Excerpts from A Dissertation on the Beginnings of The Servants of the Word
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Tony O'Neill, a Servant of the Word from Glasgow, Scotland, who is currently a teacher and youth leader in Detroit, wrote a dissertation in 1995 on the beginnings of The Servants of the Word. Here are a few excerpts, lightly edited for the sake of making this condensation clear. 

The history of The Servants of the Word has its roots .. in the late sixties .. in the development of lay charismatic communities. Stephen Clark, the founder of The Servants of the Word, was one of the primary figures in the renewal's beginnings and in the emergence of renewal communities.

Charismatic Covenant Communities 

Stephen Clark was born in 1940 in New York and lived there until he went to Yale University in 1958. The Catholic chaplaincy at Yale had what they called community and it was the experience of this attempt at community which began to form the basis of Steve’s vision of Christian community. One of the things that he noticed while at Yale was that Catholics who associated with each other and got involved in the chaplaincy activities usually grew in faith and holiness while those who took an individualistic approach to their Christianity and avoided specifically Christian activities seemed to struggle with their faith and often left the Church . After graduating from Yale in 1962 Clark spent a year at the University of Freiburg in Germany, before returning to the United States and pursuing doctoral studies at the University of Notre Dame.

Clark and Ralph Martin along with a group of others became the main leaders of the emerging Catholic charismatic renewal. All had been deeply influenced by the Cursillo movement and shared an experience of community at Notre Dame between 1964 and 1966.

In the spring of 1967, when "charismatic renewal" among Catholics began, Steve was working on the staff of St. John's Student Parish at Michigan State University in East Lansing and was a member of the National Secretariat of the Cursillo Movement. The following September Steve, together with Ralph Martin, Gerry Rauch and Jim Cavnar moved to Ann Arbor where in December they began a regular Thursday night prayer meeting. It was here that the first charismatic covenant community emerged. The Thursday night prayer meeting began with ten or fifteen people. Within months, more than one hundred people were attending and within a few months, hundreds of people were coming. People were coming to the prayer meeting from all over the Mid West of America and some drove for four hours to get to it and four hours home . The prayer meetings, to the people who came, were exciting and dynamic. The participants would sing joyfully and praise out loud often using the gift of tongues. Another unique element of these prayer meetings was the giving of what people called 'prophecies'. People would speak a message which they believed was from God. The message would be given in the first person. The messages often expressed God's love for those who were there and his pleasure at what they were doing. The ones organising and leading the meetings were all living in the Ann Arbor area. It was this group of people who formed the initial community. 

Bruce Yocum, the present Presiding Elder of The Servants of the Word was one of those involved in the very beginnings of community. This is how he recalls those early days: 

Those of us who were in Ann Arbor very quickly started to want to have a meeting just for people who were from Ann Arbor because we had quickly become a sort of service team for the Thursday night meeting ... so we wanted something more that could focus on our own relationships with one another and our being together in Ann Arbor. So we started a Monday night meeting in addition to the existing Thursday night meeting .

The group who were meeting on Monday nights spent much time together and formed deep relationships with one another. As the Monday night meetings progressed, the group began to feel that God was leading them to something deeper. Bruce Yocum again recalls, 

In the Summer of 1969 at our Monday night prayer meeting we began to get prophecies about "covenant" and "making covenant". We didn't understand it very well and we started doing a scripture study on "covenant" ... and from a Scripture study on "covenant" you go pretty quickly to the idea of Christian community ... and by the beginning of 1970 we were very actively talking about forming a community in a formal way and making commitments to one another.

Over the years from his time at the Morehouse Catholic chaplaincy at Yale and through his involvement in Cursillo and in the Catholic charismatic renewal Stephen Clark had been developing his thoughts and vision for Christian community. He had also been writing book on the subject, initially for the Cursillo movement, called Building Christian Communities. The book, published in 1972, proposes a strategy for renewing the Church. This strategy is based on five theses which Clark lays out in his introduction. These are: 
1. The main goal of pastoral efforts in the Church should be to build communities which make it possible for a person to live a Christian life. 
2. The Church should be restructured to form basic Christian communities. 
3. Vital Christian communities are formed only through centering upon Christ ( through spiritual renewal ). 
4. The Church needs leaders who can work with an environmental approach. 
5. Constructive social change in the Church should be fostered through the intelligent use of movements.
It was these principles which formed the basis of the community in Ann Arbor, which took the name The Word of God.

