Our Beginnings in Christian Covenant Community Part 2: From Prayer Group to Community

To trace the transformation from prayer group to covenant community, we need to go back a few years, to 1964, and view the development of the Cursillo group at the University of Notre Dame. It was telling that from the beginning, the participants in the group saw Christian community as the goal of their apostolic work. In the “Pastoral Plan” drawn there in September 1964, the group including George Martin and Steve Clark notes that while all Christians are part of the Christian community by baptism, they are not conscious of this reality. “Thus it is most important to live this Christian community life and to bring others to participate in it actively.”[1]

For participants in the Cursillo movement, the Cursillo weekend, although the best-known part of the program, was meant to be only the beginning of a life lived for Christ. It was not to be lived alone. Cursillo also includes the ultreya, a regular, somewhat larger meeting of Cursillo members, and the grupo or group reunion, a weekly meeting of a small group in which the people share their spiritual life and apostolic work. Thus Cursillo was intended to create a certain kind of community. 

When Ralph Martin and Steve Clark went to work in East Lansing, they took this Cursillo vision of Christian community with them. They developed a plan for Catholics at Michigan State University similar to those for Notre Dame and its various dormitories. Their focus at that time was Catholics because they were working for the Catholic chaplaincy on campus. The Antioch Weekend (originally called the Study Weekend) was to provide the initial conversion, and then ongoing follow up was to be provided by the same Cursillo-type large and small group meetings.

Both at Notre Dame and in East Lansing, the advent of the charismatic renewal became the glue that held people together in community. First Corinthians 13 reminds us that the greatest gift of the Holy Spirit is self-sacrificing love, and without love, community cannot exist. Being baptized in the Holy Spirit released in those who experienced it not only the more visible gifts like speaking in tongues and prophecy, but also gave them a new power to love. When one of the participants in the Duquesne weekend, Karen Sefcik, was being baptized in the Holy Spirit, she felt the Lord give her the word “community.” She wrote later, “I resisted that word because I thought it meant I was to become a nun, and at that moment such a notion was far from my plans. I realize now that God was showing me that he was dealing with us as a people, a community, not just as individuals.”[2]

The unity among those who had been baptized in the Holy Spirit was founded on the bonds of friendship and common commitment that already joined them together, as well as on the natural ties that arise when a circle of friends share a new and, in the beginning, rather unusual experience; but the Holy Spirit gave them power to realize the goal of Christian community that they had been seeking.

As recounted in part one, Ralph Martin and Steve Clark arrived in Ann Arbor in September 1967, along with Jim Cavnar and Gerry Rauch. They set about doing evangelistic work through St. Mary’s Student Center on the campus of the University of Michigan. There were already students in Ann Arbor who had been baptized in the Holy Spirit through the Days of Renewal in Williamston, near Lansing. On Thursday, 16 November the four men invited others and held their first prayer meeting at the apartment they were renting. The prayer meeting, held regularly on Thursday evenings, grew quickly, filling the living room, the bedrooms, and finally even the bathroom. Pressed for space as the numbers grew, the leaders asked the St. Mary’s Newman Center for the use of their basement, and the prayer meetings moved there. The original four were joined by Fr. Charles Harris, from Notre Dame, and a group of other young men and women devoted to evangelism on campus, including Peter Collins and Patti Gallagher (Mansfield).

Around this group, an informal but recognizable community developed, mostly Catholic and mostly students, from Ann Arbor, joined by others from Detroit and its suburbs. By the end of 1968, attendance at the Thursday prayer meetings had grown to around 175. In December 1968, Steve Clark wrote what he called a “state of the union” message for Fr. Harris and some of the other leaders, discussing the progress of the mission and the prospects for its future. He proposed that the fourteen leaders of the group should be organized into teams, each with a particular concern. He urged that Fr. Harris should take overall responsibility as “overall coordinator,” or that the position should rotate: until then, Clark had been the de facto leader. He also suggested that there be a meeting “other than Thursday, to which we only invite students who have received the baptism, which would be a chance to grow in the life of the Spirit…. It could be a focus for a creation of a sense of community among the regulars, too.”[3] He also proposed small “growth groups” similar to Cursillo group reunions, to facilitate growth in the Christian life among the students they contacted, and smaller prayer meetings for study in university dormitories and other situations. He also proposed that more people should be added to the leadership group, and he suggested that there be special groups to train students who appeared to have gifts for pastoral work.

