Education for Ministry Expanding Around the Globe

By Kevin Cummings

Burning candles appear on the screen to imbue the proper mood for prayer as the Rev. Ann Fontaine sits at her home computer in Cannon Beach, Ore. She asks a member of her Education for Ministry (EfM) group in upstate New York to lead the worship service.

In Hong Kong, a face-to-face EfM group is in the midst of a theological reflection, more than 8,000 miles from EfM’s headquarters at The School of Theology’s Beecken Center.

Through online meetings and international expansion, thousands of lay people around the globe are gaining a deeper theological perspective and cultivating a spiritual transformation through the EfM curriculum and weekly meetings.

“How that transformation happens is out of our hands. That’s the work of the Holy Spirit,” noted Karen Meridith, EfM executive director. “And what comes from that transformation is also out of our hands because that is also the work of the Holy Spirit working in the people who have completed the program and how they express what they feel God is calling them to do. I see us more as catalyst or midwife.”

Online meetings will continue to be a catalyst in EfM’s expansion, both in the U.S. and internationally, but long before the Internet, members of the Anglican Communion in other countries started adopting face-to-face programs. In 1977, in British Columbia, the Diocese of Kootenay contracted with EfM, and by 1979, groups in Australia, New Zealand and the Bahamas had embraced the program.

More than 89 U.S. Episcopal dioceses have EfM groups, and the program is currently in use or has been utilized abroad in places like England, Fiji, France, Italy, Switzerland, the Netherlands, and Germany. Groups also currently use the program in Botswana, South Africa, and other inquiries have recently come from Libya, Kenya, Jamaica, and the Virgin Islands.

“The international part is important because it takes us beyond Sewanee proper,” Meridith said. “Most of the people in EfM will never set foot on this mountain, yet they can be advocates for The School of Theology.”

Scotland is set to begin a face-to-face pilot group in Banchory in fall 2015. The Rt. Rev. Robert Gillies, bishop of Aberdeen and Orkney of the Scottish Episcopal Church, spent a week at The School of Theology as bishop-in-residence this past fall, where he gained stronger insights into EfM. Gillies said the ethos and working practices of the program convinced him that Scotland needs EfM.

“We are a small diocese and whilst we’ve got people who can generate local lay learning, EfM offers us something bigger and broader that will indeed richly bless us,” he said.

“The Scottish Episcopal Church has always said we need good lay learning and we’ve made some definite progress in this regard,” Gillies added. “The problem is that very worthwhile initiatives have come and then gone, or have been offered locally but then never taken up locally. The benefits of EfM seem to me to reside in its now long established and trusted pedigree, its secure pedagogical provenance, and its adaptability to a range of contexts.”

The EfM program is limited currently in that it only offers materials in English, but a Spanish-language version is in development. This version is not just a translation but a cultural adaptation. The EfM Strategic Plan also calls for developing EfM in French, which would make the program accessible in Francophone Africa and Haiti.

The program operates primarily within the Anglican Communion, but does have a contract shared between the Episcopal Diocese of Oklahoma and the Lutheran judicatory for that area. There is also a longtime contract with Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), which includes a number of churches in North America.

“The main thing about EfM, I believe, is that it is the original “emergent church,” said Fontaine, an EfM mentor since the 1970s. “People who participate in EfM tend to be serious about their faith and are interested in developing a larger base upon which to build. They love reflecting on their lives as Christians in the world.”

Taking EfM to the People

Although Scotland is initially set to have EfM “in-person” meetings, online groups may be essential in Orkney and the Shetland Islands in northern Scotland where travel in the North Sea and strong winds can present dangerous challenges.

Eliminating the need to travel led to the creation of EfM’s virtual version. Fontaine is one of the pioneers of the online program, which she first spearheaded while living in the wide-open spaces of Wyoming. In 2000, Lynne Wilson, the Diocese of Wyoming’s canon for ministry development, asked her if she would create an online EfM program for people, living in rural Wyoming, who lived too far apart for a face-to-face group. With the help of Dr. Norm Peterson at the University of Wyoming, they developed an EfM program using the Blackboard virtual classroom software. Today, groups use a newer, more functional version called Blackboard Collaborate.

