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Adult faith formation that doesn’t work

Adult faith formation that doesn’t work

St. Mary’s in St. Paul, Minn., is described as “a growing faith community.” Nevertheless, its rector, Rev. LeeAnne Watkins, says adult faith formation has been tried in every form conceivable but has failed to attract consistent energy or attendance. So, at this point, it’s done for now. “We’ve cancelled it all,” she confesses.

Her hope, as you’ll hear in the embedded video, is that the clear orientation at St. Mary’s towards service opportunities will compel folks to learn more about their own faith narratives.

My response: alternating despair … a clear recognition of the problem from my own ministry … interlaced with gratitude for whatever it is I’ve been able to do educationally … an increased sense of dependence upon God. Mostly, though, I just sat and listened and kept saying “Ouch” very quietly to myself.

Your response?


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Marc Kivel

Hmmmm I come to this article as an adult educator and trainer…

From my own experience as a recipient and facilitator of adult formation I feel there are several issues that need attention at parish, diocesan and national levels as regards adult formation.

First, we need to use our laity more and our clergy less as instructors and facilitators. Nothing helps adult motivation to learn more than to be called to teach.

Second, clergy should be resources, not the sole source of knowledge and wisdom in formation. Teach your best and brightest to give over the Gospel and coach them at various times and places.

Third, recognize that folks learn in a variety of ways and at a variety of rates. One shot lectures or sermons are least likely to work…informal conversations concerning real world applications are memorable and effective.

Fourth, we forget that 80% of our knowledge is usually gained informally – a chance conversation, a book we read or a comment overheard…conversations over coffee ala the Alpha Course or a parable or even a joke can be an entry into learning.

As to Sarah’s point about baptism as “…sacramental affirmation of intentionally vowed discipleship” perhaps we might want to think about adopting a Cursillo or Benedictine-type experience immediately prior to Baptism for adults and a Benedictine Community ethos for adult formation and worship as well?



I don’t think that LeeAnn is a failure.

I think that people contemplating Baptism for themselves or their children should make a decision informed by some sense of what they’re vowing.

People would be horrified to learn that parents were being encouraged to sign over their babies to the military without the parents being informed or wanting to be informed about what the child might face on that path or how the child might best prepare for it.

And yet we set people on the way of the Cross all the time without informing them that it’s more than a nice ceremony, and that what we’re vowing before God to do will involve effort and sacrifice, could put us at odds with our culture, and has lifelong (eternal-life-long!) implications.

I don’t question the validity of such baptisms, but I do wonder about the point if nobody involved treats that Baptism as a sacramental affirmation of intentionally vowed discipleship.

If I were in such a congregation, I’d want a chance before at least one prayer in the liturgy each Sunday for us to ask one another, “what does this mean to you?” and “what might be different about your life if you got what you were praying for here?”

I’d happily skip the sermon to get a sense that what was going on in the rest of the service means something, and if so, what.

I don’t think God cares whether we have church programs and when. So cancel the programs that don’t accomplish anything. Jesus calls disciples, not churchgoers.

But I hope we don’t stop informing people of what Christian discipleship is. It’s not a problem if they then say, “wow, that’s pretty demanding; I think I don’t want to do this,” and then they go off to the local soup kitchen or beach clean-up day. I think that’s better than inviting people to swear falsely week after week.

Sure, the pledging income might drop if people who weren’t all that interested in Jesus went elsewhere. We might not be able to afford a building then. But God doesn’t dwell in houses made by human hands; God dwells in communities of people, and shows up wherever disciples gather in Jesus’ name.


Sarah Dylan Breuer


The other pradign that’s common is service and fellowship first, education whenever.

That can work well; indeed, some argue that fellowship is the secret to success for the Latter-day Saints. But the danger, one suspects, is that things devolve to works without faith, which may be every bit as problematic as faith without works.

The “works first” thing is dangerous, too, when people start to feel burned out, or when they feel ignored in their time of need. So, fellowship and sevice have their roles, but it’s important that these issues don’t usurp other, more important, matters.

Eric Bonetti


After thinking about this for 24 hours, and posting it on Facebook to see what others thought, this is what I’ve come up with:

A. In *no* way is LeeAnn a failure. For proof, look at the article in the Washington Post a few days ago, on Page 1, that said colleges and universities are having to rethink lecture-based classes. Meaning: The way in which LeeAnn was taught to teach may be a thing of the past in her parish. But having to learn a different way of doing things does not mean LeeAnn failed. It means times and people change.

B. One of my colleagues in Virginia told me that he spends the vast majority of his time going to see parishioners where they work. He doesn’t just drop by to pick them up for coffee or lunch, but goes to their places of work and stays there, asking them: “Where do you see God in this place? How do you manifest God in your work?” Now, granted, this colleague is not a rector. But … what if LeeAnn and others who face the same dilemma were to do *this* kind of teaching, which is more discussion and mutual searching that leads to more discussion and more searching?

Teaching is teaching – the venue and style are not as important as helping people to become the people God wants them to be (and not the people *we* want them to be).

C. LeeAnn is obviously doing a great deal correctly, because her people *are* coming to church on Sundays and they are then going out into the world to do what God is calling them to do. What’s wrong with that? Isn’t the whole point of liturgy to nourish and strengthen us to go out into the world? Isn’t the whole point of Christian *Formation* to help us become the people God wants us to be? And does not God ask that we take care of each other?

LeeAnn, you are very brave for not only voicing your concerns but doing so in such a public way. Thank you for the opportunity to seek and serve and discern together.

Lauren R. Stanley


Lee Alison

Thank you, LeeAnn, for articulating what so many of us have felt. I do not see you nor do I see Saint Mary’s as a failure. Your comment about things being ‘too slow’ is on target… as well as how we have to fight for people’s time and attention. Maybe, despite it all, the priest is called to be relational, in community, holding the people of God in prayer…and then, maybe, things can percolate but in ways that our seminary professors could not ever imagine.

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