The Rev. LeeAnne Watkins: The way we do Formation is not Working

The Rev. LeeAnne Watkins, Rector at St. Mary’s, St. Paul, confesses what she never thought she would – that adult Faith Formation, as it’s always been done, is not working.

Despite years of experience and lots of good will, traditional Faith Formation programming is floundering in communities across the country. In this video the Rev. LeeAnne Watkins ponders what might be at the root of this shift and what is replacing the Wednesday night/Sunday morning adult education format.

St. Mary’s, St. Paul is a growing faith community located in the Merriam Park neighborhood of St. Paul, Minnesota.


  1. The Presbyterians had a curriculum years ago called Doing the Word. You start where your people are and enter into conversation with them while you serve together. There may be a time for debriefing to talk about their faith and connecting the dots. There is also the ministry of presence factor. You go to the people. Don’t wait for them to come to you. You have defined education too narrowly. People learn from everything they do. If there is a college close take a class in Adult Education–Adults only learn what they have a need to know. C. Ellis Nelson–Where Faith Begins, Paulo Freire–Pedagogy of the Oppressed; The Wolf Shall Dwell with the Lamb: A Spirituality for Leadership in a Multicultural Community by Eric H. F. Law (Jul 1993). All of these approaches take you out of the role of I know and you don’t know. All three of these approaches empower people to transform from within.

  2. Jennifer S.


    I agree with the Revs. LeeAnne & Linda when they say “No! Stop!” to the old way of doing things and suggest letting some things die. I’m tired of a congregation on life support. There is new life beyond – but death first. And death can be ok. That was a hard thing to accept, and others with a heart to do so are still pumping the bellows to keep some semblance of life in the moribund Way We’ve Always Done It Why Don’t More People Come, but I won’t (can’t) do it anymore. I’ve wandered/been driven off into the wilderness (like Hagar? It’s bad, but it would be worse to stay.)

    Meanwhile, some springs of living water in the desert, in case they can help someone else too (not to be ‘the next new thing’ that noone comes to, but for me they are a refreshing reminder of the ‘why?’ behind a ministry of Christian education):

    a) “Godly Play” approach to children’s faith formation – not the Sunday School I grew up with. Rich in meaning, encouraging of wonder, and respectful of kids’ capacity for the divine. (I’ll tell you a secret – it can be wonder-full with adults willing to enter into the Play spirit, too.)

    b) Marcus Borg’s (among others) revisioning/reclaiming of the language we use to tell/share the Story (his book: “Speaking Christian”). Restores deeper alternative meanings to Tradition for people left flat by the usual emphases. Brings forward themes that inspire far more real living and ministry for me than the ol’ “God killed Jesus because I am bad and if I say I believe this stuff I get to go to heaven” line.

    I also think William Riker’s comment about Faith Community is spot on.

  3. Kathy

    Whoa, a Viral Video for the Video Project! Rev. Watkins, once you started getting “hits” and comments from folks in New Hampshire and Ohio your video went viral for ECiM I would say. You now have the #1 ECiM video because you dared to name just one small elephant in the room. Soon we may have our own “WatkinsUNWASHED” internet meme. You have some “intelligent” failure going on! Let us get over the “F” word and celebrate “intelligent” failure with you. To reduce the stigma of the “F” word companies like Eli Lily hold parties to celebrate “intelligent” failure. Time for an ECiM Viral Video PARTY or at least a World Café brainstorm of “collective wisdom,” being that World Café process is field tested.

    What are the chances that your viral video might create new “permission giving” and greater collaborative approaches for organizational inquiry, accountability and failure learning at the diocesan level? Thank you for breaking the ranks of “fear and loathing” in outing a churchy problem. There are 3 broad categories of failure according to Amy Edmonson at Harvard Business School:
    1. preventable failure in routine, predictable operations,
    2. unavoidable failure in complex systems (that can hopefully can be contained)
    3. “intelligent” failure at the frontier of experimentation (probably the only “good” failure) Intelligent failure is a termed coined by Duke University’s Sim Sitkin.
    So you are a frontier woman! A path finder.
    Failure leads to transformational learning. But it is not enough to take responsibility for failure.
    It is crucial to create a host culture of communal courage, open inquiry, analysis, learning. The greater church must create a culture of prophetic bravery, imagination and psychological safety for failure and transformative learning…kind of a “Walter Bruggemann culture.” You wrote that you just finished reading Diana Butler Bass; was it her recent book: Christianity After Religion:The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening ? Where she writes: “Belonging is the risk to move beyond the world we know, to venture out on pilgrimage, to accept exile. And it is the risk of being with companions on that journey, God, a spouse, friends, children, mentors, teachers, people who came from the same place we did, people who came from entirely different places, saints and sinners of all sorts, those known to us and unknown, our secret longings, questions and fears. Whose am I? O God, I am thine!” (pp.197-198).
    I think you did accept some risk, Rev. Watkins when you made your video!

