March 2021
Formation for the Missionary Church

Formation Through Community

The question of formation is core to the mission of the church. The word summarizes the process of making disciples: sharing the teaching of Jesus with believers, new and old, and providing them the support to continue growing closer in following him.

Many of the ways we’ve traditionally focused on formation, like Sunday School and seminary, have changed in recent years, as have the formative experiences of worship and relationships. That change was only accelerated in 2020 by the COVID pandemic. All Christians – lay and clergy, recent converts and lifelong faithful – are called to form ourselves and others in the missionary work of the church, empowered by baptism to proclaim the gospel and share in Christ’s work of healing and salvation. Many of us engaged in the everyday life of congregations are particularly aware of the need right now to be responsive and creative in how we form ourselves and others.

An annual theme to focus conversation

As part of my work with Gathering of Leaders (GOL), I serve as the convener for the Theme Committee which discerns and writes the annual theme for our events and conversations. The theme provides a yearly focus for our peer-led conversations and a lens through which to view our core purpose: to be a creative, entrepreneurial, hope-filled response to the missionary call of Christ: to make disciples among all nations, teaching what Jesus taught (Matthew 28:19-20). While GOL is a network of clergy, all people, clergy and lay, are wrestling with the need to find new ways of building disciples right now through innovative formation and community.

For 2021, the Gathering of Leaders Board chose the theme of formation to help focus our missional creativity:

Formation for the Missionary Church in a Changing World

Recent events have reminded us that as we proclaim the gospel, we continually encounter the unexpected and are called into places of vulnerability. At our best, we meet these challenges with fortitude, steadfastness and resilience. What practical strategies can we share to form communities in those virtues? How do we teach and shape Christians to proclaim Christ’s good news amid the challenges of the unexpected and the pain of the world’s brokenness? As we engage the present and look to the future, how do we form communities of courage and hope?

The change we are experiencing can create new opportunities for forming community that we may not have anticipated. Greg Rickel, bishop for the Diocese of Olympia, comments that at Zoom coffee hour, we’re forced to engage with everyone present, not gather in established groups of friends. “One irony of the pandemic is that as we are separated, we are in some ways becoming more connected…. Almost all of my congregations are reporting new members from across the diocese, state and world, with many pledging. This has opened up a whole new world that we probably should have been working on long ago, but the silver lining here is that we were forced into it and it is good for evangelism. Now, we have to capitalize on it.”

Christian communities that build one another up in courage and hope develop disciples with the faithful, flexible strength to meet the challenges of change, to share good news with those who need it and to welcome those who seek it. This theme encourages us all to identify and share the practical strategies that build those communities. This year all of us – lay and ordained, known leaders and quiet stalwarts – are learning on the job how to respond to people who appear on our virtual or physical thresholds seeking a community that proclaims the gospel in practical ways for our present time. Networking our experience and resources across contexts that seem very different – between the outreach and music leaders, or a congregation’s Sunday school teachers and its finance team, or between clergy working in church plants and established congregations – builds resilient, creative communities.

“Coming together as leaders,” says Dr. Scott Bader-Saye from the Seminary of the Southwest, “we can share practices and imagine experiments in ministry that can help us become more courageous and hopeful witnesses in a time of deep uncertainty.” He reflects that leading in a time of change requires that we improvise faithfully and turn toward risk, rather than flee from it.

Connecting more deeply with our core mission

In developing the GOL theme, we also thought it important to explore how the vulnerability we experience as so much changes around us may connect us more deeply to the core mission and original call of Christ’s church. Bishop Katherine Jefferts Schori suggests that the 2021 Theme reflects “early challenges in the Jesus movement and in our Abrahamic roots – how to be loving, peace- and justice-making disciples who bless, as we are sent out into the world, rejoicing in the power of the Spirit.” Recognizing that this may cost us some things we have formerly considered good or relied on, she asks, “Are we willing to let go of prejudices, proprieties, persuasions and principles that no longer serve God’s mission? How is virtual worship like the Ark carried in the wilderness? Are we willing to follow the pillar of fire and smoke into the unknown?”

This year, every one of our communities has found ourselves in the wilderness in one way or another. We are in an environment where many of the familiar things that have defined us in the past are missing or different. The wilderness has always been a place of formation, a place in which we discover anew our identity as God’s children, God’s people, and learn to rely more deeply on God and one another. So, this time of change is the time to find new ways to tell the stories, pray the prayers and build the relationships that form us into the Body of Christ and empower us to join with God in the healing of the world.

The Gathering of Leaders 2021 Theme Committee included Dr. Scott Bader-Saye, the Rt. Rev. Katherine Jefferts Schori, the Rev. Emily Mellott and the Rt. Rev. Greg Rickel, in consultation with the Rt. Rev. Duncan Gray.

The Rev. Emily Mellott is the Rector of Trinity Episcopal Church in Moorestown, New Jersey, and evangelist and web-editor for the Ashes to Go movement. She has been a member of the Gathering of Leaders since 2010, and currently serves on the GOL Board.


This article is part of the March 2021 Vestry Papers issue on Formation for the Missionary Church