Tag Archives: formation

A Rebuttal: On Forming Human Children

The below is a response to an article recently posted on the “Covenant,” a project/blog of The Living Church. Many of us in The Episcopal Church acknowledge that this publication / organization is part of the conservative (ie: homophobic) branch of our denomination and articles are often cloaked in academia and theological discourse. Trigger warning (especially to my LBGTQ+ siblings): the article is written by a priest from a parish and school in Diocese of Dallas (Texas) that does not appear to be a welcoming place for all.

A parishioner shared this article with me, seeking my response as a person who has called Christian formation her vocation and profession for over 40 years in the Episcopal Church on the parish, diocesan, and church-wide level. In discerning my response, I felt it important to share with Fr. Jordan and “The Living Church” readership my thoughts in response. 

My experience in the church and the academy is very different. Summarized in the Episcopal Church’s document Called to Teach and Learn, Christian formation (whom many still called Christian Education or Sunday School) is a catechetical process. We are “formed” by participation and practice of the Christian life of faith; a natural conforming and transforming process about which we (the Church) need to be intentional. We are “educated” by a process of critical reflection on participation in light of the gospel. We are “instructed” by processes by which knowledge and skills important to the Christian life of faith are acquired. In many ways our churches fail to embrace these three interrelated life-long processes, only focusing on the instruction piece for children as well as adults.

I’m not sure what was so great about the “older, better way” of passing along the faith – at least since my Baby Boomer days in Sunday School when the teacher was the “sage on the stage,” children were seen as empty vessels, and I had to memorize – not question – what well-meaning adults interpreted what God said. I believe we know what works better today. One example that comes immediately to mind is Godly Play, a method in which we engage the child in story, allowing their innate spirituality to wonder and embrace the mystery of God. Children truly “fall in love with God” in Godly Play. As a storyteller, I am not “forming” the children – God and God’s Story does that. As a child I was formed by God, surrounded by a community that loved me. How dare I assume to be the one forming (or needing to change) anyone. 

Continue reading A Rebuttal: On Forming Human Children

“Rooted in Jesus”

It’s only been a couple of weeks since (reportedly) 1,300 Episcopalians and friends met in Atlanta, Georgia for what was subversively called Episcopalooza or “General Convention with workshops, but no legislation.” The brainchild of Bill Campbell, former Executive Director of Forma: The Network for Christian Formation this conference brought together various cohorts within the Episcopal Church (and beyond) to explore formation, evangelism, preaching, leadership, mission, stewardship, and communications. A massive undertaking with a lot of behind the scenes work from many individuals, it was the Church at its best. Worship was extraordinary, workshops were inspiring and informative, creativity was abundant, and Jesus was proclaimed. Even the hotel staff got in on the action and “rooted for Jesus.”

It was too much to digest and while I got to see LOTS of friends and colleagues, I missed many opportunities to network or attend presentations because I couldn’t be at two (or three) places at once. Thankfully, many presentations were live-streamed via Forma’s Facebook page and many were recorded so that even those unable to be present could be fed by the experience. My take-aways and learnings:

Continue reading “Rooted in Jesus”

Wilderness Tips for Episcopalians

Church Window BrokenYes, I’ve been on the road again. And the topic comes up again and again – what’s the best curriculum? What’s the latest trend in Christian formation? What does the future of education look like in our churches? Besides giving workshops that also tap into these themes (there’s no way to avoid it), I’m in the midst of writing an article for the Spring issue of Episcopal Teacher magazine (published by Virginia Theological Seminary). So when the keynote address at the Winter Convocation (like a Diocesan Convention) in the Episcopal Diocese of Ohio was given by President of the House of Deputies Gay Clark Jennings, I immediately checked it out .

Wilderness Tips for Episcopalians.

She describes much of what I am seeing – the recent statistics and studies, the recent blog posts and keynotes given by other church leaders, But so many churches seem to be in denial. It’s time to listen and time to act. What worked 50, 25 or even 5 years ago cannot be repeated in the same way in 2013.

What new visions do you have? How are we truly transforming others in the way of Christ?

Christian Formation is an Art, not a Science

This past week all (fill in the blank) seems to have broken loose with the release of the proposed triennial (2013-2015) Episcopal Church budget. Facebook has been a-flutter, blogs are bouncing from site to site as each builds a case for re-evaluating how numbers were assigned various departments and ministries. And yes, I have added to the mix with my opinions in a variety of forums.

It is about how we can best do the mission of the church, which is ultimately reconciling all to God through the re-creation of a whole and holy world. Whether it is from the “top down” or from the “grassroots,” I believe how we become followers of Jesus Christ involves Christian formation. Not Sunday School. But formation.