The next year, 1969, a “Pastoral Report” describes the Catholic Pentecostal Community in Ann Arbor as it was in April of that year. Three hundred people were attending the Thursday prayer meetings and seventy-five were attending the Monday evening prayer meeting for those who had become regular members of the community.[4] The report identifies several “local groupings” – houses and university dormitory groupings – and fourteen small group reunions of men and women.[5] On 17 July 1969, the leadership group adopted a number of decisions that for the first time defined the “structure of the community.” It called for providing instruction “before praying over people for the baptism in Spirit,” having people make “a definite commitment to the community,” having two weekly meetings (the Monday and Thursday night meetings) and one meeting for a “regular leaders group.” Part of the role of the leaders was to provide leadership for “sub-communities” within the community. The leadership group, now consisting of the original four men plus Peter Collins and Randy Cirner, began to identify more leaders who could begin to take pastoral roles.[6]

In August 1969, the community held a retreat at Camp Takona (on Clear Lake west of Ann Arbor), where the six principal leaders presented their proposals for the community structure and an orderly process of bringing people into life in Christ and becoming part of the community. The retreat was an opportunity to consult with the members, seventy-five of whom attended, concerning the leadership group that had been identified by the principal leaders during the summer.[7] The community approved the plan in its various parts, and in the months that followed an ongoing council was established with which the leaders could consult on the direction of the community. 

Considering the process of initiation into the community led to developments in teaching that eventually reached far beyond Ann Arbor. The leaders of the community developed a six-week (later seven-week) course to prepare people to be baptized in the Spirit, a course entitled the “Life in the Spirit Seminars.” The course was the work of the whole group and taught by a team under the leadership of Ralph Martin. The materials were put in a final form by Steve Clark and eventually published in 1971 as the Life in the Spirit Seminars Team Manual. The seminars have led many people throughout the world to new life in the Holy Spirit and are still in use today.[8] Steve Clark also led the team in developing a course on “The Foundations of Christian Living” which was taught to people entering the community, following their participation in the Life in the Spirit Seminars. This is the Foundations (or Foundations I) course still in use in communities around the world. 

The pastoral report in April 1970 describes these courses. At that time, the number of interested new people was so great that a new seven-week series of Life in the Spirit Seminars was beginning every week, rapidly adding to the number of those baptized in the Holy Spirit. By the time of the report, the Foundations course, “designed to impart basic attitudes on how to live as a Christian” had been taught twice – each time to a group of about thirty. There were now 155 members of the “core community” of whom 115 were registered students. “Only about 10” were over thirty years of age.[9] The report identified as “sub-communities” units of members that had been called “local groupings” the year before. As might be expected in a community consisting mostly of students, many of them were dormitory groups, but the report also notes a demographic change. A new “sub-community” had developed in the residential homes near St. Mary’s chapel where a number of newly married couples now lived. The report expected that “next year there will be a least five married couples living in the neighborhood.”[10] Slowly, the community was changing from an endeavor among university students to a more mature group with families. The first child born into the community, Ralph and Anne Martin’s son John, was born in April 1971. 

“Covenant” community

The introduction of covenant into the life of community was not merely incidental. As we have seen, community was something that had been intended and foreseen from the Cursillo days at Notre Dame. When the Ann Arbor community began receiving prophetic words during 1970 speaking of a covenant, however, the leaders and the community were puzzled. Many of them were trained in theology and Scripture and were of course familiar with the word. God had made a covenant with Israel, and Christ was the “priest of a new covenant.” But what did it mean to say that God wanted to make a covenant with them as a people? What did “covenant” mean in the context of a Christian community? As they studied the scriptural references, a new dimension of their call to community emerged. This perspective was crucial to their identity not merely as a community, but as a covenant community.

First of all, they noted from Scripture that the call to covenant was at God’s initiative. This perspective indicated that they as a community were something God was calling into being, and in which they were to be formed by God himself. They were to approach their life together as something which was an instance of the New Covenant in Christ. Community may have been their idea, but covenant was God’s idea. From the charismatic experience they were already accustomed as individuals to the experience of God taking initiative in their lives; the same activity of the Holy Spirit that had called each of them to live for God now was at work in them as a community.

This call was also a call to mission. The covenant was a call to dedicate themselves to the service of God not merely as individuals but as members of a body within the larger Body of Christ, the whole Christian people. It was becoming clear from prophetic words and from their study of Scripture that God had a purpose in calling them together, a work for them to do in the world. The nature of this mission was first of all to receive God’s direction and then to follow it. It involved calling men and women to Christ and sharing with them the life in the Holy Spirit. 

