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
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
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
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
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 .
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,
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:
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
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.
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.
It was these principles which
formed the basis of the community in Ann Arbor, which took the name The
Word of God.
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.
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
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.
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.
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:
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.
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
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:
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.