Why would laypeople want theological education, anyway?

Writing for the Alban Institute, Sally Simmel asks one of the most important questions facing the Church:

Laity are those members of the church whom God has called to the church outside the walls of the church. In unison they might say, “We write the laws of our lands and invent new technologies to serve humanity. We know how to clone animals and humans and measure germs on Mars. We rear and educate children. We work in corporations, governments, and health care systems. We build roads and homes. We write and produce movies and TV shows. In those endeavors, we seek to practice our faith. We need the wisdom of faith through deeper theological reflection to help discern the how and why of it all.”

They might also say in unison that they are not theologians, while they in fact are doing theology. For the most part, that means they are not trained in theology for preaching, teaching, and Word and Sacrament ministry. That is a particular call. “Doing theology” does not merely mean studying tradition, doctrine, and Scripture so that one knows about those things. Rather, theology balances fact and theory with the lived experience of God each of us has. All experience has meaning and provides insight for the journey. To stay either in the academic mode or the experiential mode would deny the wholeness of each person, God, and the universe.

At a very early age, the people of God begin to speak to God, to recognize there is a God, even without fully understanding: “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord…” Laypeople of all ages and cultures are searching for meaning and purpose. The church risks losing them if the only theological reflection available to them is the church school. A forty-three-year-old from the East Coast sums up some of the longing for meaning in life when she asks, “What is this deep longing I feel in spite of success and happiness? What is God’s purpose for me? How do I know when God is speaking to me?”

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  1. EH Culver

    Lay people are required to mature personally and professionally, but many of us are never required to grow into a mature faith. We experience the longing to understand more deeply who we are and why we are here, but sometimes we are not even able to articulate this desire. When we become aware of what is missing, some of us read privately, some of us attend Education for Ministry or similar classes, and some of us enroll in seminary. If we respond to God’s vocation to learn and grow, God responds by giving us a sense of deeper understanding. We can say, at least until the next questioning period comes along, “Now I’m beginning to get it,” and life in the world as well as in the Church becomes more meaningful.

    For the past several years I have been fortunate to be a member of a teaching parish. It is vital for all churches to have the means to help their members grow into the vocation of all Christians, that of “Christian maturity” (thanks, Fr. Girvin, now serving in the Continuing Diocese of Ft. Worth).

    Libraries, bookstores, and classes for adults are essential for nurturing this growth. “Christian formation” is a lifelong process.

  2. We’ve had some luck incorporating Christian formation into the shared homily time at one of our midweek services.

  3. paigeb

    The Education for Ministry (EFM) program is the hidden jewel of the Episcopal Church. As a student in that program, my own faith was deepened and expanded. As a mentor in the program, I see the amazing growth in the theological understandings of those in my group.

    If you want lay people who have a strong grasp of the foundations of their faith, and who have learned to think theologically in all areas of their lives, EFM is the way to go. It requires serious commitment of time and energy–but it produces graduates who know what they believe and why, and who are serious about discerning God’s calling for them. I would encourage any priest and/or parish who is serious about adult theological formation to explore EFM.

    In addition, I would also say that it is critical to expend at LEAST as much energy on adult theological education as it is on Sunday School for children. Since many new members of the Episcopal Church come to us as adults from other faith traditions, I think it is vitally important to offer them challenging and engaging education opportunities about the Anglican tradition, the role/place of scripture, tradition, and reason in our common life, and the way our polity works.

    We certainly need to ground our children in the faith, but if we want to maintain and grow the church, we need to ground adults as well.

    Paige Baker

  4. Clint Davis

    In my own experience, I never found my childhood RE experience to be religiously formative, it was always the imaginative possibilities of the liturgy itself that taught me more than volunteer Sunday School teachers ever could. In fact, in most places where I went to SS, there weren’t any competently trained teachers, so the programs were really bad. Educate the adults first, and they’ll educate the children. Be cheerleaders of our rich tradition for the children; teach them from an early age that our hymns, music, liturgy, devotional life, teachings, etc. are really excellent, and show them how they are excellent. Give them eyes to see at church, and they’ll learn more than any of us will ever be able to articulate in a Sunday School curriculum. Again, the imaginative faculty, and the images that can stimulate it, are much more effective methods to teach and form everyone, and esp. children, in a lasting way. That’s yet another reason why I’m a passionate High Churchman.

  5. Mary Caulfield

    There are some wonderful resources to engage and excite both children and adults about the possibilities of scripture, liturgy, and ministry in the world. As a church we make a huge mistake when we value one particular demographic over another. There are incredible riches to be explored for people of any age. EfM is one great resource, as are the Montessori-based curricula for kids. Both Godly Play and Catechesis offer a nuanced theology and train children to engage with images and questions. The expectation of a parish should be that all communicants are in an ongoing process of formation and discernment.

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