A History of the Church of the Saviour

Marjory Zoet Bankson


The following is taken with permission from a book by Marjorie Bankson entitled The Story of Seekers Church 1976-2006.  A Many of the names in bold in the text are or were members of Seekers.

On Sunday, October 5, 1946, Gordon and Mary Cosby, met with seven others to begin Church of the Saviour (CoS) as "a local expression of the universal church." A year later, on the third Sunday of October, that group made their first commitment statement together to form the new church officially.

From the beginning, Gordon held up Jesus' promise that "where two or three gather in my name, I will be with them" as the call for shared ministry.  He believed small groups of six or eight people would be dedicated to a particular piece of Christ's healing work in the world.  Mission groups of that size later became the primary place of belonging and decision-making in Church of the Saviour (CoS).  Every year, on what became known as Recommitment Sunday (the third week in October), a small but growing number of members would recommit to the original principles set forth by Gordon:

  • that the service of God requires total commitment; -that power demands discipline;
  • that the gift of the Holy Spirit depends upon the existence of a true fellowship; and -that such fellowship is best found in a small group dedicated to Christ's work in the world.

(Christian Living, 5/62, 8.)

Education in the CoS School for Lay Ministry was a key element of preparing all members for ministry.  Gordon had a deep trust in the power of God to call people to a deeper life in Christ and it freed him to demand a level of depth and commitment that many other churches avoided.  He believed that every person had a ministry, but would need help to identify it and claim it wholeheartedly.    (O'Connor, Call to Commitment, 20-21.)

Administrative support for Gordon's visionary leadership came early.  In 1948, the young church purchased an old rooming house at 1707 19th Street, NW, and, as Gordon often said, "We bought Bill Branner along with the church building." Bill moved across the street from the new church, married Sunshine Ferguson, and became Gordon's partner in ministry as the financial manager for the new church.  For the next fifty years, Bill provided financial guidance and wise counsel to the many different missions which grew out of Church of the Saviour (CoS) so they could organize and incorporate as separate non-profits.

Headquarters at 2025

Church of the Saviour put down deeper roots in the city when a gracious brownstone at 2025 Massachusetts Avenue NW, Washington, D.C., was purchased in 1950 for $60,000 in cash.  Reflecting the belief that the church actually exists wherever people are in service for the healing of the world, the headquarters building never looked much like a church.  When 2025 was purchased, there were just 19 members with an average per capita income of $200/month.  Money for maintenance was a low priority, and it stayed that way as missions began to emerge for healing the city of racism and poverty.  To lighten the interior, members painted the walnut paneling apple green, and Mary Cosby's mother added a mural on the dining room wall to cover the cracks.  The austere white chapel filled with straight rows of ladder-back chairs focused all of one's attention on the large wooden cross hanging above the matching handmade altar.  The arms of the cross curved slightly with the grain of the wood, but there was no other decoration.  On Sunday, there would be two candles and a large bouquet of natural flowers arranged by one of the members, but nothing more on the altar.  The naked cross claimed that space for the risen Christ.  (O'Connor, Call, 22.)

Gordon's preaching set the direction for everything else at Church of the Saviour.  He preached the good news of God's love and Christ's call to become mature Christians who could shepherd others.  He avoided generalities and focused on specific changes needed.  When Gordon was an Army chaplain in France, he saw the discrepancy between what people said they believed and their despair in the face of danger.  He wanted to build an ecumenical community of Christians who would truly love the world in all of its brokenness—as God did.  He looked for people who had been called by God to a deeper form of discipleship, not those with "good prospects" or worldly credentials.  He nurtured community where he found two or three who could support each other and care about those around them.  Gordon was never interested in bigness for its own sake.

A Place for Silent Retreat

As the culture of America became increasingly noisy with the spread of television in the early Fifties, Church of the Saviour called people to silence and contemplation in the tradition of Quakers and some Roman Catholic orders.  Emphasis on silent retreat grew from Gordon's firm conviction that ministry flows from a wellspring of "divine oneness" which we can experience in communal silence.  In a sermon of that period, Gordon said,

Now this oneness is not uniformity.  With so much uniformity and conformity in today's world, we tend to fear that to become deeply Christian will be to give ourselves to the sort of uniformity which we rightly resist.  Sadly, uniqueness and individuality are deteriorating.  That which produces conformity is sin.  That which produces difference is Christian faith.

(Cosby, By Grace Transformed, 52-53.)

Dreams for a retreat center took shape in 1952, when three young women from the church began scouting for a place of respite and renewal in the country.  The Easter offering in 1953 brought a downpayment of $9,000 for a 200-acre farm near Gaithersburg, MD, and by the spring of 1954, plans were drawn for the Lodge of the Carpenter to host day-long silent retreats.  Muriel Lipp, who became one of the founding members of Seekers Church, remembered going to the retreat farm every weekend with her young family to work, play, and picnic together.  Dayspring anchored the inward journey for CoS members, just as the School of Lay Ministry prepared them for the outward journey of healing in a broken world.

