This is the second essay by Duncan Hilton written as part of the Collegeville Institute’s Emerging Writers program. Each of the four writers will publish six essays over the course of their year, receiving mentorship from writing coach Michael McGregor.
In my mid-30s, a year into being ordained as an Episcopal priest, I read Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise by Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool. The book’s theories about training methods and improvement made me wonder: “Could the science of expertise be applied to the spiritual disciplines?” This year, at age 39, I experienced the power of Peak’s theories in my own life as both a runner and a Christian. A job also ended, opening space in my life to explore the question in practice. And yet, after initial efforts, I stopped moving forward. Why have I been dragging my feet to act? Can Christian discipleship be quantified?
Can Christian discipleship be quantified?
I first experienced the power of Peak’s premise through my transformation as a runner. Last September, friends invited me to run in a 5K race. Without training, I ran the course in just over twenty minutes, fast enough to beat some local college kids but not fast enough to impress a competitive runner. The outcome inspired me to join a local running group. The group’s coach designed workouts for about a dozen people who gathered weekly at a local track. The coach’s feedback helped me shorten my stride, up my stride count, and relax my shoulders. Each month he tested our 5K pace so we could measure our improvement. By the end of May I was on track for a 19:10 5K, a full minute faster than I had recorded nine months earlier.
My improvement delighted me but didn’t surprise me thanks to what I learned reading Peak. The book begins with the question: “Why are some people so amazingly good at what they do?” The authors go on to argue—based on Ericsson’s decades spent researching concert violinists, chess masters, and professional athletes—that genetics, physical endowment, and volume of practice matter far less in developing expertise than does “deliberate practice.” Deliberate practice involves setting well-defined, specific goals to focus on improving some aspect of target performance; concentrating on those goals with full attention in a practice regimen overseen by a teacher or coach who is familiar with the abilities of expert performers; and constantly pushing the bounds of one’s current abilities. Through the coaching and the structure of the running group, I was engaging in many of the elements of deliberate practice.
Genetics, physical endowment, and volume of practice matter far less in developing expertise than does “deliberate practice.”
My improvement emboldened me to consider: “Why not apply the principles of Peak to train Christians?” The apostle Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 9 that life in service of Christ is like running a race. “Run in such a way that you may win [the race]. Athletes exercise self-control in all things; they do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable one.” Why not borrow techniques and concepts that work in service of the perishable wreath and put them in service of the imperishable one?
I gathered a small group of Christian friends this spring to discuss creating the training curriculum. The fruits of the Spirit (Gal 5:22) could be “areas of target performance.” The “practice regimen” could include practices related to the baptismal covenant, scripture, and tradition. Goals could be made specific and measurable using a Likert scale. For example, one might focus for a season on honoring the Sabbath with a day away from electronics each week and then reflect after a few months, on a scale of 1-5, whether the practice had increased the fruits of the Spirit in one’s life. Peak emphasizes the importance of a coach who gives feedback on performance; we could create a peer coaching structure for the curriculum.
The idea excited me as a means to stay true to my vocation as a priest to make disciples. I remembered hearing a CEO say in a podcast, “You make what you measure.” I had read books in divinity school that touted the importance of developing disciples rather than increasing membership numbers. These books seemed scripturally accurate (Jesus didn’t say at the end of Matthew, “Go therefore and make members of all the nations”). However, these books didn’t include concrete tools or coaching frameworks for discipleship. I worried that, without clarity on how to measure discipleship, my longing as a priest to help others follow Christ would devolve into metrics like Average Sunday Attendance and stewardship pledges.
And yet, I had plenty of doubts about measuring discipleship. Some concerns were practical: “Would anyone be willing to try this except for a few friends?” Some of them were based on reading other research in cognitive development: “What about research that shows that learning is best done slowly and that short-term testing often fails to show progress?” My personal history also made me apprehensive. I had been a rower throughout high school and college. By my junior year the competition no longer motivated me enough to endure 20-30 hours per week of practice and eating saltines for lunch to minimize the risk of vomiting during afternoon workouts. The sung psalms and incense at the Episcopal monastery across the river became a haven from the boathouse. Would measuring my Christian faith risk turning church into the same type of grind that had been a refuge from the grind of the rowing team?
The muddle of arguments in my head kept me from reconvening my friends in order to start the project. Then on August 14, I realized that my deepest doubts weren’t about the merits of measuring personal discipleship; they were about the merits of focusing on discipleship as a personal endeavor. On that day the Episcopal Church commemorates Jonathan Daniels. In his honor I watched a documentary about Daniels’ life. Born in 1939, he grew up in Keene, New Hampshire, the next county over from my home in Vermont. As a seminarian at Episcopal Divinity School, Daniels heard Martin Luther King, Jr., speak in Boston, asking for northern volunteers to travel to Alabama. In prayer he sensed God’s call in the invitation. While working with SNCC in Lowndes County, Alabama, in 1965, a gunman shot and killed Daniels.
I cried gently during the film as a Black friend of Daniels explained why he and other SNCC workers accompanied Daniels’ body back to Keene from Alabama.
The people from Lowndes County insisted that we go because they didn’t want to send this dead body back without it being accompanied, so that the people at least who sent us this live body would know that we the living still cared very much for the dead. It could be their son, but [this was] a mother’s son who died thousands of miles away from his mother’s house.
The tears drew my concern about discipleship out of my head, down my cheeks, and into my heart. My heart longed for a race like Daniels’—a race that couldn’t be run alone, that made strangers into family, and that required accompaniment over the finish line. My heart sensed that I hadn’t been dragging my feet so much as prudently waiting to make sure the race I was running was a team race before setting off.
So I’ll send my friends the movie about Daniels’ life as inspiration. Before talking any more about measurement, I’ll encourage us to ask: “What is the race we’re running? How is it a team race?” If we measure anything it’ll be about our capacity to encourage one who is discouraged and lift up one who has fallen.
I hadn’t been dragging my feet so much as prudently waiting to make sure the race I was running was a team race.