Creating a Big Tent for Formation

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The Episcopal Church has seen a renewed focus on evangelism this triennium, inspired largely by Presiding Bishop Curry’s evangelism initiatives and the work of Canon for Evangelism and Reconciliation, the Rev. Stephanie Spellers. However, those who work in the area of formation are quick to point out the vital connection between evangelism and formation.

“We can’t evangelize if we don’t know the Bible,” says Bill Campbell, executive director of Forma, a network for Christian formation for the Episcopal Church. “The people who are incredibly well formed are the ones who are going to be doing this evangelism, and the people who understand what it means to serve God in the world are the ones who are going to be doing this evangelism.”

Andrea McKellar, who serves as secretary of the legislative Committee on Christian Formation and Discipleship agrees. “We have so much energy that has been put into evangelism, and now people are realizing they need formation in order to do this work of evangelism,” says McKellar, diocesan ministry developer for the Episcopal Church in South Carolina. “People are contacting those of us who do work with formation, and asking us for resources. Collaborations are starting to happen.”

McKellar’s legislative committee received 18 resolutions. “We’ve been talking in the Forma advocacy team about how few formation resolutions have come forward this year—There’s nothing about Confirmation, for example, and there’s always been something about Confirmation,” McKellar says.

The team behind resolution A022 — Create a Theological Education Networking Team hopes to address some of these challenges behind sharing formation resources across the church. “We really did our work this triennium as a big research project,” says the Rev. Dr. Susanna Singer, who chaired the Task Force on Clergy Leadership in Small Congregations. “We conducted a large survey of bishops, canons to the ordinary and commission on ministry chairs, and we also interviewed about 60 individuals around the church and did follow-up interviews with those who filled out the surveys.

“One of the things that came through loud and clear from the data was the sense that there were many good models and strategies and programs out there for non-traditional formation for leadership in ministry, but that people were frustrated because they were aware of what a slim sliver of them they knew about,” says Singer, associate professor of ministry development at Church Divinity School of the Pacific. “It really depended on who you know. And particularly the under-resourced dioceses. They just haven’t got the staff to do the digging around and the phone calling and everything.”

In analyzing the data, the Task Force started to imagine a “common table” of information. “We thought, ‘What if there were a group of people paid just a little bit, just to make sure that the work gets done, whose job it was to reflect together, to be contacts and eyes and ears out there in the church in the broadest possible way, and to pull resources out of the silos in which they’re hidden, and get all of them on the table,’” Singer says. “And then this Theological Education Networking Team would come up with some tried and true models, so that when, for example, a diocese calls up the team and asks about models for local clergy leadership training, they can say, ‘Here are three different ways this is being done in different parts of the country, here are some people to speak to, here are some academic avenues people have used to get course material, and if you want a conversation about it, we can chat.’”

The team also heard a call for training for commissions on ministry, especially in discerning and supporting vocational calls or people from non-Anglo communities. “For example, we talked to somebody who leads a Chinese American congregation who has a member discerning a vocation to priesthood,” Singer says. “But in that culture there is no way that he should be separated from his community because the elders in the culture play such an enormous role in both discerning his vocation and also supporting it as his theological education goes on.”

“We talked about the low numbers of people of color in the ordination process, and we discovered that there are either no guidelines at all, or if guidelines exist, they are so generic that they fail to appreciate cultural differences,” says the Rev. Canon Gregory Jacobs, a member the task force and canon to the ordinary in the Diocese of Newark.

“We want to provide resources to our commissions on ministry to help them with their sense of what identifying leaders in a cultural diversity context looks like, and to move away from this kind of one-size-fits-all in terms of how we understand formation and the requirements for formation and theological education,” Jacobs says. “I’m hoping that TENT can help broaden the cultural diversity of the formation process that we have throughout TEC.

