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How I Built This: Emilee Williams and The Grace Lab

(Image: The Grace Lab, Emilee Williams)

How I Built This features inspiring interviews with Glean Network Alumna, exploring the victories, obstacles, challenges, and breakthroughs that characterize the Spiritual Entrepreneur's journey. This month, we are honored to feature Glean Network Alumni (START Cohort 5), Spiritual Director and Retreat Facilitator, Emilee Williams, and her newly launched venture, The Grace Lab.

What is The Grace Lab?

The Grace Lab is a spiritual direction and retreat ministry start-up focused on helping individuals and communities find God's grace within their days. Grounded in Ignatian spirituality and guided by Jacob's awestruck proclamation in Genesis 28:16 that "surely the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it," the Grace Lab empowers and equips communities to gain a greater awareness of God's grace in their days. Through one-on-one spiritual direction, pop-up retreats, and purposeful day-design coaching, the Grace Lab bridges the gaps between weekend religious services and Monday morning mayhem to help clients and communities reclaim their days in grace.

(Image: The Grace Lab, Emilee Williams)

Tell us about the “Genesis Story” of The Grace Lab. What were its origins? Why did you decide to build this? Why now?

I have always been deeply passionate about both creative spiritual direction as well as purposeful day-design; coupled with this, I'd wrestled for years with where my gift were best used, whether in ordained ministry or spiritual entrepreneurship settings, or a combination of both. Amidst this backdrop, I began, informally, helping friends, peers, and students create ordinary liturgies for their days -- developing routines and rhythms that drew them back into grace. The fact that our days could be leveraged as a locus of God's grace was an under-developed idea for many people and an area of great need: what does my faith mean for me when I'm running out the door late, lost my keys, stuck in traffic, spilling my coffee? How can I find grace in this moment? How can I create rhythms and routines to reclaim these moments? Coinciding with this, I was invited to lead retreats around the topic of life-liturgies and daily spirituality. Shortly thereafter, the lightbulb went off: tangible, customized support for developing daily spiritualities is a great need in our religious communities and beyond. I decided then and there to formally start something so that I could offer this more regularly, more widely, and more intentionally. The Grace Lab was born that summer of 2020 and by the fall, I was booking retreats with churches in my area who had never heard about Ignatian spirituality or considered the was their days could be better leveraged to encounter God's graces.

(Image: The Grace Lab, Emilee Williams)

I have an interesting origin story in the sense that the Grace Lab grew during a global pandemic. In many ways, the realities of being stuck at home made it more necessary to develop rhythms and routines that created stability, hope, and grace, but this need stretches beyond a global pandemic. The invitation to reclaim our days, refine our rhythms, and retreat into our grace-filled life is an invitation readily received whether stuck at home or not.

What has been the most rewarding experience of building The Grace Lab so far?

The scripture passage that guides Grace Lab retreats is Jacob's proclamation in Genesis 28:16, "Surely the Lord is in this place and I did not know it." Whenever I close a retreat, I have a specific liturgy: we each share a way that we are finding God in our days and the group together affirms after each person shares, "Surely the Lord is in this place." If there are fifteen people at a retreat, then this affirmation is made fifteen times: Surely the Lord is in this place. There has never been a retreat where I have not had tears in my eyes and goosebumps on my arms as I hear each community proclaim this -- and, even more powerful, believe it.

The most rewarding part is simply that: watching individuals and communities realize, with a similar awe that Jacob offers, that God is graciously involved in their days.

It is as if a lightbulb goes off a few sessions in and individuals start saying... "Wait, why haven't I thought to better leverage my days? Why haven't I thought to find God's grace in these ordinary moments?" Watching communities realize that the Lord is in this place -- in their days -- is the most rewarding part of this venture for me. I am left more in awe, more convinced, that the Lord is in my days, in my life, each time I walk a community through a retreat or sessions.

(Image: The Grace Lab, Emilee Williams)

What has been the most challenging experience of building The Grace Lab so far?

For my context, it was probably been the ever-constant juggling of different hats. I knew without a doubt that this was the moment I was meant to launch the Grace Lab, and I also continue to work full-time with a full plate of extra-curricular commitments. My passion for purposeful day-design helps me juggle the hats fairly well and keep my routines manageable and sustainable, but it doesn't always make it easy. It's a commitment and it's a calling that I cannot ignore, but building it "on the side," so to speak, is tough. Thank goodness for fellowships like START that come alongside you and help you. It has made a world of a difference.

What were your intentions coming into the START cohort? How did your experience with START support you in your journey?

I don't say this lightly: START was a divinely-timed opportunity. It was not on my radar and I had no intentions of adding a fellowship on to my plate during an already hectic year, but I am so glad I said yes, because it was exactly what I needed to confidently continue growing the Grace Lab. I have a wide breadth of a background in spirituality, retreat facilitation, and so forth. I do not have experience in entrepreneurship, business-related matters, or ministry start-ups... at all! I soaked up every single bit of coaching and advice I was able to receive to help me grow in the business dimension. START helped me unpack pricing and revenue models, develop customer acquisition strategies, and plan for the long-run. It fell into my lap at the most opportune time and was precisely what I needed to think about and fine-tune critical parts to my start-up that I had no idea where to begin in thinking through. START was a God-send in my start-up journey.

(Image: The Grace Lab, Emilee Williams)

What is one piece of advice you would give to anyone entering START, or taking some of the first steps with their start up?

Like many other people, I initially tried to convince myself that I didn't have the time for a cohort or fellowship because building a business is already time-consuming enough... ha! I can say confidently that trying to launch the Grace Lab would have been infinitely more time-consuming, stressful, and less enjoyable if I didn't have the support of START.

My biggest advice would be to accept the support and do not be intimidated by the workload. It offers an invaluable community of likeminded innovators who will lift your spirits, offer support, and share ideas. Let the community, coaching, and resources be part of your journey.

Are there any resources/hacks that particularly help you in your leadership role that you would like to share?

Well, given that I train communities in developing Rhythms of Grace for their days and weeks, I can't speak highly enough about this practice for me as a leader! My website has a worksheet bundle with resources on developing Rhythms of Grace that I offer my clients, but it's also a resource I use for myself. It keeps me grounded and it reminds me that as I lead and pour myself, I too need God to pour into me, meet me, and find me in my days.


Learn about START, our 10-week entrepreneurship incubator taught by Columbia Business School faculty. Deliver your vision into the world while building a sustainable business model to shepherd its growth -- and yours.


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