Protestant Educators

Picture of Margaret Ann Crain

Margaret Ann Crain (1943 - ) is Professor Emeritus of Christian Education of Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, Illinois (1998-2011), and ordained Deacon (1997 - ) of the United Methodist Church (UMC), in full connection with the Northern Illinois Conference. Combining Christian religious educational scholarship and practice, Crain is “Dr. Deacon” to those familiar with the multiple arenas of her leadership and service in academia and ecclesia. Within scholarly circles, she is Past President of the Religious Education Association: An Association of Professors, Practitioners, and Researchers of Religious Education (2006-2007); referee for respected field journals in religious education, teaching, and learning; and participant of seminars and workshops within the Association of Theological Schools. Within her ecclesiastical communion, she provides leadership to judicatory bodies (including years as board member of the Christian Educators Fellowship and editor of Christians in Education), and was co-writer for the UMC Commission for the Study of Ministry in the 2008-2012 quadrennium. Extending her “deacon’s heart” into ecumenical settings, Crain has participated in such organizations as The Ecumenical Network for the Diaconate (TEND), the Diaconal Organization of the Americas and Canada (DOTAC), and the DIAKONIA World Federation. At retirement, she was Professor of Christian Education, and Director of Deacon Studies and Master of Arts Degrees at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary. Author, professor, theological ethnographer, research guru, churchwoman, minister of education, “best Christian educator in the country,” judicatory leader, administrator of programs and degrees, clergy advocate for the Deacon’s Order, Margaret Ann Crain is a bricolage of the multiple facets of an expansive field.

Biography

“If a novel were to be written about your life, what would the chapters include and what would the chapter titles be?” It is one of the staple interview questions for religious educator and theological ethnographer Margaret Ann Crain whenever she probes and primes for expressions of identity, vocation, faith and meaning-making (1997a, p. 41). In tribute to her enchantment with the power of stories, this is a brief narrative sketch of the still-unfolding adventures of an educator, scholar, and church leader who loves words and the people who utter them. One wonders how she might story her own life, and how she might object to the titling of her life chapters. It is very likely that she would say, in good old social constructionist fashion, that the story lies in the dialogue.

It’s All in the Genes

Margaret Ann Crain was born on June 22, 1943, in Buffalo, New York, to Harold and Dorothy Crain—father a professor of theater, mother a stay-at-home mom but prior college-educated teacher. For eleven of her early childhood years, Margaret Ann and family lived in Iowa City, Iowa (1945-1956), where her father served on the faculty at the University of Iowa, and whereby Margaret Ann attended one of the best University Lab Schools at the time. Following her father’s teaching itinerary, the Crain family relocated to San Jose, California (1956-1965), and became active members in First Church of San Jose, UMC. Her father’s love for the performing arts and her maternal grandmother’s dedication to church life were profoundly influential, for the teenage Margaret Ann Crain became an avid actor in High School theater and leader of her church’s youth group—performing lead roles in High School plays, serving as youth group president and representative at regional denominational conferences, singing in the adult choir with her father by her sophomore year. Such were the early beginnings of this scholar’s eventual deep appreciation for the world of imagistic and performative words.

Sunday School Drop-Out Who Yearned for God

Margaret Ann Crain grew up in the church, but established herself early on as a free spirit who dodged cookie-cutter approaches to faith formation. Recalling an assertive moment in her formative years, she wrote:

‘It’s stupid,’ I announced to my parents when I was thirteen years old. ‘I'm never going to go there again.’ The well-meaning elderly woman who taught my class had tried to preach against the evils of alcohol, and I rejected her as a straight-laced, out-of-touch, old woman. I refused to give any authority to her message. I wanted to be free of the whole experience which, I believed, had nothing of value for me. However, the alternative for me on Sunday morning was to assist the Sunday school superintendent who delivered printed curriculum to each classroom, picked up attendance sheets and offering money from them, and kept records. (2001b, p. 387)

While she later would take seriously the study of developmental psychology, this young “Sunday School drop-out” was not one to be defined by predetermined definitions of learning curves. Defiant against confining age-segregated modes and models, Margaret Ann flourished in the fertile nurturing soil of intergenerational participation in church life, and in her father’s love for and expertise in theater.

