“Do you intend to continue in the covenant God made with you in holy baptism:
to live among God’s faithful people;
to hear the word of God and share in the Lord’s supper;
to proclaim the good news of God in Christ through word and deed;
to serve all people following the example of Jesus;
and to strive for justice and peace in all the earth?”

Response: “We do, and ask God to help and guide us.”

(Evangelical Lutheran Worship, page 236)

Whenever Lutherans gather around a baptismal font and speak these words, it’s a reminder that “from the moment we are born, we are part of God’s family and community, called to reflect the love of God in the world,” said Amy Santoriello, a deacon and director of faith formation and outreach at Zion Lutheran Church, Penn Hills, Pa.

The baptismal covenant is one way to describe faith formation, a lifelong process that “doesn’t start in Sunday school and end in confirmation; it starts with our birth and ends in our burial,” she added. “Faith formation is holding [one another] to our baptismal promises that not only parents and sponsors make, but the whole community.”

Brenda Smith, ELCA program director for faith practices and the Book of Faith Initiative, agrees—it’s why her ministry organizes online resources for congregations and individuals around the five “gifts of discipleship” found in the promises of baptism: to live, hear, proclaim, serve and strive for justice.

While in seminary, “[I] saw how a pastor can make a difference in the lives of others by guiding them in their faith,” she said. “But [I] also realized the importance of going out into the community and sharing the light of Christ.”

Martin Luther taught that through baptism every Christian has a holy calling in the world, a vocation from God that is lived out in work, relationships and every part of our daily lives. Leadership is one such baptismal vocation. Just as Luther insisted that Christian ministry wasn’t limited to priests, monks and nuns, Lutherans today recognize that church leadership is not restricted to pastors and deacons. Leaders come from every part of the church and serve in any number of ways, including behind the scenes.

“Live among God’s faithful people”

Santoriello’s leadership “among God’s faithful people” has come full circle: her current call as deacon is to her former home congregation, where her faith was formed through participating alongside her family living out their faith in ministry.

“My mother would ask us at night if we ‘did justice, loved kindness and walked humbly with God today,’ ” Santoriello recalled. “Once when I was 6, the toilet in Zion’s transitional housing unit was broken, and my friend and I were responsible for filling up the tank and flushing it. We did it for hours! That’s how 6-year-olds help. My parents were making sure that lived faith was something they modeled, and we were expected to contribute.”

Sometimes it’s a home away from home that provides Christian community—like Living Water Ministries at Stony Lake, New Era, Mich., which its executive director, C.J. Clark, called “a mission that happens to own a camp.” A former camper and summer staffer, Clark has long known that “camp is a place that creates a space for kids to connect life to God. … [As a camper] I’m hearing about the love of Christ, experiencing it with others, and learning to see Christ in others and in myself.”

Five years ago, Clark worked with nearby synods to create Bridge Builders, a weeklong faith formation and leadership development camp program for high school students that tackles issues of systemic racism. Clark estimates that Bridge Builders has so far served around 130 participants, more than a third of whom are people of color.

The program’s success, Clark finds, lies in the way a camp community “dismantles stereotypes and changes perceptions,” and in the deep connection to God’s presence that encourages people to imagine a world patterned more after “the kingdom of God” and to “carry this real world” back to their regular lives. Youth who have attended Bridge Builders have now begun leading conversations about racism in their synods.

“Hear the word of God and share in the Lord’s supper”

Elizabeth Rawlings, the ELCA pastor of The Sanctuary, the Lutheran/Episcopal campus ministry at the University of Washington, Seattle, recalled a moment that changed her understanding of faith: “When my dad was dying, he said that he assented to faith in an intellectual way, but had felt ‘allergic’ to a personal relationship with God.”

Her father’s confession prompted Rawlings to “spend more time sitting with God. The Spirit does speak, but our world is so busy, with so much noise; so in order to hear what the Spirit is saying, I sit in silence, to listen.”

Students at The Sanctuary also often sit in quietness. “My sermons are very conversational, and I leave room for questions,” Rawlings said. Often her questions are greeted by silence from introverted students. “I almost stopped doing it,” she admitted, “but then I found out that they loved it.” She realized that students might ponder a question for days before reaching out to her to ask, “How do we read the Bible?” or “How do I remember that God loves me every day?”

Many of the students identify as LGBTQ+, and Rawlings, who is bisexual, knows that to lead such conversations for those who are in a critical stage of their faith development means “being real and practicing what I preach … being open about when and how I struggle.”

Rawlings’ own practices of listening to God through centering prayer also shape the small group conversations she leads. “We check in each week with two questions: Where have you seen God, and where do you need prayer? Knowing they will have to answer these questions encourages them to look for God in their week,” she said.

“Proclaim the good news of God in Christ through word and deed”

“I often think about what is different between a church organization and a nonprofit,” said Laura Carson, deacon and faith formation coordinator at Peace Lutheran Church, Las Cruces, N.M. She finds that it is precisely faith that makes all the difference in what it means to be a leader in the church.

