Retired minister moves his congregation outside - literally - as a forest therapist

When Bruce Sweet retired as a United Church minister, he was on the lookout for a new way to connect with people in a spiritual sense. His new congregation includes trees as well as people, thanks to a Japanese practice called forest bathing.
In search of deeper meaning and connection, retired minister Bruce Sweet began leading groups of people through meditative walks in the forest. (Jason Boychuk)

When Bruce Sweet retired from his position as a United Church minister, he had an idea that he thought would be of great interest to the world.

"I decided I wanted to find out what people considered important or central …  what was at the heart of life? And people were attending church less and less. And so I thought well if it's not this, if they're not finding this in any religion expression, then how are they finding what is really meaningful and deep?

"I asked myself, what else am I interested in which is not expressed in a traditional way in faith or in the activity of the church? And I knew the one thing that I enjoyed was taking a quiet slow walk in the woods. So I thought I'll just take some people for a walk."

So one Sunday, in lieu of going to church, he led a group of friends through a meditative walk in the forest. Sweet instructed people to walk very slowly in silence and to deeply tune into their surroundings: the sounds they heard, the colours they saw, the sensation of the air around them and the ground beneath them. Everyone seemed to emerge spiritually restored.

"I'm a genius," he told himself. "I've really discovered something here."

In lieu of going to church one Sunday, retired minister Bruce Sweet decided to lead a group of friends through a meditative walk in the forest. He's kept up the practice ever since. (Rosie Fernandez)

It was only later when he was reading a copy of the United Church Observer that he saw an article with the title 'Forest Bathing.'

"And immediately I thought, now I know the United Church is a very progressive denomination, and very open-minded, and liberal and accepting, but FOREST BATHING? I thought this time, oh, they've just gone too far."

That's when Sweet realized that forest bathing is another term for a Japanese practice called shinrin-yoku, which means to 'take in the forest atmosphere.' It was developed in the 1980s and has been linked to benefits such as reduced stress, improved mood, increased ability to focus, increased energy levels and improved sleep. 

"Look at that, they stole my idea before I had a chance to invent it myself," Sweet jokes. "Not only did I not invent anything, there was training available for this." 

Sweet took the training with Forest Therapy Guide with the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy. He says the book, The Hidden Life of Trees helped reshaped his view of trees.

"I no longer say I'm going for a walk in the woods. I now say I am in their presence."

"Nature is celebrated throughout scripture… I like to think that we're rejoicing with nature.  I tell people at times that what I'm really doing is organizing family reunions. We're reconnecting with another part of the family of earth - humans and nature together.

Bruce Sweet is a United Church Minister and Forest Therapist in Kitchener, Ontario.