The PC(USA)’s Christian Formation Collective sees the forest for the trees

Leaders feed an ecosystem of nonprofits that support age and stage ministries 

by Beth Waltemath | Presbyterian News Service

Leaders in the Christian Formation Collective met at Stony Point Center last week to develop sustainable networks and ecosystems for faith formation. (Photo by Beth Waltemath)

STONY POINT, New York — “What does it look like for us to network?” the Rev. Larissa Kwong Abazia, the designated strategic director of NEXT Church and vice moderator of the 221st General Assembly (2014), recently asked a room full of leaders representing five independent nonprofits that support Christian educators, youth workers, older adult ministry, college campus ministry, and camps and conference centers.

Small groups of leaders from the Association of Partners in Christian Education (APCE), Presbyterian Youth Workers’ Association (PYWA), Presbyterian Older Adult Ministries Network (POAMN), UKirk (Collegiate Ministries) and Presbyterian Church Camp and Conference Association (PCCCA) met over three days at Stony Point Center in New York last week to discern changes within their organization and the denomination and to strategize for the future.

The gathering was the fifth anniversary of their collaboration. Known as the Christian Formation Collective, these five organizations, most of which started as ministries supported and governed within the denominational structures of the PC(USA), attend to the faith formation across the generations. Every year, the Office of Christian Formation hosts a gathering for these groups to share wisdom, resources and strategic approaches.

“The growth in collaboration between these organizations over the past five years has been substantial,” said Stephanie Fritz, coordinator of the Office of Christian Formation, who explained that the organizations gather quarterly on Zoom as well. “They are now working with one another on resources, events and webinars that impact faith formation leaders across the denomination and ecumenically. They have helped one another think creatively about structure and how they can best equip leaders.” According to Fritz, the partnership with the Collective of the Presbyterian Mission Agency through her office impacts more than 1,500 leaders working in faith formation.

“One of the things that has shifted is a linear understanding of Christian formation,” said UKirk executive director the Rev. Gini Norris-Lane, reflecting on larger movements within ministry as well as the impact the leaders in the Collective have had on each other.

The Rev. Larissa Kwong Abazia (Photo by Beth Waltemath)

In their final day together, Kwong Abazia asked leaders to consider themselves as more than a stand-alone organization or a movement, but as a living organism in a much larger ecosystem that is constantly evolving and adapting and, potentially, diversifying. Kwong Abazia invited the leaders to draw their organizations as a tree with roots, a trunk, branches, leaves and fruit, and to label these with their core virtues, programs, funding sources, impacts and positive outcomes. Then Kwong Abazia led the room in a larger conversation about the environment in which their tree grows.

Through this lens, leaders within the Collective shared the many changes taking place within their organizations. PCCCA and APCE have successfully embraced ecumenical models of ministry and taken further steps to consider their diversity, equity, inclusion and justice commitments. According to Joel Winchip, PCCCA’s executive director, the association created the “Campfire Collective,” an ecumenical arm of the PCCCA that brings together outdoor ministries of several mainline denominations as well as  partners with the camp and conference center ministry of the United Methodist Church to oversee CampSource, an online repository of resources for outdoor ministry centers.

Kiersten Hill, secretary of the board for PYWA, shared how the organization hoped to change its funding model from relying primarily on the fees of individual members to seeking donations from churches in order to alleviate the burden placed on lower-paid youth ministry staff and volunteers.

Pat Baker is president of the Presbyterian Older Adult Ministries Network. (Photo by Beth Waltemath)

Pat Baker, president of POAMN, highlighted the increasing demographic of older adults in the church and the reality that people are staying engaged in congregations into their 90s.

While active membership of older adults is on the rise, the participation of young adults in traditional congregation settings continues to decline, but participation in collegiate ministries is increasing. Norris-Lane shared a resource for churches and their leaders seeking to better understand Generation Z and how to engage them. According to Norris-Lane, the four-week study asks communities to consider “what it means for all of us to continue our baptismal vows and to journey with young people as they navigate from adolescence to young adulthood.”

UKirk board members the Rev. Maggie Alsup and Matt Hibdon see the forest and the tree of their UKirk (Collegiate Ministry) within the changing ecosystem of faith formation for Generation Z. (Photo by Beth Waltemath)

“We spent some time naming the things of the soil, the good and the bad that contribute to the system we find ourselves rooted in,” said the Rev. Maggie Alsup, a UKirk board member. Phrases like “scarcity, competition, romanticized past, institutional decline, instant gratification, transformation, relevancy, neurodiversity, abundance and bravery” spanned horizontally across the wall. Each organization was asked to hang their drawings on top of this list of trends and changes within the larger landscape of the PC(USA) and other mainline denominations. As each of the core leaders presented their arboreal diagrams and posted them next to the others, a larger picture of the realities that leaders face in the work of spiritual formation emerged. Miatta Wilson, associate for Christian Formation, noted that the picture of their trees on the wall demonstrated these five networks “doing their part and doing it collectively,” supporting faith formation in all its many shapes and sizes throughout the lifespan.

“As we studied our tree and added it to the wall with other Collective trees, we became aware of how far UKirk has come in this last year and hopeful for where we are heading,” said Alsup, who asked, “Can we think of ourselves as an aspen tree system? I feel like that is a good analogy in terms of our connectedness.”

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