A conference youth event marked a significant nodal point in Margaret Ann’s life of inquisitive faith, an experience which reinforces the validity of varied yet equally potent religious experiences. She was at a youth leadership development camp.  It was their last night together. They were to walk through candle-lit stations for prayer and discernment in the woods. The last station invited participants to write letters to God. Margaret Ann looked around: her peers were sobbing to God, but she felt nothing. Everyone seemed to be having profound spiritual experiences, but she did not. “What’s wrong with me?!” a troubled teenager asked quietly, and the question never left her. She confided in an associate pastor the sense of spiritual emptiness and lack of experiential response. He assured her that it was all right, but she could not let that go. The vacuum fueled her passion for Christian formation ever since. Margaret Ann became determined to create spaces where people could explore their spiritual yearnings in as varied ways as possible, even if the “hunt” takes a while, as was the case for her (Crain, personal communication, August 28, 2013).

Artist Formerly Known as “Mrs. Faculty”

Pursuing her passion for the arts, Margaret Ann earned a Bachelor of Arts (with Honors) in Speech and Dramatic Arts at San Jose State University (1965), followed by a Master of Arts with a thesis based upon her stage costume design for a production of Niccolo Machiavelli’s La Mandragola (1967). “I was a girl, so I was told that it was more appropriate to work with costumes!” Margaret Ann recalls (personal communication, September 6, 2013). As it turns out, her love for textiles made the work of stage and costume design enjoyable. The mechanics of production and management required the study of such divergent disciplines as aesthetics, literary analysis, cultural and political history. Together, this academic track provided her important foundational skills and competencies for artistic synthesis and interdisciplinary integration, which she would eventually translate into classroom teaching practices later on.

Advancing her artistic trajectory, Margaret Ann proceeded with doctoral study, completing 36 semester hours toward a Ph.D. in the Department of Speech and Dramatic Arts, when the social reality of the time altered her vocational track. By 1968, she was already teaching rhetoric to entry-level (“freshmen”) college students, but she had also gotten married to a college professor. Finishing the Ph.D. would have made her “too educated” to be a “faculty wife.” Margaret Ann tried switching to the Master of Fine Arts, but it did not prove satisfying, so after a short stay in Fayetteville, Arkansas (1970-1973) and the birth of two daughters (the oldest in Iowa City, Iowa), she and family followed her then-husband’s work to Columbia, Missouri (1973-1993), where she grabbed the opportunity to teach expository writing (1973-1978) and public speaking (1978-1983) in the Speech and English Departments at the University of Missouri, while performing her new role as “Mrs. Faculty.” In a capacity strange to her, Margaret Ann joined every possible “faculty wives’ club,” and the very first was a book club that read together Kate Millet’s wave-making Sexual Politics. Theater performer as she was, Margaret Ann Crain was never quite content with following prescribed social scripts.

“Best Christian Educator in the Country”

Driven by self-actualizing instincts, Margaret Ann became heavily involved as a volunteer in local church activities. Church leadership was “freeing,” and it coincided with a real inner spiritual search for faith and meaning, particularly in moments where she “didn’t know for sure” she believed in God. Looking back, Margaret Ann acknowledges great appreciation for the ways in which the congregations of her youth and adulthood extended her generative opportunities. They were the “greenhouses of hope” about which she would study later on as professor and ethnographer of Christian religious education (2010b). Margaret Ann transitioned from being volunteer to staff member when the senior pastor of her church offered her a “temporary and part-time” position in adult education and youth ministry until they could get somebody from the nearby seminary. She took the job and “never left.” 

Serving as Director of Youth and Adult Ministries at Missouri United Methodist Church, Columbia, Missouri (1978-1987)—during which time she was formally consecrated and certified as Diaconal Minister in the United Methodist Church (1986)—then Program Coordinator at Community United Methodist Church, Columbia, Missouri (1987-1993), Margaret Ann enrolled in one education opportunity after another to retool herself for the job through denominational workshops and certification trainings (including Lab School courses with Karen Greenwald, courses at Scarritt-Bennett Center in Nashville, Tennessee, and coursework toward United Methodist diaconal ministry at Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, Texas, and St. Paul, Kansas City, Missouri). She finally applied for admission at the Peabody School of Education at Vanderbilt University, finishing her Ed.D. in 1991 (in what was then a joint Peabody-Scarritt doctoral program in Religious Education) as a “commuter student” with a full-time church job and two young children.

