Formation for the Missionary Church
The Power of Gathering
Since 2017, I have had the privilege of working with and supporting a network of creative, innovative, hope-filled clergy across the Episcopal Church who are dedicated to the missionary call of Christ and to growing the church in both numbers and spiritual depth. Gathering of Leaders (GOL) has shown me that it is not just the people who make this network transformational, but also the methods by which we come together.
As we head into this year, our clergy will be wrestling with the theme of Formation for the Missionary Church in a Changing World. The way we hold our conversations, come together as a learning community and support one another in ministry is at the very core of our ethos. Our methods are also not revolutionary, not secret, and not specific to our network. They work for any community seeking to support one another, learn from trial and error and find new ways of forming disciples in the world. I think the Rev. Patrick Greene (GOL since 2017) describes these methods best, “they help me not just be a better priest, but a better Christian.”
The core values of GOL are essential to building our supportive network and can be embraced by any learning community. Our founder, the Rt. Rev. Claude Payne, designed GOL because he believes “spiritual development occurs within an individual, but not in the absence of others.” (The Great Commission, p. 11) I hope that these methods and values can inspire you as we all seek to bring people into deeper relationship with Christ.
The Missionary Call of Christ
At the forefront of every conversation that takes place in and through the GOL network is the Great Commission: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit (Matthew 28).” The purpose of the church, the purpose of our mission and the purpose of our faith is to share Christ’s love and help people find love through him.
Long time GOL participant, the Rev. Paige Blair-Hubert (GOL since 2011), reflects, “There are so many forces out there that want to draw us back to the drum beat of maintenance instead of the drum beat of mission.”
As you look at your learning community or the community you seek to create or enhance, are you keeping Jesus at its core? This isn’t about getting people in the pews. This is about reaching people where they are and sharing the love of Christ.
A unique feature of GOL is that our events and Gathering have no talking heads. We don’t invite participants to come learn ‘lecture-style,’ and then go home to implement tried and true tactics. Instead, we invite our participants to share practical, creative and new ministries that they are working on or creating. Often, they share success along with tangible steps for others to emulate, but we also hear stories of experiments that failed. These stories of failure teach just us much.
“Being peer-led, means I get to hear from people who are on the ground doing things; doing creative and innovative things…these are things that are working for them. Hearing from my peers helps me imagine what they are doing working in my own church,” writes the Very Rev. Kristina Maulden (GOL since 2015).
Do you seek out to raise the voices of those who are doing the deep work in the trenches? Are you learning from successes and failures from your peers? Are you sharing what you learn as you grow in your own ministry?
To me, this is the most important part of any Gathering or conversation within the network. We have a hope-filled vision for the Episcopal church. Period. This doesn’t mean we are naïve; this doesn’t mean we haven’t seen the latest parochial report data; this doesn’t mean we have our heads in the sand. We believe in the power of God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and that we are living out his calling on Earth. We also know that the Episcopal church we are working to grow will look different from the ways we currently function and measure success.
When conversations happen from this place of hope they become inspiring and rejuvenating. Greene again shares, “There is something about the time at a Gathering that sends me home with a sense of joy and lightness that is fairly unique, that comes from spending time with people who are so deeply committed to following Jesus.”
Do you start your work from a place of hope? Does your work inspire you to seek the future of the church however that might look?
Respect & Vulnerability
Time and time again I hear participants comment on how GOL has created a space where they can be truly vulnerable and real about the challenges of ministry. They can speak to whatever struggles or challenges they are facing and know that the others in the room will offer support and respect. Brené Brown defines vulnerability as “uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure,” and through that vulnerability, people can tackle the seriously difficult conversations.
With a national atmosphere of deeply divided politics, racial unrest and ‘purple congregations,’ the ability to bring any idea or thought to the table for discussion gives such power to the conversations. Disagreements will happen, of course, but the response is about learning and inquiring, not judging or condemning.
Does your community allow space for all voices at the table? Do you seek to learn from those with different perspectives and seek common ground through Christ?
Gathering of Leaders has not always been diverse, and for that, our conversations have suffered. In recent years, our board and our participants have actively sought to identify voices who were not ‘at our table’ and to invite them into intentional and deep community. While this is still a growing edge for our organization, the increased diversity has already made the connectivity and formation so much richer.
GOL Board member Rev. Jemonde Taylor (GOL since 2013) has been instrumental in our diversity efforts, and says, “We are all serving, and even though we serve in different contexts, we all battle the same things… if we listen to each other, we are trying not to make the same mistakes.”
When you look around your room and your community, does everyone look like you? Does everyone think like you? Are you intentionally adding voices with different backgrounds, experiences and ideologies who can challenge your perspectives in the best of ways?
Creative and Innovative
Participants who attend a Gathering know that the conversations, methods and strategies will be fueled by Jesus-fed creativity. While most of our participants, like most of the laity involved in the Episcopal church, are serving at established, traditional congregations, the ideas for ministry and going outside our doors are free-flowing.
“This is not work that will be done tomorrow or next week or next month. This is work that has to continue,” says the Rev. Canon Dr. Wilmot Merchant (GOL since 2018), and the connections and ideas that participants make and hear at Gatherings allow for creative ministry to thrive.
When you and your learning community gather, are you inspired to try new things? Do you seek out examples of creative ministry taking place throughout the country and see how your context could improve? Are you seeking to make disciples in ways that are new for you?
Share the Love of Christ
At my very first Gathering in 2017, I met Rev. Callie Swanlund (GOL since 2017) who summed up the Gathering experience perfectly for me, as “ the brightest and shiniest example of what church is and what church can be.” She wasn’t just talking about the people in the room, but also the ethos that permeated every conversation and presentation.
As I stated at the beginning, these methods are not clergy-centric by any means. They can be embraced by all institutions in the church and can make a difference in your own learning community. I offer the methods and testimonials in the hope that you might become inspired to build, join or enhance a learning community that seeks to follow the Great Commission and bring more people to know the love of Christ through the Episcopal Church.
Haley Bankey is the Executive Director for Gathering of Leaders and serves as a Program Director for Leadership Resources at the Episcopal Church Foundation. Prior to working with GOL, Haley served as the Director of Operations and Management for her home parish of St. George Church and School in San Antonio, Texas, and ran her own faith-based operations consulting company. She is also a graduate of the College for Congregational Development. Haley grew up in the Episcopal church in the Middle East and brings an international perspective to her work. Her passion is equipping lay and clergy leaders alike through leadership training and community building to grow God's church into the future. She lives in San Antonio, Texas, with her husband and two wonderful daughters.
- Reshaping the Table by Maria Bautista Vargas, an ECF Vital Practices blog, May 29, 2019
- Change is Possible by Richelle Thompson, an ECF Vital Practices blog, December 2, 2016
- What Needs To Go Out, So The New Can Come In? by Greg Syler, an ECF Vital Practices blog, November 9, 2016
- What Gives You Hope? by Miguel Escobar, an ECF Vital Practices blog, June 5, 2012