Tag Archives: formation

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”:

Life, death. Light, dark.

Feast of Jeremy Taylor

Proverbs 7:1-4       John 3:11-21

“My child, keep my words and store up my commandments with you; 
 keep my commandments and live, keep my teachings as the apple of your eye; bind them on your fingers, write them on the tablet of your heart.”

Passing on the Christian faith from generation to generation is at the heart of the life and work of the Christian church. But this fundamental task requires much more than passing on biblical and doctrinal information. Passing on the Christian faith to others involves the work of the Holy Spirit, who gives birth to trust and confidence in the creative, redeeming, and renewing power of God.

We are called to be witnesses to the Good News of Jesus Christ. We are called to tell God’s story as we share our own faith stories through our teaching, mentoring, and ministering with and for children, youth and adults in our church communities. And in the year 2011, this is not an easy task. We find ourselves in a culture that is not always open to hear the radical message of Jesus: to wear our faith on our sleeve, our hands, our hearts – outwardly as well as inwardly.

As it was and is to our Jewish brothers and sisters, the Shema is at the core of their relationship to God . . . to love God with all our heart, with all our soul, and with all our mind. Marking it on our foreheads and our doorposts. It was probably the underpinnings of Jesus’ religious education as a child in the home of Mary & Joseph. As Jesus grew to adulthood, he deepened and broadened that commandment to include and love your neighbor as yourself. And perhaps almost 400 years ago, Jeremy Taylor, for whose life we mark today, grew up with the same mantra as a child.

Bishop Taylor is remembered as one of the “Caroline Divines,” those Anglican theologians and writers of the mid-seventeenth century who wrote with great passion and belief. He wrote what we might call a manual of Christian practices entitled, “The Rule and Exercises of Holy Living”, published in 1650. Some of his chapter headings resonate as timely topics for us today: Care of our Time, Holy Living, Purity of Intention; the Practice of the Presence of God; Christian Sobriety; Of Christian Justice; of Christian Religion. Some of the actual writings are a bit puritanical, but he spoke to the centrality of putting God at the core of who we are. Isn’t that what we are called to do today?

In many ways, Jeremy Taylor lived in a time similar to ours. Yes, he didn’t have globalization, an unstable stock market, Facebook, sports on Sunday, or a culture that spoke of being “spiritual, but not religious.” But he did live in a time in which the Church (which was also the State) was caught in a political as well as religious struggle. The son of a barber, who somehow was educated at prestigious schools and ordained at the ripe old age of 20, he was known for his preaching. But was also known as a spiritual guide and director, someone people came to see from far and wide for advice and counsel.

The period of history in which he lived was not one of stability. The mid-1600s was a time when the Church was caught in the midst of a Civil War in England. Soon after he was ordained, he was chaplain to Archbishop William Laud and King Charles I. Soon the Puritans came into power forming the Commonwealth; those who were supporters of the king’s cause and the episcopacy found themselves imprisoned. It was an unsettling time full of risk of death for many, depending on “what side” you were on – whether it was with the Puritans or the “papists.”

The context of our Gospel today is also one of tension and taking sides. The verses before our reading is of Nicodemus coming to see Jesus in the middle of the night. What we just heard was Jesus’ response to him. It is a message of light found in the midst of darkness, of new life and new sight. Following Jesus brings us clarity of vision. We are called to be witnesses for Christ.

Taylor was a witness for Christ, and was repeatedly imprisoned for it. Would we follow in his footsteps in our proclamation of the Gospel? How are we imprisoned within ourselves by being hesitant in sharing the Good News of Christ?

A quote that is attributed to Jeremy Taylor is one that we can carry with us today. “A religion without mystery must be a religion without God.” It is what I believe those in our communities (within and outside the church) are hungry for – mystery. We can find just about anything we need to “know” by googling it. But we seek that mystery – that wonder, awe, and mystery that Nicodemus was searching for.