Preparing All Members for Ministry

Beyond Saturday work parties at Dayspring and Sunday worship at 2025 Mass.  Avenue, people clustered at the weeknight School of Lay Ministry, taking classes or meeting in spiritual growth groups.  Elizabeth O'Connor arrived at CoS in 1952 and soon became involved at the School.  She would later join Gordon and Bill as the only paid staff members of the church and her books became the way that people beyond Washington D.C.  learned about this unique body of Christ.

Making membership a costly decision set Church of the Saviour apart from most other mainline denominations.  Gordon was tireless in his efforts to educate potential members so they would understand how Jesus had loved his own disciples into readiness for the Holy Spirit's guidance.  Courses in Old and New Testament, Christian growth, ethics and doctrine were offered on a regular rotation.  Membership in Church of the Saviour took at least two years of preparation at the school, then working with a sponsor until one felt ready to make a commitment "to give [Christ] a practical priority in all the affairs of life" (Appendix 1).

Ministry by all members was always part of Gordon's understanding of scripture, but the forms for supporting that were elusive.  At first, groups formed at the School for Lay Ministry.  In a brochure dated September, 1957, the purpose of the School was described this way:

It is often said that the Church must leave the churches and go into the market place and workshop, there to hear witness to the power of Christ to bring meaning into life.  "But the fact is," says the Evanston Report of the World Council of Churches, "the church is already in these places.  How?  In the persons of its laymen." It is the laymen who are fighting the real battles of faith in factories, shops, offices and farms, in political parties and government agencies, in countless homes, in the press, radio and television, and in the relationships of nations.  If the laymen do not bear witness to the faith in these places, then there will be no witness.

The terminology may sound dated today, but the concept is still radical—that ordinary people could be in ministry wherever they live and work.  And that the church exists to equip ALL people for conscious outreach in the name of Christ.  The brochure continued:

The School is based upon the conviction that such training cannot be attained merely by attending lectures on interesting subjects.  Christian effectiveness is not a product of an armchair contemplation of the divine panorama.  It calls for the hard, sustained concentration of the student.  And so the work of this school is arranged for small classes, under seminar conditions, in which lecturing will be at a minimum and every opportunity given for the sharpening of wits under carefully directed class discussion.  It is hoped that the classes in this school will be comparable to those given in a good seminary.

Weeknight meetings of the School became the primary place to deepen one's relationship with Christ and with other members of the CoS community.  Along with the teaching which Gordon provided on Sundays from the pulpit, the School prepared people to be in ministry where they lived and worked.

Gordon Cosby was greatly influenced by Dietrich Bonhoeffer's writings and every person who came into membership at Church of the Saviour spent time with Bonhoeffer's book, Life Together.  In it, Bonhoeffer warned against human efforts at community because the way would be blocked by our ego needs.  Only Christ could release us from the wishful notion of religious fellowship, he wrote, and open us to genuine relationship through acknowledgment that we are all sinners.  Preparing lay people for ministry in their places of daily work began, as Bonhoeffer counseled, with listening, not with traditional evangelism.  At the School, people practiced listening prayerfully to each other as they earnestly sought the depth of community which Jesus taught his disciples.  "It is little wonder, Bonhoeffer wrote, that we are no longer capable of the greatest service of listening that God has committed to us, that of hearing our brother's confession, if we refuse to give ear to our brother on lesser subjects."           (Bonhoeffer, 76.)

Beyond listening, Bonhoeffer described the ministry of helpfulness and the ministry of bearing one another's burdens as the primary call to love the world toward wholeness.  Only then did Bonhoeffer speak of the ministry of proclamation, of putting language to deeds of love and service:

Every cult of personality that emphasizes the distinguished qualities, virtues, and talents of another person, even though these he of an altogether spiritual nature, is worldly and has no place in the Christian community; indeed, it poisons the Christian community.  Ibid., 84.)

The desire to provide solid biblical teaching and practical classes to undergird ministry in the marketplace meant that some people from outside of CoS were asked to teach.  In 1957, Catherine Marshall gave a class on The Crises of Life; Dr William Oglesby of Union Seminary in Richmond gave a class on Understanding Human Behavior; and Dr Bill Ham gave a class on Obstacles to Faith. Tuition was $10 for an 8-week class and scholarship help was available for those who could not pay.  The School was seen as a practical seminary, to prepare all members as a priesthood of believers.

Speaking at a meeting of the World Council of Churches in Geneva in 1958, Gordon pursued the theme of ministry for all persons.  "The distinction between laity and clergy," he said, "tends to perpetuate the feeling of a second-class order in the church." He described to this ecumenical gathering the CoS practice of ordaining a layperson for ministry as recognition that he or she had been "grasped by God" for a task that "the church must have done." That work as he saw it was to address the pockets of pain and injustice as Jesus might have done, with love and healing.

