As a diocesan Christian educator, I have seen all kinds of programs, the latest gurus sharing their books, and new mission strategies designed to move the church forward. Often these sorts of presentations start with the assumption that everyone has the same vocabulary, is a follower of the way of Jesus (a Christian), and shares the basic goals of growing the church of Jesus as well as growing their faith.
But I think we can start with people all over the place, spiritually and theologically. Factor in cultural time constraints, a lack of formation practices, and the absence of common theological understanding, and it’s no wonder that the latest fad in Episcopal church life doesn’t usually create lasting change. And yet, our goal for faith communities is to make disciples by deepening faith, transforming lives, and feeding and strengthening participants to go out and do God’s work in the world.
Here are my observations of the reality of church life that focuses on spiritual formation:
- Churches place more reliance on “programs” and yet the leaders of these programs (lay or clergy) have less and less time to spend on preparation.
- Adults have less time for small groups where discipleship through relational ministry could be supported. Instead, adult formation (of any kind) is often offered only during a liturgical season such as Advent or Lent.
- If there is regular adult spiritual formation, it often takes the shape of the “adult forum” – a series of speakers on a variety of unrelated topics, which don’t provide an avenue to “go deeper” or help participants apply the information to a working spiritual life.
- Church members are less able to inject faith into their daily lives, or even recognize the connections between faith and life.
- Churches that are close to closing (little money and few members) have no meaningful adult formation happening.
- As more churches use more part-time clergy, more areas of ministry are taken on by volunteers who may or may not have any kind of ongoing training in discipleship practice and often lack practical support and resources.
Supporting Formation in Diocesan Churches
First and foremost is the role of the bishop in spiritual formation. Often the bishop is the one who can define language, preach and teach on discipleship, and make spiritual formation a priority in the corporate life of the diocese. However, it is often the role of the staff person to flesh out that priority in meaningful ways through diocesan events and identifying resources for individual parishes. The tone set by the bishop can work its way through all diocesan programs with intentional crafting of both written words and shared experiences.
One of the best ways to strengthen spiritual formation is through diocesan programs that both model best practices in formation as well as allow the participants to bring those practices home to their churches. A well-designed diocesan training or event gives participants an understanding and experience of a spiritual practice, discipline or activity and then provides them the tools, resources, and flexibility to take that resource back and adapt it for their own faith community.
For many parishioners, the only time they experience a different form of worship, prayer, small group spiritual work, or even a new theological framework is when they attend a diocesan gathering. These programs can be structured as major formation events even if the content is church business, pre-convention meetings, or something else that seems outside of the realm of a traditional spiritual experience.
Using Formation to Reshape Diocesan Events
As traditional learning events are restructured, the intentional process of transformational learning should be transparent and include on-going explanations. Changing the format from an “expert” talking on a subject to one where learning is mixed with interactive small group discussions and spiritual practices can be hard for some participants.
That shouldn’t deter us from using diocesan events to create moments of learning and space for meeting God. Through intentional design a diocesan convention or training then becomes a model that churches can use in designing annual meetings or vestry meetings to include spiritual formation.
One example of reshaping an event through a formation lens is a vocations conference in the Episcopal Diocese of California. For various reasons, the Commission on Ministry (COM) was considering a redesign of its vocations conference. Traditionally the conference invited nominees to meet with small groups of COM members and answer a series of questions over two days.
After redesigning the experience with a spiritual formation emphasis, COM members are now entering a discernment and formation process alongside the nominees, both modeling and discerning their vocations with the invited participants through Bible study, discussion, and interaction with foundational pieces of Episcopal theology. They chose to see discernment as a discipleship process instead of ordination gatekeeping. They traded in their roles as gatekeepers to become spiritual companions on a journey toward discernment.
Often one of the greatest needs in formation in parishes is the opportunity to work more closely with others doing similar tasks. Networking for information, support and inspiration can deepen faith practices within the congregation as those in leadership draw support and learn best practices from each other.
But many church professionals or volunteer staff are already stretched thin, and finding time to organize this kind of networking becomes an added burden. A diocesan formation staff person can help create thriving networks by taking care of the administrative and technical piece of organizing both face-to-face and online networking opportunities.
Curating Resources for Congregational Programming
A final thought about the role of diocesan formation staff is the important work of curating resources. We live in an age of information overload. Online searches result in millions of possibilities. Most church volunteers and even paid staff do not have the time to sift through the many curricula and programs that are available. And even if they have the time, they are often drawn to publishing houses with sophisticated marketing, slick brochures and online ads, which may or may not be the best theological match to their church.
Diocesan staff can curate resources, finding the best matches for their faith communities, as well as helping churches think through best practices for implementing programs to use curriculum to its fullest potential.
Changing the Culture to Embrace Spiritual Formation
Here are some suggestions for changing the diocesan culture around spiritual formation and discipleship:
- Talk about Formation! Use the language of spiritual formation, spiritual practices, discipleship, and deepening faith at all diocesan events.
- Define terms for a shared diocesan understanding. Don’t assume that everyone automatically understands everything that is said. Clearly spell out the mission of the church and how the diocese understands its service to God in the context in which it exists.
- At every diocesan event or meeting, give participants
- a chance to share their faith stories with each other, to mentor each other, and to pray together in ways that feel authentic to the community.
- Model different faith practices at each event
- such as introducing a new prayer practice, asking thoughtful discussion questions, or using music or a meditation practice.
- Invite educators onto planning committees.
- Encourage discernment practices for all baptized believers, not just those seeking ordination. Give all church members the opportunity to learn and use spiritual practices as they listen for God’s call.
This article first appeared in Episcopal Teacher:
Winter 2018, Vol. 30, No. 2, Special Issue – Christian Formation in the Church Today, page 16-17