Dialogue #3: Geoffrey Black

Dialogue #3: Geoffrey Black

This dialogue is the third in a series entitled "Dialogues on Christian Faith Formation and Education" and is offered with the intent of promoting conversation around the past, present, and future of faith formation in the United Church of Christ.

The Rev. Geoffrey A. Black was elected General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ in June 2009. Prior to that, he served as Conference Minister of the UCC's New York Conference for nine years beginning in 2000. Rev. Black previously served as a Minister for Church Life and Leadership with the then-Office for Church Life and Leadership (currently Parish Life and Leadership), a national agency of the United Church of Christ housed at the UCC's national offices in Cleveland, Ohio. This conversation took place in September 2011 as part of an overarching evaluation of the formational and educational life of the denomination.  

In what ways does the UCC currently see faith formation as the very essence of the identity, culture, and program life of congregations and other related ministries?
I leap to the present when I hear this question. We are not where we ought to be in this regard, at least from my point of view. As examples, we have had the partnership with the Unitarian Universalist Association for Our Whole Lives, and that has been major in terms of faith formation. The Still Speaking campaign, in much of its content, has been about regeneration and reformation of faith among UCC leaders especially and carries all the way through to congregational leaders. The training of Still Speaking people that helped to start the movement for Extravagant Welcome in congregations was all about rekindling and forming faith with the people, current-day UCC people. A lot of that still goes on with Daily Devotionals which is relatively new and, in the past, with the Book of Daily Prayer. The Devotionals are a good follow-up to this and are very much about faith formation. The online media approach is now the new venue where a lot of faith formation stuff is going on. Conference gatherings are also sustaining the formation of the conference with annual meetings, workshops, and presenters—they are all about introducing or continuing theological and spiritual dimensions and formative elements of Christian faith. They function as continuing education for both lay and clergy people. The Association of United Church Educators (AUCE) and a number of religious educators are very active in the life of the church as well. Overall, our healthier churches are very much about this work.

It's alive in the UCC, but in different ways than it once was. We are smaller than we were, but it's still a part of our core and still has a lot to do with clergy people. They are a rather learned bunch, and that continues to shape their congregations. It's an ongoing process in the overall life of the church.

What cultural influences or changes in the public realm have affected faith formation in the past 10-20 years?
The growth and predominance of the religious right has caused many to stop and wonder what is going on, and we need to speak up and say, "That is not what my understanding of Christian faith is about." But that leads us to ask, "What then is my faith about?" It has caused many people to explore that question and to become much more articulate in answering the question.

Liberation theology in its many forms, and feminist theology as a subset of that, has also greatly affected our faith formation. 40 years ago, those theologies were embraced by the people who became UCC leaders in the church. Now they are so intricately woven into the fabric of who we are that we don't always recognize that this is central to our take on faith formation.

Because of the real diversification of the U.S. population and the influx of people from around the world, all of that has had its impact on our understanding of Christian faith and has expanded our view to have much more engagement in an interfaith way. For example, the Vietnam War brought more people into contact with Buddhism by going to Vietnam or through their activism in opposing the war. More elements of Buddhism are prevalent in Christianity—folks are reading people like Thich Nhat Hanh and doing yoga. I've met a couple of pastors who are Christians, but they are also very engaged in Buddhist practices.

The Sept. 11 disaster and mistreatment of Muslims from a justice standpoint got our attention; but from a faith standpoint, it got us to question that tradition and learn more about it. That has also had an immediate impact on us—the profile of the Muslim community has been raised, but we're much more attentive to the multi-faith nature of our country; and we need to know our religious neighbors and find ways of living in harmony with them. It's a dynamic of faith formation—we are beginning to rediscover our own faith now through the lens of experiencing other faiths.

What trends and challenges within congregations and conferences have affected faith formation work at the national level?
Congregations are far less dependent on any particular denominational source for resources because the internet has changed all that. Stronger churches are producing their own resources and are initiating their own programs that reach into their communities and even globally. A lot of that is happening and it speaks to us having to redefine and rethink what the role of the national setting is. And we're doing that. This impacts our strategic planning; and while we may continue to shape and develop new resources for local churches, they will probably be of a different nature.

