Theological learning by doing
Re-Forming Ministry program seeks ‘web of covenant relationships’
Participants in the Re-Forming Ministry program who have gathered here to reflect on their work affirmed that the initiative has cultivated communities of theological friendships, and asserted that continued adaptive change would build and draw others in.
Those involved in the program of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Office of Theology and Worship since its inception in 2004 have gathered for a conference June 28-July 1 “to engage in theological conversations together” about what has taken place thus far and what is to come.
This journey will be “gathering the harvest of five years of good and faithful work,” said the Rev. Barry Ensign-George, associate for theology in the Office of Theology and Worship and program director for the Re-Forming Ministry program.
“I am eager to see what things over and above this will happen,” he said, adding that it is going to be interesting “to see what will grow.”
Re-Forming Ministry, funded through the Lilly Endowment, brought together pastors, professors and governing body leaders in clusters that have met over four- and five-year periods in order to explore new ways of doing theology. What also resulted, most all agree, are long-lasting theological friendships centered on mutual respect and care.
The experiences of those who’ve participated in the program will now help set the course for upcoming groups, and for overall efforts to bring change to the denomination as a whole. Three additional Re-Forming Ministry cluster groups are in development, and various proposals and presentations continue to emanate from the original teams.
The program began with a concern about “disconnection” in the life of the church, Ensign-George said. The failure to open our lives to all followers of Jesus Christ is “a denial of the power of the gospel.”
Yet through Re-Forming Ministry, participants have embarked on a journey walking slowly, patiently “toward something better,” he said. “We have been practicing the art of theological friendship.”
Ensign-George, in his opening presentation to the group of about 60 people, pointed out that friendliness requires a willingness to befriend our sisters and brothers, and also to be befriended. That mutual commitment, he said, is a covenant, which is the most basic layer of Presbyterian — and Christian — life together.
“In this moment we need to speak our native Reformed tongue attentively,” Ensign-George said. We must “think the faith together.”
As a denomination, the PC(USA) is a web of covenant relationships, but all too often our institutional forms have eclipsed that network, he said. Re-Forming Ministry “is one small effort to find our way to the web of covenant relationships.”
Ensign-George said adaptive change, which the Re-Forming Ministry program calls for, requires a different way of being and new knowledge, and he suggested this type of change could present a way forward for both individuals and the denomination. “We learn an art by doing it,” he said.
Others in attendance concurred.
“We need to be with others in a different way” to share scripture and build the body of Christ in a safe space, said the Rev. Marianne Rhebergen, senior consultant, Center for Parish Development and temporary supply pastor and moderator for The Presbyterian Church at Bristol, PA. “This is one of the most repeated priorities that I hear.”
Additionally, there must be efforts to expand that sharing to include more, some said.
“The Lord is calling us to look out,” said the Rev. John Burgess, a professor at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. We must look outside ourselves and into a new vision for Christ’s work in our midst, he said.
“We have a reclaiming to do if we care about this church,” said the Rev. Marion Silbert, associate pastor of Newlonsburg Presbyterian Church in Murrysville, PA.
Toya Richards Hill is a free-lance writer in Louisville, KY.