The covenant with God also involved a covenant relationship among themselves. They were to love one another with a love founded in a common calling. They were brothers and sisters in Christ, a relationship they shared with all other Christians, but by entering into the community covenant they were brothers and sisters with one another in a special way, bound to one another in a bond created by God as his own initiative. Commitment to the covenant was to involve commitment to a particular group of brothers and sisters. The mutual commitment that was the heart of covenant preceded the details of a way of life or a specific mission. 

A prophetic call and name

These implications of covenant were not immediately apparent but became clearer as the community began to search for a name. As the community leaders pondered how to respond to the call to covenant, they faced a practical problem: how to refer to the community that was forming. It had no name other than “the Ann Arbor Pentecostal Community” which hardly seemed adequate. Just as Abraham’s name was central to his call from God and closely related to God’s covenant with him, the question of the name also became the catalyst for the formation of a covenant community. 

Here are excerpts of Steve Clark’s account of the naming of the community that dates from July 1970. Although no community in the Sword of the Spirit currently has the name The Word of God, this account of receiving the name has resonance for all of us because it speaks of a larger call of us in the Sword of the Spirit – what the Lord wants us to be as a community of communities in the world today.

The Naming of the Community

The more we grew, the more others needed to have something to call us. The more the Lord made us into a definite people, the more we needed a name of our own.

Some people within the community began to pray and talk about the name. At two community meetings in July, the need for a name was discussed and different names were suggested. At the second meeting (7/20/70) [20 July 1970] in which we considered the name, the two most likely suggestions seemed to be “Community of the Savior” and “Community of the Resurrection”. At the last moment, another name, “Community of The Word of God” was added because of a passage that had been prayed for about the name. The passage was:

“And now I saw heaven open, and a white horse appear; its rider was called Faithful and True; he is a judge with integrity, a warrior for justice. His eyes were flames of fire, and his head was crowned with many coronets; the name written on him was known only to himself; his cloak was soaked in blood. He is known by the name, The Word of God. Behind him, dressed in linen of dazzling white, rode the armies of heaven on white horses. From his mouth came a sharp sword to strike the pagans with; he is the one who will rule them with an iron scepter and tread out the wine of Almighty God’s fierce anger. On his cloak and on his thigh there was a name written: The King of kings and the Lord of lords” (Revelation 19:11-18).

Then, right at the end of the meeting, two prophecies were given. The message of the first was, “You are my people. I formed you – you are mine, therefore, you shall be called by my own name.”

In the second prophecy the Lord told us that we were taking the question of the name too lightly. Our name was important. We had to seek the Lord to find our name, because he wanted to give us a name himself. The name he would give us would have a powerful anointing on it, so that all who heard it would know that God was with us….

At the end of that meeting, we felt that the Lord had not yet given us a name because we had not sought him enough. We were not earnest enough about it. “Seek the Lord and seek his strength, seek his presence continually. Let the hearts of those who seek the Lord rejoice.” We set aside a special day of prayer and fasting (8/3) [3 August], and gathered together to seek the Lord – not so much to ask for the name, but to present ourselves to him and let him speak to us and show us how we should be before him. He told us of his love for us, and how we needed to be purified, and then, he spoke to us through this prophecy:

“Listen to me; listen carefully to me, so that you can believe the promises that I make to you. The promises which I make to you are far beyond your comprehension – listen to me so that you can believe them. My promises are certain.

I, and those who are with me, call you ‘The Word of God’ … I have called you and I have created you, not for your own sake, but for my sake … Therefore, this is my word to you. You have been first in all of my thoughts; have I been first in all of your thoughts? I have in every way come to you; have you in every way come to me? I have poured myself out to you, and given myself to you, without reserve; have you given yourselves entirely to me? Seek me. I have already sought you. Look to me. Make me first in your lives. I have become your God, and I have made you my people. Look to me. Seek me.”

During the week after, the Lord spoke to us a number of times confirming the prophecy. He had told us before that he was going to do a special work through us, and it would be a work that would endure. But during this week, he said that there had been nothing else like what he would do with us, and we must turn to him and be purified and made ready for this work….

By giving us such a name, the Lord declared that he is changing us from just being a collection of people to being the presence of Jesus here. It is not the community that man should see, but the Lord himself. “The glory which you have given me, Father, I have given to them, that they may be one, even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you have sent them and have loved them even as you have loved me” (John 17:22-23).

