Learning and unlearning in the messiness of life

Anvil journal of theology and mission

“Those times of things being crunchy” – learning and unlearning in the messiness of life. An interview with “Eleanor”

by James Butler

Eleanor is an ordained minister working outside of traditional worshipping community structures. She completed the MA in pioneer leadership with CMS and now undertakes part-time paid roles that utilise this experience in pioneer training. Eleanor also exercises her own pioneer practice in a voluntary capacity. She had participated in a focus group in the research. James talked to her about her experience of learning and how faith changes and grows within her context of pioneer ministry. The interview particularly picks up themes around the importance of informal learning, particularly in life events. It explores some of the connections between formal and informal learning, and discusses themes of care and of the place of the Christian story.

Eleanor: What struck me was that it wasn’t the quality of the teaching, or the handouts or the reading material that we talked about as being instrumental in our learning. Not that those things aren’t important, but that what seemed to stand out from the conversation in our focus group was that it was times of difficulty and stress where we really felt that God had done some of that unmaking and remaking work. Soon after the focus group, I used some of those reflections in a sermon. I looked at how it is in our brokenness that God seems to do God’s best work; that experience of feeling unravelled and being reformed. We don’t particularly welcome those times of things being crunchy, but so often that is actually the crucible where transformation happens.

The other thing that stood out to me in the focus group was how we narrate the things that happen in our lives. I had been friends with some of the people in the focus group and when I heard them describing their experiences, I knew more of the story and I knew some of what they didn’t talk about. I was struck by how we narrate those experiences, what we offer and what we choose to leave out. How does it shape what we say about God and about practice when we only give a little fragment of the story or we sanitise it, or we shape it in a particular way?

James: And what difference do you think that would make?

Eleanor: It makes it overly tidy. I could tell people were choosing not to say things because it was too personal, or they didn’t want to offer that level of vulnerability and embarrassment probably as well.

It made me think about how we process that learning in private spaces with trusted people, but the outcome of that learning we share more widely. You do that learning somewhere else and only when you’ve got to a point where you think this is respectable will you offer it, but in the sharing of that story we can lose some of the humanness and real life of learning.

James: You pointed to the difficult and the stressful moments as being the places of learning and how you were unravelled and reformed. In the research we found that through seeing these big moments in life events, we were able to tune into smaller examples of learning which had a similar shape. Where do you see similar learning in the day-to-day life of pioneering and missional communities?

Eleanor: In a more formal way, the organisation I lead had to go through a culture change recently. Our sport and faith leaders were very keen on one-to-one mentoring as a way of discipling young people, but from a safeguarding point of view we said that we can’t do that anymore. We moved to mentoring young people in a group. Some of them just can’t get their heads around this and that has been a challenge.

Another place I see learning happening is in the pioneer training in the hubs, which does have this transformative effect on people’s faith. In that case I think it’s to do with being validated and affirmed and given permission to think that differently, and to explore the things that they believed all along. We give a space where it is OK for them to believe and think the things they do when they have felt at odds with the teaching in their church for so long. That is transformative, so in other contexts it can be about a safe space to explore different things.

James: Yes, one of the reflections that came out of the project was that although we saw faith deepening and growing in those difficult and challenging events, it was a bit problematic if this was seen as a mechanism to help people grow and develop in faith. Life brings enough challenges without the need to replicate it in more formal approaches to learning.

Eleanor: Yes, and I’ve seen that in formal education and heard people say that it’s all very well being broken, but they just didn’t feel that anybody put them back together. It makes me ask how we can love and care for people when life does throw that stuff at you, rather than it being a reason to just leave people to it. That’s really important.

James: How does that connect to your own faith?

Eleanor: The focus group took place when I’d completed my ordination training and I was in a curacy in parish ministry. Since then there has been a five-year period of unlearning and detangling that I’ve had to do to free myself from the institution and from all the stuff that I was trained for, or at least repurposing it, and I’m still in that process. I’m happy in the pioneer work I’m doing, but people still point out more formal roles to me, as if what I’m doing now isn’t “proper”. I’m coming to terms with what I’m doing now being “proper”, valid and worthwhile, which uses my gifts and skills. There’s unlearning of institutional expectations and the way people perceive it.