(Cosby, Ry Grace Transformed, 37-38.)

In keeping with Gordon's desire to eliminate the distinction between laity and clergy, the School of Lay Ministry soon changed its name to the School of Christian Living.  Every member of CoS was expected to complete five classes in the School, to give proportionately of one's income (beginning with a tithe), to work with a confirmed member as a spiritual mentor and finally, to write a spiritual autobiography which would be shared upon coming into membership.  This challenging preparation was to equip every member for ordination and service in the world.  Not only was CoS breaking away from denominational control of ordination and clergy status, but this single tiny church staked its claim to world-wide Christian fellowship by joining the World Council of Churches directly.

Potter's House: the First Mission

Every member at CoS was committed to worship, tithing, prayer, study and corporate outreach, but it was hard to decide what that shared mission would be.  As Elizabeth O'Connor later wrote,

We sat in our little groups and discussed it week after week, but all our prayer, imagining, and investigation produced nothing which caught the common soul.  We were slow to recognize that the very diversity of gifts made it impossible to find a corporate mission.  Even a class on Christian Vocation failed to produce a common direction.

(O'Connor, Servant Leaders, 20.)

Then, as O'Connor described it in her book, Servant Leaders, Servant Structures, call came through a "chance encounter" that Gordon and Mary had while on a church visit in 1959.  They found their host church cold and stiff, but at a country inn where they stayed, the tavern below their room seemed warm and friendly.  When they returned to Washington, Gordon and Mary were ready to sound a call for mission through a coffee house in the inner city.                (Ibid., 26-27.)

Mission Groups

When the Potter's House—a coffee house and bookstore on Columbia Road—finally opened in 1960, each night was staffed by a separate mission group.  They tried to implement Gordon's vision of the "Four Dimensions of Being Church:" confession, witness, nurture and collective action.  New energy was released by sharing a common task and soon other mission groups were born.  The Retreat Mission Group formed at Dayspring to sponsor silent retreats at the farmhouse there, and another formed to take responsibility for adult education as "Shepherds" for the School of Christian Living.

By 1961, there were 70 committed members and roughly three times that number attending the two Sunday services at 2025.  The Potter's House was one-year old and the mission groups keeping it open five nights a week were both exuberant and exhausted.  An arts workshop had developed out of the Potter's House as a sixth mission group there.  Another had become a house church in Rockville, MD, and still another group was trying to establish outreach in a depressed area of the city.  Elizabeth O'Connor sounded a note of concern about this proliferation of mission groups with a small pamphlet titled "A Precarious Hour."  In it, she questioned whether the mission groups could really do the inner work of healing and spiritual formation:

The sheen of newness is off our projects.  Do we know that the small group that we belong to must include not only those we are drawn to, but those who have been and are the enemies of our peace?  It is not at the point of our loves, but at the point of our hates that the Holy Spirit is blocked.

How to combine the inner work of loving our enemies with the outer work of service was a constant tension in these working groups.  Gordon believed that a common call would hold people together while they worked out their differences.  That focus moved these mission groups beyond fellowship or personal comfort toward being an integral part of a body of Christ.  Bonhoeffer's wise words about human community being different from spiritual community became a frequent theme for preaching and teaching as people struggled to keep their daily and weekly disciplines in order to sustain their relationship with Christ at the heart of each mission group.

At that time, Elizabeth was working in the office of the church and trying to write her first book, Call to Commitment.  Attracted to the depth psychology of Carl Jung, Elizabeth offered many classes in the School that would pass for group therapy in other places.  She took the lead in preparing people for the hard inner work of being the Body of Christ in mission groups: self-examination, confession and forgiveness, as well as dealing with anger and envy.  She gave people tools for loving as Gordon's preaching provided the inspiration for their life together.  Elizabeth's second book, Journey Inward, Journey Outward (1968) detailed that necessity for self-examination and gave members a guidebook.  Those published books gave her a voice of authority within the CoS community and beyond.  Through them, Elizabeth O'Connor became the official interpreter of what was happening at CoS.

FLOC: the Seedbed for Seekers

During the Sixties, Washington, D.C. seethed with the tumult of Civil Rights and anti-war activism.  With a black majority population, the District government struggled for federal money and home-rule against a range of entrenched attitudes and power structures.  Racism ruled without much question.  After school integration was mandated by Brown vs Board of Education in 1954, activists in the District pressed for school integration and "white flight" to the suburbs undercut efforts to do it without violence.  In March, 1965, Gordon traveled to Selma, Alabama, to march with Dr Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.  More than forty ministers from the Washington area chartered a flight and joined hundreds of others from around the country in the growing civil rights movement.  On that trip, Gordon agreed with five other ministers that they needed to do something right here in Washington, D.C.  One logical target was Junior Village, a residential facility which housed unwanted or neglected children in deplorably crowded conditions.  On the Sunday following his return, Gordon's call was clear:

Junior Village should be eliminated!   There are almost 1,000 children there, being denied that which a child must have and we sit around and watch, just as the citizens in Germany sat around and watched the concentration camps and the gas chambers....  Let us find our mission, each of us; and let us march and sing until we overcome.  The nation is flocking to Selma because simple people in the Black Belt have found their mission and are willing to suffer and die.  A Negro teenager challenged me to behave like an adult in Selma, and I would like to challenge you to so live with God until you find that some segment of the city is laid on your heart and you not rest until you help make it whole, and you will lay down your life if need be.        (Cosby, By Grace Transformed, 175.)

