Falling in Love with God and Neighbor

Building beloved community with Stephanie Spellers


As a young girl growing up in Kentucky, the Rev. Canon Stephanie Spellers had transcendent moments walking in her grandmother’s yard, though she didn’t yet have words to describe those spiritual experiences. While surrounded by church culture, she kept her distance, wrestling with questions about the messages she heard from the pulpit.

Years later, as a religion reporter in Knoxville, Tennessee, Stephanie found herself internalizing and writing about other people’s experiences of faith. “After a while, what I found was I didn’t just want to tell other people’s stories about a life with God,” she shared. “I wanted to have a story of my own.”

This journey from skeptical observer to passionate practitioner provides a fitting metaphor for Stephanie’s current work as Canon to the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church for Evangelism, Reconciliation, and Creation Care. In a recent conversation on the Pivot podcast with hosts Rev. Dr. Terri Elton and Rev. Dr. Dwight Zscheile, Stephanie offered a wealth of insights for church leaders seeking to foster renewal and creative witness in challenging times.

Reimagining Church for Today’s Seekers

Stephanie highlighted two key challenges facing the church today. First, while many people are hungry for belonging, community, transformation and meaning, they don’t believe they’ll find those things in church. “Folks are still game for that. They just don’t think they’re going to find it with us,” Stephanie noted.

The second challenge is internal: as churches experience numerical decline, they tend to become more anxious and self-focused. “We have to open out,” Stephanie urged. “We have to open out to the spirit, we have to open out for our neighbors. And it’s hard to say this, but we have to fall in love.”

This emphasis on love—both for God and neighbor—emerged as a central theme in Stephanie’s vision for church renewal. She believes the only thing that will “save” the church is “the only thing that ever has. And that’s love.”

Foster Jesus-Centered Discipleship

Stephanie described the Way of Love initiative, spearheaded by the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, Michael Curry. The initiative offers seven practices to help Christians build “a life where Jesus is at the center.” These practices include: Turn, Learn, Pray, Worship, Bless, Go, and Rest.

“We didn’t tell you the whole story,” Stephanie explained. “We told you that being a part of church was coming on whatever Sunday as you felt like, giving as much money as you felt like, and being a good person. In fact, it’s about being centered on the life of Christ and living a cross-shaped life, yourself, in community.”

Stephanie emphasized that this shift towards Jesus-centered discipleship isn’t just about individual spiritual growth, but about transforming church culture. “Folks were so grateful that their church asked them for something, that their church took them seriously, and that their church was taking God and Jesus seriously,” she shared. This approach invites congregants to move beyond passive church attendance to active engagement with their faith, both individually and in community.

Reimagine Evangelism

For many mainline churches, evangelism can feel uncomfortable or manipulative. Stephanie offered a fresh definition: “We seek, name, and celebrate Jesus’ loving presence in the stories of all people… and then we invite everyone to more.”

This approach emphasizes curiosity, humility, and joy. “The most amazing practice of evangelism is simply looking around your neighborhood, your community, your family, and when you see people doing something that looks like God, say so,” Stephanie shared.

This reimagined approach to evangelism aligns closely with the Christian tradition of seeking and serving Christ in all persons. By focusing on recognizing and celebrating God’s presence in people’s lives, it removes the pressure of having to “convert” others and instead creates opportunities for genuine connection and spiritual conversation. Stephanie noted that this approach often surprises people, opening doors for deeper dialogue about faith and meaning.

Integrate Reconciliation and Creation Care

Stephanie explained how evangelism, reconciliation, and creation care flow from the Great Commandment to love God and neighbor. “These ministries, these commitments to evangelism, reconciliation, creation care, are really how we live out that great commandment,” she said.

This integrated approach allows churches to engage in environmental and justice work as an expression of Christian faith and practice.

By connecting these areas of ministry to the core Christian call to love, Stephanie offers a theological framework that can help churches move beyond siloed programs to a more holistic, mission-driven approach. This integration can energize congregations by demonstrating how environmental stewardship and social justice work are integral expressions of Christian discipleship, rather than optional add-ons.

Nurture Small Group Communities

While many churches focus primarily on Sunday worship, Stephanie emphasized the importance of small groups for sustainable discipleship. “You’re not going to be able to necessarily live this way of love, this Jesus-centered life if you’re just going to church periodically,” she noted.

Stephanie also emphasized the importance of intentionality in small group formation. “We need each of us to get a pattern of some kind,” she explained, referring to the Way of Love practices. Small groups provide an ideal setting for establishing and maintaining these patterns of discipleship. By creating spaces where people can regularly pray together, study scripture, share their faith journeys, and hold one another accountable, churches can foster a deeper sense of community and spiritual growth. These groups can also serve as incubators for new leaders and ministries, as participants discover and nurture their gifts in a supportive environment.

Lead with Vulnerability and Joy

Stephanie highlighted the importance of leaders’ own spiritual lives in fostering congregational renewal. “When the leader’s heart has been broken open and the leader is yearning for more of God, and the leader is sharing those stories… People so often we’ll come back and say, that’s what we’ve been waiting for.”

This insight highlights the critical role of pastoral leadership in church renewal. Stephanie’s emphasis on leaders sharing their own spiritual journeys and longings for God can create a culture of authenticity and growth within congregations. By modeling vulnerability and joy in their own faith lives, leaders can inspire and empower their communities to engage more deeply with their own spiritual formation.

As churches navigate an increasingly polarized cultural landscape, Stephanie encouraged leaders to stay rooted in the “gospel of love” rather than seeking to win arguments. By speaking truth in love and inviting others into deeper relationship with God and neighbor, churches can offer a powerful witness in these challenging times.

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