July 10, 2020

Ministering From an Empty Cup: A Survey of Faith Formation Professionals and Volunteers - Part 1

If it is true that God brought Jesus into the world to turn it right side up, then COVID-19 and the global pandemic seem intent on turning the world upside down once again. The world has changed in radical and deadly ways. Not just for some but for all. This is not hyperbole. It is affecting each and every person from the loss of life, to the loss of jobs, to the loss of everyday freedoms.

Over the past few months I have had many conversations with professionals and volunteers I know in the Episcopal Church. In these conversations there is almost always a point at which we discuss how COVID-19 and the pandemic are affecting their ministries and lives. I have mostly heard their frustrations, their stresses and their anxieties. I have been led to commit to prayer for these people and all those they serve. I have been called to wonder about all those doing the work and ministry of God. I became very curious, in particular, about how those people committed to faith formation are functioning at this moment in time.

Who, What and Why

I am not a scientist nor a statistician. I am a curious person with about seven years of experience in the Episcopal Church as a lay professional working with young people, primarily youth. My curiosity around this question of how those doing faith formation were functioning led me to create a survey.

I created a google form initially shared in two private Facebook groups: Forma The Network for Christian Formation with 3.8k members and Rooted in Jesus with 759 members. I also posted the survey on my own public Facebook page. I followed this with direct outreach to some people in my immediate network of colleagues via email and Facebook Messenger with a particular focus towards diversity of ministry (i.e., diocesan, campus, camp, etc.) and identity (i.e., gender, race, etc.) The questions in that form were:

  • Are you: Lay or Clergy
  • In what capacity do you serve? Volunteer, Part Time or Full Time
  • Please select all ages on which you focus: Children, Youth, Young Adult or Adult
  • On most days, how would you rate your ability to function in your role as someone who forms the faith lives of others? 0% being unable to function and 100% being fully functioning and thriving.
  • Thinking back to a time before the pandemic, would you give yourself the same rating as above? If not, what rating would have been accurate to your level of functioning at that time?
  • As you review the questions presented and the answers you have provided, are there any reflections you wish to share?
  • If you wrote comments above and are willing to permit them to be quoted in the article that will focus on the results of this survey, will you please provide your full name and contact information (ie. Email. If not email, phone number.)

How Many Christians Does It Take to Make a Survey

  • There were a total of 50 respondents.
  • 70% are lay people and 30% are clergy.
  • 62% serve full time. 20% serve as volunteers. 18% serve part time.
  • 66% focus on adults. 66% focus on youth. 54% focus on children. 46% focus on young adults.
  • In response to how they would rate their current ability to function in their role of forming the faith lives of others, 74% rated themselves between 60%-100% and 26% rated between 0%-50%
  • In response to how they would rate their ability to function before the pandemic, 90% rated themselves between 60%-100% and 10% rated between 0%-50%
  • 68% reported a negative change from past functioning to current functioning, 16% reported a positive change and 16% reported no change.

The Bad News and the Good News

These results do not feel like news. Times are hard. Many of us face real challenges in our roles as formers of faith and as livers of life. These challenges are unlike any we have encountered before and are probably unlike any we will encounter in the future.

Yet, the news is not all bad. There is good news. There is always good news. Because there is always a good God. We see good news in a plain reading of the numbers. 16% of respondents have not seen their ability to function diminished, even amid dramatic changes to the landscape of their ministry and world. There is good news in the other 16% of respondents who are facing the challenges of pandemic and find that instead of being negatively impacted they are performing at a higher level, even thriving in their roles as formers of faith. There is good news in that before the pandemic almost every respondent reported functioning at a level much closer to 100% than to 0%. This good news is better seen and defined in the comments provided in the survey's open response section. 74% of respondents offered thoughts and reflections.

In a world before the pandemic, the vast majority of respondents felt more like their glass was half full or even that their cup runneth over. Today, it seems that many more feel like they are trying to drink from an empty cup while trying to fill up the cups of others. In a second article to come, we will explore how comments exemplify this struggle as well as highlight blessings and opportunities and begin to think about ways to address the issues that are facing those doing faith formation.

The Sacredness of a Survey

It is important to note that this survey in no way assessed the effectiveness of any individual or determined the success or lack of success of that person's ministry. Also, this survey and I, as its creator, do not pass judgment of any kind on any of the respondents. What this survey did do is give space for self-reflection. It provided a moment in which each person could view their current efforts and past efforts and compare how similar they look or feel to one another.

Ultimately, the survey was a question of perception. How do any of the individual formers of faith perceive their ministry and their ability to do ministry well? And though their perceptions are not fact in the sense of being a full and accurate assessment of their effort, their perceptions of themselves are entirely true. Our perceptions are our realities. If we perceive we are functioning well then we are functioning well. If we perceive we are not functioning well then we are not functioning well. Whatever our individual truth is, it is solely and wholly our truth.

For these reasons, I must end this article by expressing a deep sense of gratitude to the 50 individuals who responded to this survey. Some of whom I know. Many, I do not know. Each of you answered these questions with a candor that humbles me. It has been a sacred experience to read each response, to think and pray over each one and to be able to lift you up to the whole church both as examples and as people who can benefit from support. I know that the way you responded and the words you shared will resonate with many of your companions in faith. For that, I give thanks to God.