Those who responded to Gordon's ringing cry formed a new mission group, For Love of Children (FLOC), whose purpose was to attack the problem of forgotten children in D.C.  Gordon imagined small, dedicated groups of five or ten people in Catholic, Protestant and Jewish congregations, each supporting about five children from Junior Village.  Through the summer of 1965, Sunday afternoon meetings were held to inform and encourage the effort to contact nearly 1,300 congregations in the city and to find prospective homes for the children in Junior Village.

Fred Taylor was a young Baptist minister with southern roots who arrived at one of those early meetings ready to give FLOC his full attention.  Even though he had a family, he had recently resigned from his suburban congregation and was eager to get involved.  Within the year, Fred was hired to be FLOC's first director.  He later wrote:

FLOC began frankly as an exploratory group which did not know final answers to problems that beset the city, but the founders recognized that many, such as juvenile delinquency, dropouts, crime, and poverty pockets correlated with family disintegration.  They could be forestalled at the source—with the children, if they could be reached.  The place where hundreds of homeless children were deposited, many of them forgotten, was Junior, Village, an institution which, like a thermometer, indicated the degree of the city's illness.

(Harvest, 10/69,1-2.)

Junior Village was just one symptom of the intersection between racism, classism and political power in Washington, D.C.  Throughout 1966, volunteers from several different churches literally went from door to door in the District, asking for homes to place children from Junior Village.  Although results were slow, FLOC discovered a few families who wanted to retrieve their children from Junior Village and began to work with them.  Thus, Hope and a Home began as a mission group with eight families, representing about 50 children, 20 of whom had been at Junior Village.

Following Martin Luther King, Jr.'s assassination in 1968, riots in Washington, D.C., catalyzed a new sense of mission for those at Church of the Saviour.  Although the headquarters building on Massachusetts Avenue was not in the "riot corridor," the Adams- Morgan neighborhood around the Potter's House was damaged and when the CoS mission groups decided to keep the Potter's House open through that time, it put down firmer roots in the city.  Emily Benson (later Gilbert) came to the Potter's House in 1968 from Church of the Covenant (Presbyterian) in Arlington.  Soon she persuaded her friends, Sonya and Manning Dyer, to join her.  Emily and Sonya had tried without success to get their church more involved, and they were ready for a place where women who felt called to ministry would be treated with more respect.

Sonya quickly became interested in FLOC, joining Hope and a Home to help families reclaim their children from Junior Village.  Emily got involved in political discussions at the Potter's House, where she and Manning were members of the same mission group.  FLOC began to sponsor "assembled families," which were group foster homes with a support structure for the house parents.  Public welfare funds were available to help with care costs and FLOC could lease a home and provide a support structure of volunteers for the many needs those children had.  In the first attempt at an integrated home outside of D.C., Rock Spring Congregational Church provided that kind of support for a FLOC home in Alexandria. 

Standard for CoS Membership (1969)

Gordon's preaching at 2025, Elizabeth's books, and informal lay-led worship at Potter's House continued to draw newcomers to Church of the Saviour.  Although the Potter's House Council had sharpened its demand for commitment to belonging through mission groups in 1965, a number of other counseling and "inventory" groups had formed out of classes in the School without a disciplined inner life or commitment to service.  By 1969, Elizabeth O'Connor reported that 25% of the approximately 75 CoS members were in no group at all.  (O'Connor, Servant Leaders, 34.)

Since belonging to a mission group had been one of the founding principles of CoS, Gordon saw this lack of participation in mission groups as a crisis which would undermine Christ's work in the world.  Never afraid to sharpen conflict for the purpose of clarifying intentions, Gordon risked a mass exodus from membership at Church of the Saviour by suspending the annual recommitment service on the third Sunday of October in 1969.  Then Elizabeth O'Connor outlined the new requirements for membership at Church of the Saviour in a letter to all members:     

  • Each member of CoS would practice these inner disciplines:
  • Meet God daily in a set time of prayer.
  • Let God confront us daily through the Scripture.
  • Worship weekly—normally with our Church.
  • Give proportionately, beginning at a tithe of our income.
  • Only confirmed mission groups would have a representative on the Council, which became the governing board of the Church.  The 13 groups which qualified as groups with a corporate mission were:

Dag Hammarskjold College                                    Potter's House Tuesday Group

Children's Education                                                 Potter's House Wednesday Group

Kittamaqundi (Columbia MD)                               Potter's House Thursday Group

Retreat (Dayspring)                                                   Potter's House Friday Group

Coffee House Church (at Potter's House)            Potter's House Saturday Group

Vineyard Workers                                                      FLOC Shepherds (School of Christian Living)

  • The School of Christian Living would provide orientation to the whole concept of Christian life and mission and it would strengthen mission groups.  The Council could designate one or more courses to be required prior to joining a mission group.

