Seeking and Serving

By Kevin Cummings

Education for Ministry (EfM) is a four-year course of study that provides lay people with tools to move forward in Christian service, gain a deeper understanding of scripture, and acquire a stronger ability to think theologically. A trained mentor leads small groups that meet once a week for 36 weeks each year. This international program, based at The School of Theology’s Beecken Center, more often than not, generates unexpected and life-changing results for its students.

Individual outcomes of EfM graduates are varied. Many people talk about how they bonded with fellow group members and how the experience restored or introduced faith, while others say they were inspired to begin their own ministry, like Bill Doehr, in his third year of EfM at St. Paul's Cathedral in San Diego. Doehr manages a Big Lot’s retail store and every week he would witness store personnel throwing away food on the verge of expiring—food that was still healthy and edible. Doehr said they would slash open boxes of crackers, cereal, and other goods before trashing them to discourage dumpster-divers.

Big Lots does not mandate throwing away expiring food, Doehr noted. “In fact, there is a company-wide policy that says it is OK to donate expiring food to food banks. But at the store level, most managers either aren't aware of the policy or they aren't sensitized to the hunger issues in the community around them.”

Infused with a conviction from his education in EfM, Doehr decided to turn waste into compassion. “As I progressed through the first year of EfM, I became aware that my working day presented two disconnected realities: At the front of the store, I repeatedly watched customers search their purses for pennies and nickels to buy food for their children—at the back of the store, good food was going into the dumpster.”

“I thought about how the opening pages of the EfM manual said the course was not about becoming ordained, but was about our service to the world,” he added. “I began by boxing up my store’s expired cereals, etc., and donating them to Feeding America.”

Doehr’s store is relatively small, so he started visiting bigger area Big Lots stores to add their expiring or damaged food to the collection. “As my first year of EfM came to a close, I realized that my goal, and my ministry, would be to get all 16 Big Lots stores in San Diego County to contribute their expired food to Feeding America,” he said.

Currently about half of those stores donate their food and earlier this year they contributed the equivalent of more than 9,000 meals toward hunger relief in San Diego County. The national director for Feeding America’s retail program also visited Doehr’s store to learn how it might be replicated elsewhere.

Stephanie Lee-Harris, of Coral Springs, Fla., went from EfM to enrolling in the chaplaincy program at Vitas Hospice Care. On the cusp of applying to a divinity school, she and her husband put that plan on hold when they added their fourth and fifth adopted child to the family. Her priest suggested she take EfM classes in lieu of divinity school.

“What an incredible experience this turned out to be for me. Years of Catholic boarding school, Catholic college, two years of Judaic study at The University of Pennsylvania, and a life long interest in religious studies in no way prepared me for the intellectual stimulation that is EfM,” she said.

Lee-Harris may have never made it to divinity school, but as a chaplain at Vitas Hospice Care, she plans to be a tremendous blessing. “I see this step as only part of the impact that EfM had on my life. Another part is the lifelong friends I have made, some of whom I travel with on our annual mission trip to the Navajo nation,” she said.

Lorraine Padden of San Diego, Calif., completed the EfM program a few years ago. As a person of “relatively little faith,” Padden said she was comfortable with a secular analysis of the Bible, early church, the historical Jesus, and the evolution of various modern traditions. But she found the “ministry” part of EfM intimidating.

Padden shared some of her comments from a homily in June 2011 during her EfM graduation ceremony. “Ministry as I understood it then, was for clergy, for those who felt an ache in their bones to serve the Lord, or, for those lay people who seem to enjoy effortless faith … not for me, who—in my own head—was the first and only EfM student to be plagued by doubt. Doubt about the presence of God in the world at all, let alone in my life,” she said.

Padden wondered whether she could really sacrifice deeply ingrained beliefs and stereotypes and “love thy neighbor as thyself.” “What a wild idea to imagine that perhaps EfM allowed us to open enough space so God could sit at the table with us during our meetings—gently encouraging an opening of our hearts where we could hear and see our neighbors as ourselves,” she said. “That great commandment still frightens me a bit, but much less so four years later. I hope to continue to live my way beyond this fear, and I hope to find ways to keep inviting God to sit at the table.”

Sheryl Sims attended EfM at Pohick Church in Lorton, Va. She said God spoke to her through many wonderful people in the program. “Seeking, and now having, a personal ministry is important to me,” she said. “I joined The Order of the Daughters of the King (DOK) where we make vows to pray, serve, and evangelize. It is a continuance of what began in EfM.”

Sims has shared the Gospel on a one-on-one level in her service with the Daughters and touched lives in many ways. “As a Christian and a Daughter, I’ve had the opportunity to visit the sick, feed the poor, participate in outreach projects and to serve my church,” she explained. “I’ve had the privilege of praying for others and to have benefited from the prayers of my DOK sisters.”

Lynell Osburn, a social worker and academic, lives in Mulwala, New South Wales, on the east coast of Australia. “There is no rail service here unless you are a bag of rice for export,” she said. “As in all environments we need to be able to come up with new ways to communicate expressions of ministry.”

In 2013, EfM conducted a training weekend for mentors in Wagga Wagga, New South Wales, and the group did a theological reflection on the lectionary. “Out of the exercise, some of us were struck by the sense of community and connectedness that the lectionary provides us. It links us to an international community of Christians who are also reading their Bibles and praying every morning and evening,” she said.

Trying to reach more people, she created a website for posting collects for the morning and evening prayers. “The vision is that more of those people we see on trains, buses, ferries, back seats of cars and waiting rooms will be quietly tapping into their daily Bible reading summaries and prayers every morning and every evening,” she said. “It is an opportunity to build and strengthen our community of faith.”

Kendall Lockerman was inspired by EfM to become a published poet, a lifelong dream of his. He said for more than three decades he was a lay scholar, reading theology, history, archeology, and other writings. “EfM began, by the second year, to change my vision, my perspective, my apprehension of the holy, my understanding about who I was and why I was here. In other words, I began to think theologically, a primary goal of EfM,” Lockerman said.

The changes in his vision and perspective meant profound changes in his life, he explained. “The most dramatic thing that happened is that I began to live into a dream which I had claimed when I was 15 years old,” he said. “As a bountifully inspired high school sophomore, I had declared that I would be a poet. I wrote a handful of bad poems, dedicated to the trash basket over the next 41 years, but never completely let go of the idea.”

He began to write poems worthy of hearing, paying particular attention to the liturgical year and the feast days. In fall 2011, he published his first book of poems, Seasons, Saints & Angels. Two years later he published a second book of poems, Rain.

Karen Meridith, executive director of EfM, said the 39-year-old program has yielded a myriad of blessings. “EfM graduates often tell stories about how their own lives were changed by four years of study and reflection with their seminar groups,” she said. “EfM graduates take on ministries that are visible, that impact lives and institutions in ways that can be measured or observed concretely, but those whose very lives have been changed also have a way of passing that transformation on, consciously or unconsciously.

“In EfM we ask, ‘How will your community, the world around you, be changed because you have had this insight in our theological reflection together?’ The ripples of personal transformation will impact interactions with our families, our colleagues at work, those we encounter in the street. Our response to every situation is in a sense transformed,” Meridith added. “We encourage everyone in EfM to listen for where God is calling them to minister and to understand that ministry can be done in every part of our lives.”

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