I’ve been traveling this past week, and upon my return attempted to attack the piles of paper on my desk to sort through what needed to be recycled – either into the bin or my files (no, not the round one on the floor). I came across this editorial which I had torn out of a past issue of The Christian Century. It was an article that captured my attention, and one I thought might come in handy for further thought in the future. It seems now is a good time to share it.

John Henry Newman, the recently beatified English cardinal, said that the church is shaped by the dynamic interaction of three elements: worship, theological reflection and institutional governance. As he saw it, these three activities work in creative tension. Left to themselves, each sphere becomes corrupted: worship tends toward “superstition and enthusiasm,” theology towards “rationalism,” and governance toward “ambition, craft and cruelty.”

Those churchly iniquities are common enough. Those who walk away from church might be categorized according to what wounded them the most: the rigidity or chaos of the liturgy, the sterility of the theology or the character flaws of the leaders.

Yet Newman’s scheme omits one element that is crucial in the life of the church: people skilled in the everyday practices of faith. If a church does not form people who live in Christ and display some measure of forgiveness, compassion, hospitality, care for the Earth, solidarity with those who suffer and perseverance in distress, then no liturgy or theology, however rich, and no governance system, however inspired, will save the church.

In recent decades, Protestants have adopted the Roman Catholic language of “formation” to draw attention to this dimension of faith. Though it is still rare to find a Protestant congregation advertising for a “director of Christian formation,” the concept has become clear enough: the church’s goal is not to pass on information about the Bible or doctrine, as important as that is, but to form people whose lives embody the good news of God’s love encountered in Jesus.

The resources for faith formation have grown enormously in this period, both in number and in variety, yet the task remains somewhat elusive. In part that’s because everything the church does – from arranging the nursery to welcoming new members to organizing potluck dinners – is formative in some way. Churches that succeed in formation tend to be ones that artfully use all aspects of church life – committee meetings as well as formal instruction programs – as opportunities to deepen and extend people’s faith.

Formation is elusive also because one can never predict how it will happen. Why does a particular Christian practice catch people’s hearts and lead them to incorporate it in their hearts and lead them to incorporate it in their lives and articulate its Christian meaning to others? Encouraging formation is an art, not a science, and the result is always bound up in the mystery of grace.

So formation is a matter of grace. In his article “Faith forming faith,” Paul E. Hoffman describes how a new Christian’s commitment to hospitality unexpectedly shaped the witness of an entire congregation. The moment could not have been planned. Yet, as Hoffman shows, the groundwork for it was laid by an ongoing program of adult formation. Formation comes by grace, as do all good things. And – to quote Norman Maclean in A River Runs Through It – “grace comes by art and art does not come easy.”

In The Episcopal Church, intentional Christian formation just doesn’t happen. It takes a community. It takes engagement with our Baptismal Covenant and all that those promises mean in our daily lives. It is one thing to recite what we believe, it is another to learn how to reflect upon on beliefs according to what is developmentally appropriate.

Several visions have been studied and shared in recent times about how The Episcopal Church can continue to live into being a Church that embraces the ministry of all the baptized. One is the Charter for Lifelong Christian Formation. Read how the Standing Commission on Lifelong Christian Education and Formation recommends the Church continue on this path on Building the Continuum. Join the conversation.

Investing in the Future

28th Sunday after Pentecost

1 Thessalonians 5:1-1                        Matthew 25:14-30

Today’s Gospel Lesson is the parable of the talents. Let me ease your minds upfront; I’m not going to talk about money, our economic situation, Occupy Wall Street or our investment portfolios. But I am going to address the feelings we may have in this world at the moment. And I believe it is the root of what Jesus is asking us to sit up and pay attention to.

All of today’s readings contrast hope and fear, and abundance and scarcity, as spiritual issues that shape our personal and corporate behavior.  Do we see the world in terms of what we lack or in terms of possibilities for growth and transformation?

I returned home on Thursday from an intense 48-hour gathering of over 80 Episcopalians who came from all over the Episcopal Church. All orders were represented: lay folks, deacons, priests and bishops. A multitude of Episcopal networks were represented: camps and conference centers, youth ministers, Christian educators, policy makers, school administrators, seminary professors, musicians, and liturgists. We represented the diversity of region, economics, ethnicity and theology of our church. And it is one of the first gatherings I have attended in a long time that was filled with the equal participation of young adults – those between the ages of 18-30. And how life giving it was to have their voice along with those of us aging and graying folk. Besides our commonality of being Episcopalians, we all had a passion for Christian formation. We were invited to participate in a Faith Formation Summit entitled, “Building the Continuum.”