The requirements outlined by this letter became the standard for membership at Church of the Saviour.  Spiritual disciplines were defined for all members.  Some mission groups served the church (Children's Education, Retreat, Shepherds).  Others, at Potter's House and FLOC, served the city.

At that time, the Potter's House offered a public forum for social change as the anti-Vietnam War movement vied for media attention with homegrown civil rights activism.  The five groups associated with keeping the Potter's House open on different days had become close-knit mission groups by 1969.  The Coffee House Church, under the leadership of Emily Benson (Gilbert), was meeting at the Potter's House on Sunday mornings to provide a lay-led service which attracted those who did not want the more formal worship at 2025.  That lay-led service would later become a model for worship at Seekers.

In Elizabeth's letter, the School of Christian Living was charged with strengthening the spiritual life in mission groups and corporate mission would determine which groups would be represented on the new CoS Council.  It would have two representatives from each of the 13 mission groups, and would meet every other month with the CoS staff, rotating representatives from those mission groups so that everyone would sit on the Council at some point.

There was an obvious conflict between this strict definition of membership in CoS and the task-oriented groups, from many different churches, in FLOC.  By 1969, FLOC was a large and complex non-profit organization under the direction of Fred Taylor, so the FLOC mission group was a composite of CoS members with a single representative on the Council.  The other special group was Kittamaqundi, an emerging faith community in Jim Rouse's planned community of Columbia, MD.  Soon after this clarifying letter, Kittamaqundi left the Council to become a separate church, but FLOC remained a part of the CoS family, even as Gordon turned his attention to inner-city housing needs through a new ministry, which became known as Jubilee Housing.

FLOC Groups

Although Fred was clear about the importance of call and gifts in response to a clear need, he knew that FLOC's rapid expansion brought real conflict with the disciplined spiritual life that CoS wanted in its mission groups.  Before joining a FLOC group, prospective members took an 8-week training course that resembled those in the School of Christian Living.  Then, they joined an existing group at one of the sponsoring churches or started something around a specific need.  In his book, Roll Away the Stone: Saving America's Children, Fred wrote of his ministry during that period:

The call to social justice is an essential part of spiritual formation, and cannot be isolated for one on the journey toward wholeness.  There was no ax to grind theologically, no denomination to please.  There was need.  There was a call.  There were the various gifts that individuals brought to the call of the group.  It was a non-coercive, non-guilt-producing message.  And people who hadn't gone to church in years found the combination of spirituality, small group life, and social change work appealing. (Taylor, 123-124.)

By 1969, there were approximately 100 people involved in FLOC groups.  Many were unfamiliar with the emphasis on an "inward journey" which was common at Church of the Saviour, but they were eager to help with one of the FLOC programs.  At the core, Fred knew it would take a commitment to Christ as well as a call to the forgotten children of Washington to hold people in this mission for the long haul and he used his position as Executive Director to teach, preach and guide FLOC as a ministry in the city.  Fred was charged with receiving reports from those CoS members who were involved in FLOC, so he became their titular spiritual director.  As one descriptive pamphlet said, Because the goal is not success, but rather working with One who is the Lord of history, people in FLOC are not discouraged when blueprints fail.  (Harvest, 10/69, 6.)

Sonya Dyer began to find her voice during the conflict between the emerging CoS orthodoxy of confession and corporate mission, and the task-oriented groups in FLOC, which included so many others beyond CoS.  As chair of a special committee to develop guidelines for a more effective relationship between house-parents and the various teams supporting different group homes, Sonya developed her gifts as a bridge-builder.  Holding the diversity of people in some sort of working spiritual group was more important than meeting the standards of CoS membership to be on a single shared mission together.  Sonya wrote in one journal entry:

The church is called to forego its rituals and ceremonial purity, if called upon, and to risk itself along with the Samaritan.  Furthermore, I believe we are called to do this whether or not we can he surrounded by people who form deeply meaningful Christian community.

Junior Village Closed

FLOC achieved its primary goal in 1971.  At the beginning of the year, Fred wrote in FLOC's Annual Report, everyone was convinced that Junior Village would always be necessary.  By the end of the year, the D.C.  City Council voted to phase Junior Village out by the end of 1973—largely due to the catalytic role FLOC had in providing a workable model that cost less while providing better foster care for children.  FLOC had also broadened the scope of its work through professional analysis of the whole child welfare system.

