For Bishop Gerry Schnackenberg, contemplative prayer is a lot like scuba diving.
“There’s a classic exercise, where you imagine that you are going underwater, if that imagery is helpful to you,” explained Bishop Gerry. “There are boats on the surface, and a lot of noise, but the deeper you go, the less you hear those noises above the surface. In a typical prayer session, it’ll take me a good 5 to 10 minutes to get to that deep part of prayer, where I can really quiet myself and rest in God. When I get there, those moments are beyond description.”
Bishop Gerry, who has been practicing contemplative prayer for 40 years, has been a part of the Anglican Mission since 2000 and was consecrated a Bishop in 2015. We recently sat down with Bishop Gerry to learn more about his journey of faith, what his day-to-day looks like, and what advice he has for those who want to grow deeper in their prayer life.
Tell us a little about yourself. What is your faith background?
I was born in Denver, and grew up in Steamboat Springs, a ski town. I loved skiing, and living where we lived, raced with Olympians. Skiing consumed my life and thinking up through High School.
My family attended a small Episcopal Church and were faithful people. My mom did altar guild, I was an acolyte, and we served the church in many different ways. I even remember helping to paint the church one year when it needed it.
In college, I had an adult conversion experience when I was a Freshman. It changed the course of my life, starting with my major. I switched from forestry to biology, with the aim of being a High School teacher and being able to witness in schools. This turned out to be a problem in the public school and after one year of teaching fifth grade, I moved in a different direction.
Another life-changing experience happened a year or two following my adult conversion. I experience a release of the Holy Spirit that hugely impacted my ministry. I felt empowered to do the work and ministry of witnessing, discipleship, and healing.
What came next?
I joined Youth With a Mission and traveled around the world with them. I was in Munich for the Olympics in 1972 when there was a terrorist attack. It was a turning point for witnessing to people there. God used a really dark thing for a shining light.
Shortly afterwards I started feeling a call to the priesthood. During that time I also met my wife, Pam.
I went to seminary at Nashotah House, and spent the years following that serving in churches all over Colorado. We then spent two years at a Bishop’s Chaplin in a partner diocese in Malawi.
When we returned to the United States, I served at a church in Salida, CO. All the while, I felt called back to Africa. I got a Master’s in Cross-cultural studies. When we returned to Africa in 1987, we went to Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo) to serve with Bishop Emanuel Kolini. My relationship with +Kolini was great, but the circumstances didn’t work out and we returned to the United States. I think the Lord had us meet back then for the work we are doing now.
Over the next decade, I served in various churches in Colorado. When we parted ways with the Episcopal church, we started a new church in South Denver. It was one of the first churches in the Mission, the Light of Christ Church.
From there I felt called to plant churches. Since 2002, we have planted 10-12 churches, of which about four still remain. Some lasted 1-5 years and then folded.
I was consecrated Bishop in May of 2015 and continue to serve new starts and churches.
During all this time, we also had a family. We have two beautiful daughters and five wonderful grandchildren. They are all following the Lord, and that is what we are most happy about. Throughout the years the Lord has also brought young men and women into my life for me to mentor and help out.
What does your day-to-day look like?
Prayer takes up a lot of my day. In 2012, I went on a silent retreat for 25 days. God really spoke to me then about the need for quiet time and prayer. I start most days with 2 hours of quiet time in the morning. . I try to get away for a full day of prayer once a month, and aim for a two to three day getaway once a year.
My goal is to be praying without ceasing. I am an ADD pray-er. I struggle with it. I feel called to be a contemplative and have been learning for 40 years.
I also spend a lot of one-on-one time with people, getting coffee and talking about life. We have worship service on Wednesday night and of course Sunday morning. And twice a month I take communion to a house church.
What person has most impacted your life and why?
Jesus, of course. And then I’d have to mention three people: my grandmother, my father, and my wife.
My grandmother, Elizabeth Schnackenberg was one of the greatest saints I’ve ever known. She was a wonderful Methodist woman who spent hours in prayer and still inspires me.
My father was my ski coach and I loved him deeply. He was very conflicted in his faith. He was a medic in World War II and there was a lot that he couldn’t talk about. He had a deep faith that he couldn’t articulate. He died young and inspired me by his joy and love for the Lord and life.
Finally, my wife, Pam. We’ve been married for 42 years. She inspires me in the way she walks with the Lord. She’s a behind the scenes servant, loving and caring for our parents, our daughters, our grandchildren and whoever is in her life. She spends a lot of time in prayer, too. She prays differently than I do. She loves praying ancient prayers and spends a lot of time reading and studying them.
What is something that you would like to accomplish in the future?
That’s a hard one for me to answer. I know this sounds so pious, but I really do want to become much better at contemplative prayer and intercessory prayer. I want to touch as many lives as possible. That’s not very quantifiable, but it is what’s on my heart. I want to retire well and die well.
At lot of your time is spent in prayer. What would you say to someone who is too busy to make time for contemplative prayer?
I’ve found that the most fruitful times in my life have been when I have been most consistent in prayer. When I say “fruitful,” I’m not just talking about productivity. I’m talking about the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.
The thing that keeps me coming back to contemplative prayer is the joy I experience. The discipline and the obedience for making time for prayer are a result of the joy of being aware of God’s presence.
What advice would you give someone who wants to grow more in prayer?
There are certain basics you can learn from books, but don’t rely on books. Get the basics from the books and then just do it. The way to get better at prayer is to practice. It can feel like failure, that’s how I feel at times. Some days, I feel like my failure rate is 99%, but that 1% is filled with so much joy, and that is what keeps me going.
Set aside the time to pray, find a good place to pray, and keep at it. These days, I am a master of my own schedule, so it is a lot easier to make time for prayer. When I was a young curate and when our kids were growing up, I would write my time of prayer into my schedule like an appointment. The same way I would set up time to meet with my Bishop, I would set up time to meet with Jesus. Sometimes the church I was at would have a chapel for me to pray in, but during one season I remember going to a cubicle in the local library for my prayer appointments.
There are times, of course, when something comes up, or I’m traveling, and my routine gets thrown off. To me, the routine of prayer is like charging a massive battery. If and when I break out of charging my battery, I can draw on the reserve. The danger comes when I am drawing too much on that reserve without recharging. My “battery” lasts about a day or two, maybe three. If I go longer than that, I’ll notice myself being short with people or getting angry. That’s when I once again set aside time for quiet prayer and get back into that rhythm.
Everyone has a way of praying, of “charging their battery.” It may be through music, in quite, through writing or being in nature. The important thing is to find that sweet spot where you meet Jesus and spend as much time there as you can.