Building the Continuum

Supporting Formation and Vocation in The Episcopal Church

Denominational Faith Formation Ministries

by Cindy Spencer

For my Lenten discipline this year, I gave up complaining.

As you can imagine, this discipline has been sorely tested since last Thursday afternoon when I was sent a link to the draft triennial budget put forward by Executive Council, and discovered that formation ministries on the church-wide (Church Center) level was slated for a 90% reduction, from roughly $3 million to $286 thousand. I read through the document as carefully as I could to be sure I wasn’t missing anything, like a solid rationale of the cuts with a plan for moving forward.

I found I could just sit at my computer, stunned. And yes, I called in a sympathetic colleague and whined a little. And I caught myself and began to think that if I was going to try to keep moving forward with my Lenten discipline (I mean, Lent has just started – am I really throwing in the towel already?) that I needed to really think this through – move beyond my knee-jerk reaction and discover what I thought was wrong (or right) about this proposal, and what I was called to do.

So I thought, where do I start? Why do we need Formation ministries at a denominational level? To answer this, I felt I needed to quickly re-visit what I believe about Formation. This is my short answer to what I believe Formation is: It is how we are shaped as people by our experiences, our disciplines or practices, our environment, and our individual natures. Christian Formation is much the same, but includes the ways in which our lives are brought alongside the stories and faith of the Christian people, our encounters with God, and our participation in Christian community; a “side-by-side story” in Godly Play parlance, in which we ask what our experience has to say to these faith stories/communities and what those stories and communities have to say to our experience, and then how we are changed through the encounter of stories. In my seminary Christian Education classes, this was called praxis – the model of action/reflection as a way of growing in faith.  While the truth is that we are formed by all our experiences, praxis as a way of faith formation requires intentionality and practice. While it sounds simple, my observation over the past 20 years of church ministry is that we are often tempted to skip over the reflection piece.  And the reflection piece is the crucial link in integrating formation into all our practices of worship, outreach, education and congregational care.

When I was a child, my family was in church pretty much whenever the doors were open – Sunday mornings, Sunday evenings, Wednesday evenings, and often Friday or Saturday nights. We had times set aside for “Christian Education,” “Fellowship,” “Missions or Service Projects,” even “Testimony meetings.” Every one of the pieces of life that I mentioned above as contributing to “Formation” had its own time. The downside to this model was that the side-by-side reflection between these different pieces still rarely happened.  And the truth today, especially in the Pacific Northwest, “none-zone,” urban setting in which I live and work, is that few,  if any, people have time for this model of formation in discreet chunks. I actually believe this is a gift, as it allows us to move into a more integrated way of formation. But it’s not easy.

Much of the church still understands “Faith Formation” as “Sunday School,” “Youth Group,” or “Adult Forums.” Or, we’re attempting to move beyond a “silo” mentality, and see everything we do as Christian Formation, but without adequately offering ways to go through the action/reflection cycle. And finally, we do have pockets of excellence, where formation is skillfully and seamlessly woven into the life of the church. The challenge even there is that when this is done this well, the work supporting the process can be invisible, and thus can be seen as unnecessary. However, when funding and other support for these roles is taken away, the weaving together of formation often quickly falls apart, leaving the community to wonder what happened.

This is why I believe we still need Faith Formation on a denominational level, as well as at the diocesan and parish levels. Formation Ministries at the church-wide (Church Center) level are vital to those of us in the parishes because of the opportunity for modeling collaboration and partnership with other ministries such as the Ethnic ministries and Eco-justice initiative groups, leading the way in developing models of praxis. These ministries connect us on a macro-level, supporting the growth of leaders who can in turn support action/reflection and collaboration in our communities.  Formation Ministries also look to the “missing pieces” – communities in our greater church that are under-resourced, such as the particular faith formation needs of military families, seniors, immigrant communities, and the large portion of The Episcopal Church found outside the United States. This is ministry that is difficult to resource at the parish or diocesan level. In addition, the staff officers are the most direct voice of those of us committed to faith formation to the Office of the Presiding Bishop and other Church Center staff, as well as to various Committees, Agencies and Boards of the Episcopal Church.

Do Formation Ministries at the “Church Center” need $3 million in this economy? This I can’t say.  Before this amount is reduced by 90% however, I would like to see a real plan for how Formation Ministries will intersect and collaborate at the local level. The majority of dioceses no longer have
Formation staff. Even large churches such as mine, yearly face the prospect of reducing or laying off those responsible for formation.

So what is my task? I commit to you, my Forma colleagues, to communicate with the General Convention deputies of my diocese my concerns about the draft budget. I will ask them to push for a real plan (not “this ministry will happen at the local level”) prior to reducing funding for Faith
Formation by these levels. I will pray for the staff Formation officers – Ruth-Ann Collins, Jason Sierra, Bronwyn Skov, and Valerie Harris – and their ongoing ministries these next several months in what is certainly a difficult working environment. And I will pray that General Convention will have the will and ability to discern ways of moving forward together as the ministries of Formation infiltrate everything we do as a church community.

Cindy Spencer is the Children and Youth Ministries Coordinator at Saint Mark’s Cathedral in Seattle. She is also a Godly Play trainer. This article was shared on the Forma list-serve and is reposted here with permission. 

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