What we will also be doing is networking and helping to move resources that are created in other settings—local churches or conferences throughout the system. What we do nationally might look differently than just the National Setting being the sole source of credible or authoritative resources. The National Setting can serve to provide an overview of what is going on that is of real worth and move it into other places for local churches.

When I think of national staff, I think it's not just the staff at 700 Prospect Avenue in Cleveland. Anybody who is a church employee or who is called by the UCC to serve is considered national UCC staff, including local church pastors. If we look at the covenantal agreement, it's about being ministers of the UCC wherever we serve. 

How might we address the shift in terminology and practice from "Christian Education" to "Christian Faith Formation"? 
I think that we ought to embrace this shift because it speaks to the cultural realities that we mentioned earlier and because formation is what we need to be about. It speaks to the notion that our work is about the forming of disciples, of people who are grounded and see their whole being in this moment in time. It's about how I relate to people, walk the earth, and live my life.

For some, there is a major difference between the two terms. For others,(people who may not have a faith background) and don't know much about the UCC;  what they would want to know about is a way of life that will make a difference for them in a world that is full of life paths that are meaningless.

How can progress in theories of how people learn and change be more effectively utilized within systems of training leadership for the church?
Part of it is what we model. When we have the opportunity to create learning experiences for people, we need to bear in mind that people learn in different ways and then begin to shape programming around that.

Everybody in church leadership does not see himself or herself as a teacher, but we are. Somehow we have to take a very broad approach to helping people understand that and give access to various ways of teaching. Jesus was a teacher and that is often overlooked, even in sermons.  He taught with words and with actions.

What are the 5 most valuable lessons for living the Christian faith that you feel the church needs to be teaching? If we fail to teach those lessons/ideas/values, how might we find ourselves less faithfully formed?
1. For me, what is foundational is that God is about human liberation and justice. At the core of the biblical narrative at its earliest is that freedom story of Egypt and Israel.
2. All of creation is ultimately in God's hands—the earth is the Lord's and all who dwell within. That is a critical learning; and it says something about the environment, the economy—that it's not about "ours" and we revere that.
3. A Christological understanding that God is, for me, made manifest and is accessible through Jesus.
4. The Spirit is alive and well, and the Christian faith is dynamic because the Spirit is dynamic and is always moving and inspiring people.
5. The church is a flawed tool of God's mission—as messed up as we can be, and even in our best moments, it is who we strive to be that matters.

What directions/paths do you envision the future of Christian education and faith formation to take in the next 10-20 years? 50 years?
We may see the growth of parents taking much more seriously their parental role as primary educators and see the home as a learning environment. That may grow as an element of what we are about.

I was talking with a pastor recently, and he was very clear that the pattern of worship has become far less a weekly worship pattern and more of a monthly worship pattern. That's the way things are becoming given the busyness of people's lives. We must not fall into the trap of condemning people for not being present every week—those churches are developing different modes of community and learning experiences, with lots more mid-week activities and the breaking up of the Sunday School pattern by just doing what works for their community. There is a "many doors" approach to nurturing faith, which is what is going to happen over the next decade or more.

What questions did I not ask that I should have? What do I need to know about faith formation that you have not yet told me?
Interracial and inter-religious families and people are much more prevalent than years ago. How do we deal with this? With these kinds of identity complexities that people possess, we will need to find ways to address them and serve the whole family, particularly with the interreligious piece and the increase of families that are multi-faith. There's a lot of confusion around these and other various cultural variables such as gender and human sexuality, and more so as we become an increasingly diverse society. People are much more articulate than they used to be, but it is still a challenge.

People also are crossing boundaries in new ways with the internet, interfaith, inter-racial, same gender families, job movements, etc. Faith formation is going to have to address all of it. Evangelicals have a more exclusive response to many of these issues. So the UCC is ideally positioned for leading the conversation on these things in a theological way.  Some of our counterpart churches just won't go there, even though the reality is that this is where people are moving. This country is taking a fascinating turn despite conservativeness, and we must adapt our approach to faith formation.

Kristina Lizardy-Hajbi serves as Minister for Christian Faith Formation Research on the Congregational Vitality and Discipleship Ministry Team, Local Church Ministries. She can be reached at hajbik@ucc.org.

Contact Info

Kristina Lizardy-Hajbi
Director, CARD
700 Prospect Ave.
Cleveland, OH 44115