Building the Continuum

Supporting Formation and Vocation in The Episcopal Church

Manifesto for Learning

by Donn Morgan

Education in our church is not in a very good place. It is clear enough that change is needed, and many of us talk a lot about it. We sometimes perceive this change as something that we have no control over, and cast ourselves as victims playing out a tragedy. For example, when we attempt to understand and address huge financial challenges confronting us, we are often left in paralysis. We simply don’t seem to have sufficient resources to continue our mission of providing the best education at all levels of the church in the traditional way.

There is a way to look at change, however, embracing the opportunities it offers and lifting up lessons learned and progress made. And educational study group in the Episcopal Church has produced one very good recent example of this approach, tracing the highlights of education and formation over the past forty years. It is entitled Legacies, Lessons and Lifelines.

The place and role of learning in the church, then, represent a systemic issue and raise questions of mission and purpose. This is true at all levels: for congregational Christian education; for dioceses, synods or conferences; for national offices; for seminaries; for schools and colleges; and for much more. It is among the whole church and all of its educators, Protestant and Catholic, conservative and liberal, traditional and emergent, small and large, rural and urban, that this vision of learning – and the conversation it engenders – must take hold. Only when all of us are involved in addressing these larger issues will we indeed be able to live faithfully and successfully into the church’s mission.

At the church-wide level, there is a diminution of the infrastructure once devoted to education. Whether speaking of curricular support for Sunday Schools or other educational programs for the young, or ministry in higher education, or seminaries – there are fewer connections between these important areas of ministry at the local or regional levels and the national, primarily because sufficient funds are not allotted to make these educational endeavors a top priority for support.

This story has its unfortunate parallels at regional levels, local judicatory levels, and perhaps most significantly at the local congregational level. When a parish, for example, is struggling to find enough money for their clergy, they are not going to be committed to a youth minister, or a Christian educator for others. Yes, there are new ministry models and the acknowledgment that education will be necessary for these new ministers. But with this enthusiasm for being the church in new ways comes a need to find creative ways to do more with fewer resources. We need other things first, like money to pay the utility bills or the pastor’s salary or the judicatory’s assessment. Pastoral care is needed now for our aging congregation, growth initiatives are needed now, fiscal stability is needed now – and then we can deal with education.

We have looked at a church in difficult straits. This is true politically and theologically. We find it hard to agree on a common vision and resultant commitments to doing things together in and for the world. In these challenging times, education at all levels of the church has suffered. There is a genuine and pervasive loss of educational programming and resources for the church. And from this loss, seen at all levels, we can draw a sobering conclusion: Learning seems no longer important as a fundamental part of the church’s identity and mission.

The question before us is: How much of the decline of the church is due to the lack of commitment to having vibrant educational programs and staff at all levels?

Donn Morgan is former dean and president of Church Divinity School of the Pacific, Berkeley, California, and is currently professor of Old Testament there. He is the author of Manifesto for Learning: The Mission of the Church in Times of Change, recently published. 

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3 thoughts on “Manifesto for Learning

  1. Pingback: Manifesto for Learning | buildingfaith

  2. Lisa Brown on said:

    Another aspect of this is that as there is “…a diminution of the infrastructure once devoted to education” there is a parallel trend of increased reliance by parents on having the church provide children’s religious education, rather than providing it at home. It may be that parents are uncertain of the particulars of the Episcopal Church, having not been raised in the tradition. It might also be a reflection of the growing (and unfortunate) trend of executive parenting where skills, morals, values, academics, athletics and faith are all viewed as better left in the hands of the ‘experts’ rather than parents. Thus we see the increase of individualized coaching sessions rather than parents and kids practicing ball in the backyard; the increase of tutoring rather than turning to a parent for help with homework; the development of etiquette classes that supersede simply practicing good manners; AND the increasing drop-off trend in Sunday school, where parents do not attend worship but drop off their child for the education hour. “Here’s my kid – teach him religion.”

    This is certainly a negative trend only made worse by the decrease of educational resources. Not only will we not be able to meet the needs of a population with increasing expectations of religious educators, we will not be able to bolster the faith and educate those parents so that they might feel competent to be part of the effort to shepherd their children.

  3. I often have heard parents say that they can not participate in bringing up their children in the Faith because they have no knowledge of the Faith themselves. There is a frightening perpetuation here. I even heard one mom say, “I hated Sunday School when I was a kid, and I don’t expect my children to get anything out of it either.” We need adult formation every bit as much as we need children and youth formation.

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