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Exploring the Essentials

New approaches to spiritual formation help adults deepen their faith.

Forming disciples is not like it used to be. Most do not arrive in church as children and remain active through adulthood. Newcomers instead need basic instruction as adults, as well as supportive venues for their faith journeys. Those with deep church backgrounds are often prone to burnout.

That is the broad assessment driving new resources for adult spiritual formation in Episcopal congregations. The creators intend to help the uninitiated gain confidence, offer refreshment to the overworked, and enable progress toward mature Christian character.

Canon Dawn Davis

“In Anglicanism, ‘Come to church and you will grow’ is our operating underpinning or assumption,” said the Rev. Canon Dawn Davis, faith formation coordinator in the Diocese of Niagara, Canada, and developer of a new Forward Movement resource. “We do evoke a spiritual encounter with God. But because we don’t give people permission to talk and engage with one another and create a safe, trusting place for people to take those experiences, the encounters become episodic. And people don’t actually grow.”

Davis has encountered stagnation among the faithful in the trenches. Whether they are neophytes or church veterans, believers too often are stuck in a rut and need something beyond the ordinary adult education fare to move them along.

Among those tackling the challenge is St. David’s Church in Austin, where Rebecca Hall, director of adult education and spiritual formation, takes a relational approach.

She discussed guiding principles at the Consortium of Endowed Episcopal Parishes conference in Boston. About 60 ordained and lay leaders took part in her workshop, in which she adapted a model described in Introducing the Practice of Ministry by Roman Catholic theologian Kathleen Cahalan.

Hall made the case that beginner Christians need more than information. If they are going to access the tradition’s riches and gain confidence, they need someone to show them around.

“We often think, What class am I going to create for this group of people?” Hall said. “I would encourage us to think beyond classes. What do beginners need beyond classes? They need accompaniment. … They need someone to sit next to them in the pew and say, This is the Book of Common Prayer, this is the hymnal, and this is the bulletin. … Here’s what you do with it. Take them on a tour around the church. Show them what to do.”

Hall said students who begin with some knowledge need something different: room for reflection as they integrate new knowledge and church experiences. Such space is often overlooked, however, for those who have already been taught doctrinal basics and kept busy on committees.

Competent Christians, a third category, tend to excel in parish leadership and appear proficient in Christian faith. But those who become stuck have often stopped short of risks that require courage, Hall said. They need deeper experiences, such as retreats and pilgrimages, to become truly integrated Christians.

At Christ Church, a 6,000-member parish in Charlotte, the approach is less segmented than at St. David’s. Newcomers are linked with more experienced disciples for a lay-led journey called Christian Essentials. Participants engage with 15 essentials, from worship to Bible study, hospitality and stewardship, in ways that expand understandings and build personal habits. They learn about each topic before gathering in a small group, watching a video together, discussing it, and leaving with homework.

“What we introduce is the idea that once you start a practice, the chances that you’re going to do it for 30 years are slim to none,” said the Rev. Matt Holcombe, associate rector at Christ Church and developer of Christian Essentials, during a break between CEEP sessions. “If we look at the ministry of Jesus, there were always new practices that Jesus was inviting the disciples into. So that’s what this class tries to replicate: new practices at different points of the journey.”

Christ Church offers the curriculum, including videos for each session and resources to train leaders, for free.

Course leaders say they have seen participants weave Christian disciplines into their lives. Chris Martin, 79, a retired school teacher who was baptized at 67, recalls what happened for a nurse in her mid-20s. She built a habit of prayer and learned to reflect on work-related frustrations through a Christian prism.

“It really helped her,” Martin said. “It helped all of us. The facilitators have become students.”

Progress in spiritual formation can be elusive, though, even for Christians who are deeply committed and active in parish life. That is what Davis found when she was a parish priest at Trinity Church in Aurora, Ontario, where lay leaders worked tirelessly to keep the parish one step ahead of dwindling financial resources and challenging demographic shifts.

“What I encountered there was a lot of busy, busy activity — very effective doing ministry and, by their own account, very shallow spiritual depth,” Davis said. “Under the surface was exhaustion and a little bit of fear.”

Davis said she looked for a mainline Protestant program to refresh parish stalwarts but found none. She consequently developed Revive, a discipleship program for lay leaders, as part of her Doctor of Ministry degree.

It consists of three six-week segments, along with retreats at beginning and end. Forward Movement sells the course. The package includes videos and notes to guide facilitators. Cost is $100 per congregation through March 31. On April 1, the price increases to $299.

With Revive, congregants seek to understand themselves and their spiritual tradition more deeply. They learn about their personality types and try out 10 different types of Christian prayer. It is done to discover which practices can be life-giving for an individual, and to identify which habits have been exhausting and ought to end.

The program has been tested in six parishes and is used by 15 Diocese of Niagara churches. Davis sees encouraging results. In one case, a parishioner switched ministries and found fresh energy in a new role. For another participant, trying out contemplative prayer gave her an experience and new language for discussing spirituality with an adult daughter who is more drawn to meditation than to church.

“It requires reprioritizing other things in the life of the church to make room for this,” said Richelle Thompson, deputy director and managing editor at Forward Movement. “If we don’t reprioritize some of those other things and don’t spend some time on our spiritual life, then those other things won’t eventually matter because burnout and feelings of decline will overwhelm us. So it’s something we have to do collectively.”


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