Navigating the Complex and Beautiful Structures of Adult Formation
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:
- Marathon (I resent that this is a trend).
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:
- Develop an annual theme for Christian Formation to help adults mark time and enliven their imaginations with new metaphors for how their life in this world and in God evolves.
- Celebrate the theme in an interactive and intergenerational activity in the education hour and during worship. Adults learn in new ways when they are asked to write things down, illuminate those words, illustrate their hopes, and imagine these realized over time. The future looks brighter in glitter!
- Get people talking and listening. Conversation can be part of how we “respond to the Word.” Teach the art of sacred conversation: two people taking turns asking open-ended questions and holding space for the other to find the answer. We do this in classes, in meetings and yes, occasionally, as the pastoral prayer in worship.
- Revisit your annual theme throughout the year, offering space for more sacred conversations and activities. The minor holy days (Epiphany, Transfiguration, Lent, Pentecost) are great times.
- Host a celebration of learning at the end of the year in the education hour and in worship. Ask people to reflect on what intentions for formation they had this year and what they hope to learn next year. Invite class ideas and cultivate the “inner teacher” in every student. This is how our church lives into raising new priests in the “priesthood of all believers.”
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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