Local Formation

Local Formation

12/05/19

Missional Practice, Beloved Community, Sustainable Pedagogy – Reflection on Two Convenings of Uncharted

 

By The Rev. Susan Daughtry, Missioner For Formation In The Episcopal Church In Minnesota (Ecmn

 

“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the women and men to gather wood, divide the work and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.”
-Antoine de Saint-Exupéry 

As dioceses turn toward local formation programs to train new leaders, practical questions often drive program design. How will we get quality instruction to our leaders, given our constraints of time, geography, and dollars? What tweaks can we make to our existing formation pathways to shape emerging leaders in the competencies we think they need? How will the Commission on Ministry read this plan in comparison with what we’ve done before? The massive adaptive challenge ahead of the Episcopal Church is overwhelming, so we turn to the kinds of solutions we can already imagine: new online learning platforms, videoconferencing, curricula, experts. Faced with the “the vast and endless sea” of the unknown before us and the non-optional work in our inboxes, technical solutions sing a siren song. 

And yet that vast and endless sea is the adventure the Holy Spirit calls us to engage. Into the unknown, we must go: into relationships across cultural and linguistic divides, into the un-invented, undiscovered territory of new ways of being church, and back into our most ancient DNA as people following the way of Jesus. 

In 2017, people excited about the uncharted waters of leadership formation gathered in Minnesota to ask big questions together. Leaders of local formation programs, bishops, and Commission on Ministry representatives who were already in the midst of innovative program design in their own contexts shared the extraordinary resources they had created or found and wondered together about the challenges before us. Organizations and leaders working on new approaches to leadership development such as the Episcopal Church Foundation, Backstory Preaching, the Episcopal Evangelism Society, and eFormation joined the conversation. Together, we found enormous energy and hope for engaging unanswered questions about the future of the Church. 

This year, from May 29-31 in Minneapolis, the Episcopal Church in Minnesota called together another chapter of Uncharted, specifically to address questions that lingered after the original 2017 convening. 

  • Missional Practice: How do we form leaders locally to function missionally? 

 
  • Beloved Community: How do we form leaders to have Beloved Community as the ground of their theological imagination? 

 
  • Sustainable Pedagogy: What technology and best practices can dioceses use to offer local formation sustainably? 

 

These vision questions were informed by Episcopalians’ deep roots in the language and vision of the kingdom of God proclaimed by Jesus – a kingdom in which the lion can lay down with the lamb, in which the powerful and the powerless can feast together, in which God is known in breaking bread together. Such a vision is in stark contrast with the reality of the racialized culture of our country and of many of our congregations. And this moment calls the church to form leaders equipped with a vision and practice that trusts that God does indeed live in our neighborhoods, inspire our neighbors, and invite us to partner with them to shape our world to be reconciled to God and to each other. 

This same call invited the Uncharted leaders and participants to step back and ask what local formation is for: 

Are we creating M.Div.–lite programs that instill key data and skills in people so that they recreate the existing culture of the Episcopal Church in their local context? Instead, the hope is that local formation affords a chance to step back and think more about our baptismal identity – asking how we might invite leaders to engage the best of the Anglican tradition, so that they will be equipped to innovate faithfully in their communities, following God deeper into a relationship with their neighbors. A bigger adaptive challenge, but one that gets more to the heart of our faith. 

At the 2019 Uncharted Gathering, we heard from key speakers in the worlds of missiology and Beloved Community and pedagogy. We then engaged each other around the big questions above. Participants began an equity and diversity audit of the competencies they use to assess new leaders. Most importantly, there was the exciting expansion of a community of people asking big questions, refusing to settle for a technical blueprint when God’s Spirit beckons us to a transformative journey. 

From the welter of questions and hopes, here are some of my take-away’s from the Uncharted gathering of 2019: 

There was real desire to gather. As we got closer to the event, we had to shut down registration and create a waiting list. Over 50 registrants gathered, representing all four orders of ministry from a diverse array of dioceses across the Episcopal Church. Support and attendance also came from seminaries, the Church of England, Lutheran and UCC programs, affiliates like Backstory Preaching, Forma, and more. I heard, from more than one person, an expression of profound relief at the chance to meet others doing the work of local formation. 

Local formation leaders want to learn about pedagogy. In the event itself and in the survey results afterward, participants talked about the immediate impact of what they heard about learning goals, personalization and press, and student motivation. One clergyperson said, “I’m going to start doing backwards design from learning objectives with everything I do in my faith community.” It’s no wonder: most of us were formed by graduate environments that emphasized competencies in the areas required by canon. That set of content doesn’t explicitly include teaching. If we are to form disciples, we need to learn from our partners in the world of education about best practices for doing so. 

