Editor’s Note: This article is in a forthcoming issue of VTS Magazine. Some of its content is also published on the Forma website. It is republished here with minor formatting and grammatical changes to fit our editorial style. Forma | A Ministry of Lifelong Learning at Virginia Theological Seminary is the Network for Christian Formation for the Episcopal Church and beyond. One of Forma’s flagship offerings is an annual conference held each January.
A Little Backstory
I grew up in a small Episcopal church in southwestern Virginia. Our youth Sunday School class, which included everyone from 6th – 12th grade, met in a revamped storage room, and there were six of us gathered on a good week. Lots of my classmates at school also identified as Christian, most of them Baptist.
In 2008, I had the opportunity to travel to San Antonio, Texas for the tri-annual Episcopal Youth Event. I recall it being a fantastic week, but one specific memory stands out above the rest. I was high up in a very large auditorium, seated with the handful of other young people from my diocese during a worship service. I remember taking a long, slow look all the way around that room. I was surrounded by hundreds of other Episcopal young people. Everyone was standing and singing together, the energy was high, and I was overcome with an intense feeling of belonging.
Ten years later, I found myself in another large room filled with Episcopalians: the 2018 Forma Conference in Charleston, South Carolina. I had been a Forma member and working in Christian formation for a number of years, but I had been unable to attend the conference until becoming a work study student with Lifelong Learning at Virginia Theological Seminary (thank you, Lifelong Learning, for subsidizing that trip!).
And Right There Lies the Conundrum . . .
There is no doubt that one of the most important aspects of the Forma Annual Conference is networking. Many Christian formation leaders — paid and unpaid, clergy and lay — do not work with other professional formation practitioners on a weekly basis. They may be a ten-hour-a-week director of Christian formation in a parish with three paid staff members. They may be a solo clergy person. They may be working on a diocesan staff. At almost every level of church leadership, it is rare to work with another formation leader in the same context. Therefore, one of the biggest benefits to participating in a Forma conference is meeting, reconnecting with, and exchanging ideas with people who understand the work you do.
But gathering folks from across the country in one location is expensive. It is expensive for individuals, and it is expensive for Forma. For years Forma leaders have struggled with how to make such a gathering accessible to as many people as possible. How to prevent the cost of travel, lodging, and conference registration from being so high that the conference is really only accessible for full-time formation professionals with the most generous continuing education budgets.
We consistently look for the best way to reach those who are passionate about the ministry of forming disciples for Jesus. Over our 27-year history, we have moved our conferences around the country. We have recorded conference content for later viewing. The COVID pandemic propelled us to explore online and hybrid conferences. Each modality has benefits. Each modality has drawbacks.
The Radically Hybrid 2024 Forma Conference
This year, Forma is taking inspiration from Isaiah 43:19: “Behold, I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert” (ESV). Forma leaders are working with Learning Forte to design and pilot an entirely new model of Forma conference. Our goal with this “radically hybrid” model is to offer church leaders accessible, high quality professional development without sacrificing the ability to connect with colleagues in meaningful ways.
What Does Radically Hybrid Look Like?
When we say “radically hybrid,” we mean that we are designing a conference that offers multiple ways to participate — all of which will be interactive. You can choose to participate individually through Zoom, join or host a gathering in your area, or travel to one of our conference center retreats at Kanuga or Camp Allen.
Rather than exclusively lecture-style presentations, we are asking all presenters to spend at least half of their plenary or workshop engaging participants in breakout groups, Q&A, or activities. Our planning team is also creating resources to help those gathered in Local Conference Gatherings and Conference Center Retreats synthesize their learnings.
2024 Local Forma Conference Gathering Locations
Local Conference Gatherings are listed on the Forma website with links to RSVP. Unless otherwise noted, you are expected to purchase an Early Bird or General Registration ticket along with RSVPing to the Local Conference Gathering. Some gatherings have an additional cost to cover expenses such as meals.
What Does Accessibility Look Like?
We have worked hard to create a budget for this conference that invests in what really matters while offering participants reasonable ticket costs. Here’s the breakdown:
Early Bird Registration (ends November 30): $160
General Registration (December 1 – January 25): $180
Camp Allen Conference Center Retreat (meals, lodging, program): $450 – 510
Kanuga Conference Center Retreat (meals, lodging, program): $445 – 610
The presentation portion of every workshop and plenary will be recorded and include captions. Interactive portions of the conference such as discussion groups and Q&A will not be recorded.
Want to Pay Even Less?
Forma Member Discount
Forma members receive a discount of 25% on Early Bird and General Registration tickets. The discount code is available to dues paying members through The Forma Space on VTS Plus. You can learn more and become a Forma member on the Forma Membership page.
Sponsoring organizations and dioceses receive a discount code for unlimited tickets at the price of $120 available for the entire registration period (September 18 – January 25). If you purchase a full price ticket and later learn your diocese or organization is a sponsor, email Forma Convener Sarah Bentley Allred for a partial refund.
An Invitation to a Spirit of Adventure
This is a completely new conference model for Forma leaders, Learning Forte, and the Lifelong Learning team. While designing and facilitating this conference is the work of the Conference Planning Team, it is also our shared work. Due to the highly interactive design, this conference will be what it will be because of those who participate, those who host, those who sponsor, those who facilitate, those who evangelize, and those who offer constructive feedback. As we “do a new thing” together, we invite your engagement in whatever form works for you this year. We invite your grace (when is the last time you did a new thing and it went perfectly smoothly?!?). And we invite your prayers that all who participate in this year’s Forma Conference will receive not only practical tools for everyday ministry, but relational, spiritual, and vocational rejuvenation.