e-Formation: More than a conference, a chance to rethink how we do ministry

eformation-bannerI’m writing with an invitation for you. One that could change the way you think about serving God, your church, and the people around you.

For the past three years, I’ve had the distinct pleasure of helping lead the team that puts together e-Formation: A conference on ministry in a digital world. It’s a “learning lab”-style gathering where new learners and expert practitioners gather to reflect on and train each other for the kinds of faith leadership that are desperately needed in today’s digitally networked societies.

We recently issued an e-Formation FAQ blog challenge, and I’m grateful for the opportunity to practice what I preach on this site. Here goes…

Q: What is e-Formation?

A: A learning community for ministry in a digital world, convened by the Center for the Ministry of Teaching at Virginia Theological Seminary.

Q: Why should technology matter to churches?

A: Because digital media are helping churches reach out to their neighborhoods and strengthen the ties among their members. Because technology is helping individual Christians explore and deepen their faith outside of Sunday morning. Because the Spirit of God is with us wherever we go (Psalm 139). Because Christ has no online presence but yours.

Q: What is e-Formation 2015?

A: This year’s big e-Formation gathering—150 or so ministry practitioners sharing hands-on training and big-picture inspiration. You can check out this year’s program here.

Speakers include author Keith Anderson, Augsburg Fortress CEO Beth LewisScott Gunn of Forward Movement, Anthony Guillén and Jake Dell from the Episcopal Church Center staff, and so many more.

Q: Tell me about the cost, location, etc.

A: The event takes place June 1-3 on the campus of Virginia Theological Seminary in Alexandria, just a few miles from Washington DC’s Reagan National Airport. Limited on-campus housing is still available for the evenings of May 31 through June 3. The cost of attending the full conference is $279, and online registration is available here.

Q: Is there somewhere I can get a taste of last year’s event?

A: Absolutely. Our #eform14 Pinterest board contains links to workshop materials and recordings from last year, and there are photos on RebelMouse and Flickr. You can also read our summary here, or check out blog posts from participants Chris Yaw and Nurya Love Parish.

Q: What if I can’t afford the time and expense of attending?

A: For just $79, you can purchase webinar access to the conference for simultaneous participation with a lively online audience and/or later streaming of recorded workshops and plenaries. For $99, you can purchase a single-day pass. And students can take advantage of our discounted registration price of $167. Find more information on the registration andwebinar access pages.

Q: Are there opportunities for training in Spanish?

A: Yes, absolutely. In partnership with the Episcopal Church Latino/Hispanic Ministries office, we are thrilled to offer an evening program in Spanish corresponding to each day’s conference theme (Monday: congregational growth and development; Tuesday: tools/skills bootcamp; Wednesday: faith formation and learning).

Participants can attend in person or online via Zoom at prices designed to be affordable for everyone. Simultaneous interpretation will also be available at the conference for the plenaries and a small selection of workshops. Learn more about e-Formation en español here.

Q: OK, so why should I come to e-Formation?

A: Because spending hours listening to a “sage on the stage” is no way to learn the new skills you need. This event strikes a balance between theory and practice and flattens the distinction between expert and novice. Come learn and play with others who are excited about what technology offers our churches, and vice versa.

On Being Digital Missioners

Back in September, Mike Angell connected three young adults with a strange job title: digital missioner. Each of us had been asked by our respective organizations to both proclaim and further the mission of the Church using ever-evolving digital media. Since none of us really had a clue what this meant when we started, we’ve been learning with and from each other. And since the whole point of this thing is to learn how to share the good news online, we thought it’d be worth posting some preliminary reflections on our work. So, here they are…

 

BrendanBrendan O’Connor, Christ Church Cathedral (St. Louis, MO)

I am prone to think of “The Church” as being principally a mission that utilizes the physical space of buildings. Christ Church Cathedral of St. Louis thinks of itself as a beautiful and historic downtown church, but also as a much broader community gathering place.

Being a member of a church can then be defined in more ways than how often one attends Sunday services. Youth missioner of the Diocese of Missouri Elle Dowd points out that while churches often complain about the supposed declining membership of youth, many young people are engaged with community and social justice activities and attitudes in their weekly practices.

Additionally, the Sunday Morning service is an age-old institution that remains constant, despite contemporary scheduling patterns for workplaces, schools, athletic teams, college visits, and a variety of other factors. This is not to say that the church ought to go soft, but rather, the church can recognize that its success in the community must include versatility and recognition of the talents and lives of its members.