The Emergence of the Servants of the Word 

Stephen Clark, the founder of The Servants of the Word, is, perhaps a little different from the founders of other brotherhoods and religious orders. In Clark’s case he did not go out and actively call a group of men together. Bruce Yocum, the current Presiding Elder for The Servants of the Word, puts it like this: 

Steve did not ‘gather brothers round him’ but the brothers did gather round him. He was the natural leader. He was not exactly trying to start a brotherhood. He and we were exploring. We all felt called to living single, and we explored that. His own witness of living single as a layman opened an avenue for us, and he was the natural leader.

Clark's process of conversion was a gradual one which took place over a period of years and he was baptised as a Roman Catholic when he was studying at Yale University. He describes his process of conversion as beginning when he read the 'Everyman' lives of St Francis of Assisi which included the books 'The Little Flowers' and 'The Mirror of Perfection'. After reading these and various other Christian books, he began to understand that, even though St Francis lived hundreds of years ago, being a Christian involved a 'personal relationship with Christ' in the present. It was not until after his decision to become a Christian that he began to talk to others about what he had discovered. 

Radical Discipleship 

One of the things that most struck Clark about the life of St Francis of Assisi was the radical way that his experience of Christ affected his life. This call to radical discipleship is one which was to inspire Clark in his decision to live a life of celibacy. 

The theme of radical discipleship, not surprisingly, is a dominant one in The Servants of the Word. It is one of the strongest images which the Servants of the Word use in expressing their ideal. 

A passage from the New Testament which is pivotal to understanding how The Servants of the Word view radical discipleship is Luke 18:18-30, the story of the rich young man. It is the story of the calling of a disciple. It shows the extent of the commitment of being a disciple. 

And a ruler asked him, "Good Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?" And Jesus said to him, "Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments: 'Do not commit adultery, Do not kill, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Honor your father and mother.'" And he said, "All these I have observed from my youth." And when Jesus heard it, he said to him, "One thing you still lack. Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me." But when he heard this he became sad, for he was very rich. Jesus looking at him said, "How hard it is for those who have riches to enter the kingdom of God! For it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God." Those who heard it said, "Then who can be saved?" But he said, "What is impossible with men is possible with God." And Peter said, "Lo, we have left our homes and followed you." And he said to them, "Truly, I say to you, there is no man who has left house or wife or brothers or parents or children, for the sake of the kingdom of God, who will not receive manifold more in this time, and in the age to come eternal life." 
This young man who came to Jesus was well placed materially and probably socially. He asked Jesus what it is that he must do to succeed in life both in this world and the next. Jesus replied with the basics of the law on loving one’s neighbor. This young man was not a bad person but a pious Jew. In Mark’s account of this passage at this point Jesus looked at him and loved him. This was not merely affection : Jesus chose the young man to be with him. Jesus offered the young man the best way of life possible. Jesus told him that he still lacks one thing, "the one thing" which is necessary and that is love of God above everything else. Without this the young man is still lacking. Jesus invited him to "come and follow". Being a disciple requires following the master, going where he goes. 

In a commentary on this passage Steve Clark concludes: 

Many of us are like the rich young man. We have been given much, seem to be living a good enough life, yet realize that there is more. Jesus in his love for us, has chosen us and invited us to be his disciples, to leave all else and to identify our lives entirely with his. The cost appears high, but it is nothing in comparison with what we gain. To say ‘no’, to hold on to what we already have, is ultimately to go away sad and to lose everything.

Being a disciple of Jesus is a primary image of the Christian in the scriptures. It is also one of the first, and most fundamental, images that we have been given as a brotherhood. We are loved and chosen by the Lord, offered the ‘one thing’, God himself, God alone. We are called as rich young men to leave all behind and go with Jesus where he is going. We are called to deny all rights and claims to our lives and instead to throw our lot in completely and without reserve with Jesus, identifying utterly with him, seeking to be like him in everything, doing what he does, fighting where he fights, sharing in his sufferings and trials, and also sharing in his triumphs and joys. 