The community went on retreat 5-7 September 1970. At that time the leaders presented several proposals: the new name The Word of God; an explicit public commitment to the covenant; division into defined sub-communities; and a leadership structure involving sub-community coordinators, presided over by two overall coordinators, with additional positions analogous to deacons and deaconesses in the early Church, soon referred to as “servants” and “handmaids.” The community accepted the proposals, and on 28 September 1970, the first ninety-nine people made a public commitment to The Word of God, followed by another group of fifty-four on 23 November. [11]

The community consisted of four (originally five) sub-communities, three of them consisting almost entirely of students and headed by two coordinators each, the other containing most of the married couples in the community, headed by four coordinators, including Ralph Martin, who, was one of the two overall coordinators, along with Steve Clark. While the open prayer meetings on Thursdays continued, the sub-communities met on Monday nights; occasionally the whole community met together, either to receive new public commitments or to consider serious matters in community life.

By September 1971, the community had 219 members who had made a public commitment, with 130 in the new “underway” group consisting of those who had been baptized in the Spirit and were taking courses in preparation to make a public commitment. The original Foundations in Christian Living (Foundations I) now had a sequel, Foundations in Christian Living II (Foundations II), which covered more teaching on living in community, and divided into separate tracks for single men, single women, and married couples. Before new participants made an underway commitment or began the Foundations courses, they attended a Community Weekend in which they learned about the call to Christian community. [12]

Development of other covenant communities

Ann Arbor was by no means the only place where community developed. The process occurred in parallel forms in other places, including South Bend, where many members of the original Notre Dame Cursillo group remained, and in East Lansing, where one of the earliest charismatic prayer groups had arisen. The apostolic efforts of small groups who came together to share the life kindled by being baptized in the Holy Spirit became communities of men and women united by the bonds of covenant. Leaders in these communities were in touch with the leaders of The Word of God, and they gave and received help and encouragement. From the beginning they all shared in the work of Christian renewal, including the Michigan Days of Renewal in Williamston, and provided leadership for the wider charismatic renewal in the Catholic Church, with its annual conference in South Bend. As the communities themselves adopted more formal structures, the communities began to develop more formal ties with one another.


This article © 2020 The Sword of the Spirit is adapted  from A Brief History of the Sword of the Spirit, by Bruce Yocum, Bob Bell and Henry Dieterich, commissioned by the International Executive Council of the Sword of the Spirit to mark the 50th anniversary of covenant community.

[1] “A proposed starting point for an apostolic plan for Notre Dame” (Stephen B. Clark papers), p. 1

[2] Karen Sefcik Treiber, “A Waterfall of Light,” in Patti Mansfield, As by a New Pentecost: The Dramatic Beginnings of the Catholic Charismatic Renewal (Golden Jubilee Edition, Phoenix, AZ: Amor Deus Publishing, 2016), p. 143.

[3] [Stephen B. Clark] “State of the Union” (4 December 1968), p. 13 (Stephen B. Clark Papers).

[4] [Stephen B. Clark] “Pastoral Report on the Catholic Pentecostal Community in Ann Arbor” (Summer 1969), pp. 2-3 (Stephen B. Clark Papers)

[5] Ibid, pp. 6-7.

[6] “Decisions Made July 17, 1970” (Stephen B. Clark Papers).

[7] [Stephen B. Clark], “Pastoral Report on the Catholic Pentecostal Community in Ann Arbor” (April 1970), p. 11 (Stephen B. Clark Papers)

[8] In 2015, Pope Francis recommended the Life in the Spirit Seminars: “I ask each and all of you that as part of the current of grace of Charismatic Renewal you organize seminars of life in the Spirit in your parishes and Seminaries, schools, in neighborhoods, to share Baptism in the Spirit.” “Meditation during the 3rd World Retreat of Priests on Friday, June 12th at the Basilica of St. John Lateran, Rome” Zenit, 17 June 2015.

[9] Ibid, p. 2a.

[10] Ibid, p. 9. 

[11] “Documents from the Founding of The Word of God”, p. 15-16 (Stephen B. Clark Papers).

[12] [Stephen B. Clark], “Pastoral Report on ‘The Word of God,’ a Charismatic Community in Ann Arbor” (September 1971) (Stephen B. Clark Papers). 

Top photo credit: Christians worshipping together facing a white cross, from Bigstock.com, © by paul shuang, Stock photo ID  251603902

This is part of the series: A Brief History of the Sword of the Spirit

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