Spending half of Canadian Thanksgiving in the U.S. away from my family is not how I usually like to plan things. But this past summer as I was thinking through my fall schedule, the speakers and themes from the Deep Faith conference that was being planned at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Elkhart, Ind., kept coming back to me and drawing me in. And I’m glad I went.
The three-day conference held Oct. 6 to 8, 2016, focussed on faith formation, both explicit and implicit, but the question that garnered the most discussion was around the major challenges facing leaders in the church today as they seek to nurture deeper faith in their congregations, families and individuals.
For the workshops I chose a broad scope, from young to old, including children’s spirituality, rituals in the church for all ages, late-life spiritual formation and intergenerational practices. I was reminded of the need to trust that the Spirit of God is at work in the lives of the people that we are engaging—whether they are 3 or 93. And that the Spirit is active and at work in their lives. The purpose of leadership in these settings is drawing others' attention to God, to physical reminders of God, to re-framing activities to pay attention to God, and to rituals that will assist with these things.
We were also reminded of the importance of bringing the various generations in the church together for faith formation, since the young need the old and the old need the young. This helps us to see that faith formation does not just end when people graduate from high school, but it is a life-long journey.
One of the struggles that was shared at the beginning of the conference is that many people in our churches don’t feel like they are equipped to be leaders or mentors to others along their faith journey. Part of this comes from too much comparison in our churches to those who seem to have it all together, and part of it stems from too harsh judgment on ourselves. The speakers and workshop leaders were good at encouraging grace in all areas: grace when things don’t work out the way you wanted, when the children get too loud during the time of silence, and grace when ideas seem to fall flat. In all things, grace is needed with ourselves and with others.
What struck me the most out of the whole conference was Rachel Miller Jacobs’ plenary session. She entitled it “Practising aphiemi.” Aphiemi is the Greek word for forgiveness, but she didn’t want to be limited by our English understanding of the word. Her talk sought to encompass the whole of the Greek understanding of aphimei: that of letting go, releasing, forgiving and sending away.
Forgiveness can fit with faith formation, but at a conference on helping empower leaders I was pleasantly surprised to hear it. Miller Jacobs began by pointing out the many ways that we offend and hurt one another in the church, because that is what happens in community. She went on to talk about how to deal with harm in ordinary time, how to evaluate our own feelings and involvement, and how to work towards reconciliation. Nothing is a given, and being realistic and humble were important points that she made. Sometimes the best way to deal with a hurt is to “send it away,” put it at the throne of God to be judged by the one who loves all people best.
Going deeper in our faith and encouraging faith formation in our congregations has so many levels and facets to it. Paying attention and involving all ages is vital. Respecting the Spirit of God already at work in individual lives is a must. And spending time as leaders learning and speaking about forgiveness in our community needs to be at the foundation of our faith. I am hopeful that these insights and conversations continue to grow beyond the Deep Faith conference.
More than 100 people from across the United States and Canada gathered for the event that grew out of conversations at a 2014 Mennonite Camping Association convention, which led to participants envisioning a first-of-its-kind conference “by faith formation workers, for faith formation workers,” according to planning team member Elsie Rempel of Charleswood Mennonite Church in Winnipeg.
Virginia Gerbrandt Richert is assistant pastor of Bergthaler Mennonite Church of Altona, Man.
For links to videos of some of the presentations and blog posts, go here.