“There was also a universal recognition that the existing formal theological education system—seminaries—were not fulfilling the responsibility of formation for both lay leadership as well as clergy leadership. It was good that we had members from that segment of theological education on our task force, and they readily agreed that, yes, seminaries and other theological institutions were not fulfilling the role,” says Jacobs, who also served on the Task Force on Clergy Leadership Formation in Small Congregations.

“The old black box model of seminary formation has gone away,” Singer says. “There are multiple  theological education programs out there, the landscape is very diverse, and it’s going to stay that way. Most of the seminaries—certainly CDSP—are fully on board with that. But in a diverse ecosystem like this, there need to be some cultivation practices and resources being made available that have a good track record. If you’re going to diversify and move to local models, there has to be a lot more access to alternative because there isn’t one standard model anymore.

“In the long run, it will result in a stronger and more diverse cadre of leaders, but at the moment our research revealed a sense of, ‘There’s so much out here, and it’s so hard to put together and to think it through.’”

The resolution, initially titled “Creating a Formation Networking Team,” drew some concerns from those who work with Forma, which provides formation networking, sharing and training for people across the church. “We’ve been in touch with executive director Bill Campbell regularly about the work, and when we did the follow-up conversations with people after the resolutions we drafted in January and February, Bill was in that conversation too,” Singer says.

“Forma does fantastic work, but our understanding is that work is more in the arena of general baptismal formation. After our discussions, we changed the name of the body we were proposing deliberately to ‘Theological Education Networking Team,’ to indicate that really this refers to a specialist arena. This is formation for people who are called into ministry leadership, whether that’s ordained or licensed. There’s no way we want to undercut what Forma does; it’s excellent and the church needs it. But it also needs this.”

“The new substitute resolution looks at just clergy, or ‘specialist’ formation, and lets Forma do what Forma’s always been doing, which is empowering the laity — making sure we have strong lay people who are committed disciple makers,” Campbell says. However, he maintans that Forma could achieve the task force’s aims better and faster.

Forma was started 21 years ago by a group of women who wanted to talk about Sunday school curriculum, Campbell says. “They wanted to come together, form relationships, and compare notes on curriculum. And that’s it—that’s how a network is formed. People need to trust one another, they need to know what they’re about,  and I don’t think handing someone at 815 a bunch of money and a job title is going to form a network.”

McKellar has proposed Resolution D030 – Supporting Formation, which asks that a $50,000 grant be designated each year of the next three years to support Forma’s work.

“None of this money would be used for salaries or administrative costs,” McKellar says. “It would all be used specifically for programming, and lifting up programs. That’s where we can figure out what’s working. These certificate programs that are training people to become professionals in lay ministry, that’s working. The funds would be used for grassroots networking and things like the certificate programs.

Jacobs says that he is uncertain how the task force ran afoul of Forma.

“The final product of our task force is talking about a universal offering of resources,” he says. “This would include appropriate resources for Forma to use, in addition to identifying Forma itself as a primary resource for congregations or for dioceses who wanted more in-depth programming around leadership formation for lay people.

“So throughout the process I will admit that I had difficulty understanding how what we are proposing could be thought of as in opposition to Forma. It is clearly different from what Forma is doing. We’re not talking about offering a program here, or running our own set of programs. I think there’s plenty of room in the arena for both Forma and for TENT.”

McKellar says she is more at ease with the revised version of A022 that is now working its way through the legislative process. “This resolution has been edited in the hopes of giving it its best chance at being successful,” she says. “The resolution now calls for a task force to be developed to pull together the resources that exist and share them with congregational leaders, both lay and ordained, and dioceses to have access to the breadth of materials especially for alternative theological education pathways.”

Meanwhile, the tent Forma requires is getting larger. Its annual conference has more than doubled in size in the last three years. “We had almost 450 people this year in Charleston,” McKellar says. “So there’s a hunger for it.”

The challenge, she says, is to draw a more diverse group to the conference, especially people from small churches. “A lot of work has been going toward scholarships to the conference so that we really can be accessible to everyone,” McKellar says.

Kathleen Moore is communications manager at Canticle Communications.