A perspective on our history
The following letter was developed by a group of men and women leaders in the North American region of the Sword of the Spirit. The letter contains some thoughts on our history and some of the changes we have made in our approaches over the past thirty years.
This letter does not provide a comprehensive discussion of all of the specific changes we have made, nor does it address our current situation related to the heartbreaking allegations of sexual abuse and the civil cases that are ongoing in Michigan. These are being addressed in other SOS communications.
Our purpose in sharing the following letter is more limited. Our goals are twofold:
- to address specific questions that have come from members, friends, and some of our critics;
- to provide a broad overview of the evolution of some SOS practices and approaches over our fifty-year history.
Our movement is not a perfect movement, nor are we perfect people—far from it. We hope the attached may in some small way trace our always imperfect attempts to change and faithfully respond to God’s call. May we all grow in charity, humility, and love for God’s people as we continue to serve him as disciples of Jesus and members of the Sword of the Spirit.
August 2, 2023
Dear friend in Christ,
We are writing this letter to you since we were asked to explain certain developments in the history of the Sword of the Spirit (SOS). Years ago, these developments were discussed with the members of the established communities in the SOS. Some of these developments were briefly noted in our publication entitled I Will Pour Out My Spirit, which was released during our 50th year anniversary. However, since that book only provides an overview history, this letter is intended to provide you with supplemental material, specifically:
- changes that were implemented in the SOS in response to what some have called the ‘difficult decade’, over 30 years ago;
- encouraging signs and developments in the SOS that have emerged in the last decade or so.
The 1970’s and 1980’s: Rapid Growth and Youthful Zeal
In the early 1970’s covenant communities grew out the Charismatic Renewal. During those years, many blessings emerged: conversions, ministries, healings, publications, conferences and outreaches, alongside a new understanding of the call to evangelize. It was a time of unbounded hope and rapid growth. The SOS emerged as an international federation of covenant communities that began in 1983 as an effort to encourage and unite communities that were developing out of this movement. By the 1990’s, it had grown to 16 communities world-wide.
At the same time, there were also pastoral practices and mistakes made that hurt members in some of our communities. These included an approach to pastoral care that was overreaching at times, an overemphasis on pastoral authority, a certain elitism, a lack of understanding of how peer pressure worked, an insufficient focus on integrating with our local parishes or congregations, and an overly prescriptive approach to men’s and women’s roles. There were real issues in various communities that needed to be addressed. To any current and former members who were hurt by any of these practices, we want to express our sorrow and ask your forgiveness.
The issues were not the same in every community. Nonetheless, it is a reality we do not deny, one which led to a time of turmoil in the covenant community movement in the late 80’s and early 90’s. During these difficult years, we learned that the enthusiasm we felt for what God was doing in us and among us had to be tempered with greater humility and balanced with wisdom and prudence. Part of this was due to our youthfulness: many of our early leaders were in their 20’s and early 30’s. The SOS is now fifty years old and has gained not only a bit more wisdom but also some knowledge and experience. We have been implementing a set of best practices in the intervening years. That being said, we deeply regret any problems caused by errors of the past and want to embrace healing and reconciliation in any relationships wherever we can.
The Early 1990’s: Implementing Limits to Authority
The turmoil prompted the SOS to make a set of decisions and changes, beginning in 1991. These changes sought to address areas of our life that needed reform and greater balance. Among these changes were the following:
- Less centralization. We implemented a more decentralized form of governance which makes each community responsible for its own life. The SOS has no authority to dictate changes to local communities. We value the additional autonomy that each community has, even if it comes at a cost of making agreements and decisions more slowly.
- Local Autonomy. As a corollary to decentralization, the principle of subsidiarity was strengthened. Community decisions are made locally, even while there are aspects of our life that are shared internationally.
- Ecumenism. We seek to help all our members understand and apply best practices regarding ecumenism. This includes avoiding a “least common denominator” approach to ecumenism. All of our members commit to participate actively in the life of their parish or congregation. This is not optional for our members. For our ecumenical communities, we offer a course that outlines the beauty, opportunities, challenges and limits of our ecumenical call. And for our Catholic communities, we offer conferences on the Catholic Church’s teaching on ecumenism with much attention given to The Second Vatican Council’s Decree on Ecumenism as well as St. John Paul II’s Ut Unum Sint.
Late 1990’s: Further Implementation of Changes
And the SOS has continued to evolve significantly since then. The following areas have been strengthened:
- Participation in Major Decisions. We determined that foundational decisions or commitments can only be changed by the approval of a majority of community members. For instance, the document outlining our commitments to the SOS was approved by 96% of the individual members in 1995.
- Clarifying Pastoral Care. We clarified our pastoral approach so that it emphasizes walking alongside one another in a supportive way. It reflects a form of accompaniment whereby disciples walk alongside and encourage each other. We revised our pastoral workers training courses to emphasize the need for acknowledgment of the individual’s discernment and autonomy in order to reflect this understanding.