Fred and Sonya spoke from the front lines where they were engaged with city officials, foster parents, neglected children and social activists from many different churches.  She and Fred were trying to find a way to offer this diverse collection of individuals toward some kind of cooperative connection.  They trusted the organic process of discovering Christ among people with different hopes and aspirations.  Sonya drew on her own experience of parenting with a certain detachment in order to move ahead.  In handwritten musings, Sonya reflected:

Maybe we don't have to always be reminding FLOC of its origins and source of power in order for it to do as God wishes.  It is really His baby.  And though we, in a sense, birthed it, we must care for it with a certain detachment, as we must with children, whose blueprint we can't see all at once, and yet we care and love and guide as much as possible.  ...It may be true that we are in process of institutionalization.  This is no immediate threat to me as long as Fred is director.  I have confidence in Fred's integrity as a Christian, and I trust that FLOC will, under his guidance, always be a gadfly on the city, helping the poor obtain their rights.

(Undated notes, probably 1973)

Fred remarked to me that FLOC was "in its heyday" during the early Seventies, alive with its success in closing Junior Village, and eager to change the child welfare system to strengthen families.  He and Sonya forged their independence from the CoS orthodoxy in FLOC and developed a sense of trust and mutual ministry there.

Growth Precipitates Change

Elizabeth O'Connor's books helped mission groups develop a strong discernment practice.  In 1971, Our Many Selves (a Handbook for Self Discovery), described how awareness of wounds and blockages keep us from receiving the love of God.  A second book, Eighth Day of Creation (Gifts and Creativity), contained a series of meditations for discovering gifts for ministry along with a powerful section on how we bury our gifts for fear of having to take responsibility for them.  In 1972, the third book of this trilogy came out as Search for Silence, in which she outlined how meditation and contemplation rooted in scripture could open one to God's guidance and direction.  These books became the standard curriculum for teaching spiritual growth at the School of Christian Living.

Discussions in the CoS Council about the primacy of mission and how to keep people accountable for their spiritual disciplines were long and intense, and greatly complicated by the number of people from new mission groups.  FLOC added a Wilderness School and a Learning Center.  Those interested in housing purchased two dilapidated buildings near the Potter's House—the Ritz and the Mozart—and soon that ministry, Jubliee Housing, spawned Jubilee Neighbors and Literacy Action.  Potter's House expanded into the Polycultural Institute and Potter's House Senior Communities.  The Lilly Foundation made a grant to Church of the Saviour to build Wellspring, a retreat facility at Dayspring Farm for sharing the structures of CoS with other churches.  Then, the Dag Hammerskjold College ended as interest among the members shifted toward housing and then healthcare.

Even though mission groups tried to operate by consensus, the Mission Council had neither the time nor the inner connection to do that, and so it became something of a "rubber stamp" for whatever the CoS staff (Gordon Cosby and Elizabeth O'Connor) proposed.  Bill Branner, also a member of the CoS staff, rarely attended the Council, although he continued to serve the wider church as treasurer, supporting the growing number of missions with his financial acumen.

Gordon's New Call

In July, 1974, Gordon shocked the entire community at Church of the Saviour when he shared his own changing sense of call with the Council.  He began by acknowledging the proliferation of ministries:

With each step the community has taken it has grown in numbers.  When it averaged between 60 and 70 members, we went through a time of redefining our corporate life.  Now we have 110 members and 40 intern members, and much more demanding structures, many of which have themselves become centers of life.

The "redefining" was the focus on mission groups and formation of a Mission Council in 1969.  With new "centers of life" and more people on the Mission Council, Gordon recognized that the CoS staff either had to become more managerial or some other solution would have to be found.  Gordon continued with his announcement at the July '74 Council meeting:

Is it possible that we can divide into different combinations cohering around different worship centers and, in the process of creating the new, not lose that which we value?  There are many, many people in the life of this community with rare gifts of leadership that are not being used.  Is it possible that we can have The Church of the Saviour at Mass. Ave. with its council, worship, and mission groups cohering around it; another on Columbia Road, cohering around The Potter's House; another around Dayspring?  (O'Connor, 48-49.)

Most churches would be worried about having "only" 110 members, but Gordon clearly felt that the congregation had gotten too big and the administration too cumbersome.  He had no interest in become the chief executive officer of a burgeoning organization.  Instead, he was ready to claim his call to initiate new "centers of life" and let others wrestle with administering ongoing structures.

