Multiple strands make up life’s calling for spiritual direction guide
Sharon Garlough Brown has multiple threads weaving through her busy life, all of them complementing the others and creating a tapestry that pictures how God directs every aspect of her life.
Brown is co-pastor with her husband Jack Brown of Redeemer Covenant Church in Dutton, where she works primarily in pastoral care and leading small groups. She also offers guidance to about 10 individuals who come to her for spiritual direction. Those two strands of her life segue into additional threads as well.
Brown is teaching half a class on spiritual formation at Grand Rapids Theological Seminary. The first half of the class, taught by GRTS professor Jeremy Grinnell, focuses on the theological aspects of spiritual formation. The second half, taught by Brown, focuses on the experiential side.
“I tell the students that this isn’t an academic exercise, but that I offer it out of my pastor/spiritual director heart,” said Brown, who holds an M.Div. from Princeton Theological Seminary. “We’re doing seminary students a disservice if we send them out into churches without them knowing how to care for their own souls.”
Reactions are mixed at first as students come from diverse backgrounds and with varying degrees of knowledge and experience. “I assure them that these are deeply orthodox practices of the church and rooted in Scripture,” she said.
Brown is also leading retreats about once a month and speaking at churches, women’s events, and book clubs. While her main topic is spiritual formation, much of her speaking is a result of her novel “Sensible Shoes,” the tale of four women who embark on a spiritual formation journey at a retreat center. The journey of “Sensible Shoes” itself could only be orchestrated by God, said Brown.
She wrote the book without any plans for publication and no contacts in the publishing world. In 2009 she attended the Breathe Christian Writers Conference where she heard about a new custom publishing venture called WestBow Press. She contacted WestBow and soon signed a contract, with “Sensible Shoes” coming out in 2010.
Readers began buying the book and spreading the word about the novel as women found themselves in the struggles of the four characters. Sales increased and Brown began speaking more often as churches asked her to address the themes of the book. Though she had custom published, Brown dreamed of finding a home for the book with a traditional Christian publisher.
“For two years I had been saying that if anybody published ‘Sensible Shoes,’ I would like it to be InterVarsity Press, though I knew IVP doesn’t do fiction,” said Brown. Then in April 2012 she attended the Calvin College Festival of Faith & Writing, where she felt God nudging her to speak to IVP editor Cindy Bunch.
“I stood in line and gave my first-ever book pitch. She said to send her a copy of the book, but I forgot to ask her about a book proposal,” said Brown with a laugh. “When I emailed her later with that question, Cindy email back to say that, providentially, a woman at another conference asked if she’d heard of the book ‘Sensible Shoes.’”
Brown sent off the book, and several weeks later Bunch called and said IVP would like to add the novel to their new IVP Crescendo line for women, despite IVP never publishing fiction—except for “Sensible Shoes.”
The new edition of the book was due out in April—until God intervened once again. Marilyn Hontz, wife of the pastor of Central Wesleyan Church in Holland, had given a copy of the book to a friend who lives in Key Largo; that friend gave it to her friend who read it and love it. That friend was Kathie Lee Gifford, who wanted to feature it on the Today Show.
Brown laughs when she describes the hyperventilating call she made to Cindy Bunch at IVP, then the hyperventilating call she received back from Bunch. IVP moved up the release date and rushed the printing so Gifford would have the new version of the book to talk about on Today. She did so on Monday, March 11.
“Sensible Shoes” flew up the Amazon ranking to number 85, and became no. 5 in Christian books on Amazon. The distributor sold out. “The timing was truly remarkable and truly God’s doing,” said Brown. “My only marketing strategy was prayer. It wasn’t about marketing money, but just old-fashioned word of mouth from friend to friend. It’s a very unconventional story, but I hope it points only to God and his glory.”
These days Brown is still leading the original Sensible Shoes small group at Redeemer Covenant, expanding it to include 50-60 women who met every other week just like the women in the book. She’s praying about another book, but is unsure whether it’s a sequel or a nonfiction exploration of similar themes.
“I hope I’m not done with the characters, but I don’t want to jump ahead of God’s plan. I want to be in prayer because I don’t think the writing is done,” said Brown.
Name: Sharon Garlough Brown
Title: Co-pastor of Redeemer Covenant Church
Status: Married, 43
Writer: Author of “Sensible Shoes”