Navigating the Crux of 21st Century Ministry Wilderness

Aram Mitchell, executive director of Renewal in the Wilderness, and Pam Shellberg, the BTS Center’s scholar-in-residence, have been collaborating on a program* for progressive faith communities facing significant changes in embodying their missions. The Crux* takes its name from hiking terminology for “the most difficult section of a hiking route or where the greatest danger exists.” It gestures toward wilderness as a source of wisdom for communities discerning and preparing for their next best steps. Aram and Pam spent a couple of weeks reflecting with each other, via email, on the wilderness experience and its value for communities approaching critical junctures in their journeys. What follows are their notes from this rich conversation. – Ed.


Pam: One of the best sermons I’ve heard, with a message that has stayed with me for decades, I now think of as a wilderness sermon. Several of the members of the congregation were in some kind of deep travail, it was a tough time for the community. The preacher’s text was Genesis 15 – the story of Abram in the tent with his servant Eliezer. Abram was lamenting to God that he, Abram, couldn’t see how he was going to receive God’s promise of descendants when Abram’s only heir at that point was Eliezer. The preacher focused on how God asked Abram to step out of the tent and look up at the night sky, filled as it was with countless stars. Such would be Abram’s descendants, God said. But what was really compelling about the sermon, to me, was how the preacher talked about the tent – that inside the small confines of the tent, all of Abram’s problems looked huge. But when Abram stepped out and placed his concerns against the wide horizon of the wilderness, against the expanse of the universe, his concerns took on a different scope and scale. Abram saw them from a different perspective and in different proportion.

Aram: I had a chance last weekend to step out of the proverbial tent and spend some time scouting and exploring some of the Maine trails that we’ll be using on future Crux expeditions. I also took advantage of a few days unplugged from screens to participate in the long tradition of reading words printed on paper, this time several articles hashing out ideas of wilderness in the debate around philosophies of conservation and preservation. A hammock strung between a couple of trees overlooking Grand Falls, several hours of daylight, a bagged lunch from Maine Huts and Trails, a sharp pencil, and academic musings about the meaning/s of wilderness: It was bliss!

In one of the essays, The Trouble with Wilderness, William Cronon makes the case that “wilderness offers us the illusion that we can escape the cares and troubles of the world.” This may sound odd given that I run an organization rooted in the value of finding renewal on wilderness retreats, but Cronon’s thinking here resonates with me. I am an advocate for a collaborative and nuanced approach to wilderness preservation, and I’m an avid guide of wilderness retreats. But I agree that the idea that wilderness will save us of our cares and troubles is an illusion.

Wilderness is not a place for us to escape our troubles. It is a venue of formation where we may engage with the process, practices, and perspectives that have the potential to shape our way of being in a troubled world.

I don’t think wilderness is all that invested in our salvation. Wilderness is naturally indifferent to our presence in it. Wilderness doesn’t care if we return home worn out or renewed, with our egos bruised or intact. But as a guide, I care. And in my approach to guiding I try to insist that wilderness experience is not meant to be a romantic escape from responsibility. It is meant to serve as an opportunity to sustain our sense of responsibility. It is meant to strengthen our ability to respond to our world’s woes in intrepid and compassionate ways. Wilderness is not a place for us to escape our troubles. It is a venue of formation where we may engage with the process, practices, and perspectives that have the potential to shape our way of being in a troubled world.

Pam: The notion of wilderness’s indifference reminded me of what Belden Lane writes about God’s indifference in his essay, “Fierce Back Country and the Indifference of God,” which I reread this morning (although, sadly, not in a hammock). Lane describes his practice of going out in the backyard every night, crawling into a sleeping bag, and looking at the sky and stars above him – feeling his smallness, his shrinking before the mysterium tremendum. This made me think even more about the value of the wilderness expeditions as part of our pedagogy. There is something important about getting out of the tents where our problems have become disproportionately huge against such restricted scales of reference. There is something important about taking those problems to the wilderness and considering them in the context of wilderness’s indifference to them and to our concern with them. (And what of God’s indifference?)

There is something important about getting out of the tents where our problems have become disproportionately huge against such restricted scales of reference. There is something important about taking those problems to the wilderness and considering them in the context of wilderness’s indifference to them and to our concern with them.

Aram: Wouldn’t it be nice if there was an answer book that paved the way through such wild theological questions? Yesterday I spent the afternoon planning the route, itinerary, and intentions for the September retreat I’m guiding in the Wild River Wilderness, in the northeast corner of New Hampshire, near the Maine state line. Route planning time means that my bookshelves full of field guides and my boxes of maps eject their contents onto all of the available surfaces in my office. I love route planning time. It’s an astounding gift to hold in my hands the representation of countless hours of labor spent surveying natural features and scaling them to handleable size. It’s a beautiful thing to pour over the notes of others who have experienced a wild place so attentively. These tools of my trade as a wilderness guide are vital. They function. They are of use. And they also inspire me.

And yet, I know that at some point the “perfectly” planned route – if it’s to be of any real use in the world – has to compel us into the field where we can compare our predecessors’ notes with our own visceral observations.

