Putting Theology into Practice

Christine Mortlock, minister to children and families, writes about her experience as a first-year student in Education for Ministry.

Every Tuesday evening at six o’clock, a group of people gather in the fourth-floor conference room at St. John’s for Education for Ministry (EfM), a four-year certificate program started at Sewanee in 1975.

We share a snack and fellowship; we wrestle with our readings and challenging theological questions. Our literacy of the Bible and Christian history increases – for me, it’s fun just learning what the Pentateuch, Tanak and Septuagint are.    

But knowledge is not our end goal, and this is what distinguishes EfM from a purely academic endeavor. We inquire, discuss and learn in order to craft our own personal theologies to shape and empower our own lay ministries in the world. Our group includes people working and serving with Congregations in Action, the Rescue Mission, Family Promise and the fields of education and medicine.

Barbara Johnson and Cara Modisett co-mentor our varied group, whose members range from professors to a retired nurse. We begin with a brief moment of worship where we may read the General Thanksgiving from the Book of Common Prayer or a Mary Oliver poem, and then often do an “on-board” conversation. This activity could be answering a question about where we saw God in our weeks, or how we carve out moments of quiet in the busy Advent season (hard to come by this time of year for many of us).

We then launch into a discussion of our readings for the week. There are four cohorts in our one EfM group, each reading a different set of texts.  The first-year cohort is making our way through the Hebrew Bible; second year is plowing through the New Testament. The third year is traversing the width and breadth of Christian history (via Diarmaid MacCulloch’s Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years). Fourth year is taking on a variety of texts from a theological primer to a book on the mysteries of faith. Periodically, all four years take a week or more for common “interlude” readings – essays or shorter books on topics ranging from digital faith to intersectional theology.

Part of the year is dedicated to sharing our spiritual autobiographies. In this time, I have come to know the other members of the group beyond formalities and pleasantries, and hear about the traditions we were each brought up in, and our thoughts on God, truth, community. The second part of the year is rooted in theological reflections, each reflection led by an individual member. The prompts vary every week, inspired by current events, poetry, photographs and other prompts.

EfM’s current year-long focus is on living faithfully in a multicultural world, something I find fascinating since I spent my childhood in Southeast Asia and Brazil attending international schools. Our interlude readings have included the Reverend Catherine Meeks’ Living Into God’s Dream.

In true EfM spirit, in October a group of us attended the multi-faith memorial service at Temple Emmanuel after the shootings at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, witnessing to our desire to live peaceably and faithfully in a multicultural world. We weren’t just reading about how to live faithfully in what has become what seems a more and more divisive world – we were applying our theology to our lives here in Roanoke. I think this is religious education at its best – applied to our lives so that is relevant, so that what we learn becomes integrated into how we live our lives, where we put our time and efforts, how we follow in the “Way.”

I have been enriched by the weekly meetings. I look forward to seeing my group members and hearing their perspectives, eating Cayce Myers’ amazing cooking (try out his mac and cheese), and being stretched by the readings and others’ perspectives.

If you are interested in joining the next cohort of EfM which will begin next fall, please talk with Barbara Johnson or contact her by email at babstajohnson@gmail.com, or speak with one of the current participants. To read more about EfM you can visit their site: efm.sewanee.edu.

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