Knowing Christ, we have the peace that passes all understanding. The Christian hope that we will be reconciled to God in Christ. In the meantime, we are called to preach the Gospel and go about the work of reconciliation in the world. Like Nicodemus, and perhaps Jeremy Taylor, we know our days are numbered – but our time is not the same as God’s time. We seek rebirth. We seek to be the apple of God’s eye. And through Jesus we know we are. We are loved. It is what we hope for our children, and our children’s children.

One of the prayers for the Visitation of the Sick as found in the Book of Common Prayer (p 316 in the 1928 American edition) was written by Taylor. It reads as follows:

O God, whose days are without end, and whose mercies cannot be numbered; Make us, we beseech thee, deeply sensible of the shortness and uncertainty of human life; and let thy Holy Spirit lead us in holiness and righteousness all our days: that, when we shall have served thee in our generation, we may be gathered unto our fathers, having the testimony of a good conscience; in the communion of the Catholic Church; in the confidence of a certain faith; in the comfort of a reasonable, religious, and holy hope; in favour with thee our God, and in perfect charity with the world. All which we ask through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen. 

Homily preached by Sharon Ely Pearson at Christ Church Cathedral, Lexington, Kentucky at the joint Christian Formation Day  of the Dioceses of Lexington and Kentucky. August 13, 2011

Why Certification?

For numerous years, those who call the ministry of Christian formation and education as their vocation in the Episcopal Church have lamented the lack of equity and standards within our church. When the National Association for Episcopal Christian Education Directors (NAECED) was formed almost 15 years ago, one of its purposes for organizing was to develop standards for the certification of Christian educators. This past weekend I was privileged to attend a gathering of stakeholders (representing a variety of threads that have been working toward this goal) at Virginia Theological Seminary. I am beginning to have hope. 2017 Update: NAECED has now become Forma.

Our ecumenical partners have long recognized the importance of lifting up and acknowledging the ministry of Christian educators with certification. APCE (Presbyterian Church USA) and CEF (Christian Educators Fellowship of the United Methodist Church) have led the way. And while they have struggled to live into their levels of certification and continuing education requirements for those members who choose to follow this route, they have paved the way for us.

Why certification?

  • Validation and Credibility – Are educators valued as equals to other staff members in a congregation? Are their education and gifts accepted?
  • This is a Career Path chosen by many – Do we want future generations to find this a rewarding career in which one can earn a living?
  • Feeling isolated – Is there a system in which one can turn when searching for continuing education and support?
  • Variations across dioceses and polity – Can there be standards for pay and benefits commensurate with education and experience on a national scale?
  • Need for consciousness-raising – If the church truly thinks education is important, why doesn’t it treat educators with the same passion?

In 2009, General Convention endorsed the Charter for Lifelong Christian Formation. Theologically trained and experienced Christian educators can help the church live into this vision. Can the church help lift up the ministry of those who are ready to partner and make this vision a reality?

Statistics have shown that churches that focus on lifelong formation have more engaged communities than those that just focus on Sunday School for children.  In the Episcopal Church, is lifelong formation an agreed upon norm? Is discernment for lifelong committed Christians the norm?  In our post-Christian world, adults are coming to the church without any grounding in faith. For many churches, 6th grade (or Confirmation) is the graduation point; parents who are not formed in faith will not realize the validity of engaging their children into their searching and discerning years. We need to be focusing on discipleship. An “educated” educator in a congregation who has been mentored by respected leaders of the church will continue to grow and learn alongside his or her peers as well as those with whom they share ministry.

The conversation has just begun. But there is definite energy and momentum around a Certificate for Leadership for Lifelong Christian Formation. There is more work to do and many more conversations to be had.

2017 Update: Many certificate programs now exist through Forma. You can learn more about each here:

Lord, please let our small mustard seeds of daily service grow into great shrubs of change and trees in whose branches the birds can nest and in whose shade our children can rest and feel safe. Marian Wright Edelman