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Re-post: The Well at Burke Presbyterian Church

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Rev. Shavon Starling-Louis, NEXT Church interim communications specialist, will be sharing particularly timely past NEXT Church blog posts. These posts point to hope and wisdom for these days that you might have completely forgotten about but are faithful reflections. We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter.

This article was originally posted on August 27, 2013.

by Arlene Decina

For the past two summers at Burke Presbyterian Church, we have taken a leap — from the traditional Vacation Bible School that had always been a highlight of our programming into something that is, for us, brand new and refreshing.

By many standards, our Vacation Bible School was a smashing success. In recent years we have created and developed our own original program with an emphasis on slowing our pace, going deeper, and forming community . . . and we filled to capacity, attracting gifted and energetic leaders. We became known for our unique approach, and, in fact, the model that we created for VBS has now been borrowed and implemented in other churches with their programs. So why, you might ask, should we do something different? Why fix something that is not broken?

A year and a half ago, in January 2012 – when we gathered for our annual “What-are-we-going-to-do-for VBS?” meeting – none of us had the level of energy and enthusiasm that we had experienced in the past. We sat in silence for a time until our Elder for Children’s Spiritual Growth quietly interrupted with a heartfelt and earnest, “What if we were to try something entirely new this year?”  She had our full attention.

Giving ourselves permission and invitation to ponder, we realized that as captivating as our originally conceived and fashioned VBS had been, it too had become a reliable, nearly institutionalized model. We began to ask ourselves the big wondering questions of how we could best use our time and energies both to strengthen the bonds within our church and to serve God and the community. How could we live into the phrase that we often repeat as a mantra, “Less is More,” to provide a fresh wellspring of spiritual growth and nurture for those who generally do so much of the work of the church? What would bear the most nourishing fruit for us in this time?

Out of these frank questions and honest wonderings, and within the new space created by letting go of our traditional Vacation Bible School, The Well was born.

Of course, there were birthing pains associated with growing The Well. The team knew that not having a Vacation Bible School would be hard for some folks to understand, let alone imagine. Therefore, the greatest hope and chance for success would only be possible with intentional introduction and thoughtful explanation of The Well.  We began with the leaders of the church. The idea of The Well was first proposed to the Spiritual Growth Ministry Team, and then to the Session. Carefully timed communications via church-wide letters, emails, and newsletter articles rounded out the way we shared this change with the community.  Along with these corporate notifications, each member of the planning team also spoke about The Well with small groups and individuals along the way. While news of The Well was largely met with anticipation and openness, there were people who pushed back and with certainty said that letting go of VBS was shirking our commitment to evangelism and showing a sign of a church in decline. Ultimately, the number of dissenters was quite small. In fact, in the second year of The Well, some of the original dissenters from the previous year came to The Well!

It is important to note that during this time, Burke was beginning an interim pastorate after a much-loved pastor of 27 years retired.  Change of this magnitude was new for many at BPC.  Allowing for this dissent was important, even while it was hard for the planning team to hear.

BPC2As a result of all these conversations and hopes and labor pains, in July 2012, and again in this summer of 2013, The Well blossomed into a three-evening multi-generational event that included Burke Presbyterian Church members and friends of all ages and all stages and all family configurations. Each evening, we began our time outdoors with an informal and invitational gathering marked by live and beckoning music on the front lawn, games and sidewalk chalk and bubbles, and water and process art choices that drew children – and the child in all of us – together for sharing and conversation.

BPC3Meanwhile, the tables inside were beautifully set for the next part of our evening, a family-style meal. Participants’ nametags indicated which was their table, so there was no need to wonder, “Where will I sit?” or “Is there a place for me?” Guided by our host, who like a liturgist artfully set the tone, we enjoyed a delicious supper with our table-group “families” in a gathering that became central to our time together.

Each evening following mealtime, we separated by age into groupings – the very youngest in the nursery, and children, youth, college-age, and adults – for an intentional time of engaging with one another and with the story, with Scripture, or with a Sabbath practice. On our opening night this year we welcomed keynote speaker Rev. MaryAnn McKibben Dana who shared insights from her recent book, Sabbath in the Suburbs. Subsequent evenings we delighted in hearing from our own Interim Pastor Rev. Diane Hutchins and Pastoral Associate Rev. Deryl Fleming. Drawing from these cherished resources within our community as well as outside of our community allowed for rich and dynamic keynotes. We concluded each evening of The Well by coming together in the Sanctuary for a short, ten minute Evensong liturgy written and led by two of our pastoral parishioners, Rev. Alice Petersen and Rev. Bill  Lowrey. Just the right amount of time for night prayers and prayer songs, for good nights and good byes.

BPC4Our second evening of The Well this year had something different in store; we were in for an amazing and memorable experience — Stop Hunger Now! In a matter of an hour and a half, the two hundred or so of us – ages three to mid 80s (with seating available for those who preferred to watch) – packaged 10,000 meals, which we learned would be sent to Haiti. Words will simply not do justice to what we as a church family experienced — it was Holy Ground, indeed! As we transitioned from Stop Hunger to our own mealtime, our liturgist called us together saying, “Just as we have prepared a meal for others, a meal has been prepared for us” … and with that we settled into suppertime. A reflection afterward on The Feeding of the Five Thousand, offered from the perspective of a child’s perception, and we all were filled to the brim in mind, body and spirit.