To be a disciple of the Lord Jesus is the highest call, the greatest privilege that a man can could aspire to. As Servants of the Word, let us answer the invitation without hesitation or reluctance. Let’s gladly sell all, and leave everything else behind, and make the Lord himself and the Lord alone our life.

Identifying one's life entirely with the Lord Jesus is very much at the heart of the radical discipleship that The Servants of the Word seek to have. To associate themselves with Jesus alone. Every Christian is called to be a disciple. This call is a personal call to each individual and how one lives one’s life will be determined by one's answer to that call. The Servants of the Word each want their life to express their willingness to say yes to the call to be a disciple of their master. 

The theme of ‘servanthood’ is also key for The Servants of the Word. It is significant that the word ‘servant‘ appears in the brotherhood’s name. The radical discipleship to which Jesus calls his people is one which requires them to be the servant of all just as Jesus was. Jesus washed the feet of his disciples and his disciples are called to do the same to each other. The idea of being the servant of Jesus is something which is recognized and spoken of in the Covenant of the Servants of the Word
As the eyes of servants are on the hands of their master, so we should be fully attentive to Him, ready to do whatever He commands us. We are not just hired servants who do some tasks given to them, but we are His men. Our lives are not our own, but we belong to Him. We live for Him, and not for ourselves. We are at His disposal with every moment of our lives and every bit of our strength and resources.
The Servants of the Word have a high ideal of life lived as a disciple of Jesus. The Covenant, however, recognizes that humans are weak and therefore the ideal of being the Lord’s servant is not something to be used to pass judgement on oneself but an ‘upward call’: 
To have the Lord as our only treasure and to live with an undivided and single heart is the life of the Kingdom. It can only happen fully at the redemption of our bodies when the Lord comes again and brings us into the royal freedom of the sons of God. Yet He has put his Spirit into our hearts, and this is the desire His Spirit gives us. To live with a holy desire that is not fully attainable could be a burden and a constant discouragement. We therefore will not use it as a means of passing judgement on ourselves, but we will receive it as an upward call of God in Christ Jesus so that it can be a source of freedom and life to us, lifting us out of ourselves and opening our hearts to the Lord.

For many brothers, the theme of radical discipleship was significant in their decision to join The Servants of the Word. In many of the cases brothers experienced some sort of conversion experience which made them desire to live ‘all out’ for God and life in The Servants of the Word was the way they felt God calling them to live out their call to radical discipleship. 

Jamie Treadwell, a brother from Detroit, who led Youth Initiatives  in Belfast for ten years, said: 

‘There was a point in my life where I realized that if Christianity was true then there was no other way to live but wholeheartedly. Committing myself to the Servants of the Word was the way I felt God calling me to fulfil the calling he had given me.’
Doug Smith, an American brother living in Belfast, expressed the same sentiment:
‘My desire was to live for God as fervently as I could. When I came into contact with the Servants of the Word I saw it as a way to live radically for God. As I became more involved I saw it as God’s way for me’
In my own experience not only was the theme of radical discipleship important to me but in particular the passage of the Rich Young Man. About eight years ago I heard a leader in the community I was a part of in Glasgow give a set of talks on the subject of ‘servanthood’. I remember that there was something enthralling about the idea of having the service of God be the very first priority in one’s life. During my training period before making my life long commitment the story of the rich young man became a common meditation. Another image illustrating the theme of radical discipleship is that of God being the ‘pearl of great price’. All of this came out of what I would call a profound but very ordinary realization of the love that God has for me as an individual and that he had a plan for me and an invitation that he was giving me to live in a relationship with him for the rest of my life. 

Part of the first paragraph of the ideal section of the Covenant sums it up well:

Therefore, in response to the exceeding greatness of the gift of God, we dedicate ourselves to loving Him with all our heart, mind, soul, and offering our lives to Him as a living sacrifice and consecrating our lives.
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