Our church is starting a new hiking initiative that may even grow into a new expression of Church. We’re so invested in the possibility we’re getting special training for it. But we’re not sending our pastor, we’re sending one of our church members.

In Southwest Virginia, where our community is located, the landscape is rich with hiking trails, including numerous access points to the Appalachian Trail, all within a short drive. Despite the great outdoors being literally in my backyard, I do not frequently engage in hiking.

Yet, it’s not difficult to recognize through social media posts and conversations catching up about one’s weekend that a significant number of people cherish the hiking experience. Furthermore, a lot of people find that spending time in nature and amidst creation holds significant meaning and serves as a pathway for connecting with God.

Around six months ago, a colleague proposed the idea of organizing silent hikes for our community. The suggestion didn’t come from our church’s paid pastoral staff, but from one of our members and an avid hiker, Emma. When Emma proposed the idea, it was an easy “yes.” She had recognized the outdoor interests of many in our region, and she was keen to lead and innovate, and see if her spiritual approach to the outdoors captured the interest of others.

“Permission Giving” is Leadership

What separates Jesus-followers, whose sense of mission leads them to start new things, and other kinds of entrepreneurs and initiators is a three-pronged approach to “listening:” Listening for the Holy Spirit, listening to the needs of our neighbors, and listening alongside our church community.

Listening is a pivotal element for a pastor or church leader who hopes their congregation will embrace new approaches to church. Much of our ministry begins with the simple yet profound act of listening, setting the stage for deeper engagement and understanding. However, making listening a primary leadership strategy is not always natural. Church leaders, who have the distractions of various ministry activities, can often feel the pressure to act swiftly and by themselves.

If a church is going to try new things, leaders have to change their approach from doing everything to becoming “permission givers,” and cultivating the practice of intentional listening. This entails paying close attention not only to the voices of our leaders and congregation but also to the wider community we serve. Listening goes beyond auditory engagement; it also involves keen visual perception, prompting us to ask, “Where is God actively working in our environment?”

When Emma suggested the idea of silent hikes, she was demonstrating her own experience of listening to the needs of her community, and for the voice of the Holy Spirit. As permission-giving leaders, we are trying to listen to our Emmas. We show we are listening by helping her not only to develop her idea of silent hiking experiences, but also to provide her with training that will help her deepen and grow her ministry.

The First Hikes

The first hike took place last fall, initiated by Emma making a simple invite to friends and fellow hikers. “I’m excited to explore something new through a reflective prayer hike and would be delighted for you to join.”  This invitation makes it clear that she is asking others to help her experiment with providing an opportunity to engage with nature,  reflectivity, and spiritual connection.

The hike started with a time of centering (eyes closed, deep breaths, & release from distracting thoughts) while picturing God present as the hike begins.  From there, hikers stopped about every 10 minutes for a discussion. They also were prompted to pay attention to each of their five senses and consider the ways God was interacting with them during the hike. 

Recently, a hike was offered in the lenten season which offered time for silent personal prayer followed by a time for noticing new life springing forth in the surroundings and where God might be bringing new life. On the way down, hikers shared where they’ve been wanting to see God’s grace and participated in a communal response from Psalm 139.

These initial silent experiences have been well received and encourage Emma to continue.

What Training Do Others Need?

Our experience with Emma has led me to reflect on the importance of listening in my pastoral leadership. It makes me wonder what our church would be like if leaders focused more on being permission givers, who not only say “yes” but also provide opportunities for others to receive training and development. 

Recently, I have tried to be attentive to the training opportunities that “come across my desk” (oracross my screen). I recognize that I don’t need to say “YES!” to each one. But, I also don’t need to immediately delete them either. 

Each webinar, training, etc., warrants consideration: “Is this opportunity fitting for someone else?”

When I learned about Fresh Expressions’ Outdoor Immersion scheduled for this May in North Carolina, it resonated with me as an ideal fit for Emma. We are already doing a little experimenting, but I’m confident we still have a ton to learn from Luke and Wayner who have been practicing church outdoors for years.

Why should our church invest in training someone like Emma? Our hope is that  build upon the passion that led her to start our silent hikes. We want to give her a space to bounce ideas, brainstorm specific contexts and even experiment in the moment.  While our church staff and leadership is excited for what Emma is doing, the Immersion will provide a unique camaraderie with other outdoor enthusiasts, and meaningful relationships that lasted beyond the time in May.

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Jeanette Staats
About the Author

Jeanette Staats

Jeanette has over 20 years of diverse experience in collegiate ministry, specializing in general oversight, staff coaching and development, children's ministry, and discipleship. She holds a B.A. in English with an emphasis in Professional Writing from Virginia Tech and a Graduate Certificate in Theological Studies from the John Leland Center for Theological Studies. She also serves on the board for The Ecclesia Network. Jeanette is an avid Hokie fan and rarely misses an opportunity to watch a collegiate sporting event.