New Lands Group: 1975

In response to Gordon's shocking invitation to leave the security of a known structure for an uncertain future, the Council selected nine people from different groupings—Potter's House, FLOC, Jubilee and Dayspring—for what they called the New Lands Servant Group.  They were to meet regularly until they could come back to the Council with a proposal.  The New Lands Group was a critical instance of corporate discernment in response to Gordon's challenge.  Sonya and Fred, representing FLOC, were part of that select group:

Conrad Hoover, Potter's House (chair of the New Lands group) Mary Hitchcock, Potter's House                                                                             Wes Michaelson, recorder

Esther Dorsey, Potter's House                                Barbara Moore, Jubilee

Fred Taylor, FLOC                                                  Ann Barnet, Jubilee

Sonya Dyer, FLOC                                                   Bill Price, Dayspring

plus Gordon Cosby and Elizabeth O'Connor, CoS staff

In a letter describing the New Lands group, Fred Taylor named the goal of the group as "how to maximize the impact of Church of the Saviour on the world as a witness to the Gosper (7/29/75).  Fred was very interested in organizational structures and he wanted the New Lands group to hire an outside facilitator who would help the group focus on maximizing the impact of CoS.  Others were suspicious of Fred's organizational interest, preferring a more spiritual approach.

About the same time, Gordon was featured in the Post American, as Sojourners magazine was called then.  He described being prophetic as "seeing the depravity in society rather than projecting hope onto it."  Like the Hebrew prophets of old, Gordon claimed the need to develop separate structures which would provide an alternative model rather than working within cultural structures and hoping to change them.  At the age of 58, Gordon had already led the effort to develop more new models for church and society in the nation's capital, and he was ready for another act of radical faithfulness by releasing the centralized form of CoS.

By October, 1975, the New Lands group had sharpened its debate over whether the identifiable characteristic of any Church of the Saviour community should be its commitment to the oppressed.  Sonya raised her own prophetic critique in the New Lands group.  There she went on record as saying that she thought the real issues were "family vs mission, leadership style and financial stewardship."  She felt there was a hierarchy of mission groups, with some getting more staff attention than others; that work and celebration had become unbalanced and, given the complexity of our private lives, there was little recognition for the demands of raising a family as mission.  Those issues would later become central in forming Seekers.

Choosing the Name, SEEKERS

In the middle of this creative chaos, Robert Greenleaf s article on "Being a Seeker in the Late 20th Century," was published in the Friends Journal (9/15/75).  As a lifelong Quaker and newly retired AT&T executive, Greenleaf had a lot of credibility when he began to write about servant leadership, and this particular article touched Fred Taylor and Sonya Dyer at a crucial time.  In it, Greenleaf wrote:

The variable that marks some periods as barren and some as rich in prophetic vision is in the interest, the level of seeking, the responsiveness of the hearers....  It is SEEKERS, then, who make the prophet; and the initiative of any one of us in searching for and responding to the voice of the contemporary prophet may mark the turning point in his or her growth and service.    (Friends Journal, 452.)

Greenleaf s article went on to describe the many competing voices for institutional leadership in the mid-Seventies and then he pointed to the integrity of Alcoholics Anonymous, with its unpaid network of mutual support through deep listening.  He suggested an organization of servant leaders who would be called Seekers Anonymous and he concluded his article with these stirring words:

By their intense and sustained listening they will make the new prophet who will help them find that wholeness that is only achieved by serving.      (Ibid., 453.)

When Fred and Sonya began to dream about calling a church together, they went back to this Greenleaf article and chose Seekers as the name of their new church because they hoped to call forth new prophets for the troubled world that they saw all around.  Fred responded deeply to Greenleaf s description of servant leadership.  He believed that a community dedicated to listening for other voices would generate new answers for the problems of racism and sexism which were dominant as the Vietnam War ended, and he wanted to preach for a congregation of such listeners.

How to Organize?

Robert Greenleaf was invited to meet with the New Lands group in November, 1975.  He observed that their language and logic were "inadequate for the task" before them.  He questioned their bias toward smallness and observed a lack of trust among the group.  He challenged them to address the difference between centralized leadership (CoS staff) and a more democratic style of leadership in the mission groups.  What he saw as "a more democratic style" grew out of the common purpose in each mission group—they did tend to function organically, as a single body, acting with the authority of their call.  But the Mission Council, made up of changing representatives from those same mission groups had no common life together and council members were essentially competing for the resources of CoS staff time and attention.  Fred and Sonya were determined to change that.

Greenleaf named a problem that would come up again and again as each community began to grow- how to organize effectively for a healthy corporate body.  Muriel Lipp, who came to CoS about the same time as Elizabeth O'Connor and now belonged to the Literacy Action mission group submitted a paper to the New Lands group urging a new definition of mission:

My feeling about our mission structure is that it is much too narrow to allow full expression of the great diversity of gifts in our congregation, I cannot imagine that the score of missions expresses mission for all of our people.  Or are people squeezing themselves into structures because that is the only way to belong?  How does a doctor view mission?  Isn't his profession his mission?  Shouldn't we have a group for the expression of individual mission?  I can’t really believe that the mission meeting they attend once a week, whether Potter's House or whatever, is their expression of missions?  We have many people in our church who have taken jobs within our church structure in order to express call but those of us in secular structures feel this need too.

