During my husband Tom’s final year (my first) in seminary at Duke Divinity School, he sent out an email to our ethics class. We knew that once I graduated we would be leaving Isaiah House of Hospitality and everything we had learned in community; Tom would become a United Methodist pastor in Michigan, where we came from. Within Methodism’s appointment system, we would not get to choose our zip code, much less our community. And we could be moved annually thereafter.
So Tom’s email was both a question and an invitation.
The question: How do we live out a vision for community, downward mobility, and radical hospitality within the itinerant (and sometimes subtly upwardly mobile) system of mainline denominations?
The invitation: If you’re interested in exploring those questions, consider becoming part of a network of clergy and laity who seek to live differently. Specifically, we’ll spend the next year reading and learning and sharing meals monthly; we’ll practice the “marks” or disciplines of simplicity and hospitality; and once appointed to our new locations, we’ll keep one another accountable by staying in regular contact, meeting annually if possible, and inviting others in our local areas to join us.
Oh, and as part of the mark of simplicity, we’ll make it a goal to live at the base salary for clergy in our region—and give the rest away.
Out of 120 students, only a few followed up. Some asked more questions, others commented that living at the base salary was simply impossible (despite the fact that the entire package—including housing, pension, health care, and continuing education—was around $70,000).
But then we heard from some folks who were actually interested in giving it a shot.
So we began meeting for potlucks. We read through books like Rutba House’s Schools for Conversion: 12 Marks of New Monasticism and Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Life Together. We set financial goals to get out of debt and did weird things like share printouts of our actual spending habits. We brainstormed what practicing hospitality could look like in parsonages and how we could build pockets of community wherever we found ourselves.
We took Ron Sider seriously when he, on a visit to Duke, told Tom that we needed to add evangelism to our key practices, so as to create a bridge for folks who might otherwise be leery of what could come across as just another version of leftie politics. Because it’s all about people knowing and following Jesus, which went without saying and yet needed to be said.
We called–and still call–ourselves The Order of Saint James. James, the apostle who insisted on faith in action. James, the disciple who blasted the church’s material complacency. We take the idea of an “order” from various movements throughout Christian history in which small groups have voluntarily joined together to follow a specific rule for the purposes of greater faithfulness and witness, both to the church and the world. They seek to bear prophetic witness, to effect change from the inside out. Starting with themselves. We have just three simple “marks”: simplicity, hospitality, and evangelism, all of which we perform haltingly, hence this experiment known as the year of small things.
When graduation came a year and a half later, we in OSJ scattered across the country. Weeks and months after Tom and I arrived in Lansing, we were still in culture shock–despite the loving church family we had just been given. And that’s when things got real. That’s when we began to realize we didn’t just like the idea of The Order of Saint James: we needed the community, the accountability, the reminder that we weren’t crazy for seeking downward mobility.
Does the dishwasher thing make sense now? All these decisions were fraught with theological angst that we were going to have to discuss with other angst-ridden friends. And meanwhile our church family, while amazing on so many levels, did not need to hear about it week after week. We needed local accountability and brainstorming on a small scale, just one family, maybe. Something.
That’s about when Erin and Dave showed up. They weren’t weirded out by the transparency nor the downward mobility thing, so we invited them to join The Order of St. James. Every other month or so, a spouse from each family will work out technical issues of group video chats (while the other spouse works hard to put the kids to sleep). From Vermont and Tennessee to Michigan, we pick one of our themes and ask simply “how’s that going?”
Struggles and laments and joy are shared over that sketchy video; we end with a prayer from The Book of Common Prayer. Then we set a date for the next call: that easy, that hard.
Years after Tom’s original email, his intent is ours: is downward mobility, evangelism. and radical hospitality possible in our contexts still? Where else can we grow?
The year of small things experiments try to answer that last question. We devoted a year to explore and (re-)implement twelve Christian practices, informed by the movement known as new monasticism, that will help translate our original vision into our current contexts.
And now, we’re inviting you to join us in a year-long experiment. Start a local movement, right where you are.
One year. Twelve small things. …
Up for it? Stick around.
Sarah Arthur and her husband, Tom, moved to Lansing, MI in 2009 after they graduated from Duke Divinity School. Expanded from the book The Year of Small Things: Radical Faith for the Rest of Us (Brazos Press, 2017).