Alaina Kleinbeck: Formation is collective work

Unsplash / SwapnIl Dwivedi

The prophet Jeremiah presents a vision for spiritual formation that includes the faith-related institutions and organizations that surround families and congregations.

When Jeremiah goes down to the potter’s house (Jeremiah 18), the potter isn’t shaping an individual person. In Jeremiah’s vision, a nation -- the nation of Israel -- rests in the potter’s hands. The potter re-forms the nation-pot when it has strayed from the potter’s intentions, and Jeremiah knew such re-forming and reshaping well. He was watching his people fall away from God and one another as the Babylonians laid siege to Jerusalem and exiled the people.

In Jeremiah’s vision, formation is not accomplished by individuals on personal journeys. The work of being formed to follow God is the collective work of a people.

Though our context is very different from Jeremiah’s, this notion of collective responsibility for the formation of our people carries into our modern moment. Spiritual formation requires each of us and all of us.

Typically today, we assume that the family and the congregation carry the greatest responsibility for forming Christian faith. That’s where we focus most of our efforts. But Jeremiah’s prophetic vision challenges this understanding.

In Jeremiah’s vision, the potter forms the nation -- its people, its way of being, its communities and its institutions. In turn, the nation is responsible for following God’s ways.

The responsibility of spiritual formation may find a primary home in the family and the congregation, but the faith-related institutions and organizations that surround families and congregations -- seminaries, colleges and universities, denominational judicatories, parachurch organizations, faith-based and church-related nonprofits -- share in that important work.

It is easy to see the contributions of Christian entities to the spiritual formation of members, congregations, students, program participants or recipients of care. Through education, experiences, products and services, they are actively engaged in informing people’s understanding and expression of Christian life.

But this is not the only avenue of formation that Christian institutions and faith-inspired organizations can engage. The formation of staff, board members, volunteers and other close associates may in fact have an even deeper impact -- if engaged with intention.

Much like the formation of individuals and families at a congregation, the formation of staff and other associates at a Christian institution is based on embodied practices of faith. These practices might include faithfully and carefully administering finances and resources, offering radical hospitality, gathering to mark sacred moments of time, pausing to grieve and to celebrate with one another, committing to transparency in leadership, cultivating creative collaborations, and nurturing each other’s vocational discernment.

In my own work with staff, naming the theological frames for an administrative practice has prompted a rich shared reflection on the meaning behind our work. Choosing a catering company is not simply a task but becomes a practice of responsibility in caring for a community. Building a budget and completing reimbursement forms becomes a practice of stewarding gifts. Filing reports becomes a practice of celebration and prayer over the work that has been accomplished and the people who have been touched.

Over time, these practices form members of the staff to embody their faith -- not simply as a set of tenets but as a way of expressing their vocation and professional life. It doesn’t make the mundane magically become enjoyable, but imbuing the work with theological meaning does make it matter.

This in turn shapes the individuals to see that their work, their contribution, is not for naught but a significant contribution to the group work of spiritual formation. The organizations and the people within them are part of the potter’s pot, seeking to conform to the potter’s hands and follow God’s ways.