“There advantages of meeting online. First is the availability—no matter where you are, as long as you have access to the Internet you can connect. Additional advantages include a broader diversity of participants, sharing deeply and more reflectively than with fellow church members in a face-to-face situation, and less preconceived ideas about people from what they are wearing or how they look,” Fontaine said.
EfM online is gaining momentum, nearly doubling in the last two years, so that currently 30 online groups hold virtual meetings in the U.S., Canada, Australia, and England. Cindy Hargis is the diocesan relations and EfM online coordinator. Meridith praised Hargis’ efforts since 2008 in overseeing the online program and its growth.

“Online may now be the most important way to grow EfM internationally,” Meridith said. “I’d love to see the number of groups double again in the next couple of years to keep that momentum going. The addition to the staff of an IT specialist in online learning systems will be key to providing the online program with the support it needs to continue growing. We anticipate adding that position in this academic year.”

Lynelle Osburn mentors an online group in Australia. She lives in Mulwala, two participants live about 400 miles away in Sydney; the rest of the group lives in Brisbane, almost 600 miles from Sydney. She said the hope for a future national broadband network in that country will increase people’s ability to use video and other technological bells and whistles.

“The online program means that we can start to collect individuals from around the country and build EfM. In places where a mentor has no group, that mentor can co-mentor an online group, get experience, and then we can expand the offerings. We are positive and excited about this opportunity,” Osburn said.

Online Sessions Have Advantages

One American woman who worked for the U.S. State Department did a year of EfM in Saudi Arabia, another in Tunisia, and another in Bahrain with her group in the States. Distance, weather, disabilities, anonymity, shyness, and convenience are a handful of factors that make EfM online a welcome option for many. Hargis herself is a three-year participant in an online group.

“The flexibility is so convenient. If you go out of town for a week you don’t have to miss a session because you can just take your laptop with you,” she said.

Through Blackboard Collaborate, group members can draw, type, use video, chat, and post presentations. “We can use all these tools to stay connected, informed, and energized,” Hargis said. “The theological reflections are very profound, they go way down deep.”

Osburn describes a typical online meeting, sitting in front of her computer monitor wearing headphones. “We chat over the audio for about 15 minutes and review the session before the participants arrive. As people arrive we welcome them on the chat and turn the sound off.”

They will often do an exercise on the screen, which sometimes uses a photo of a bridge, or a tree, or other scenes as creative reference as members “check-in” by writing on the white board on the screen about their mood or state-of-mind.

“We encourage the participants to be creative. Sometimes they draw on the board, which is fun and helps lift the spirits and the energy,” Osburn said.

Next, like in a normal face-to-face class, a designated worship leader leads that week’s service. “We found it more fun to sing hymns or songs together but not hearing each other. It’s weird, but it works and we laugh,” she said.

Elsa Bakkum, assistant director of training for EfM, mentors an online group with members from California to North Carolina. “It typically takes less time than in-person meetings. You log on and in an hour-and-a-half you’re finished,” she said. “And it’s very appealing to young people who have more technological awareness than those not initiated in technology.”

Community is Still Key

Bonding is possible, but Meridith noted that online groups must be intentional about community building. “Community is formed in face-to-face groups as we are looking at each other and talking to each other around the circle,” she said, “sharing our spiritual autobiographies and thoughts. The online groups are very intentional about using those same steps as best they can, given the technology. It’s important when you can’t physically be with somebody that you find some way to adapt with the technology to form community in a way that makes sense. Before video, in the early days of EfM groups, they would put up a montage of everybody’s pictures.”

Fontaine said communicating online has moments of challenge. “Lack of body language to support the intended message means that communications tend to be shorter and can be misinterpreted without that physical clue. There is also the need for being a self-starter when it comes to keeping up with readings,” Fontaine said.

There are currently online groups that include both Canadians and Americans, but Meridith said she would like to see more integrated international groups, like members in Hawaii forming a group with Kiwis in New Zealand. Time-zone differences are another obstacle that groups face and some people are less technologically savvy than others or don’t have up-to-date equipment or enough Internet bandwith.

“There are challenges, but they’re not insurmountable,” Meridith said. “With an online program we want to be able to adapt and adopt new technology to keep the program fresh. EfM has been around about 40 years now and we have no doubt it will be around for at least another 40.”

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