In 1993, a literal telephone call altered the course of her life and vocation yet another time: apparently, Peachtree Road United Methodist Church in Atlanta, Georgia, was looking for “the best Christian educator in the country” for their congregation, and Margaret Ann was recommended by scholars of the field for their shortlist. Several interviews later, Margaret Ann found herself joining a team of six creative educators to oversee and innovate robust educational ministries at Peachtree Road UMC for the next five years. Consecrated as Diaconal Minister in 1986, Margaret Ann was ordained permanent Deacon in the North Georgia Conference of the UMC in 1997 (with fulfillment of The UMC’s Basic Graduate Theological Studies requirement). 

Bridging Church and Academia

In 1998, Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary (G-ETS) extended an invitation for Margaret Ann Crain to join their faculty and serve as Director of Deacon Studies. As Professor of Christian Education, Margaret Ann maintained for herself a distinctive, integrative role as scholar-educator of both church and academia. In terms of teaching, she covered courses in Christian religious education, congregational studies, and United Methodist doctrine, polity and history. As a scholar, she rose in leadership within such professional organizations as the Religious Education Association (REA), the Association of Professors, Practitioners, and Researchers in Religious Education (APPRRE, which merged which REA in 2003), the United Methodist Association of Scholars in Christian Education (UMASCE), and the Christian Educators Fellowship (CEF), serving on their boards, program committees, and subsequently in the capacity of president for REA:APPRRE and UMASCE. Offering an educator’s voice to institutional conversations outside her own, Margaret Ann participated in colloquies and workshops on the teaching and learning and women’s leadership in theological schools, authored and reviewed articles in such leading field publications as the Religious Education Journal and Teaching Theology and Religion. Particularly for CEF, Margaret Ann served for three years as editor of the organization’s publication Christians in Education, helping to steer and align their sense of identity, mission, and service to the educational ministry of the Church. In all this work, more impressive was the sense of collegiality with which Margaret Ann led. Colleagues were quick to commend her ability to provide a “steady hand” through difficult and complex matters, all the while remaining ever mindful about shared authority and collaborative work (Anonymous, personal communication, August 13, 2013). Her own publishing record reflects commitment to subject matters that bridge scholarly and ecclesial concerns: theological ethnography, teaching and learning practices, empowerment of laity, and the ministry of the diaconate.

Margaret Ann claims that her call to ministry was not some ecstatic “burning bush” experience, but rather a series of voices from others affirming that the Spirit could work through her. Such existential confirmation of personal vocation was translated into a relentless commitment to educating the Church—particularly her denomination, The United Methodist Church—about the ever-expanding varieties of ministerial tasks and functions for the laity and ordained. Toward this end, Rev. Dr. Margaret Ann Crain remained heavily involved in a wide range of ecclesiastical activities: contributing to denominational publications; leading workshops for local and national churches; serving on district, conference, and national boards and agencies, including Boards of Diaconal Ministry and Ordained Ministry, District Committee on Superintendency, Curriculum Resource Committee, the General Board of Discipleship; serving thrice as elected delegate to the denomination’s legislative General and Jurisdictional Conferences. Most notably, representing the Deacon’s Order, Margaret Ann was member and one of two writers for the denomination’s Commission for the Study of Ministry in the 2008-2012 quadrennium. In this work, she pressed for theological articulation of the distinctiveness of the denomination’s orders of ordained ministry. For someone who self-described as having “backed into” theological study, Margaret Ann was acknowledged as “practical theologian” on the Commission (Crain, personal communication, August 28, 2013), a testament to her influential contributions to the study and practice of ministry for the denomination. An ardent advocate for the office of the diaconate, and in her formal role as Director of Deacon Studies at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, Margaret Ann orchestrated three “Deacon Dialogue” conferences, with over 40 of 64 United Methodist Annual Conferences represented in the first gathering. The ostensible success of this ongoing initiative signals important interconnections between the Church and the theological academia. A fuller curriculum vitae (see below) reflects numerous ecumenical activities and international itineraries, reflecting far-reaching extensions of her work as scholar and ordained deacon.  

