you all go to church somewhere?”

“We are a church,” we say. “Everything we do together is church. Some of our folks also attend a Sunday worship service elsewhere—and we collaborate with many other churches in our missions—but we are their through-the-week community; we are the place they work in the soil or help people find jobs or host a drum circle.”

“But what do you do on Sundays?” they persist, with deepening frowns.

“We rest,” we say. “We sleep in a little, take care of the livestock, go for a hike, watch a movie, take naps, eat popcorn.”

“But what about making disciples?” some continue to ask, unable to imagine that word in any way other than getting people to join a Bible study on Wednesday night, go to church on Sunday mornings, and give offerings to sustain the building, the pastor, and programs.

“We are trying to be disciples,” we say. “We hope our lives are compassionate enough and present enough to our neighbors that they will experience God’s love through us. We try to neighbor well. We believe that if we neighbor well, if we love our neighbors as ourselves, with no strings attached, we are doing what Jesus called us to do. We think discipleship is about that. We often have conversations with people about spiritual things. But we let others take the lead in letting us know if they want to talk about God, faith, or the spiritual journey. If they do, we’re happy to have a conversation.”

From time to time someone who joins our beloved community after being formed in the inherited church asks when we are going to create a strategic plan. This well-intended urge comes, usually, from looking at our shoestring budget, the potential for expanding our ministries, and other logistical concerns. When that happens, we have a conversation about our rule of life—that is, prayer, work, table, neighbor—and how those priorities capture our strategic intent. We do not have and steadfastly resist a strategic plan. Our intent is to live as faithfully as we can with a common set of spiritual practices that will help us continue journeying together in the way of Jesus, learning from Jesus and our neighbors as we go.

To start a new thing or stop doing something that no longer works, we often take part in a form of the prayer of examen.[6] “Who and what are coming toward us?” we ask. “Where is energy rising? Where is energy being drained?” We pause to notice and to take stock. If the timing works, people are committed, there are resources available, and the idea aligns with our rule of life, we try the new thing during a pilot season. If it is life-giving and sustainable, we continue it. If not, we celebrate the learning gained and gifts received from the pilot, and we stop doing it. We consciously try to create a shame-free zone around experimentation and innovation in ministry and life in general.

Discernment for us, more broadly, comes through endeavoring to live in a contemplative stance. That means that we try to show up, pay attention, cooperate with God, and release the outcome. We try to practice life together and individually in that posture of flexibility, trust, and love.

Like many other missional communities—Fresh Expressions, new monastic communities, and the like—our beloved community is a laboratory for the church of the future. Whether we last for many years or only for a few, this way of being the church has ruined all of us forever, for fake church. We are a church of sheep and goats, a community of people who are stumbling along, learning to love well, with Jesus guiding us day by day.

[1] The Fresh Expression movement began in 2004 in the United Kingdom in the Church of England with the publication of “The Mission Shaped Church Report” (Archbishops’ Council on Mission and Public Affairs, Mission Shaped Church: Church Planting and Fresh Expressions in a Changed Context [New York, NY: Seabury, 2009]). The movement spread and now exists around the world. For more about Fresh Expressions in the United States, see https://freshexpressions.com/.

[2] For more about regenerative farming, see two recent documentaries: Kiss the Ground, directed by Joshua Tickell and Rebecca Harrell Tickell (2020), https://kissthegroundmovie.com/; and The Biggest Little Farm, directed by John Chester (2018),https://www.biggestlittlefarmmovie.com/.

[3] For more about Myers and Enns, see the Bartimaeus Cooperative Ministries, at https://www.bcm-net.org/.

[4] Wilson-Hartgrove, conversation with author, March 23, 2023. Wilson-Hartgrove credits Gerhard Lohfink’s reading of Genesis as his inspiration for the idea that God uses fascination to get through to people.

[5] See Paintner’s wondrous visual liturgies at https://www.theworkofthepeople.com. There and in numerous books, her nature-centered, Celtic worship resources provide necessary ecofeminist insights for those who seek to honor creation in their worship.

[6] For more about the use of the Ignatian prayer of examen, see Dennis Linn, Matthew Linn, and Sheila Fabricant Linn, Good Goats: Healing Our Image of God (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist, 1993). One of the most popular prayer apps today is based upon Ignatian spirituality and concludes each week with a prayer of examen. See Pray As You Go, https://pray-as-you-go.org/.