I have just returned from the 19th Annual Forma Conference in Philadelphia, and it occurs to me that our Church can learn much from how this organization for Christian Formation leaders in The Episcopal Church has been behaving lately.
We’re always hearing about the decline in church membership, the “graying” of those in the pews, and younger generations who are choosing to stay away – preferring to be “spiritual” rather than “religious.” These past few days in Philadelphia gave me time to reflect on what was different (and exciting) as I listened, watched, and rejoiced in what was going on all around me.
First, a little history. Most of my adult vocation has been in Christian education on a parish, diocesan, or church-wide level. I’ve seen decline in church attendance, alongside the budget cuts of formation positions (and education funding) on all church levels. I’ve been a Forma member almost since its inception (which began in 1997 as NAECED – the National Association of Episcopal Christian Education Directors), joining when I was a part-time Church School Coordinator.
I’ve been to at least 15 NAECED/Forma conferences, with my first one in New Orleans in 2002. There were about 40 people present and all our sessions were together in a small hotel conference room. We were all women (with maybe two men), mostly lay folk, and most involved in children’s ministries. And we were aging – just like the church in general. We did not represent the diversity that exists in our communities. As years (and annual conferences) went by I was beginning to wonder if there was a future generation to follow in my footsteps, or if the vocation of Christian education was to go the way of the dodo bird (and maybe organized religion).
Today the organization remains the same: same purpose, same passion for formation. But different. And in ways the Church can learn from.
Forma is now almost 600 members strong from all over The Episcopal Church and beyond. We are lay and ordained, volunteer and paid, gay and straight, racially diverse, and representative of almost all dioceses, even outside of the United States. And we’re growing.
In the early years, the organization struggled. Leadership was within a small group of individuals, although the group always tried to broaden the base. Conferences were more like a get together of friends for support, inspiration, and a time to get out of the trenches for refreshment and fun. With a conference held every year, it was always tough to break the 100 attendance mark. Membership stalled, with a difficulty in maintaining its peak of 200 or so.
So what happened for this growth to occur, at the same time budgets and positions were being cut on all levels of the Church? I have some ideas:
- Communication. Members invited others to join – and gave a reason why. Personal invitation and networking fed the hunger that individuals had as their ministry (that was not getting much support financially on the local and diocesan level) was burning them out.
- The organization changed its name to better represent its growing membership from NAECED to Forma – acknowledging that Christian education and formation involves children, youth, and adult formation. Youth ministry, adult ministry, seminaries, camps and conference centers, publishers, non-profit organizations, and all orders of ministry (lay and ordained) are called to the ministry of formation.
- Leadership (always elected) was broadened with specific terms of service. Nominations were open in a process of invitation that led to more diversity in its Board of Directors.
- Dioceses provided membership dues for church leaders. And many provided scholarship to attend the conference. Perhaps the funds that might have gone to diocesan programming was channeled here (one would hope).
- It was not clergy centric, but diverse in leadership roles, including preaching and keynoting at conferences.
- Social media was utilized to the fullness: an up-to-date website, an open Facebook group (now over 1,200 and counting), Pinterest page for sharing ideas and resources, a list-serve for communication, and an active Twitter account.
- Advocacy. Presence at General Convention to speak to issues related to the formation of God’s people – budget cuts, safe church training, seminary education, spanish translation of resources, supporting camps and conference centers as a place of formation, baptismal ministries including the Rite of Confirmation, and social justice issues. Forma became a force to be reckoned with and recognized as
- Partnerships were formed to support one another: DFMS staff are active in presence as well as support – offering workshops, scholarships, displays, and mentorship. The organization reached out to seminaries (students and faculty) to participate as their voices were needed.
- Forma stuck to (and finally) implemented one of the founding purposes of the organization: offering certification and education for those in the ministry of Christian Formation. In 2016 individuals graduated from the Certificate in Youth & Family Ministries program (in partnership with Seabury-Bexley Seminary) and individuals received the Certificate for Leadership in Lifelong Christian Formation after completing a rigorous program and capstone project in partnership with Virginia Theological Seminary. Two scholarship funds are now established: Janie Stevens Memorial Scholarship Fund for the Lifelong Christian Formation Certificate Program and the Youth & Family Ministry Certificate Scholarship Fund.
- The membership was willing to welcome the stranger in our midst. Hospitality is a core value at conferences and members take it upon themselves to welcome newcomers.
- We prayed together, creatively and traditionally.
Forma is now set to forge ahead, perhaps as a model for the rest of the Church. With seed money from General Convention as well as its own strategic planning with membership pledges/donations, it is ready to hire its first Executive Director. See the position description here.
There are many individuals who have brought the organization this far. From its “founding mothers” who gathering in 1997 to form an independent, non-profit group within the Episcopal Church to lift up the ministry of Christian education to today’s Board of Directors, the future is hopeful. As I looked out on the full ballroom as everyone gathered for dinner that first night and listened to articulate individuals ask questions during workshops, I saw that a dream born by many almost 20 years ago had become a reality.
Those of us who’ve been ‘around awhile’ need to step out of the way, offer our presence, support, and experience (when asked), and hand things over to the next generation. If you build it, they will come. But build wisely and inclusively; let others know who you are, what your purpose is, and how they can participate in making a difference.