There is something important about getting out of the tents where our problems have become disproportionately huge against such restricted scales of reference. There is something important about taking those problems to the wilderness and considering them in the context of wilderness’s indifference to them and to our concern with them.

Pam: I can see how your field guides spark curiosity about what is to come, introduce us to what we can look forward to on our own expeditions. They prime the pump, they sharpen our attention to details, they create anticipation – “Oh, I hope I see that!” Or, “Oh, we will have to be on the lookout for that!” In that way, they are also confidence builders. When we recognize features of the wilderness we were prepared by the guides to see and to find, we can have feelings of accomplishment in the discovery, an experience of expertise or of mastery in our own explorations.

Field guides discipline our practices of thought and attention, while at the same time expanding our capacity for attentiveness. And that is where we are compelled to enter the field where “we can compare our predecessors’ notes with our own visceral observations.” Yes! The experience of the wilderness is greater than the sum of all our preparatory parts, greater than the sum of the words and descriptions we’ve read about it. Visceral observations are what we are creating the space for – with field guides that prepare, heighten anticipation, encourage confidence, and even amplify the possibility for enjoyment and wonder with detailed descriptions of the space about to be entered. They can help us map the route, but they do not – they cannot – determine what will be discovered or experienced on the expedition.

Field guides discipline our practices of thought and attention, while at the same time expanding our capacity for attentiveness.

Aram: In that vein, what we are offering to communities through The Crux is an opportunity for them to send representatives to us to step out of the tent and to scout and explore the wilderness that their communities are poised to enter together. It’s an opportunity for these representatives to become guides who are equipped to care. We are making space for this cohort of community leaders to both draft and to become the field guides that their community will need. These leaders become something like incarnated custom field guides, aides to the community in evaluating its needs and challenges, in sparking curiosity and wonder for what’s ahead, and in building confidence that the unfamiliar terrain in which they find themselves is navigable.

Pam: God’s indifference, the wilderness’s indifference, contemplative practices of silence, concepts of kenosis, the apophatic experience of God – these are just some of the gifts of wilderness. These all seem deeply true to the work of The Crux. In some ways, for the first time I am experiencing – really feeling – what is at stake in offering a program that is not fixated on tactics for growth and leadership techniques. The Crux is really not about equipping leaders to save their churches – but rather is about taking the challenges of being church out of the tent where they take up a lot of space, and putting them out in the wilderness where they are considered on a wider horizon, against a sky with a zillion stars.


* The promoted initial offering of The Crux is under review for changes to make it more broadly accessible and affordable. Watch for more information about The Crux 2.0, currently in development.

apophatic experience of God, Aram Mitchell, Belden Lane, Capacity for Attentiveness, Genesis 15, kenosis, Maine, mysterium tremendum, New Hampshire, Pamela Shellberg, The Crux, The Crux at the BTS Center, The Trouble With Wilderness, Wild River Wilderness, Wilderness, William Cronon

Pamela Shellberg

Dr. Pamela Shellberg is the Scholar-in-Residence at The BTS Center, crafting “Course Corrections,” a program for imaginatively responding to changes in the church and in life based on the biblical template of Paul’s life and writings. During the 2015-16 academic year, Pam was the visiting professor of New Testament studies at Andover Newton Theological School, jointly appointed by ANTS and The BTS Center. She is the author of Cleansed Lepers, Cleansed Hearts: Purity and Healing in Luke-Acts (Fortress Press, 2015). A teacher in schools for lay ministry in the Maine Conference of the UCC and the New England Synod of the ELCA, she thinks and writes about the metaphors in poetry, art, and music as lenses for bible reading and as tools for interpretation. Pam may be reached via e-mail.

Aram Mitchell

Aram is a Registered Maine Guide and Wilderness First Responder with an MA in Religious Studies from Chicago Theological Seminary. Prior to moving to Maine in 2015 he worked as a minister for children (and the child-like) at a progressive faith congregation in Claremont, CA. He worked as an advocate and shelter coordinator for LGBTQ identified homeless youth in Chicago, IL. He worked as an aid to elementary school educators of students with special needs in Indianapolis, IN. He backpacked across Scotland, walked a pilgrimage in Spain, practiced yoga in Costa Rica and has guided wilderness trips and urban walks of various durations for people of many ages, genders, and dispositions in 11 different states and a couple of Canadian provinces. Now Aram spends his days as the Executive Director of Renewal in the Wilderness devising ways to bring the wisdom of wilderness and regular rhythms of renewal into the lives of care providers, justice workers, and faith leaders.


Cover Photo: Tobias Mrzyk, “Hiking.” (February 22, 2018). Via Unsplash. CC 2.0 license.

Body Photo 1: Veronica Kei, “Woman Staring at Stars” (ND). Via Unsplash. CC 2.0 license.

Body Photo 2: Wes Hicks, “Untitled.” (July 5, 2018). Via Unsplash. CC 2.0 license.

Body Photo 3: Jean-Frederic Fortier, “Untitled.” (July 15, 2015). Via Unsplash. CC 2.0 license.