A Deacon’s Heart

At dizzying paces, from 1998 to formal retirement in 2011, Prof. Margaret Ann Crain taught, wrote, ministered, and administered alongside her spouse Jack L. Seymour, as faculty of Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, ordained Deacon of the North Illinois Conference of The UMC, and member of First United Methodist Church of Evanston, Illinois. The Seminary conferred upon her the honor of Professor Emeritus in May of 2012, with acclamation from faculty colleagues through these words in a Faculty Resolution dated December 1, 2009:

Be it resolved that the faculty of Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary hereby offer our heartfelt appreciation for her years of deeply committed service to the seminary, the church, the academy, and the world, for her passionate voice on behalf of the marginalized, for her devoted commitment to students, to scholarship and to the church, and for her deacon’s heart. (Crain, personal communication, August 25, 2013)

As is expected, teaching and writing continue post-retirement. In addition to advising doctoral students, teaching occasional courses, speaking and consulting widely, Margaret Ann anticipates the publication of a book in the spring of 2014, titled The United Methodist Deacon: Ordained to Word, Service, Compassion, and Justice. First of its kind, the book brings together biblical scholarship, historical survey, ethnographic listening, and the study of denominational polity and legislations for passionate explication of the distinctive call, role, identity, and ministerial tasks of deacons as ordained clergy in The United Methodist Church.

Lover of texts and textiles, words and the stories they weave, the communicative arts of performance and teaching, and a theological orientation toward an all-embracing, justice-driven universalizing faith, Margaret Ann Crain remains a quilter, educator, writer, leader, and scholar of the Church. She is also proud grandmother of five grandchildren and six step-grandchildren.

(NOTE: Biographical details were obtained from Crain through personal communications and email correspondence between June and September of 2013.)

National Scholarly Conferences

Crain, M. A. (2010, April 15-17). Designer and host, Deacon Dialogue III. On the mission of the order of deacon.

Crain, M. A. (2007, November 29-December 1). Designer and host, Deacon Dialogue II. Deacons: Messengers of the kindom of God

Crain, M. A. (2005, April 7-9). Designer and host, Deacon Dialogue I. Addressing the top five FAQ’s about Deacons in the United Methodist Church.

Selected Scholarly Presentations and Activities

Crain, M. A. (2007). President of the Religious Education Association.

Crain, M. A. (2006). Reconsidering the power of story in religious education. Organized the national conference for Fall 2006 and served as President-elect for the Religious Education Association.

Crain, M. A. (2002, October 3-8). Led the national Christian Educators Fellowship conference through a focus group research project on naming, identity, and vocation and reported back to the conference. Norfolk, VA.

Crain, M. A. (2002). Referee for Teaching Theology and Religion.

Crain, M. A. (2001, October). Women in Leadership in Theological Education. Selected for Association of Theological Schools seminar.

Crain, M. A. (2000, November 4). Exploring the commitments and practices of the peoples of God: Methods of research and education. Plenary presenter for the Association of Professors and Researchers in Religious Education. Atlanta, GA.

Crain, M. A. (1999). Consultation on Religious Education. Invited participant. Wabash Center for Teaching and Learning in Theology and Religion.

Crain, M. A. United Methodist Association of Scholars in Christian Education. President (1999-2001), President-Elect (1997-1999).

Crain, M. A. (1997, April). Turning life-shaped stories into STORY-shaped lives. & Educating Christian longing for God. Workshops for The Princeton Forums on Youth Ministry, Growing up postmodern: Imitating Christ in the Age of ‘Whatever’. Princeton, NJ.

Crain, M. A. (1997, November). Forum presentation: Engaging with adults in the practice of poetry, prophecy and power. Association of Professors and Researchers in Religious Education. Oakland, CA.

Crain, M. A. (1993). Consultant and subject of research. In E. Lawless, Holy women, wholly women: Sharing ministries through life stories and reciprocal ethnography. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Crain, M. A. (1992, November). Adults in the Sunday School: Why do they come? How do they learn? Workshop for Religious Education Association International Conference.

Crain, M. A. (1990, November). Learning to hear the voices: The religious educator as ethnographer. Breakfast roundtable for Association of Professors and Researchers in Religious Education.

Selected Church Workshops

Crain, M. A. (2012, October). Teaching that is liberating. Workshop for Christian Educators Fellowship.

Crain, M. A. (2008, October). Teaching the Bible using multicultural resources. Preconference workshop for experienced educators at national Christian Educators Fellowship conference.

Crain, M. A. (2008, 2004, 1988). Elected delegate to the General and Jurisdictional Conferences.

Crain, M. A. (2002, October 4). Jacob to Israel: Metamorphosis of our professional identity. Workshop at Christian Educators Fellowship national conference. Norfolk, VA.

Crain, M. A. (2002, June 21-26). Workshop leader for Diaconal Organization of the Americas and Canada (DOTAC) Assembly on the education and formation of the deacon. Winnipeg, Canada.

Crain, M. A. (1997, September). Longing for God through our lives, through the church. Sunday School Weekend, North Georgia Annual Conference, UMC. Decatur, GA.

Crain, M. A., & Seymour, J. L. (1996, April 25-27). Will the church hear? Lectures on theology and congregational life for Gathering ’96. Charlotte, NC: Smyth & Helwys Publishing, Inc.

Crain, M. A. (1995, September). Reaching out through the Sunday School. Workshop for the Northern Illinois Conference of the UMC.

Crain, M. A. (1995, April-May). New life in Christian Education. Training event for Vision 2000, North Georgia Conference United Methodist Church. Repeated for Louisiana Annual Conference (1996, January). Shreveport and New Orleans, LA.

Crain, M. A. (1993, July). Listening to life stories: Antidote to Sunday School teacher burnout. Workshop for Focus ’93, UMC Conference on Ministries with Children. Nashville, TN.

Crain, M. A. (1993, March). Revisioning Christian learning. Workshop for Missouri East Conference Christian Educators Fellowship.

Crain, M. A. (1992, October). Revisioning Christian learning: Practice makes meaning. Workshop for National Conference of the Christian Educators Fellowship.

Crain, M. A. (1991, August). The Gospel according to Nike: “Just do it!” Workshop at Youth ’91, a national youth ministry event.

Crain, M. A., Crockett, J. V., & Seymour, J. L. (1990, May). Sacred space. Three presentations for plenary sessions of the national conference of Christian Educators Fellowship.

Crain, M. A. Leader of Laboratory School for Adult Workers with Youth. Springfield, IL (1986), St. Louis, MO (1988).

United Methodist Church Involvement

Crain, M. A. (2008-2012). Member and co-writer for UMC Commission for the Study of Ministry.

Crain, M. A. (2002-present). Member of the Northern Illinois Board of Ordained Ministry, currently co-leader of the Residency Program for Provisional clergy, registrar for certification (2000-2012).

Crain, M. A. (1999-2013). Clergy member in full connection of Northern Illinois Annual Conference, UMC. Primary appointment, faculty of Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary. Secondary appointment, Deacon, First UMC, Evanston, IL. Retired December 31, 2013.

Crain, M. A. (2008). Delegate to the General and North Central Jurisdictional Conferences.

Crain, M. A. (1997). Ordained Deacon, North Georgia Conference.

Crain, M. A. (1986). Consecrated Diaconal Minister, UMC. Certified Associate in Christian Education, UMC.

Crain, M. A. (1999-2001). President of United Methodist Association of Scholars in Christian Education.

Crain, M. A. (2000-present). Consultant to General Board of higher Education and Ministry, Section of Deacons and Diaconal Ministry.

Crain, M. A. (2000-present). Chair, District Committee on Superintendency, Chicago Northwestern District.

Crain, M. A. (1996-1998). Board of Ordained Ministry, North Georgia Conference.

Crain, M. A. (2000). Vision 2000 Training Events Committee, North Georgia Conference.

