We're spending much of today telling (and honing) the story of “Why we are here.” Here's a version of the story I'm telling.
I first learned of The Fund for Theological Education when I was a first year student in seminary. I found out that this group (that I had never heard of) was giving out $5000 “Ministry Fellowships” to seminary students. I applied and ended up getting one. Part of the fellowship was a conference of all the recipients—young soon-to-be-pastors from all manner of denominations and from all cross the country. This was one of my first experiences of the “capital C” Church—the vast interconnected (and yet at the same time fractured) fellowship of followers of Jesus. And in the stories of my ecumenical peers I heard many of the same hopes and dreams for ministry, for leading communities of disciples of Jesus, and for the institution/communion/fellowship/body we call the Church. It was a world widening and mind opening experience for me, and one that would shape my seminary experience at the similarly ecumenical Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, CA.
That summer I spent my time (and that $5000) on a study/research/immersion experience where I toured Luther sites in Germany as I studied his life and spent time in the intentional worshiping communities of Taizé in France and Iona in Scotland. It was a journey to the roots of my faith—my Lutheran denominational roots and my spiritual roots that I traced to these two communities whose worship materials and methods were important parts of my faith journey. In my conversations with the folks from FTE it became clear to me that this organization placed a high value on young people in ministry, and were dedicated to finding ways to nurture and further that call. And they invited me into a deeper and broader Church world than I'd imagined up until that point. Thanks to FTE my experience of the Christian movement became global and ecumenical—not just in theory but in actual experience.
And it's no wonder then, that years later I'd apply to FTE for funding for a project that my congregation (in conjunction with several others in our area) was embarking on to connect more deeply with younger people. Together with a colleague, I spent many hours crafting a grant proposal for FTE's “Calling Congregations” project—seeking ways to nurture vocation with young people. It turned out, however, that FTE would reject my grant proposal. But through the process I was able to get to know some of the staff who found interest in working with our cluster of congregations in a different way—on something that was just emerging from their work with congregations called “Notice, Name, and Nurture”. We'd planned a cluster training (like the one I'm attending right now) that fell through, but as soon as I caught wind of what it was that FTE was working on with this “VoCARE” concept—I knew it was something I needed to be a part of. This fall I found myself in Atlanta as a “friend of the process” with some East Coast churches being trained. And here I am, surrounded by United Methodists (our new full communion partners, I might add) learning about “Nurturing Vocating Care in Congregations.” Again I'm finding through FTE a depth, breadth, and ecumenicisity in the Church that is life giving.
I'm really quite excited about the curriculum FTE has developed to help congregations embrace their callings as centers for vocation nurturing for all Christians. As a Lutheran, the theological concept of vocation is near and dear to my heart and to what it means to me to be a Christian. What is so spectacular about the material FTE has developed is how it takes this core Christian concept and gives it flesh in such a way that leaders (and whole congregations) can embrace it and put it to work in their settings—so that it can spread. And its clear that is translates across denominational lines as well. They've tapped into a particularly accessible expression of how to help congregations (and Christians in congregations) connect to the calling God has for them in the world, and to use that to live lives of deeper meaning and significance. This is potentially Church changing stuff—and if Church changing in the right ways, world changing.
The methods we are learning here are not particularly ground breaking. All of this is really rooted in simple story-telling and story-listening. The stories revolve around some variation of “Tell me about a time when you felt like what you were doing was what you were meant to be doing” or “Why do you care about nurturing call with young people?” It's a process that simply leads a congregation into being an intergenerational place of story sharing, story valuing, and story living. But as those of us who have been through the immersion-style training will tell you, once you get at these really powerful stories of faith in our lives—and once you experience others deeply listening to your most sacred stories—something powerful happens. Community is built. Faith is deepened. Vocation is nurtured. Christ is encountered in the other.
And it challenges the heck out of folks like me, a leader of a Christian faith community who has spent years reflecting on and developing my own sense of vocation and purpose in the world, because it calls us to take really seriously the callings of ALL of our people, and especially the young people and to take seriously the call of Christian congregations to be the place where this sort of thing happens naturally all the time. What is so exciting to me about this is that this sort of process gets at the very questions that my generation is asking—deep questions about meaning and purpose and finding ones place in the universe. And the fact that the Church might just well have the resources to help a generation (all the generations really) get in touch with who they are and what they are called to be about in the world—we'll that's just plain thrilling. Could a generation who has largely written off the institution of the Church as irrelevant (or worse) find meaning and purpose through deep intergenerational communities of Christian faith and practice? I think so, and I think these VoCARE practices are a really straightforward way to get closer to that way of being the Church in the world.