That’s where we come into the picture.

The digital missioner of the cathedral, as I have come to explain it, is a mix between a social media developer and an event coordinator. I use digital space to make the physical space of the cathedral, as well as its mission in the “real world,” something that occurs every day and works to include all people. Some ways I have done this include collecting pictures and stories from parishioners for an art project website (check out CathedralTales) adopting an Advent devotional that includes Pinterest and Instagram contribution, developing a 24-hour prayer vigil to combat violence in the wake of Ferguson, and maintaining a strong Twitter/Facebook presence.

 

ANNAND ST H 2-27-15 artEdward Watson, St. Hilda’s House (New Haven, CT)

I have come to understand my primary responsibility as a digital missioner to be exploring ways in which St. Hilda’s can serve as a resource for the wider Church, both within and outside of New Haven

This exploration has taken several forms. I have been able use our blog to post and promote my housemates’ reflections on subjects such as their spiritual journeys, life and work in community, and how their experiences here are forming them anew. We’ve recently been able to publish a substantial Quarterly based on these blog posts, which can be downloaded here. I have been able to make and post videos of Hildans highlighting resources which have been spiritually fruitful for them and could be so for others. I have been using our Facebook page to connect New Havenites up with volunteering opportunities (something St. Hilda’s is uniquely suited for given that we work in so many different non-profits across the city). I am also exploring ways in which St. Hilda’s can serve as a meeting point around which different Episcopal churches can build community.

What I have found is that there appears to be a need for this kind of work: we have been truly moved by both the number and variety of people who have read and reposted pieces from our blog, and it has been a blessing to begin to forge concrete relationships in person which have their roots in the digital sphere.

I also believe, however, that digital mission work has to follow from a concrete and personal source; that words written on the internet must first and foremost be grounded in an authentic life. If this is done, then that life can serve to inform and inspire others as they seek to understand their calling. And if digital communication builds from this point, then it can lead to a spiritual dialogue as fulfilling as any other written correspondence; one through which otherwise disparate lives can be brought into community with each other across economic, social, and geographical boundaries.

 

KyleKyle Matthew Oliver, Center for the Ministry of Teaching (Alexandria, VA)

I’m the digital missioner in a teaching and learning resource center at an Episcopal seminary, so I tend to understand my role through the lens of action research. I’m tasked not just with telling stories of faith formation innovation as a sort of journalistic ministry, but also participating in some of those stories (when appropriate) as sounding board, coach, and co-tinkerer.

Our Center for the Ministry of Teaching (CMT) digital mission is to support adventurous colleagues around the Church who want to do Christian education and spiritual development differently. My job is to provide resources and training as we all learn how to do that together.

The “digital” modifier says a little something about how I work, since most of my interaction with colleagues (who live all over the country and even world) happens via email, social media, and web conference. But it also says something about the kinds of resources we offer. We want to help church leaders become confident users and creators of digital media for ministry. That means practicing what we preach—modeling innovation, experimentation, and risk-tolerant play in a manner that’s accessible to digital natives and digital immigrants.

We’re not saying digital media will save us on its own. But we are saying that digital media is woven into the fabric of the cultures in which we serve, so we’d better be conversant enough to show up for the important conversations happening online as well as in person. Anything less is a failure of leadership, or will be soon enough.

Having our digital mission grounded at a seminary (a place of learning and a faith community) is particularly rich, because we know the people we serve are nervous about the world into which they’re dipping their toes. Taking ministry online is nerve-wracking; we need some concrete skills to go there, and we need to recalibrate our emotional responses to the distinctive rhythms, dialects, and habits of online conversation. Our good ministry instincts still apply there, but for a while things will feel different. So we need the support of a community—and a willingness to make mistakes—if we’re to be effective learners.


The three of us have learned that digital missioners respond to the needs of the communities they serve, and that the role they play will therefore be shaped by these communities. As the Cathedral digital missioner, Brendan explores ways of making a historic building relevant to a downtown in flux. Ed’s job is to help St. Hilda’s House be present to more than just its members by shining a light on the lived experience of its interns. Kyle, meanwhile, supports practicing ministers and seminarians in their work of encouraging faith formation in today’s rapidly changing culture. All three of us, however, are connected by a common thread: the need to be present online for the sake of Christ’s mission in the world.

11255015253_3966dcee57_zWritten by The Rev. Kyle Oliver
Brendan O’Connor
and Edward Watson