Crain, M. A. (2004). Delegate to the North Central Jurisdictional Conference. Delegate to South Central Jurisdictional Conference (1992).

Crain, M. A. (1988-1993). Member of Board of Managers for Missouri Area Minsters’ School.

Crain, M. A. Missouri East Annual Conference. Board of Diaconal Ministry, Chair (1992-1993). Registrar (1988-1992). Division of Education, Board of Discipleship, Vice-Chair (1984-1988). Adult Coordinator (1984-1988). Council on Ministries (1984-1988). Director of Continuing Education, Columbia-Mexico District (1998-1993).

Service in Ecumenical Settings

Crain, M. A. (2000-2006). Coordinator and organizing sponsor for The Ecumenical Network for the Diaconate (TEND). Member of steering committee (2000-present). Organized two annual meetings (2000 & 2001). Co-sponsored by Episcopal Church, Evangelical Lutheran Church, Roman Catholic Church, and United Methodist Church.

Crain, M. A. (2001-present). Deacons’ School for Ministry and Formation Program Review Task Force of the Diocese of Chicago, Episcopal Church.

Memberships

Crain, M. A. (1979-2012). Member of Christian Educators Fellowship. Member of executive committee and editor of Christians in Education. Various offices, including president of Missouri East chapter (1986).

Crain, M. A. Religious Education Association. President (2006-2007). President-elect (2005-2006). Association of Professors and Researchers in Religious Education.

Crain, M. A. United Methodist Association of Scholars in Christian Education. President (1999-2001). President-elect (1997-1999). Program Committee (1996-1997).

Honors

Crain, M. A. (1988-1989). Diaconal Advance Graduate Fellpwship, Division of Diaconal Ministry, General Board of Higher Education and Ministry.

Crain, M. A. (1987-1988). Brandenburg Scholarship, General Board of higher Education and Ministry, UMC.

Crain, M. A. (1965). Phi Kappa Phi Scholarship Honorary, San Jose State.

 

Contributions to Christian Education

Margaret Ann Crain is a scholar and practitioner of Christian religious education in the best integrative sense. Her calling to the vocation is in two parts. Whether it is through teaching, researching, writing, or leading, she professes commitment to the field of religious education, but also steadfast fidelity to diverse forms of ecclesiastical service, especially the ministry of justice and compassion in and through the life of the Church. With vivid memories of going to the theater with her father since age five, Crain speaks and writes about the deep influences of the theater’s integrative arts upon her own capacity to think intuitively, improvisationally, and innovatively about the nature and tasks of teaching and learning for faith. In aggregate, her contributions to the scholarly study and ministerial practice of Christian religious education can be distinguished in three following areas: articulation of Christian educator as “theological ethnographer”; introduction of ethnographic methods to the study and praxis of Christian religious education; and apologetics for the office of ordained deacons in The United Methodist Church and the diaconate writ large.

A. Christian Educator as Theological Ethnographer

            Margaret Ann Crain’s most distinctive scholarly contribution to the academic field of Christian religious education is her adaptation of naturalistic ethnographic principles and qualitative research strategies for the study of cultural-religious identity construction, faith and meaning-making, congregational cultures, faith and ministerial praxis. A research methods course with the pre-eminent Yvonna Lincoln (who later served on her doctoral committee) awoke Crain to the constructivist approach in ethnographic research, which prioritizes deep listening and thick observation. For Crain, this had natural correlation with the commitments of feminist epistemologies and theologies of grace and liberation, which were constitutive of whom she was as scholar and practitioner. With this principled methodological approach, in 1993 Crain served as consultant and subject of research for Elaine Lawless’s ethnography on women preachers, as documented in the latter’s subsequent book, Holy Women, Wholly Women: Sharing Ministries through Life Stories and Reciprocal Ethnography. In that same year, with Jack Seymour and Joseph Crockett, Crain presented a constructivist approach to excavating human “temples of meaning” for Christian religious education in Educating Christians: The Intersection of Meaning, Learning, and Vocation (p. 23). In the book, Crain and colleagues posited “faith” as theological “meaning-making” facilitated by the raw materials of “creed, code, cultus, and community” (p. 70). They challenged theological and religious educators to attend to the intersections of human “experiences, traditions, hopes, and limitations” (p. 85). Propounding inductive, context- and experience-driven teaching methods that assist individuals in the processes of exploration, discernment, and consideration (action) (pp. 150-158), Crain et al. asked educators to accompany persons seeking meaning and vocation toward visions of liberating wholeness (p. 168). Echoing other theorists of education, they remind readers that the “teacher” in this schema is “reflective practitioner,” “practical theologian,” and “artist” (p. 171)—functional images which proffer important descriptive and interpretive tasks for the Christian religious educator.

In subsequent works, Crain continued to co-author with her partner in life and scholarship Jack L. Seymour numerous essays on the theme of ethnographic attention to the faith yearnings and expressions of faithful persons. Several theological principles underlie their use of ethnography. For one, “[e]thnography rests on the theological awareness that life in the cosmos is interconnected with God,” and “God’s presence is discerned in the concrete and particular lives of people and communities” (1996a, p. 314). Extending a constructive ecclesiological claim and honoring the native theological acumen of laity, Crain and Seymour asserted:

Perhaps the best hope for the church and for God's kin(g)dom lies in lay people claiming their roles as theologians. If so, religious education needs to become ‘faithful conversations’ seeking to understand the gracious presence of God in experience—seeking for wholeness, interconnection, and justice. (p. 314)

Thus, while Christian educators as ethnographic researchers learn the fundamental questions of social scientific inquiry, they employ them with a theological twist:

What is the nature of the reality that I wish to study? How will I know it? What must I do to know it? Who am I? Where is God in this? And perhaps yet one more for our work as religious educators: How does my research lead to a world of peace and justice, the realm of God? (2006, pp. 441-442)

Such theological refractions allow a Christian religious educator to detect kairos moments in the midst of acute observations and interpretations of “complex and multidimensional” cultures and contexts (p. 438). Following this methodological framework, Crain and Seymour continued the use of ethnographic interviews for subsequent studies with laity on profound yearnings for God (1997a, 2001b, 2003), with deacons on the heart of the diaconate (2001a), with congregations seeking intentional nurture of youth leadership (2010b).

The notion of Christian educator and minister as “ethnographer” emerged as a definitive paradigmatic approach to congregational religious education in Crain’s chapter for the anthology Mapping Christian Education (1997d). Describing essential ethnographic sensibilities, Crain wrote:

An effective congregational educator is one who looks and listens and seeks to understand the rich, thick tapestry of congregational life within which learning occurs and how it interacts with the life experiences of those who make up the congregation… What do we look and listen for? We look and listen for moments where hospitality happens, where the stranger is welcomed, where we are neighbors to one another, where we are filled with compassion and solidarity for those who suffer, where we share the gifts that God has given us generously with others, and where people are reflecting on the events of their lives in light of the Christian story and seeking to discern God’s will for their lives…. How do educators look for…glimpses of God’s transformative power within a congregation? We look with eyes of love. (pp. 99-101)

The question of “How?” takes us to a second notable contribution that Crain brings to the field, extending from her embrace of ethnographic attention to theological ponderings on intractable issues of life and faith. This feature lies in her answers to two simple questions: For what do we look and listen? For stories. How do we look and listen to stories? With eyes and ears of love.

B. Loving Listening to Yearnings for God: A Theological Method

Describing how she looks and listens to people and their “Why?” questions, Crain wrote: “Jack Seymour and I have written about this vulnerable, loving, compassionate, dispassionate relationship which is the context for ethnography. We find it to be remarkably like ministry” (2001b, p. 390). If the paradigmatic approach to Christian religious education is ethnographic investigation of people and contexts as “living texts,” then there is methodological concreteness to how one goes about being “theological ethnographer.” For Crain, there seem to be several essentials to matters of method.

First, Crain is an advocate of narrative listening. This methodological preference is derived from her study of performance, communications, and narrative psychology. In an article provocatively titled, “‘Thrashing in the Night’: Laity Speak about Religious Knowing” (1997a), Crain made a passionate case for attentive listening to laypersons’ theological-speak through story-sharing. Illustrating the method’s simplicity, she presented a list of interview questions frequently employed by narrative researchers to elicit life stories:

1.     Tell us about yourself—your growing up years, your family, your children, your work.

2.     Tell us about key events in your life—high and low turning points.

3.     If a novel were to be written about your life, what would the chapters include and what would the chapter titles be?

