Life is flux … The only thing that is constant is change. –Heraclitus of Ephesus, 535 BC
The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever. – Isaiah 40:8
Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever. –Hebrews 13:8B
We began this Special Issue about the Center for the Ministry of Teaching (CMT) with an article by historian, educator, and former CMT senior staff member, George Kroupa. He gave context to the creation of the CMT in 1984, reminding the reader that Virginia Seminary made a bold investment in the field of Christian education at a critical and vulnerable time in North American denominational history.
Thirty-five years later, VTS continues to build on the legacy of CMT founder Locke Bowman and reinvesting in what is now known as Christian Formation. We remain the only Episcopal Seminary with full-time faculty and staff dedicated to this work, and we are one among a shrinking number of denominational seminaries that prioritizes the equipping of church leaders to teach the faith.
We believe that Christians are called to be disciples who make disciples. The Church’s mission to “restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ” (BCP, 855) means that the Church exists for the sake of those who are not yet in it. This orientation requires that all Christians understand the importance of and the processes involved in passing on the faith they hold dear.
I Peter 3:15 says that we are all called by virtue of our baptism, to “be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an account of the hope that is in you.” Living a confident, generous Christian vocation in the 21stcentury is not easy, and the new Department of Lifelong Learning is dedicated to accompanying people of all ages on that journey.
When I arrived at VTS in the fall of 2009, I inherited responsibility for the CMT, a well-equipped resource center in the beautifully renovated historic Key Hall, and a team of two exceptionally dedicated staff members, Dorothy Linthicum and Lori Daniels. During my hiring process, I had heard wonderful stories about the CMT at its height – the creation of the Episcopal children’s and youth curricula, Episcopal Teacher, training events and summer M.A.C.E. residencies. It had also been made very clear that there was considerable anxiety across the seminary administration about the declining number of visitors to the center and its shrinking programming.
I spent much of my first year listening on campus and beyond. I acknowledged that it was a challenging and exciting time to be in the “business” of Christian formation. What was assumed about teaching and learning just thirty years earlier was being reconsidered in the light of new brain research, digital communications, the Internet, globalization, growing economic disparity, and longer life expectancy. Add to those secular forces of change the realities of the North American religious landscape with significant implications for faith-based schools, local congregations, dioceses, and seminaries.
Christian Formation in Flux
From content development to curriculum and delivery systems, Christian formation was in flux. Yet our baptismal promise to “continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship” and Jesus’ mandate to, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you” remained constant.
By the spring of 2011, I wrote in my board report, “the CMT has successfully transitioned from a focus on support for individuals toward strategic targeting of diocesan, regional, ecumenical, and institutional partners. We are committed to making the CMT agile and responsive, equipping lay and clergy leadership to proclaim the Gospel in diverse contexts – cultural, linguistic, theological, and technological.”
I had begun to advocate for the creative and effective use of educational and online technologies to make the resources of the CMT more accessible and relevant in an increasingly distracted and digitally-mediated world. I had introduced a commitment to action research – a reflective process of progressive problem solving led by individuals working with others in teams or as part of a “community of practice” to improve the way they address issues and solve problems (Ernest T. Stringer, Action research(Fourth ed.), 2014).
The CMT would never have all the answers, expertise is increasingly decentralized in a post-modern, post-institutional world. We continued to exercise our trusted reputation and ability to convene scholars and practitioners to mobilize resources in response to ministry challenges.
Building on those strengths, and recognizing that congregations and judicatories were struggling to keep up with the pace of the digital revolution, I hired the first digital missioner in the church.
To be honest, I knew we needed a theologically trained, skillful communicator who was a confident tinkerer in the digital domain. A former student and recent VTS graduate, Kyle Oliver, was the perfect candidate. An engineer who taught other engineers how to write before coming to seminary, and now a priest, Kyle joined the CMT staff with a rare blend of fearless innovator and defender of the Christian tradition.
Key Hall became the CMT Resource Center and Learning Lab. Kyle led our team as we emphasized physical hospitality while rapidly expanding our digital content development and web presence to promote evangelism and mature faith. We led the Seminary in the use of video conferencing and live streaming as we built ministry partnerships and began to offer programming and consulting that reached far beyond the mid-Atlantic region.
New Models of Christian Education
The old model of Christian education, which taught people to believe (in right doctrine) then behave (right practices), no longer satisfied the spiritual hunger of most Americans. In a busy, conflicted world that emphasizes individual choice, entertainment over engagement, and often rewards consumption, people are looking for places to belong that make a lasting positive difference in their lives.
Human beings are social creatures who long for relationship and thrive in webs of healthy interdependence. Christian communities that practice radical hospitality can attract seekers of all ages. When individuals encounter faith communities where they are welcomed as they are, new relationships are fostered. In this process, individuals are enculturated into communities with a story. They experience belonging as entering into the traditions and practices of the gathered. As these practices, or behaviors, such as prayer and communal worship produce reduced stress and discernment of vocation, individuals are more open to explore what they believe.