One of the goals of the gathering was to analyze the present realities and future uncertainties in the church and the world and envision potential futures for Episcopal faith formation in a diversity of settings over the next 5-10 years. Our focusing question was, “How might Christian lifelong faith formation over the next ten years affect the renewal and transformation of the Episcopal Church in a 21st century world?”

It was a timely question, because just as in our readings for today, we are concerned with the future – of our community, our families, and our church.   Resources for children, youth and Christian education continue to be marginalized on the congregational, diocesan and church-wide level. We see it in how budgets are put together and how they are cut when income goes down. We see it in how much we invest in our teachers and their training. We see it in how we welcome the child in our midst in all that we do – not just Sunday School. How do we invest in these human resources?

So much of our conversation at this gathering was how our churches are living in fear. Recent demographic studies have shown the membership of mainline denominations is aging and decreasing. Young adults are not attending church. Families are so busy that going to church is low on the priority list – sports, school, vacations, and simply downtime now fill the Sunday morning time slot.

In such a reality, how are we helping all our church members engage with the world with Jesus eyes? How are we engaged in bringing about God’s kingdom to those who are crying to be healed in a hurting world? How can we look outward when we are worried about survival?

Today’s Gospel urges us to be risk-takers with our investments. And one of the greatest investments we have is our children. They offer possibilities that are beyond our imagination. They give us a glimpse of what God calls us to be and do. Their sense of awe and wonder of the world around us cause us (if we are paying attention) to stop, listen and hear their words of prophecy.

Do we see the world in terms of what we lack or in terms of possibilities for growth and transformation?

One of the scenarios about the Episcopal Church of the future that was developed at the gathering was one we titled, “Episcopal Christian Country Club.” This church was focused on itself, its immediate neighborhood and membership, church activities, its building and identity. It is trying to maintain itself as to what it was 50 years ago and so has become insular, aging, using its resources (financial and human) to maintain itself.  It is a church living in a world of scarcity, fear and isolation. This scenario is one in which the church will die. And in my travels around the United States, it is a growing reality. Those that choose to retain their identity in what once was instead of what could be. Living in a world of scarcity without wanting to take new risks. It’s the third servant who buried what was given to him.

Another scenario that was a polar opposite is a church that is totally engaged with the world, embracing technology for the building of community. This is the church that is open to the extravagance in our lives, one that is focused on God’s mission of abundance. It involves all sorts of possibilities. It moves us from seeing life only in terms of the bottom line or our current perception of our resources as barely adequate to support our needs. It involves children, youth and young adults as co-contributors to the church’s mission.

We can see this in the feeding of the five thousand: the disciples complain that they only had five loaves and two fish, which, of course, can’t feed five thousand. But Jesus believed in a deeper reality, which included God’s lively energy, the generosity of the crowd, and divine-human abundance hidden in apparent scarcity.

The spiritual gifts of love, forgiveness, faith, hope, trust, compassion and active care need to be invested and used in the service of others. And those who take the risk of investing those gifts do receive in abundance. More will be given to them. But for those who have not risked the investment of those gifts but have buried them in the ground, even the gifts they have will be lost.

One example is our children. How we invest in them in our churches will also determine our future as a church. If we invest ourselves in mentoring and accepting the children in our midst and helping them grow in knowledge and love of Jesus, they will continue to pass on their faith.

But it is not by sharing bible stories and coming to church. That is important, but investing in them by showing them what a life of following Jesus is really all about. Not just talking the talk, but walking the walk.  The investment envisioned by Jesus is an investment in the priorities of the kingdom of God: giving to those who are hungry, thirsty, sick and in prison as in the parable that follows the one in today’s reading.

Noted preacher Fred Craddock writes about today’s parable: “Take account of the high risk activity of the first two servants. They doubled their money entrusted to them, hardly a possibility without running the risk of losing the original investment . . . the major themes of the Christian faith – caring, giving, witnessing, trusting, loving, hoping – cannot be understood or lived without risk.”

As we are liberated from our own fears our presence will automatically liberate others.  Don’t worry about the future. Take risks. Live in abundance and hope. We are children of the day, called to walk in the light, trusting in God and one another. As part of the body of Christ, we are an interdependent community in which our joys and sorrows, successes and failures are woven together. We can choose what the future will be by how we choose to engage with it.

We have everything we need to be faithful to God and live abundantly.  Share it with joy – from generation to generation.

© Sharon Ely Pearson, preached at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, New Canaan, Connecticut ~ November 13, 2011. 

Watch this video to learn more about “Building the Continuum”: