The Center for Nature and Christian Spirituality

By Christopher Peck

I’d like to introduce you to a new program founded by my client, Nancy Wiens: the Center for Nature and Christian Spirituality. CNCS is a collaboration between Westminster Woods Christian Camp and the San Francisco Theological Seminary, and represents an exciting alternative financial model and educational program. For young adults aged 22-30, the program provides a fantastic, eleven-month, living and learning experience in a residential intentional community, with very little cash exchanged. Designed to be “budget cut proof,” the program includes an incredible array of learning opportunities, including an environmental education apprenticeship, challenge course leadership certification, permaculture certification, holistic financial planning (led by yours truly), a wilderness rite of passage, wilderness first responder certification, and last but not least, the Spirituality Concentration at San Francisco Theological Seminary, which includes 8 graduate level credits.

The financial model Nancy developed allows the program to offer an unprecedented value to the apprentices and the collaborators, on a shoestring cash budget. The apprentices receive educational programs and in exchange they work for the providing institutions, adding value in a variety of ways. For example, I taught a Holistic Financial Planning workshop for the apprentices and they returned to our small farm and helped us install a rain garden and rehabilitate the small creek that flows through our property. Meaningful value was exchanged instead of cash.

Nancy is an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (USA) with an interdisciplinary Ph.D. in Christian spirituality, ritual studies, and the dialogue between theology and science. Her primary goal is to help people “deepen their relationship with God and respond to God’s calling more fully in their lives.” I had an opportunity to speak with Nancy recently and ask her a few questions.What was your inspiration for developing this program?

Some colleagues and I noticed that many young adults struggle with their faith after high school. These struggles take different forms: moving out of their childhood homes, or taking science classes in college which present the view that science is in conflict with faith, or not finding Christian communities in which they experience a vital practice of faith. The struggles often lead to them exiting the church and putting their spiritual growth on the shelf. Having their own children or a life crisis may bring them back to church someday. But in the meantime, they may choose careers and develop life habits that do not reflect their own faith or beliefs. Young adults often don’t have adult skills, and don’t have spiritual formation skills to find meaning in life’s experiences. We want to address those unmet needs underneath their exodus from the church, especially helping them to discern their vocations and to experience the companionship of Christian community.

The other part of the inspiration relates to nature. People have profound experiences in nature that refresh and transform them, but they do not connect those experiences with the powerful presence of God acting in and through creation. Not having the two being in dialogue is emaciating. Or they find deep commitments to ecological issues but do not connect to any theology of hope and thus get burned out or cynical. Therefore, the nature focus of the program includes a hands-on approach to practical skills in nature, a theology of nature shaped by Christian hope, and an understandable way to live as a Christian with a worldview shaped by contemporary science.

How did you figure out the financial model for CNCS?

In the spring of 2008 I was in the Louisville airport, hearing all the economic news: instability, insecurity, and crisis talk, and I thought, “I don’t want to create a program that any budget committee could cut.” That led me to, “If money flow

isn’t an option, how else would programs happen? What if the program didn’t rely on cash but on work exchange?” From doing my financial planning, I knew I didn’t have a life style that depended on a huge salary; by keeping my expenses way down, I could make it happen. Without a big salary budget line, the primary expenses are room and board and then the programs, and those expenses could be met by work exchange.

The financial model is built on how I understand God’s economy to work. It has nothing to do with supply and demand or zero-sum game. It has everything to do with expansive creativity and the kids’ song “Magic Penny:”

Love is something if you give it away, give it away, give it away. Love is something if you give it away, you’ll end up having more. It’s just like a magic penny. Hold it tight and you won’t have any. [Share it, exchange it], you’ll have so many, [The world will be transformed].

When the common economy is unstable and unsustainable, it encourages me even more to follow the biblical invitation to depend on God first and foremost. That invitation beckons me to pour my creative energies into something I sense reflects God’s economic model of enough for all. Tithing was also essential. Tithing takes 10% off the top, and then you work with what’s left. It helps keep money as a tool, not having money dictate what you can do, but having it serve us.

One more thing; when I was teaching at Dominican University (in Marin County, CA), I had students participate in Service Learning practicums, so I’d seen how work exchange could be so valuable for students. The work exchange isn’t just an economic exchange; the students understand and integrate what they’re learning through their lived experience. That way, it’s work exchange AND practicum.

What do you see as the chief outcome of a program like this? Is there one overarching outcome you’re seeking?

Well, a chief outcome is hard since the program is so holistic. If I had to pick one, my deepest longing would be that the apprentices leave with a deeper sense of their identity as the Beloved of God and of their calling in the world, so that they are empowered to actively partner with God. I believe that happens through the spiritual practice of finding God in all things and noticing where that presence intersects with one’s deep passions. There is the place where one can be alive in the world in just and creative life-giving ways, which look like “loving God and loving your neighbor as yourself,” where neighbor includes the entirety of creation. I think that is what Jesus’ life and ministry were about and what the Holy Spirit continues to inspire in each moment – the embodied vision of a life-giving, transforming, inspiring God.

For more, see www.westminsterwoods.org/cncs/

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Christopher Peck

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