    Parker Palmer’s Center for Courage and Renewal gives us a glimpse of this type of transformative learning. Your parish dilemma is our community’s dilemma and is a global concern…addressing lengthy stints of dehydration in episcopal church adult formation. There is thirst and panting for God, for authentic conversation, for inclusive community. I have rarely witnessed church culture as permission giving and risk taking. There is still a solid “in-group” and “out-group.” There is still a crisis of intensively groomed, nurturing leadership that is comfortable with lay narrative witness, polarity management of wicked problems, reconciliation, failure, collective wisdom, mysticism. How excitable are people who have become desensitized with comfortable chit-chat especially if this was a retreat after they tried risky ventures and got their hands slapped at church or received uncomfortable looks? It has happened to many of us.

    One of your readers, Rev. Heidi Haverkaamp wondered whether we are “in an age where people prefer to learn and study on their own and feel hesitant to join groups where they might feel vulnerable”? I would say,
    ” Yes, as long as the church remains stuck.” Unstuck groups like the American Organization of Nurse Executives, know that people want to be fully heard in authentic conversation; people want intimacy; they want to learn from others who are not arrogant nor duplicitous, they desire permission to speak of both their dark stories of hurt and betrayal and their light stories of joy, love and healing. This organization and others use PeerSpirt’s, The Circle Way, A Leader in Every Chair or similar “convening” conversational methods to move away from only sanitized good news and corporate worlds with “ethical fading:” with plausible deniability, guilty knowledge, spin, victory disease. Corporate America is now looking for authentic dialog, community creative problem-solving,, and bravery, especially after the latest financial crisis and Occupy Wall Street backlash. There will never be an “Occupy Church” movement like that on Wall Street… just a New Exodus leaving the bondage of Pharaohs. Maybe some of your adults who are not interested in formation have met one too many Pharaohs and they are just tired.

    One would think the church would be just as far ahead as businesses and hospitals in embracing intelligent failure, narrative, and circle process but there is not the same sense of urgency in churches. Incredibly “Harvard Business Review” constantly mentions hospitals, pharmaceutical companies and the military as trend setters in institutionalizing healthy approaches to “intelligent failure,” narrative, blameless reporting, and courage. I guess the stakes are high if there is death from drug toxicity, healthcare negligence, and conflict casualties. Hospitals, pharmaceutical researches and the military have intensive adult formation, core curricula, and accountability. But how serious is faith formation, really? For me it is THE MOST important thing, but many offerings are bland so I do look elsewhere for nourishment. Here is a great place for community nourishment and narrative healing…
    Local Twin Cities “Thought Leader Circle Gatherings” convened by Heartland Circle ( have been exposing a wide range of people to the power of narrative in circle process. ( Another epsicopal video project from the Lenten Clergy conference in Buffalo, MN mentioned story as the essence of our lives.) Religious leaders are welcome in the “Thought Leader Circles.” I believe I met some people from Catholic Charities. Who attends?… Employees from health groups, like HealthEast and Health Partners, financial interest groups like Wells Fargo and MicroGrants have a presence, architects, authors, University of Minnesota and St. Catherine University employees, business people from General Mills, Best Buy and more come. What diversity and partnership. Circle process is an egalitarian process with formal structures, roles and process that can truly can hold tension, conflict and our shadow sides in healthy ways… for healing and reconciliation. Circle’s creative collective wisdom is the archetypal hearth circle with a warm fire at the center to holds the attention. It was thought that this hearth circle was where language became more developed for the survival of community. Today we need not have cold, dry bones in pews when there are warm fires are nearby. It is time to relearn how to start the fire and gather EVERYONE. “Thought Leader Circle Gatheringss” have conversation starters that explore 4 domains:
    1. New Organizational Models,
    2. Ecological Stewardship,
    3. Human Relationships, and
    4. The Emerging Economy.
    Sounds like church doesn’t it? .Their meeting on April 13the

    In the meantime I am waiting for a permissive ecclesiastical culture that actively supports “outside whistleblower advocacy,” “blameless reporting,” “no-fail zones,” “scrapheap celebrations,” “FAIL Blogs,” “successive accountability evaluations” with mini-postmortems/after-action reporting/pause-and-learn moments, and circle wisdom for reconciliation.