BPC1There was an elegant simplicity to The Well, exemplified by the tiny pile of things to be sorted and put away the following week compared to the usual digging-out after VBS!  Indeed, there were far fewer moving parts than with our traditional Vacation Bible School. Rather, our fresh goal for this experience was to set the scene – to offer the opportunities – for moving experiences, for deep-well moments, for making memories as a family of faith.

The Well is just what we have needed in this season of change for Burke Presbyterian Church.  As we look around we clearly see fruits born of letting go of the old and risking a new endeavor.  Out of one of the Adult offerings in The Well 2012, an intentional gathering of Contemplative Practices began to meet weekly, with 20-25 adults of various ages attending regularly.  Older adults with no previous ties to young families at BPC are now helping in our mid-week Logos program known as Rainbow. A new group for college age and older high school students has formed and plans to meet for study and fellowship during the year. Over two hundred people have a shared experience from the summer forging new or deeper relationships within the church community.  And yes, we even have new families visiting on Sunday morning as a result of their time spent at The Well.

This experience of The Well has reminded us of the surprising creativity, soul-full richness, and extravagant hospitality that is possible when we allow ourselves to be receptive to the refreshing guidance of the Holy Spirit.

We can only imagine what God will call us to in the future. Praise be to God!


Arlene Decina is the Director of Spiritual Growth Ministries at Burke Presbyterian Church in Northern Virginia.

2018 National Gathering Ignite: Jason Santos

Jason Santos, Mission Coordinator for Christian Formation at Presbyterian Mission Agency, gives an Ignite presentation at the 2018 NEXT Church National Gathering.

His Ignite presentation is called “Killing Church Softly.” For the last half-century, we’ve increasingly formed our children and youth through developmentally-centered, age and stage, peer-oriented ministry programs that essentially removed them from the corporate life of the church–this ignite presentation highlights the failure of those efforts through generational and identity formation theory.

Three Models for Intergenerational Faith Formation

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Sarang Kang and Lynn Turnage are curating a blog series on faith formation. We’ll hear from various people who are involved in faith formation personally, professionally, and perseveringly. How has your faith been formed? How has your faith formed you? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

This post was originally shared on the Building Faith blog.

by Matthew Kozlowski

Intergenerational Conference
Back in October 2014, I attended the Lifelong Faith Associates symposium on intergenerational faith formation. About 100 practitioners from a variety of churches and denominations gathered to discuss intergenerational models of teaching and sharing the Christian faith. The following article summarizes much of what I learned at this outstanding conference. The three models described below are not the only ways to do intergenerational ministry, and this is by no means an exhaustive or authoritative list.

The Sunday School Question
One issue that I want to get out of the way: intergenerational formation is not about closing or “killing” Sunday school. Many people doing intergenerational work have taught or coordinated Sunday school, and they understand its benefits. That being said, these leaders are willing to ask whether a classroom model (grouped by age or grade) is the best format for every church.

Intergenerational Model 1: Large Gatherings
Some churches that have transitioned out of the age-group classroom model host large intergenerational gatherings instead. All ages are invited to these monthly events, and organizers embrace the excitement and challenge of planning the large gatherings. I met representatives from several large Roman Catholic parishes that are fully committed to this model, and no longer offer traditional classes for children (sometimes called CCD). Instead, all families and children are invited to the monthly events.

The churches publicize the entire schedule in advance, expect wide participation, and even ask for registration and a small payment to cover food and materials. Intergenerational gatherings are often around two hours, and may include food, icebreakers, worship, music, and study. Some churches do include break-out sessions in which adults and children split up, briefly, for age-specific study.

Intergenerational Model 2: Small Groups

Many Christians are familiar with small groups, but intergenerational small groups are different in that adults, teenagers, and young children all meet, pray, and study together.

But how does the content work? Surely a 4-year-old cannot comprehend Bible study at the same level as a 44-year-old. This is true. But in an intergenerational small group, children are encouraged to participate as they are able, and to listen and be present. Additionally, the format is usually simple: sharing, scripture reading or devotions, and praying for one another.

The benefits, say proponents, far outweigh the drawbacks. Imagine a younger child praying for a teenager, while other members of the group lay hands on them. In intergenerational small groups, this is normal practice.

Intergenerational Model 3: Enhance Existing Programs

The intergenerational model that may translate well to many congregations is the “weave model” –  not an official term, but a phrase I made up for descriptive purposes. This model looks at all the events and formation opportunities that a church currently offers, and asks – in a very practical way – how can this become intergenerational? For example, do adults already make palm crosses before Palm Sunday? Invite all ages and create an intergenerational event. Does the youth group already deliver items to nursing homes? Invite older adults to help, and young children to tag along and participate.

