Ministry with Children in The Episcopal Church
A story of faith, passion and wonder ….
by Robyn Szoke
In February of this year, C. Kirk Hadaway, the Staff Officer for Congregational Research and Diocesan and Congregational Ministries, presented some statistics to Executive Council. From 2004 to 2010, Church School enrollment in Episcopal congregations has declined by 33 percent. The number of child baptisms in Episcopal congregations has declined by 36 percent. Moreover, the Episcopal Church’s average Sunday attendance has fallen by 17 percent, while membership declined by 13 percent.
To begin to respond to these changes, it might be helpful to remember the hopes, the dreams, and the passion that the Episcopal Church had for children’s ministry and formation and, indeed, lifelong formation between 1985 and 2009. Those years were an amazing time. They were alive with vision, ideas, and a commitment to the cultivation of formation – particularly children’s formation and formation within the household.
Looking back, it seems that the theology of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer helped to launch a grassroots mission movement for advocacy with and ministry to (and for and by) children. By 1990, this mission movement had really taken hold. That year, the Episcopal Church Center’s Office of Children’s Ministries began to gather children’s ministry specialists from around the nation. Their mission was to engage in deeper conversations about how best to serve children, including how best to fully include them in our worship communities and the prophetic notion of listening and hearing their voice.
The result of these conversations was that the Office of Children’s Ministries, along with 22 dioceses from all of the Episcopal Church’s provinces, developed and published a most amazing document: the Children’s Charter for the Episcopal Church. (In Spanish) Adopted by General Convention resolution 1997-B005, it provided a model – a standard of excellence – and accountability for congregational, diocesan, and provincial leadership.
Fueled by the publication of the Children’s Charter, the mission movement flourished. Design teams were created. Through the wisdom and hard work of provincial formation leaders, events were held, Charting a Course for Children in the Church which led to strengthening partnerships with the National Council of Churches and the Children’s Defense Fund. Through these teams and partnerships, we were able to hold events, gatherings, and conferences to advocate for children. In addition, a wonderful mission magazine was developed. Called Treasure Magazine, it was designed so that children ages 6 to 9 could read and learn about mission throughout the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion. At the same time the youth ministry office and young adult ministry office was also flourishing.
The good work in the area of children’s ministries and formation encouraged other areas of formation. Wonderful new formational processes began to emerge. Among them were Awake My Soul and Authority of Generations, which provides a process for listening, weaving, and sharing faith stories as a way to discern next steps. Formation passions continued to grow and NAECED (the National Association for Episcopal Christian Education Directors) – now called FORMA – and NOERC (the National Organization of Episcopal Resource Centers) were also building in energy and momentum.
Seminaries and Camps held educational days and weeks focusing on child advocacy and Christian formation for children, youth, and adults – truly lifelong formation. Much collaboration occurred. Theologians were writing about theology of childhood, popular reading about children’s spirituality flourished, publishers caught on and many books were published on the sacredness and spirituality of childhood. Catching the wave, the Episcopal Church Center staff young people’s ministry cluster gathered leadership together for an outstanding conference, Continuing in the Apostles Teaching: the Breaking of Bread and the Prayers, in April 1995.
Over the next five years, the relevant Episcopal Church Center Offices would continue to center on transformational lifelong faith development, relying on networks of domestic missioners to do so. As this mission movement continued to grow, expanding to embrace lifelong formation, with emphasis in each developmental stage of formational growth, it became clear that the next step was to bring the whole church together. In order to do so, while continuing to lift up and celebrate brilliant formational leadership, and children’s ministry the 2003 conference Will Our Faith Have Children was offered. Over 800 folks responded.
The conference showed how encouraging deep conversations about faith can pave the way for genuine formation while uniting diverse communities. It did so by modeling the conversation process, including individuals of diverse age, race, gender, orientation, ethnicity, and even faith (believers and non-believers together, 33% of folks participating in the conversation process were without church affiliation and many were non-believers).
Importantly, Will Our Faith Have Children included children, uplifting their voices. In doing so, the conference challenged the community to include children as full members. Indeed, the full inclusion of children into the worshiping community, the formational community, and the mission community became a central goal. Even General Convention – the very heart of the legislative life of the church – reflected this. A Children’s Ministry Center-grew to become a formation center and Children’s Camp was offered, where our youngest community members were encouraged to gather and participate, even in worship!
The passion and excitement for formation grew, a standing commission for formation was born and the Episcopal Church Center Offices continued to staff and build coalitions around formation and The Charter for Lifelong Christian Formation was born and then passed at the 76th General Convention A082. Just like the early years of the Children’s Charter for the Church its focus was to provide goals and accountability for every congregation and diocese in the work of formation. The Five Marks of Mission began to be woven through the fabric of the movement, as global formation and cultural understandings grew stronger.
It seems, however, over the past several years, the mission movement that fueled such great formational work has taken a backseat to other concerns. At the same time, as the statistics of C. Kirk Hathaway illustrate, there has been an increased decline in attendance and membership.
Now, this decline is very real. These statistics should not, however, alarm or depress. Instead, fueled by the knowledge of all the good work that has been done in the past, they should call us to work in deeper discernment together, to learn what is next. Indeed, they should challenge us to move beyond Sunday in our models for formation, to recapture a passion for ministry to (and with and by) children – and youth, young adults, families, and elders. I imagine in my diocese how every congregation can be a formational mission, designed to have all ages go out into the world, forming places of prayer, creating opportunities to live the good news and radical love of Christ, whether at home, at camp, at work, or even at the grocery store.
There is one caveat, however. What occurred under the auspices of the formation offices of Episcopal Church Center between 1990 and 2009 could not have been done on merely a local level, with only local resources. Indeed, the formation offices played a pivotal role in the achievements of the mission movement – beyond mere funding. They provided research and resource development tools, cultivated relationships both nationally and internationally, and provided a place for conversation, for the unification of disparate grassroots elements.
In fact, what would the mission movement have been like without the work of the formation offices? Would we still be like Rachael at the tomb, weeping and wondering if our faith will have children? Or, would we have been able to grasp the prophetic vision of abundance that guarantees that each church can give birth to formational models that will even serve one “child?” You see, the mission of those working in and closely with the formation offices was to journey with even the smallest congregation who might want, but who did not as yet have a child in their midst.
So, the journey continues; the mission movement continues, just without press. Statistics and trends are not our destiny. They are the places we need to tend to, discerning with energy and spirit-filled passion, through conversation with others – especially our children – what is God’s mission. Leadership is critical, on both the local and national level, for it is with a renewal of the formational midwifery role provided by formation offices that we can give birth to new intergenerational and global models, new opportunities that bring even the youngest child into the center of the sacred circle as we bless them and observe and learn from them – not for the sake of church growth, not for the sake of having the best programs, but for the sake of our souls.
Remember, this is the time and season to be filled with new life; whose voices do we need to hear before we continue along the way? Where do we stop and pause and remember that this call to formation is central to our Baptismal Covenant, our Episcopal Tradition, our Scripture and above all our response to the prophetic call to assure that our faith will flourish on the continuum.
The Reverend Robyn Szoke is Canon for Children and Youth Ministry and Development in the Diocese of Central Pennsylvania. She was the Staff Officer for Children’s Ministries of The Episcopal Church 1998-2005).