Muriel's letter touched a sore spot in the body of CoS.  Some members did indeed have paying jobs within the church structure.  Muriel's job-teaching learning-disabled kids in a public school-felt like call to her.  Muriel suggested a more diffused style of collective leadership using "elders,” joy and celebration with whole families, more intimacy through shared stories and reinforcement for a simple lifestyle.  She imagined a fellowship of members which would meet regularly to share leadership of a new community like Seekers.

On their 1975 Christmas retreat at Dayspring, the New Lands group had two options on the table.  One articulated by Elizabeth O'Connor, proposed that the church exist in diaspora—that all properties of Church of the Saviour be sold and the staff dispensed with except for those needed to organize a yearly gathering of small, disciplined mission groups.  The other scenario was articulated by Wes Michaelson, Esther Dorsey and others, to form three or four congregations out of the clusters of existing mission groups.  Each cluster or "parish" would be administratively separate.  In his notes Wes suggested three parishes (along the lines suggested by Gordon): Jubilee, Potter's House' and Lifespring, which would include Wellspring, the Silent Retreat group at Dayspring Farm.

As 1975 drew to a close, Mary Hitchcock shared her interest in doing more pastoring at the Potter's House, and it seemed that a community would form there.  Dayspring printed its first newsletter as a sign that it had begun to see itself as a separate entity, and Fred Taylor approached Sonya Dyer to discuss the possibility of calling a church out of their experience at FLOC.  The two of them began a conversation about what they saw as essential elements of a workable partnership along with their vision for being a "sister community" within Church of the Saviour.  Among those involved with Jubilee Housing, there was talk of forming a fourth church, and the Polycultural Institute, where Elizabeth O Connor was active, seemed ready to step out as a fifth congregation.  The questions of where and how those congregations would define themselves began to circulate among the CoS members, intern members, and other interested people who were attending services at 2025, Dayspring and the Potter's House.

New Lands Report

On January 18, 1976, the New Lands group reported to the Council that they had reached consensus on a description of what would constitute a Church of the Saviour community:

Our call must be our starting point.  That call is to build a community centered in resolute faithfulness to Jesus Christ.  It is to be His body, molded by His spirit.  That call encompasses the marks which our community has discovered to be true and essential to its identity as God's people.

Each community's call would have four thrusts:

  • to be Christ's church throughout the world—we are part of the ecumenical church, and want to give ourselves to it;
  • to the poor and oppressed —we believe that Christ calls us as His disciples to give ourselves to the oppressed of the world, especially those in our own city;
  • to the stranger in our midst—we are called to bring Christ's love to all those whose lives intersect with ours at any point; and
  • to the building of our common life —all else must flow from our call to be God's people, celebrating our oneness with Him and nurturing ourselves as Christ's body.

The marks of each community would be:

  • a corporate commitment to spiritual disciplines;
  • mission groups would be the primary crucible for spiritual formation;
  • for sacrificial outpouring together in mission to the brokenness of the world.

(New Lands Report, 1/18/76.)

Gordon's call to "the whole community" was affirmed and his wish to continue preaching at "an ecumenical service" was confirmed as well.  In practice, that meant he would be preaching regularly at the second service on Sunday mornings at 2025.  The New Lands Report to the Council was silent on the issue of whether people could still join Church of the Saviour through one of the mission groups not yet associated with one of the sister communities, and there was no timetable for the transition.  The Council still had the authority to judge whether a new congregation met the criteria set forth by the New Lands group.  But Robert Greenleaf was right, the New Lands group could not or did not resolve the conflict between centralized leadership by the staff, periodic meetings of a Council which had no clear mandate as a representative body, and the more participatory style and focus of each mission group.

Looking back on 30 years of being a single body, Church of the Saviour, the outlines of faithfulness to Gordon and Mary's original vision were clear.  Gordon's preaching had inspired a culture of total commitment to Christ and deep connection to one another in mission groups.  Mary's sense of hospitality had welcomed newcomers to the graceful old mansion at 2025 Massachusetts Avenue.  The School of Christian Living had successfully introduced a generation of members to ongoing biblical study and spiritual disciplines.  Gifts for leadership and service were being called forth in each mission group, and those small groups were indeed dedicated to Christ's work in the world.

Gordon recognized that passion and commitment could not be sustained by becoming more bureaucratic, so his own sense of call initiated the process which gave birth to a second generation of Church of the Saviour communities which formed out of those early mission groups: Dayspring Potter's House, FLOC (Seekers), Polycultural Institute (Eighth Day), and Jubilee Housing.

The New Lands Report was adopted at a rare congregational meeting in January, 1976, and the stage was set for the formation of little churches around the guidelines set forth in the New Lands Report.  One important thing the report did not address was the future relationship between the CoS staff and these newly forming congregations.  That would emerge over time.


Click here to watch a 1997 video about Church of the Savior created by PBS.