I think it makes my faith stronger because I’m more dependent on what I discern is God’s call, and what I think God is really about, which is fullness of life. My spirituality is the other aspect that has changed over this time. I have a really good spiritual director, who’s very gentle and holds the space in a very gracious way. I feel no judgement from him and he makes some one or two recommendations that are genuinely helpful. I feel I’ve got a greater freedom in my spirituality, and how I practice and exercise that, than I did before.

James: One of the key insights in the project was about conversations and informal learning being central to how people grew and developed in faith. The conversations that happen over coffee, or on the dog walk. And while it might be the big life events, it could also be the small things of kindness or beauty in everyday life. Does that resonate for you in your pioneering?

Eleanor: For me personally that is where pretty much all my faith discovery comes from. While it is informal conversation, it is also informed by formal learning. So, someone says, “I’ve been reading this article, and it’s really interesting,” and then I’ll find myself talking about it to somebody else and about what I’ve learned from the conversation with the person. In the organisation that I lead, I host this learning community and I’ve been giving them loads of good stuff from CMS and from pioneer contexts, but I don’t really see them using it. However, when I go and visit them individually, and we meet over coffee, and we chat things through, that’s when it starts to click a little bit. It’s in the conversations and in getting to know them.

James: In pioneer circles we are influenced by the missio Dei and the idea that mission is seeing what God is doing, and joining in. What do you see God doing in terms of people’s faith, and how do you participate in that?

Eleanor: I think that we often don’t see what God is doing and join in; I think we stumble along. We try some things out and we figure it out as best we can. We learn from the way that we mess it up or it doesn’t quite work out. We talk about failure being part of the learning process, but I don’t think we live it out. Of course, we have put all this effort in and we don’t want to deal with the disappointment, but I think God offers that gracious space to receive these moments as revelation and to look back and see we are still learning. It is so easy to get sucked into doing things you think God is doing and yet be wildly wrong, particularly in some traditions which are more about control and power than about seeing people released into what God is doing.

James: Yes, and it is interesting to think about the role of the Christian story. In a pioneer context some people have experienced Christian truth more as a weapon than an invitation, so are there ways you have seen people helpfully engage with the Bible and the Christian story?

Eleanor: Yes; in my own research for my MA dissertation I looked at café church. I visited two different groups. In one of them I found people flourishing in a space where they felt accepted and genuinely welcomed. It did lead some to want to study the Bible and it was held in quite an open way, but I still felt there was a culture of wanting to please the teacher. They respected him and he had created a culture where they could respond positively, but I felt they were still a little way from owning these narratives themselves. There was one person who stood out as going on a journey of transformation with God. He had had an encounter with God where he was preparing to commit suicide and then cried out in a prayer of desperation and had been flooded by a feeling of love and warmth. From that experience he’d connected with the café and was learning and growing. The other café church I looked at felt bound up in the same traditional ways of talking about the Bible and there was very little contextual work going on.

I think there is something really important about being with others of a like mind, because it can be life-generating and lifesaving to connect with others in the kinds of communities of practice which CMS is developing with pioneers. It’s so important to connect with people who get where you are coming from and get the thing you are about in mission: people who want to engage with others in mission.

James: It is interesting that you used the phrase “like-minded”, because that came up a few times in focus group conversations in the project. It was a slightly alarming phrase for us initially, thinking people didn’t want to engage with other views, but it became clear that people were using it in a similar way to you – about finding people who wanted to have conversations that were open to different views rather than staying in a particular bubble.

Eleanor: Yes. I think there’s something about what I would describe as genuine Jesus community that has values of caring for people, encouraging them and affirming them: a group of people who are just absolutely for you. That’s transformative.

James: Finally, what are the things you want to continue to explore around faith learning?

Eleanor: For the contexts where I connect with faith learning, the key reflection for me is how do I navigate well the tension between providing a directed and stimulating learning space while also allowing it to be reactive and responsive? Faith learning and transformation can take place in situations that aren’t planned for or anticipated. That can be owing to stressful and difficult life events, or it can be the meandering, whimsical flow of the Spirit. Both catalysts are well supported by a community of people that are open, non-judgmental and affirming of the individual. At the same time, you need something with focus and purpose to gather people around. It sounds complex but those spaces where I’ve received this skilful combination have been facilitated by people who did it in a natural, relaxed way – the whole “non-anxious” presence thing! It’s about creating spaces where’s there’s intention but also openness. It’s an interesting dynamic to play with!

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ANVIL 39:2, November 2023

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