    Surveillance and sanctioning however will never work unless “cognitive biases” are examined. Cognitive bias is a culprit in expanding an exclusive hierarchical culture which numbs the lowly, those invited into adult formation making church “patronizing.” or impossible. (Have you figured out which of Mark Clevenger’s congregational church subtypes I am yet?) Cognitive biases have many flavors: motivated blindness, normalization of deviance, confirmational bias, slippery slope, outcome bias etc. Cognitive bias and groupthink caused the Toyota accelerator pedal accidents, NASA Challenger Shuttle deaths, the Guld of Mexico BP oil spill, Jet Blue’s on-tarmac delays, Greenspan’s (by his own admission) overconfidence bias in his economic plan, the motivated blindness bias of supposed “independent” AAA credit ratings of collateralized mortgage securities. The topic of failure often gets lip service but no good practice for transformative learning if cognitive biases are not understood in organizations. The examination of success is important since failure often masquerades as “success.”

    Failure is not an anathema. Let the church open itself, learn and recover! There are too many secrets that have died slow deaths at the hand of a conspiracy of silence in our Episcopal church. Rev. Watkins you are bravely talking and have broken some silence. You are doing it with more Episcopal politeness than would many mature, stifled, lay meat eaters and milk-fed Episcopalians who “have their stories of adult formation and beyond” but are wise enough to not share them anywhere near hemorrhaging Red Doors of the non-“prophets” or near people of apostolic succession.

    Not all failure is created equal. “Epic Fail” is not intelligent. It results from cognitive bias and groupthink. Pharisaical groupthink crucified Jesus. Groupthink is still strong in the church today. It is a psychological group process where an “in-group” minimizes conflict and does not engage critical, outside, independent impartial evaluation. The creative costs can be huge. Symptoms of groupthink are: Illusion of invulnerability, collective rationalization, inherent morality, stereotyped view of “out-group,” self-censorship, mindguards. Groupthink plus cognitive biases can lead to ethical fading, a phenomenon described by Ann Tenbrunsel and David Messick, where ethics is not a part of the discussion. Unwritten assumptions go unexamined. Ethical fading leads to an increase in unconscious unethical behavior. The Ford Pinto launch by Lee Iacocca was thought to be an example of ethical fading.

    What activities put intelligent failure to work?
    1. Put in writing what success and failure will be before an initiative is started so there can be evaluation.
    2. Record assumptions so there is less risk of conformational bias…gravitating toward information that confirms what we want to believe.
    3. Have in independent source or prophet seek out information that would suggest a plan is flawed.
    4. Experiment and fail fast and cheaply.
    5. Limit uncertainty variables.
    6. Build a culture that celebrates “intelligent” failure.
    GOT MILK BUT NO PROPHET? One of the best prophets I know in ECiM is William Sullivan at St. Matthews in Chatfield, Minnesota, a retired Mayo researcher… now a Total Ministry Team administrator, evangelist, and lay preacher. He has interests in how to teach passive sheep to speak, and in developing core competencies of adult formation. He has been around St. Matthews for 30 years. Another is William Scarf, who has moved from St. Stephen’s to another parish on the west side of the cities(?). He is a retired executive from General Electric who had to rub elbows with the famous, mercurial Jack Welch. He has also worked in banking and other disciplines. He has a spiritually strong committed core and is a Bible Study Fellowship enthusiast. One of his sons is studying to be an Episcopal priest at Yale Divinity. And no, I did not have permission to mention their names so I hope that is not too upsetting for these pillars. I hope the diocese will call on them. As one of your readers, Janet Peterson, mentioned..the church is about developing lay leaderhsip. There are more of them than those of apostolic succession and really don’t we have a priesthood of all believers as another one of your readers mentioned? Like Jennifer S. I like Marcus Borg. Moorehouse has 3 DVD/ study guide discussion series: one with Marcus Borg, one with Walter Brueggemann, and one with Phyllis Tickle.

    Rev. Watkins, what have you have done!? The reason there is so much dialogue from your video is that you have broken “in-group” silence and given us a permissive forum to comment. Look at the flood of responses! I think it is telling that you are addressing a precursor to active mission which is adult formation of the heart. This circumcision of the heart leads to transformation of the checkbook and passionate labor in mission.

    Margaret Wheatley will be in St. Paul on April 20th at St. Catherine University. She will be speaking about the differences between passive “hero” cultures with power heroes who rescue and active “host” cultures that empower and include others. Have the adults in your parish been rescued once too often and lost their spiritual muscle after passivie receiving? Wheatley’s new book is Walk Out, Walk On. Would you say that our Episcopal churches generally have passive “waiting for Superman” hero cultures or an active host cultures of discipleship? Are people walking out of churches to walk on?

