To hear Nancy Wiens speak about the beginnings of the Center for Nature and Christian Spirituality is like seeing a tapestry being woven — each thread being drawn in to contribute to the design of the larger whole.
“There are many strands of its composition, actually,” said Wiens, the center’s director and co-founder. The center is a partnership between San Francisco Theological Seminary and Westminster Woods, a Presbyterian camp and conference center.
One strand was Wiens’ involvement with the Youth Ministry and Spirituality Project, a Lily-funded program between SFTS and Youth Specialties that sought to integrate spiritual practices within youth ministry.
“One of the things that we found was that young people, particularly youth, were developing powerful relationships with their youth leaders but not necessarily having a firsthand experience with God,” Wiens said.
Another thread was her work with the PC(USA)’s Young Adult Volunteer program, and hearing from its leaders how many pieces of these young adults’ lives seemed to be missing.
“What I observed in working with these YAVs were these gaps in adult skills — what is my relationship with money, my body, technology, food, sexuality, adulthood?” Many of them, Wiens observed, didn’t want to be an adult — someone they defined as ‘not having any fun or any friends and working all the time.’
“I was also exposed to many young people who thought that they could either connect with nature or connect with the church — that it had to be either or,” said Wiens, noting that though we have a rich theology of Creator, our theology of creation is often lacking.
So, as she considered these factors, Wiens began to attend to the various connections that she had within her life, realizing that they too had a variety of needs that were not being met.
“I noticed that Westminster Woods had a need for a young adult ministry,” she said.
Though the camp, located about an hour north of San Francisco, has strong programs for children, youth and adults, there was a gap in terms of young adult ministry.
“I also began to recognize the need for a contemplative presence at the Woods that would support the connection between their Christian ministry and their ecological work,” Wiens said.
As a graduate of San Francisco Theological Seminary’s Spiritual Direction program, Wiens also had a connection with the San Anselmo-based campus.
“SFTS is in a beautiful place — the bio regions are some of the most diverse in the world,” said Wiens. But that biodiversity is under threat by invasive non-native plants which are increasing fire danger as well as a threat to the soil that supports the well-known redwood trees.
“What I did was attend to a variety of needs — both ecological and spiritual, and ask, how can we partner these things? How can all these pieces come together?”
Wiens, together with Sheila Denton, executive director of Westminster Woods, and Sam Hamilton-Poore, director of the Program of Spirituality at SFTS, began a process of discernment.
The result was the Center for Nature and Christian Spirituality. At its core is an 11-month apprenticeship in nature and Christian spiritual formation that seeks to provide young adults with a grounding in discernment, vocation, practical skills in nature and an experience of living in intentional community.
“The year is spent with them developing discernment skills about their particular gifts and their own unique ways of living out God’s calling in real time, in light of what is happening socially and economically in the world,” Wiens said.
Apprentices live and work at Westminster Woods and attend courses at SFTS one day a week.
“The intention is to help young people develop, mature and grow in ways that they will be able to be adult Christians in the world,” Wiens said.
The word apprenticeship is used intentionally.
“This is not an internship,” Wiens said. “This is a way of being, a lifestyle that we hope is responsive to the gospel and to the movement of the Spirit in contemplative life. We are asking them to look at their entire life and how it is responding to God’s call.”
Much of this holistic perspective comes from two of the main strands running through the program — permaculture and contemplation.
“Permaculture design is a way of organizing and designing all kinds of things — home or garden or your own personal lifestyle — that takes into account the impact on people, the earth and social justice,” Wiens said. The centerpiece of permaculture is a thoughtful and protracted observation.
“This is, of course, taking a long loving look at the ‘real’ — the contemplative approach,” she said. “Contemplation doesn’t mean only sitting around in a dark room, but how can we be contemplatives in action in the world?”
Interested in an apprenticeship with the CNCS? Applications for the 2012-2013 year are due in April 2012. More information can be found on the center’s website.
Erin Dunigan is a freelance writer, photographer, and pastor who lives in a small coastal community in Baja California, Mexico when she is not following her wanderlust out into the world.