January 28, 2016—As I reach my forties, I have noticed a theme to my conversations with friends and church members nearing and living into mid-life. “What now?” “What next?” as they ask questions about how to measure their success, how to keep the excitement of goal-setting and the hope of attainment alive. Many have checked off several boxes in the chronology of life, have made peace with erasing those that never fit or worked out, or have rewritten the list completely.
Such a list may look like:
Whether we accept it or not, our families, schools, and culture have given us checklists and a path to chart the maturation from child to adult to sage elder. It is hard not to miss the satisfaction of reaching a milestone or attaining a goal. Spiritual formation is not so linear.
Some have compared it to a labyrinth, a spiral, a helix or a fractal, which is to say a complex, beautiful structure that moves upward and outward as well as folds and doubles back on itself in perpetual reproduction.
We can equip adults to let go of the idea that life and maturation is about progressing through a set of goals and to embrace a non-linear approach to adult formation that revels in the beauty of complexity even when it forsakes the celebration of achievement.
I recently attended a “student-led” conference of one of my elementary-aged children. I’ve been attending these since they were four-years-old and have noticed a striking difference to my own education, one geared to report cards and the accumulation of degrees. In the conference, my child presents their work. They discuss what they learned over the semester, describe their strengths and identify where they’d like to grow in the future. As I listened to my kindergartner, I realized she was already developing the skills I was retraining myself and church community to utilize in learning the spiritual discipline of discernment and in fostering a path for their own spiritual formation.
The churches I’ve served have had varying degrees of enthusiasm for adult education classrooms (from the same 3 people in the only Bible Study offered, to 100 people in a rotating list of congregation-generated topics). I’ve come to embrace that the church’s work toward adult formation is not measured by whether 1% of the membership or 30% attend Sunday school but towards cultivating the skills of discernment and reminding the entire congregation of the work God is continually doing for their formation. In my current call, this takes the form of engaging members to take stock of where they are and where they feel God. We do this by asking simple questions, like those a child might use to lead a conference focused on what they are learning.
There are many opportunities in pastoral care, small groups, volunteer events and session leadership to model discernment. In addition, our adult education program seeks opportunities to teach techniques and engage the imaginations of the congregation as a whole throughout the year.
Some simple ways to begin:
The Rev. Beth Waltemath is co-pastor at North Decatur Presbyterian Church, Decatur, GA. Beth shares one job, one house, one car and two children with David Lewicki (i.e., she is good at sharing). Beth graduated as an Echols Scholar and Phi Beta Kappa from the University of Virginia (BA, English) before receiving a fellowship to teach in England. In 2000, she moved to New York City and enjoyed working for Random House and Hearst Magazines before becoming a freelance writer and attending seminary. She received her MDiv from Union Theological Seminary in New York City. Beth learned that work in the church demands flexibility and faith in her first call to The First Presbyterian Church of Brooklyn, where she served in many roles: as Director of Christian Education, Associate Pastor, and Pastor in Charge (2003-2010).
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