    Thank goodness for a viral video of discussion, Rev. Watkins. May its “threads” lead to cloth. May the cloth lead to gathered cotton bolts. May the bolts lead to clothing for community. May the community get dressed for the bridegroom. May a dressed community celebrate together the Reign of God with grace, Biblical imagination and creative successes and failures.

    Be courageous, LeeAnne, in the Church’s Great 500 year Rummage Sale.

  4. K.J.Wilhelm

    Free workshops in St. Paul on April 26th including interfaith dialogue/resources for Prophetic Ministry Workshop on Faith Formation (adult and children)….

    PROPHETIC VOICES campaign is an interfaith initiative hosted by the organization ISAIAH in the Twin Cities to bring back vibrant imagination, story telling and passion to ministry, mission, and adult and children’s religious formation.
    Most of the financing is coming from Jewish Community Action.

    The event vision is:
    1. creating a more just and abundant Minnesota where all people can thrive
    2. welcoming all people of faith into community-based and statewide dialogue
    3. providing resources and training needed to connect, communicate, and advocate

    This is for everyone: clergy, lay leaders, congregants.

    On April 26th from 8:45 AM until 4 PM there will be morning speakers, free resources, free lunch and free afternoon workshops on your choice of:
    Prophetic Preaching,
    Prophetic Witness,
    Prophetic Ministry: Faith Formation for adults and children

    Crowne Plaza Hotel
    11 E. Kellogg Blvd.
    St. Paul, MN 55101

    ISAIAH website…see Prophetic Voices.
    Or call Amity at: 612-333-1260

  5. Thanks LeeAnn – this is why we’re building – please come and advise us!

  6. Sarah McClure

    Wow, Lee Anne. Yeah, the world’s changing. Not for the better, either. As a lay person and a nurse I can honestly say that people seek/ “need” immediate gratification. They don’t want to sit around and chat about Jesus. Everyone is too busy. Work, soccer, cheer leading, football, baseball, basketball, laundry, cleaning, making dinner, work, laundry, dinner, work, laundry, dinner…no one has the time or the inclination to attend “meetings” unless they’re court ordered to do so. Even then they may…or may not. People have become more spiritual than religious. Everyone’s God is different. These days it’s a Higer Power more than a Christian God. That’s why they aren’t coming. What’s being taught isn’t resonating with them, otherwise they’d be there. Where are they? They’re visiting mediums and psychics on their OWN schedules. They’re forming they’re own groups that feel more comfortable to their souls. They’re finding like minded people and taking comfort in that rather than a church. People are evolving and none of the churches are able to keep up. None of the churches are willing to admit defeat. They’re all so bent on being the only “right word” that people have grown weary of it. So many different religions that claim to be the “One true word of God.” No matter how loving a congregation may claim to be, if it doesn’t feel right…it doesn’t feel right. That’s not your fault. The spiritual beings of this world are having a human experience, not the other way around. And they’re ramping up. Sometimes we have to step outside the box of what we’re taught and believe to be truth. We have to take the blinders off and take a good look around us. What do we, as humanity, need? Believing blindly in a book that has been over translated for 2000 years? It’s not working anymore, nor is it the truth as may have been intended during the original penning. Too much lost not only in translation, but in the splitting of it into so many different denomiations. The world isn’t flat, and people aren’t buying what’s being sold to them via the church anymore. Just isn’t happening. Too many experiences with what’s coined as paranormal phenomenon going on these days. That’s what’s resonating with people, hence the ramping up. Good luck to you and your churches future. Good luck to all churches future. While your intent as a reverend is admirable, your longevity in this day and age isn’t guarenteed.
    As a side note, really dissapointed that considering we were best friends from the age of 3 til we were in junior high school you couldn’t be bothered to respond to my plea to you when my son died. Just didn’t seem very “godly” to me. Hence, part of MY distance from the church. That was almost 20 years ago. Thanks, old friend.

  7. I, too, cancelled adult Bible study classes – a year or two ago. That’s because most of my most active Bible class participants left the denomination (ELCA) because of disagreement with the direction the church is going. The “Bible” has caused more division among book-following disciples than politics.

    If people want to study the Bible, I’m willing to dialogue about it in whatever setting they desire. If they want to love their neighbors through acts of service, that’s even better. Because that’s where I think the final goal of the printed words are leading us…to love. Not to religious practice. Not to ethereal ecstasy or morbid self-flagellation. But to build peace, hope, love, and harmony among all people (and creation) as we journey in this life.

    You haven’t failed, LeeAnne. You’ve graduated from repetitious religious tradition to loving practice, just like Jesus did.

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