By Carly Nations
Church has always been, even in biblical times, a place of diverse perspectives and differences of opinions about contemporary issues. Indeed, much of the Gospels are concerned not only with Jesus’s miracles or teaching his disciples, but also with his work in the synagogue, arguing with prominent Jewish leaders over textual interpretation. Just as it was for Jesus, debating complex matters of faith, scholarship, and politics continues to be contentious and often divisive work. And in a world where a variety of churches all professing different belief systems and practices are easily accessible, it is easier to simply shop around and find a church that aligns with one’s personal preferences than it is to worship next to those who may be very different from us. Yet, Education for Ministry (EfM) offers a path forward for diversity of opinion where even the parish itself may not.
EfM, which was developed for the express purpose of providing a mechanism for people to work through questions of faith, draws together participants from differing theological experiences, political beliefs, and cultural backgrounds and asks them all to “to think theologically, reflect faithfully, and speak civilly when confronted by beliefs and principles in opposition to [their] own.” In an increasingly polarized world where very few forums succeed in drawing people together to talk, EfM teaches us possibly the most important skill—how to listen.
Jan Potter, an EfM mentor for more than 20 years, remarked that she and her husband prepare people for the program by reminding them that everyone has something to learn. “I personally believe that EfM provides a forum for people to work toward a belief system. We tell them up front that they can’t come to EfM if they already think they know everything. Instead, the idea is that the more time they spend listening to other points of view, the more it starts to mold what they truly believe.”
Angela Hock, a mentor of 35 years, and Rick Brewer, a mentor of more than 40 years, agree. They recruit new participants by asking, “How willing and ready are you to have your own viewpoints challenged by the material you’re going to encounter?”
In this way, EfM not only allows, but invites differing perspectives. The Presiding Bishop’s Staff Officer for Church Planting and EfM mentor the Rev. Katie Nakamura Rengers remarked that EfM is particularly effective when mentors are intentionally seeking to bring together members of different parishes and even different denominations. “In our last group, I think there were people from eight different churches,” she reflected. “There were also people who were very theologically and spiritually curious that were not inside the Church or a part of a parish and who might never be. And, those people did clash with people who came from the same parish, who clashed with people from different parishes, but I feel like that’s when EfM has the potential to act as a table for different people to come together.”
This “coming together at the table” is something that seems to be uniquely specific to EfM due to the program’s focus on personal growth and reflection. “It’s helpful that EfM takes a scholarly approach, because it’s not centered in how you feel,” Nakamura Rengers noted. “It’s centered in what the text is saying, what the scholar has said about the text, and then your reaction to the text and the scholar.”
Hock added, “There’s such a challenge in the material itself. So, everyone is being confronted through the program with challenges to their own viewpoints that they also have to work out on their own. In some regards, there may not be enough time left over to have challenges from each other, because the program itself generates that.”
Yet, the purpose of EfM is not to silo individuals in their own academic studies, but rather to bring them together to discuss conundrums of faith. Doing so requires them to not only engage with the texts on a deeper level, but to also be vulnerable with their own stories. Hock remarked, “We begin the year by having everyone share their spiritual autobiography so that we have an understanding of each other before we get to a point in the year when all of the other dynamics start to emerge. That way we already know some things about one another and have been vulnerable.”
Brewer asserted that this process results in a group that is, “willing to allow others’ strong opinions to be present while also creating an empathetic understanding of what that person is feeling.” Combined with the program itself, which asks each person to reflect on their own theological understanding rather than criticizing someone else’s, EfM provides a unique opportunity for building a community of diverse opinions and beliefs. “When there is a disagreement with the author or an uneasiness about a different way of looking at the text, we ask them to notice what is upsetting them rather than criticizing the text,” Brewer added. “In the end, we’re not arguing with the text so much, but rather learning from our own responses.”
Moreover, the difficult pandemic year created even more opportunities to reflect on individual responses to the world. Sequestered in homes, everyone had time to engage in deeper thinking. “I think people were so desperate for any kind of connection. The pandemic left us all scared and alone,” Potter remarked. “I feel like people wanted to have a rationale for why [the pandemic] happened and they wanted to be able to share their fears, which you just can’t do in any other social setting or even in a church setting.” Perhaps too, the incredible loss of the pandemic combined with an increasingly tense political atmosphere has led some to make the first leap that EfM requires—questioning whether or not strongly held opinions are actually true.
Nakamura Rengers commented that good mentoring in particular can help lead members to this place of vulnerability. “I think good mentoring really says, ‘This is not the space to debate with one another. Instead, we’re going to try and relate the way that we feel about whatever is happening back to scripture and find some way to understand this as part of the story of salvation.”
“One way to encapsulate it is that people are learning how to move from certainty to faith,” asserted Brewer. “They move from holding their lives together with conviction to being able to know how to trust—trust themselves, trust God, trust others. Which, I think, is probably another way of saying they learn how to become a person of faith.”
In a time when so much is uncertain, the process of learning to become a person of faith rather than simply a person of conviction seems to be a necessity for the church. And it is, of course, the story of salvation, which is the uniting principle amongst all Christians. Issues of politics or orthodoxy must always take a backseat to our faith in the Gospel—the good news of salvation for all of God’s people.