The real goal of our work is not about repackaging the M.Div. experience; it’s about the future of the church as it relates to Beloved Community. We leaned in and listened hard to the wisdom in the room, especially from Dr. Catherine Meeks, Heidi Kim, and Rie Gilsdorf. I overheard excitement and urgency to work toward a church that reflects shalom, the Kingdom of God, the Beloved Community. At the same time, I heard participants reveal their own sense of unpreparedness to lead in this area. 


As it pertains to local formation, here’s what caught my attention: 

  • Many of our conversations looked at the experience of racially and culturally based discrimination in the ordination process – and the desire of those present to help dioceses and Commissions on Ministry distinguish their biases from the requirements of formation. 

 
  • Other conversations examined the way the requirements of formation, and the tools we have locally to offer formation, carry their own cultural biases that strategically exclude people whose experience doesn’t already reflect success in white culture. 

 
  • We noted but did not focus on, the challenge of formation in immigrant and culturally specific communities that are discerning how their own heritage might impact not just the language for formation, but the process and pedagogy.

 

In other words, there’s a massive learning curve here for the Episcopal Church. As we named these issues, participants and speakers voiced their concern that the gathering not be a chance to pat ourselves on the back for our progressive values. Instead, they challenged all of us to use the event as a springboard into new ways of being. Heidi Kim offered us the insight that this community has significant power to turn the “icing” (nice-to-have, add-on content) of anti-racism training into the “cake,” (most important building blocks) of formation. 

Some aspects of our event design reflected deeper challenges in Anglican leadership formation. One helpful critique of the event offered, “You wanted to cover a lot of material. But the design of the event itself reflected white/western values: speed, efficiency, data exchange.” This person noted that had a broader group of stakeholders designed the event together, we might have left with different outcomes. This goes to the same question many of us brought to Uncharted: How do we teach emerging leaders to do things that we don’t possess the competency for? How can the experience of formation itself—not just the content – be an experience of Beloved Community and a chance to see those values in action? 

Underneath all these conversations lies this uncomfortable truth: in some of our faith communities, Anglicanism functions as a social, racial, and cultural identity marker rather than a pathway into life as baptized children of God, followers of the way of Jesus, the body of Christ. If that’s true, we need greater clarity about our theology and our understanding of what it looks like to practice the way of Jesus. Local formation, since it asks us already to distill the content and try on new approaches to learning communities, is a venue for that theological and practical work. “I wonder what it will take to let go of things that are no longer serving us well so we can embrace what is being born more fully,” one survey respondent wrote. I hear in that comment the trust that the Holy Spirit is offering us something beautiful in the massive cultural changes taking place around us. I hear too the desire to seek a life-giving way of being church, especially around racial and cultural diversity, as a pearl of great price. What of our Anglican inheritance is still serving God’s mission, and what is holding us back from joining in?

Mindfulness about the ecological and economic impact of the event was a big plus for some participants. We worked hard to source meals from vendors in our North Minneapolis neighborhood and/or vendors who would limit the waste stream from the event. From bringing their own water bottles to sorting their refuse into the compost/recycling/landfill bins, participants were enthusiastic in their support. Hosting conferences that bring care to the environmental and justice impacts of their gatherings is a learning goal for the whole church, and we in ECMN were so grateful for the positive response from our guests. 

Collaboration is appealing but daunting. One respondent reflected, “I wonder when we might actually get to the place of talking about how to do online formation collaboratively. We are still a bunch of separate dioceses doing separate training programs.” With the amount of financial support and representation from Episcopal seminaries at the Uncharted Gathering, I am hopeful that those organizations will continue to see and respond to the desire for support in this area. And/but, I believe the drive for this work has to come from dioceses and leaders on the ground, not seminaries. For that to happen, we need attention and time for networking, organization, and coalition-building. One respondent wrote, “I think there is potential to actually create movement in the church – but we need to have better action plans and someone actually overseeing some of that. I don’t know who that is, but I think there needs to be a little more administration to get some of these things going.”

Next steps. Some of the attendees at the event self-organized into working groups that hope to follow up in the coming months. That included a working group that is interested in hosting the next Uncharted Gathering. I’ve heard from at least three of the Episcopal seminaries interested in supporting that effort. One significant next step for me is to continue to invite colleagues into this network, and to work to create opportunities for the Holy Spirit’s creative work in partnerships. These include: building a contact list, sending quarterly emails that share resources, writing, and announcements and news of events from folks who are embedded in this work. You can sign up for that email here: unchartedgathering.com. We’re also inviting participants at this year’s Uncharted event to take advantage of some of our surplus funds in the form of equity coaching. So, stay tuned. 

The Rev. Susan Daughtry serves as the Missioner for Formation for the Episcopal Church in Minnesota’s School for Formation (schoolforformation.org). 

Into the unknown, we must go: into relationships across cultural and linguistic divides, into the un-invented, undiscovered territory of new ways of being the church, and back into our most ancient DNA as people following the way of Jesus.

 

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