- Marriage and Family Life. We highlighted deeper respect for the primacy and sanctity of the marriage bond and the freedom of the husband and wife to make decisions for the good of their family over and above what they have agreed to in our covenant (e.g., family prayer, honoring the Lord’s Day, and regular communication with one’s spouse). We recognize that, in the past, as couples began to date and prepare for marriage, our approach was at times overly reactive to contemporary trends. While upholding an ideal of purity, our pastoral care in this area has become more respectful of the role of attraction and personal discernment in choosing a spouse. We are encouraged that in our fifty-year history, our marriage success rate is about 97%.
- Balance Between Zeal and Wisdom. The history of religious communities throughout Christianity reveals the dynamic tension between those members who desire a high level of commitment and those who do not find that kind of intensity life-giving. In the development of communities suited to the demands of the lay person in the world, we have had to wrestle with this tension. The early years were fraught with ideals unattainable for many of our members. A more moderate approach has been taken to our way of life. We began to use the word “adequate” to describe our way of living community life: we are called to live this life adequately and not put pressure on people to try to do something they do not feel called or equipped to do.
Today: Nuancing Our Approaches and Dealing with New Issues
- Safeguarding Our Children. All SOS communities have committed themselves to establish and implement comprehensive safeguarding policies within their communities and outreaches. Communities and outreaches must follow the laws of the countries in which they reside, without exception. Those working with children must be trained and undergo/submit to background checks. These policies were written with outside expertise by both men and women.
- Elections of Leaders and the Process of Appeal. Full member communities (those who have been through a process of formation and discernment, as distinct from communities considering membership in the SOS) have implemented a voting process for senior coordinators (overall local community leaders): the senior coordinator is elected by the members of each local community. Members also have the right to appeal decisions made by their local leaders, using an agreed upon process.
- Age and Term Limits. Members of the International Executive Committee of the SOS and the presidents of each of the Regions in SOS (North America, Europe/Middle East, Ibero-Americana, and Asia) must relinquish their positions by the end of their 70th year. Establishing this example at the international level is intended to be an encouragement to the local communities to make similar decisions. Discussions on term limits are currently underway, with a number of communities having already implemented them for their senior leaders.
- Women in Leadership. We highly value the contribution of women in our communities. In order to more fully incorporate the perspective and gifting of our women leaders, and to strengthen collaboration with men leaders, we have more broadly integrated women into leadership decision-making.
We believe that SOS has more balanced pastoral practices today than we did in the early years of our life together. Just as people mature over the course of fifty years, this has been the case in SOS. We have moved away from being more hierarchical to a leadership style that emphasizes fraternity and being brothers and sisters to one another. If there remain any unhelpful practices or cultural patterns still in effect, we want to change them so that all may live in the freedom of the sons and daughters of God. We want to be faithful to the call the Lord has given us in the SOS and to embrace change, address concerns, and evolve as the Lord desires.
A Broader Perspective: Christianity and Charismatic Communities
Many Christian churches have found value and beauty in the covenant community movement. Today, many of our well-established communities enjoy strong relationships and support from leaders of different Christian traditions. Most of our relationships with other Christian leaders take place locally, and these grassroots expressions are perhaps the most important for our life, but there are also some prominent ways our movement has begun to serve the broader church. For example, many of our members being Catholic, we are pleased that the Vatican Dicastery for Family Life, under the direction of Pope Francis, invited Jean Barbara, President of SOS, to serve on the Charis board, consisting of 24 leaders who serve the Charismatic Renewal in all its diversity throughout the world. Jean was invited precisely because of his leadership in SOS.
Our aim as members of our churches in the SOS is to build up and strengthen Christianity at large. Today, community members serve their congregations and parishes in many ways: as pastors, deacons, teachers, and bible study leaders. As of now, more than seventy-five men and women have dedicated themselves to the Lord through a commitment to lifelong celibacy in both ecumenical and Catholic environments. Others serve as educators and administrators in Christian grade schools and high schools, as professors in colleges, universities, and seminaries. Members serve in lay adult discipleship formation programs, on church staffs, as retreat leaders, and as advocates in the pro-life movement. All SOS members are encouraged to build the Lord’s kingdom in the context of our churches through a witness of holy lives, personal testimony, and loving others.
Lay Renewal Movements Are Part of What God is Doing
Many lay renewal movements arose in the 20th century and have flourished since then. While we are encouraged by this, we also acknowledge that our Lord calls each person to holiness in a variety of ways. Most Christians may not feel called to join a charismatic community and will live their faith beautifully in other contexts or movements. We are simply part of the great work that God is about in the world today. As the Lord has impressed upon us time and time again, “You are a part and not the whole.” Yes, we are perhaps a small part of what the Lord is doing among his people today, but everything that the Lord does has a place in his kingdom.
And so we are grateful to have been called by the Lord to be members of the SOS, deeply aware that it is the Lord’s mercy that carried us through our early years so full of zeal, to the humbling and challenging years that prompted needed changes and maturation. We are likewise grateful to the many friends and Christian leaders who have advised and assisted us in our development, and we are eager for new ways the Lord needs to form and refine us in the years to come. With hope in the Lord, and by His grace, we continue on living a life of committed, loving relationships that impel us to reach out to a world so in need of the saving, liberating presence of Emmanuel: God with us.
With continued prayers,
Sword of the Spirit North American leadership team