“The church makes decisions based upon faith, not just the bottom line,” she said. The ability to trust that “it’s in God’s hands,” Carson continued, stems from “a deeper faith that is the foundation under everything we do.”

This faithful foundation can help leadership blossom when both rostered ministers and lay members are encouraged to grow by trying new things. Carson knows this from personal experience: her opportunities as a youth to help lead ministries in her home congregation encouraged her to seek a call to the ministry of word and service.

Now, Carson works to nurture faith formation for all ages. “The church has so often focused on faith formation for the first third of life,” she said, “but I point out that we also have two-thirds of our lives left to grow, and that’s when we have a fully formed brain!”

Carson isn’t only expanding the “who” of faith formation, but also the where and when: she is developing “Faith on the Go,” a website-in-progress that will offer online faith formation resources to meet busy people where they are.

Proclamation and leadership can also come from surprising places. Clark recalls a week of camp designed for youth on the autism spectrum when a young man was moved at the final campfire to share his testimony. In a long, halting speech, the young man told the story of his mother saving him from drowning—and how he now connected that story to Jesus’ saving death on the cross. “His peers applauded,” Clark remembered. “He was able to connect his life and faith and have the space to be heard.”

“Serve all people following the example of Jesus”

Santoriello consistently finds that the service ministries of her congregation help people of all ages to naturally incorporate faith into their everyday lives.

At Zion’s food pantry, which serves 150 families each Saturday, “we have a picture of our oldest and youngest volunteers together, and they’re 83 and 3,” she said.

The 3-year-old belongs to a family whose parents wanted to volunteer but weren’t sure what to do with their children. Santoriello suggested they bring them along. Now “they do it as a family; that’s how they spend their Saturday mornings,” she said.

Santoriello emphasized that service doesn’t just come from faith—it forms faith. “The faith conversations we have between adult volunteers and kids [are something] you can’t replicate and you can’t force,” she said. Church becomes a place where kids learn “there are adults who will always love [them] unconditionally”—and adults learn too, she added.

For Darin Johnson, campus pastor of Agape House—a ministry of San Diego State University whose student community he said has personally experienced “struggling with food and housing, losing weight, sleeping in cars, being robbed and [sexually assaulted]”—service takes on a different meaning: “we serve each other.” This happens literally at a weekly Wednesday night meal, but also in opportunities for students to share their stories and to give and receive support.

Following Jesus’ example, Johnson argued, means challenging a notion of faith that imagines “the individual is at the center,” instead striving “to meet as equals [and] to acknowledge that the relationship itself is at the center.”

Johnson teaches students “how to build relationships, not just as a means to an end, but as the end,” so service is measured by “the quality of our connectedness—do we know each other?”

“Strive for justice and peace in all the earth”

As an African-American child in Harlem, New York City, attending her grandmother’s Baptist church, Smith had trouble connecting the blue-eyed, blond-haired Jesus up on the wall with the hardships facing her community. “I thought maybe Jesus doesn’t like black people,” Smith recalled. “A lot of people were struggling—where was God in this community?”

Smith later became a pediatric nurse, and while teaching nursing at Capital University, Columbus, Ohio, started taking classes at nearby Trinity Lutheran Seminary to learn more about faith. “I loved it, loved Lutheran theology,” Smith said. “I was hearing about God’s grace, as opposed to having to earn God’s love.”

Smith pursued a degree for hospital chaplaincy until she realized that pastoral ministry in a congregation would allow her to teach, nurture others and pursue justice in her community through encouraging—and challenging—others to use their gifts.

Like Smith, Johnson considers justice “a right relationship, not just a foregone conclusion or political ideology,” he said. “If I know someone, I’m in it with them. Justice flows from relationship, the messiness of community: who’s in charge? Who decides? Who tells the story?”

In Johnson’s ministry, the answer to these questions is increasingly the students themselves, who have organized together to work for change within their university and community.

Justice happens, he said, “when people recognize the power of God at work in their weakness and vulnerability … when they realize they’re not alone. When a community gets perspective and is no longer isolated, maybe religion is not an escape but a deeper engagement in a rhythm of contemplation and action—a beloved community.”

“We do, and ask God to help and guide us”

“Do you intend … to live, hear, proclaim, serve, strive?” These marks of the life of a baptized Christian tell us that faith formation is “truly about forming a person of faith through the practices of faith,” Carson said.

Rawlings concurs: “Faith formation is about what it means to be a child of God, and to live in this world as a Christian.”

For the church, leadership begins here: in our baptized identity as children of God, the heart of a faith that is formed in us our whole lives long.

Throughout 2018, in connection with Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton’s Leadership Initiative, Living Lutheran will explore the nature of leadership in the church.

Meghan Johnston Aelabouni
Meghan Johnston Aelabouni is a doctoral candidate in religious studies and a country coordinator for the ELCA Young Adults in Global Mission program in Jerusalem and the West Bank.

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