Questions then emerge organically about the texts, traditions, and doctrine of Christian faith that invite opportunities for formal education. It seems the working developmental model for Christian education today is belong … behave … believe. A traditional focus on curriculum must be complemented with tools for evangelism. We cannot assume Christian education begins or ends in Sunday School classrooms and adult forums.
As financial resources were decreasing across the Episcopal Church, and infrastructure to support Christian formation in congregations and dioceses was collapsing at an alarming rate, the CMT at VTS was uniquely positioned to lead in the eye of the storm. We created online professional development cohorts and began to create and curate easily accessed digital resources and best practices for Christian formation leaders across the church.
Lifelong, Life-Wide, Life-Deep Faith
Faith is formed lifelong, life-wide, and life-deep. Forming faith in contemporary daily lives requires churches to navigate a wide range of digital platforms and communication strategies. In 2012 the CMT established a social media presence, posting fresh content regularly to engage new and younger audiences.
We introduced the e-Formation Learning Exchange, as an intentionally bilingual (Spanish/English), ecumenical conference for clergy, educators, and Christian geeks to explore digital media for ministry. We continue to partner with congregations and judicatory hosts to offer e-Formation Bootcamps around the country. By June 2017 we had outgrown the available VTS facilities for a gathered conference and moved it online. Over 600 people registered for a one-day online conference, the first in VTS history.
We had fun learning to host a podcast, Easter People: Hopeful Conversations about Faith and Culture. In 2014 we acquired the best-known website for Christian formation resources, Building Faith, with 350 subscribers. Today, thanks to the skillful management of Keith Anderson, Charlotte Hand Greeson, and Matthew Kozlowski the site has been redesigned and offers over 3,000 ideas and resources formation practitioners can trust, and a place their wisdom can be shared.
In 2015 a Building Faithpost by alumni Rebecca Edwards ‘12 about an imaginative Easter egg hunt received over 3,000 views on the website and almost 4,000 views on Facebook, reaching far beyond the Episcopal Church. Two years later,several people posted photos and descriptions of “their” Reinvented Egg Hunts on Facebook, clearly inspired by Rebecca.Lesson learned: VTS forms leaders who are thinking and creating of new ways to practice evangelism and make disciples. Those ideas are spread beyond individual parish walls through the Building Faithplatform, creating yet more opportunities for Christian formation.
I took very seriously an observation Mary Hess, my colleague and friend, offered in 2015.
“The action research of the CMT is the most important leadership contribution you are making. Religious education is losing its space in the curricula of theological education at precisely the moment in time when the practices and wisdom of faith formation are needed more than ever. Further, religious resource centers, once a focal point in multiple denominational structures, are disappearing rapidly. There are only a few which remain, and none which have taken up the challenge of being present in and responsive to the changes being created by digital cultural tools. Both of these losses – religious education in the curriculum and religious resource centers institutionally – mean that theological education is losing one of its most vital connecting points to congregational life and vitality.”
Mary is right, and VTS is the exception. Christian formation continues to be a priority within the curriculum at VTS and as a ministry of the seminary to the wider church. The CMT has received almost $2 million in outside grants over the past three years to support research about the spirituality of aging, youth confirmation, digital literacies, Christian camping, and baptismal vocation.
Our team wants to give back. We publish regularly and host free webinars on critical issues in Christian formation and digital ministry (Wisdom from the Fields). The CMT faculty and staff serve on a range of churchwide boards and advisory groups, and travel extensively to speak and teach at conferences and events around the United States.
Life is (indeed) flux. The CMT is now the Christian Formation and Discipleship initiative of the new Department of Lifelong Learning. We have survived another physical move, this time out of Key Hall to the Interim Lifelong Learning Hub. Our gifted colleagues Amy Dyer and Dorothy Linthicum retired in December 2018.
Liz Degaynor will join the VTS faculty in July 2018 as the new Assistant Professor of Christian Formation and Practical Theology. In 2020 we will move into a custom designed home for Lifelong Learning in the newly renovated Addison Academic Center, placing discipleship at the heart of our campus teaching and learning.
Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever. Our mission to equip the Church to teach the faith, to make disciples of Jesus Christ, is constant. Our message is clear. Our methods are as ancient as the catechumenate and as contemporary as the newest research in neuroscience. The media by which we communicate and teach will continue to transform as technology changes and society evolves. Our work will become more ecumenical, multi-lingual, global, and collaborative. Culture, context, and relationships matter in an incarnational faith. Our ability to “teach the Gospel” at VTS will always begin and end with real people who pray together, study scripture together, discern the will of God, and dive in. We look forward to your engagement with our mission for years to come.
This article first appeared in Episcopal Teacher: Winter 2019 Special Issue, page 21-23