Be the Change You Want to See: becoming Communities of Formation

An article from the Anglican Religious Life Year Book 2012-13
by Brother Clark Berge SSF

One of the surprising developments during my first year in office as Minister General of SSF was the decision to look at formation. This was made by our First Order Chapter – a gathering when sisters and brothers from all the provinces meet together, which only happens once every three years. The decision grew out of a series of complaints, which matured into observations: we were having a hard time getting members to serve as novice guardian because we were not very clear about what formation meant. Few brothers or sisters felt they had the skills to be novice guardian.

To implement the decision, a series of international conferences was planned, the first being a three-week program with the task of developing an international curriculum for initial formation. We gathered in New York at Little Portion Friary during July 2009. From the beginning challenging issues arose.

Issue 1: Willingness to change

First was the hurdle that many communities want new members, but refuse to change when the new members come. The result is that communities lure new members in saying they want to grow, but then “torture” them by refusing to change to incorporate new members in a life-giving way. At times, the example of the professed can be a process of deformation and eccentricity. Therefore, Don Bisson, a Marist brother, helped us see that flexibility and willingness to change are qualities that communities require if they are to be an effective place of formation. Therefore formation cannot be solely the job of one designated person; rather it is the work of the entire community. So we must become communities of formation.

The underlying lesson for us was the willingness to do things differently in order to further the Kingdom’s goals. This was reinforced by a field trip to the Poverty Initiative at Union Seminary where we spoke to people about identifying and training leaders among America’s poor. They not only give potential leaders solid teaching and orientation, they listen to them and incorporate their ideas in the work of the organization. We also visited the Ecclesia Ministries and learned about forming non-traditional ways of working; for example, homeless people were not comfortable in beautiful Episcopal churches, so they took church outside to them instead.

Issue 2: Valuing everyone’s experience

There is nothing so formative as “walking a mile in another’s shoes.” This was one of the challenges that came from Dr. Kwok Pui-Lan, a professor at the Episcopal Divinity School. She asked us questions about our homes, our ministries, and our hopes for our curriculum. Then she observed that our Order is made up of nations that were formerly part of the British Empire, and asked how we grappled with this colonial heritage. We talked about the valuing of experience of all members, the need for financial self-sufficiency (not to rely on financial support from the “home” country). There are many insidious ways that colonial attitudes make an impact on our work and devalue non-Western cultures. It was important, she said, actually to go to the different countries.

A prominent labor organizer gave us a helpful formula: conscientization + commitment = change (C + C = C). Becoming aware of a problem, or what a person has to offer, is the first challenge. Add to this a commitment to learn about and do something about a situation. Then you have the way to change. When he learned that literacy is one of the major challenges among some of our brothers, he showed us drawings he uses as “texts” to assist in the process of reflection and awareness.

Issue 3: Everyone has leadership potential

There are no excuses not to engage people in formation. All of us are capable of growing and changing, and we can teach people to become leaders. Likewise, we can teach literacy, the lack of it does not disqualify one from being part of a community’s formation process. It became clear that our community is training men and women to be leaders, and it will require a diversified approach and a commitment to living differently. God calls each of us to a ministry; each of us has responsibilities. We are all leaders.

A way forward

We decided that our curriculum would have to provide a road map, but leave the details of implementation up to the several provinces. We will address the challenges (like literacy) best at the local level. Now, if you join SSF in Papua New Guinea, or Brazil, in Korea or UK, every member will struggle with the same topics, reach for similar milestones. The result, we hope, will be a flexible community that welcomes new members and listens to their voices, honoring their experiences. New members will feel empowered to develop ministry initiatives and take responsibility for themselves and the community.

Immediately after we developed the curriculum, we identified parts of it that sound good on paper, but few of us had any notion how to implement. For instance, how do we teach a core Franciscan value on “being peacemakers”? This gave us part of our agenda for the next year’s conference.

Healing, teaching skills and peacemaking

Setting three goals for the second formator’s conference, we wanted to heal some of the colonial past, to develop teaching skills that could transform novices and the community as a whole, and to learn about being peacemakers. We met in the Solomon Islands. Brothers and sisters from developed nations learned much about life in a developing nation, and some of us felt chastened by the experience! We followed a curriculum called the Anti-violence Project with two amazing facilitators. We soon learned some very specific ways to teach about peace as well as discovering a wealth of different ideas about how to teach.

Discernment

The third conference is already in the works, in a process of discernment. Working collaboratively and cross-culturally is an exciting experience. As we reflect on our community life, we have had to pray hard about some things. We’ve made changes. New members are joining. Now is not the time to rest on our laurels. New members bring new perspectives, new opportunities.

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