GodStory | Searching For The Heart: North Carolina Interfaith Prayer Center Serves As A Place To Connect With God and Self

 

VanderStory St. Francis

 

The directions to get to St. Francis Springs Prayer Center are simple: once you turn on the North Carolina highway where it’s located, just drive. You’ll get there eventually. The journey of getting there, the slowness of the way the road curves through the Carolina mountainside, is part of the preparation for what you’ll experience when you get there. Life at the center is designed to create genuine connection with God, quiet and meditative reflection, worshipful reverence, and connection with nature. 

Life is slower there. And that’s purposeful. 

St. Francis Springs Prayer Center, founded in 2004, is an interfaith prayer and retreat center located in Stoneville, North Carolina, about 30 miles north of Greensboro. Nestled at the end of a winding driveway on 140 acres in the mountains, the 25,000 square foot facility has landscaped gardens, a cozy home-like timber building with giant glass windows and screened-in porches looking out over the mountainside. It offers retreatants of all denominations a place to find quiet physical and spiritual rest within its walls. 

Hermitages—smaller, secluded buildings—surround the main building. And instead of looking at your phone over meals—there is no wifi or technology, and in fact, if you need a cell signal, you’ll need to go to the top of the driveway—visitors can take in wooded views, wildlife, sunrises, and sunsets. Everything has purpose built into it to create harmony and connection with nature, with self, and with God. 

Vanderbloemen was honored to partner with St. Francis Springs in the search for their new Executive Director this summer. Steve Swayne, a small business owner and a former retreat attendee himself, stepped into his new role this fall. 

“This was definitely a unique search,” Executive Search Consultant Jennifer Winge, who worked closely with St. Francis Springs on this search, said. “It was important to all involved for the heart and feel of the center to be captured, so it was essential that I was there in person. I stayed overnight on their property and happened to be there while a silent retreat was happening, so I really understood what it was like to be on a retreat there—no one could talk to me! But until you experience it in person, you really can’t imagine how peaceful and beautiful this place is. It’s a place where, whether you realize it or not, the spirit of God dwells, and dwells richly.” 

Father Louie, a Franciscan priest who moved from Boston to the Greensboro diocese, started the center as the result of a calling to create a place where, as Jennifer describes it, “you can meet God and get real with your real self.” 

“This has been Father Louie’s heart and dream and full-time job since the center started,” Jennifer said. “He is a dearly loved person—he’s not behind the scenes at all. He knows everyone and everyone loves him. He’s created a place of peace where the Spirit is present. This is a retreat center that is open to all denominations and backgrounds and deeply desires to cut across denominational lines. Everyone is loved and welcome here, regardless of differences. It’s a place that is rooted in Franciscan hospitality and tradition, bringing people together in unity of faith—not denomination—to do amazing things for the Kingdom. So we knew that the candidate to whom Father Louie could pass the baton would have to understand both the business side and the ministry side. The hospitality and heart is the lifeblood of this place. And then we met Steve.” 

Steve Swayne—easily described as someone with a “similar heart” to Father Louie—had been a retreatant at the center seven years ago and along the way had, of course, met the founder and director. Sometime later, after hearing about the job, it started to resonate—God was calling him back here.

“What cooler way for the heart of the center to remain steady than for it to be taken over by someone who had actually been part of its work before?” Jennifer said. “Steve is an entrepreneur and has run successful businesses, but for him, this was a deep calling. From the first interview, I could tell there was a relational side of him. I was supposed to be interviewing him for this role, and he was asking me questions about myself instead! That’s what kind of person he is: it’s not just about the job. He’s a lover of people. He genuinely cares for people and wants to hear their stories.” 

Steve has had a range of business and ministry leadership experiences—from working as a CFO, to working at Young Life camps, to working in sports marketing—but he would say that there was always more to it than that. God was calling him to each place for a specific season. As he begins his new role at the Center, Steve’s background and specific heart for social justice and the hospitality of St. Francis of Assissi—taking care of the least of these—will help nurture and grow the center and help it thrive and stay for the long term. 

“It was helpful to understand the Center with a perspective that was personal to me—encountering God through silence,” Steve said. “I wanted to be an extension of Father Louie. He doesn’t cut any corners. Everything about the center is incredibly beautiful. He knew if he created a beautiful place, God would bring the people. People come from all over—there are over 6,000 visitors each year to the center. The beauty of the Franciscan movement is that they have a deep longing to be contemplative with God and in communion with God, and they then hope that turns into people feeling deeply called to serve the poor. So my hope for the center is twofold: to continue the rhythm that has happened over 15 years, and to turn the center into a center of justice, getting groups who train on justice to come to the center and creating a scholarship for low-income attendees to use the center for its most important purpose of rest in some pretty profound ways. It’s my dream to continue to unify others in faith and not denomination as we work towards these goals.” 

More than that, Jennifer said that Steve’s personal testimony played a part in molding him for this role. 

“His beautiful personal testimony—that God is so big, and yet can be for each person—was something that perfectly captured what this center is about: encountering God,” Jennifer said. “That was a defining moment when I could zero in on the heart of the person we were looking for and find it, right there. Finding the right candidate is often about checking off a list of qualifications, but we can’t forget the most important quality: their heart.”

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