By Camille Dager, Mennonite Church USA
When Shana Peachey Boshart began studying with the Vibrant Faith Coaching School in the fall of 2019, she had no idea how quickly God would put her professional coaching skills to work.
Just weeks into her training, the COVID-19 pandemic shattered life as we know it, testing the agility of even the most experienced pastors and ministry leaders. The challenges were many: How do you lead faith formation when Sunday school classes stop meeting? When youth groups can’t meet as a group? When physical teaching tools become obsolete?
As the denominational minister for Faith Formation for Mennonite Church USA (MC USA), Peachey Boshart knew the denomination was in a unique position to help.
“Many of our area conferences have limited bandwidth and rely on part-time staff and volunteers to address an already full plate of ministry needs,” she said. “This was an opportunity to walk alongside them and their congregations.”
In the first few weeks of the pandemic, Peachey Boshart noticed that, although there was an abundance of resources focused on moving worship online, there was little addressing the specific needs of youth leaders.
“Our youth were experiencing social isolation, stress and loss, and our pastors, leaders and sponsors were looking for effective ways to minister to them,” she explained.
Amy Epp, pastor for Discipleship and Spiritual Formation at Seattle (Washington) Mennonite Church, said, “It has been a challenge to re-tool faith formation when we can’t meet in person, and working with kids in an online format was – and still is – a pretty new experience.”
Seeking to fill the gap, Peachey Boshart tapped the shoulders of a few youth directors who had experience with online youth ministry and were willing to share tips and tools. Together, they offered a webinar, “Virtual Tools for Real Youth Ministry,” that addressed topics including building community through a church website, online group gaming and ways to engage parents. More than a dozen ministry leaders attended and others accessed the recording online.
“The need was still urgent,” Peachey Boshart said, recognizing that faith formation leaders needed more resources, strategies, support and encouragement than a one-hour webinar could provide.
Putting her recently earned coaching skills into practice, she introduced a new model for equipping the denomination’s ministry leaders: coaching cohorts, small group learning pods focused on congregational faith formation.
“A coaching cohort is based on the understanding that all of the knowledge needed is within the group,” said Peachey Boshart, who is in her second level of training to be a Professional Certified Coach with the International Coaching Federation. “The coach’s role is not to lead in a particular direction, but rather to draw out the knowledge that is already there.” This is accomplished by asking strategic questions and helping to facilitate the conversation, she explained.
In May, Peachey Boshart offered a cohort series on moving youth ministry online. Participants would be invited to address questions, such as: What digital tools are the right fit for you and your group? What is the right content for your youth group? Who can help you realize your plan?
According to Peachey Boshart, the goal of the cohort was to “unhook from the ‘way-we’ve-always-done-things’ perspective and create new models based on knowledge, theory and experience.”
Youth leaders quickly responded to the call, filling three cohort groups. The groups met regularly for five one-hour sessions. Each session offered:
- Structured coaching from Peachey Boshart
- An opening meditation on a short Scripture passage
- Peer-to-peer conversation that allowed ministry leaders to talk to and learn from others doing the same kind of work
- Ideas on everything from what resources to use to how to handle difficult situations
- Encouragement and accountability for participants to carry out their goals
“The cohorts enabled me to connect faith formation leaders to each other in a way that allowed them to resource each other,” said Peachey Boshart. “At the same time, I was able to amplify what I was hearing from them and share it broadly with others.”
Cohort participant Adam Houser, associate pastor of Lowville (New York) Mennonite Church, encouraged other faith formation leaders to expand their connections through coaching cohorts, saying, “It is part continuing education and part connecting and supporting. It’s a way to learn together in a structured, unpressured setting.”
As the pandemic stretched on, it was clear that it was continuing to impact congregational faith formation. In July, MennoMedia conducted a survey of churches in MC USA and Mennonite Church Canada that showed that, among the 441 respondents, half were not meeting in person and more than a third were not offering any classes for children. Amy Gingerich, executive director of MennoMedia, described it as “a sea change in the role of children in the church,” in her article in Anabaptist World magazine.
In response, Peachey Boshart invited ministry leaders to participate in a new coaching cohort series focused on planning Sunday school for children and youth. Leaders formed four cohort groups that discussed topics such as collaborating with and equipping parents, child safety in digital spaces, how children acquire faith, and the role of children and youth in the congregation.
Alison Casella Brookins, pastor of Chicago (Illinois) Community Mennonite Church, also participated in a Sunday school cohort that continues to meet.
“The cohort provides a good mix of ideas and tangible actions,” Casella Brookins said, adding that it was particularly helpful for pastors, like her, for whom youth ministry is not their primary responsibility. “It’s also a place to acknowledge that, although this is really hard right now, we can still be generative and full of hope.”
Casella Brookins’ cohort is collaborating on a resource to encourage parents and children to pause and find ways to connect with God every day.
Based on the positive feedback, Peachey Boshart plans offer several additional coaching cohorts in 2021, focusing on various aspects of Sunday school and youth ministry. For more information on upcoming Faith Formation cohort opportunities and resources, subscribe to the Faith Formation newsletter here.
In addition to cohorts, MC USA helps to equip faith formation leaders by providing a web-based faith formation library, resource-rich e-newsletters (Faith Formation newsletter and Equipping), seminars at the denomination’s biennial convention (MennoCon21) and free one-on-one coaching with Peachey Boshart, as available.
Mennonite Church USA is the largest Mennonite denomination in the United States with 16 conferences, approximately 530 congregations and 62,000 members. An Anabaptist Christian denomination, MC USA is part of Mennonite World Conference, a global faith family that includes churches in 58 countries. It has offices in Elkhart, Indiana and Newton, Kansas. mennoniteUSA.org