Extreme Practical Planning
When considering any of the above models, there is a caution to keep in mind: intergenerational programming takes careful planning. For a leader, this means thinking up everything that could go wrong, and then stacking the odds in your favor. For example, a favorite Building Faith post explains how to ensure that multiple generations sit with one another at tables. As a leader, you can have all the best questions and activities in the world, but for the program to work you must create mixed groups.

Theoretical Grounding

The theory underpinning intergenerational formation proposes that people learn faith through the community of faith. Notice that this is not a one-directional movement of adults to children. ALL participants in the life of the church learn through the insight, experience, support, and prayers of the other members of the community.

An 80-year-old can learn quite a bit by reading the parable of the laborers in the vineyard with an 8-year-old. Teenagers often have powerful lessons to teach about service and mission. And of course, as it has always been, trusted adults teach and model Christian faith to children in worship, study, and charity.

As Maria Harris writes in Fashion me a People, “The doers of education are the community as community… [We] are realizing that the church does not have an educational program; it is an educational program” (page 47).

Focus on Relationships
A good framework for any church considering intergenerational formation is a focus on relationships. That is to say, churches can create a plethora of opportunities for all ages to connect with one another in meaningful, faith-based, conversations and experiences. Yes, the events and the content must be well planned and well done, but the programming is not the end-goal. The goal is mutual learning, growing closer to Christ, and deepening faith. In intergenerational formation, people of all ages make this journey together.


Matthew Kozlowski manages, edits, and writes for Building Faith. He lives in Alexandria, Virginia with his wife Danielle and two young daughters. Throughout his career he has been a teacher, camp counselor, school chaplain, camp chaplain, Sunday school teacher, parish priest, and Alpha course coordinator.

This article was first published in the Spring 2015 edition of Episcopal Teacher, a free magazine published by the Center for the Ministry of Teaching.

Love Letters: The Intentional Practice of Remembering Baptisms

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Sarang Kang and Lynn Turnage are curating a blog series on faith formation. We’ll hear from various people who are involved in faith formation personally, professionally, and perseveringly. How has your faith been formed? How has your faith formed you? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Vickie Caro Dieth

In a family where juggling meetings and appointments and practices and laundry and meals is no small feat, it’s easy to forget things… especially when they happen only once a year. Luckily, my children were born on New Year’s Eve and Valentine’s Day, so their birthdays are easy to remember. The anniversaries of their baptisms? Not so much. The time of year is helpful, as one was baptized on Mother’s Day and the other, the first Sunday in Advent. But remembering the actual dates of their baptisms has been difficult for me and I’m most grateful for the reminders my phone gives me each year as the days near.

When my first child was born, my husband orchestrated what has become one of the most significant faith-sharing events for our family. Unbeknownst to me, he asked friends and family to write letters to our child about her baptism. As he collected the letters, he put each one into its own manila envelope, sealed it, and slipped it into a notebook where they would all be kept together.

In his planning, my husband requested enough letters to allow for one letter to be opened every year on the anniversary of our daughter’s baptism until she reached the age of confirmation. In the spring of this year, she completed our church’s confirmation process, and we read the last letter.

Some years we’ve done better at honoring the day than others. Some years there were cupcakes and some years the letters were read a few months late. But every year we’ve read a new letter.

It’s always a fun surprise to open one of the letters. I was never told who was asked to write to my daughter, and several years and two moves later, my husband doesn’t remember who responded, but they were all significant members of our own faith family. There were notes from the pastor who led the service and the elder who poured water into the baptismal font. My father’s letter shared his appreciation for the congregation that promised to nurture his granddaughter in her faith in God. There were letters from members of the youth group and their families. Some people chose to include pictures of themselves so she would know who they were. Each message spoke of the gift of belonging to the family of God.

Pastors and church educators are often telling us, “Remember your baptism,” but in a denomination that baptizes infants, this can be difficult to do. We encourage parents to share with their children the stories of the big day, but sometimes the family luncheon afterward or the heirloom gown worn by the baby claims the bulk of the memories, rather than the theological significance of the event. I am grateful for this collection of letters that reminds us of the promises made the day our faith community recognized Christ’s claim on our daughter. It is my prayer that it will help her make connections between her baptism and the day she claims the Church’s faith as her own.

I don’t really know what this notebook means to my daughter. She only knows or remembers some of the people we talk to her about. But to me, it is one of the most special gifts she will ever receive. Each year when we gather around the book of letters, we laugh and we remember. Each year we get to learn a bit of someone else’s faith story. Those who contributed took the time to reflect a little about their own faith and what it means to welcome a child into the church family. In their letters, people shared with our daughter their adult faith. The fact that she doesn’t know some of these folks reminds us of the universal nature of the baptismal vows we make. And every time she opens the book, my daughter is reminded that there has never been a time when she hasn’t been part of a faith community, that there are people other than her parents who love her, and that she is a child of God.


Vickie Caro Dieth is a Director of Christian Education and ruling elder at Christ Presbyterian Church in sunny Tallahassee, FL. Her doctoral work at Columbia Theological Seminary addressed teaching emotional intelligence as a tool for faithful discipleship. She is married to Rev. Danny Dieth and they have two daughters, Hannah and Abby.