How can the UCC spend mission dollars to give churches useful teaching tools in nurturing the spiritual life of the congregation?
The Rev. J. Bennett Guess, executive for Local Church Ministries, is hopeful the results of a year-long evaluation will help answer that question as the denomination seeks to effectively and efficiently use its resources to maximize the impact of faith formation.
Faith formation is the process of learning and practice of one’s faith throughout all aspects of congregational and daily life, and how one’s spiritual life is formed and grounded.
Leaders at the UCC’s national office began planning the next steps in a new faith formation program, using a 137-page report on the subject and the expertise of consultants, staff and clergy along the way. The information from the study was fleshed out during a three-day gathering of the Education Consultants in Cleveland.
Local Church Ministries commissioned the broad one-year evaluation of Christian education and faith practices in the UCC, Guess said, because "as a church together, we wanted to discern the real needs of our congregations and the curricula or resources that each church wants, needs or finds most useful and engaging, and any identifiable best practices that can be shared across the whole church.”
The Rev. Kristina Lizardy-Hajbi, minister for Christian Faith Formation Research on the UCC’s Congregational Vitality and Discipleship Ministry Team, led the effort to assess faith formation and submitted the report in early September.
There were 30-plus people who heard Lizardy-Hajbi’s presentation Monday in her study of faith formation in the church, with attendees from the UCC’s national and regional settings, in addition to the education consultants and the 20/30 clergy group. Several people in the group commended Lizardy-Hajbi for her work.
“Two things are clear to me from this evaluation,” Guess said. “First, if we really are serious about being a ‘thinking-peoples church,’ as we often claim to be, then we must recommit ourselves, as individual churches and as a denomination, to being a ‘learning-peoples church,’ one that equips people to be theologically conversant, biblically literate, and comfortable talking about our faith to others with ease and confidence, not anxiety.
The second point Guess made was that, based on the report, hiring a staff person with the expectation that one person can carry the Christian education portfolio for the whole denomination is “naïve, old-fashioned and short-sighted.” As the report suggests, and Guess confirmed, a hybrid model might best bring together a network of national and regional staff, ancillary organizations and congregations.
“We must begin to use our financial resources to ‘insource’ best minds and practices, to lift up the effective models and home-grown curricula already at work in some of our more excellent faith-forming churches,” Guess said. “The experts are out there, in our local churches, so the question and challenge is how we best utilize our resources to connect and network with one another so that all can share in that expertise.”
The report was divided into three sections: “Foundations,” which outlines changes in the church and society that impact faith formation; “Findings,” which highlights research surveys and interviews; and “Futures,” which offers scenarios and recommendations for faith formation moving forward. That was the key topic of most of the discussions at the Church House.
“When we have to come up with strategies, we have to move beyond the report, but not out of its arena,” said the Rev. Dr. Marian Plant, one of the education consultants who delivered the sermon at Monday’s opening worship. “It puts some legs to the report, and helps all of us see what shape they might take. It does help what’s on any given page come to life, or what life it might take on.”
There were five key factors identified in the report that have driven changes in faith formation: Changes between generations, technology advancements, changes to family lifestyles, vocabulary changes, and economic and financial impact.
The only acted-upon recommendation from the report is that, after 17 years, the education consultants program will come to a close at the end of the 2012 calendar year. The gathering in Cleveland concluded with time for honoring the impact of the UCC’s education consultants’ contributions over the years and the close relationships they had formed.
The consultants and staff also outlined issues and obstacles for the report’s recommendations in the areas of staffing, education programs and resource development as they helped develop the roadmap for the next nine months.
“[It will be interesting] to see how do we use this as a teaching tool in our congregations,” said the Rev. David Schoen, team leader for congregational vitality and discipleship ministry.