4.     Tell us about an experience of God that you have had.

5.     What does the church mean to you?

6.     If a friend introduced you to a stranger, what would you want the friend to say about you?

7.     Think of a time when you made an important decision. Tell us how you made that decision.

8.     Is there anything else about your life that we need to know in order to understand you?

9.     What has the experience of this interview been like? (p. 41)

For Crain, stories—whether religious narratives of sacred texts or personal life histories—are “primary carrier[s] of meaning for people,” imbued with the power to connect and break open worlds of meaning, and also the power to liberate and to oppress (2007b, p. 245). Crain invites religious educators to narrative listening, and cautions them to tend to their own life and social stories in the work of engaging others (p. 246).

Second, listening for Crain is an interpretive act. Based on various methodological descriptions (evidenced in written work and confirmed through personal communications with her colleagues), there seem to be several key interpretive tasks in how Crain listens ethnographically. She listens to words—to actual, unfiltered, recorded words. She listens for backstories, for emotional content, for connections and fractures, noting attendant communicative gestures. With intuitive interpretive antennas on high alert, she listens for how people use words to string together “pictures of self” and “pictures of the world.” Her mind’s eye looks for thematic patterns, for “meaning-schemes” and “meaning-perspectives” (Mezirow 1991), for imbedded epistemological structures that support the narrator’s meaning-making attempts. Crain contends that such attention to vantage points and sources of authority moves the listener toward a position of empathic perspective-taking. It allows the educator to see where people are coming from, how to respond to people where they are, and how to receive viewpoints diametrically opposed to one’s own. Ever vigilant about the self-defining power of “voice” —extended to respectful recitation of people’s own words— Crain’s ethnographic research and writings suggest deep respect for the “birthing” of selves and of meaning in acts of mutual, reciprocal listening.

Third, listening for Crain is guided by key hermeneutic and axiological assumptions of practical theology. Fundamental elements of practical theology’s hermeneutic circle can be detected in the following description of what happens in the listening and interpretive process, based upon Crain and Seymour’s interviews with laypersons:

Our preliminary analysis quite clearly suggests five insights about the processes of knowing for these people: that experience contributes to knowing; that the authority of the tradition including scripture, preaching, and the community dialogue are resources; that knowing is a process of reflection, insight, and feeling; that they are respectful of those who know something different from them because it is dangerous to ‘unravel’ another’s faith; and that they long for a place to search, to try out their meanings. (1997a, p. 51)

Thus, practical theological listening disciplines the educator to attend to the intersections of experiences, traditions, reason, and normative sources of faith and culture (1993). “Loving listening,” then, is not sentimental, but rather a posture of humility assumed by the hearer, in recognition of  “the incarnation of God’s grace in the shared stories” (1996a, p. 314). Ultimately, the actions of story-listener and story-sharer “must strive toward wholeness and justice as [they] attempt together to discern God’s presence and engage in transformatory activity toward the kin(g)dom” (p. 314).

Crain credits her facility with coaching and coaxing stories to long-time experience with teaching skills-based practicum courses in speech, writing, communications, and performance theater. Not unlike a stage manager or director who responds to what others produce, Crain attends to the complexities of message and medium, ever mindful as a critical feminist pedagogist of the partiality, power, and privilege inscribed by subject position. Most importantly, Crain holds steadfast commitment to making religious education a place and an experience “where people could express doubt and fear, as well as faith, and be liberated from ideas about God that oppress them” (personal communication, September 6, 2013). Colleagues bear witness to Crain’s dedication to empiric listening and liberative evocation in congregational educational ministry. Recalling her contributions to the adult education program at Peachtree Road UMC in Atlanta, a colleague wrote:

…Margaret Ann demonstrated as well as anyone I know how to do robust and grounded empirical research in the midst of her practice of congregational religious education that became for an expanding circle of people in that congregation helpful in their personal journeys of faith, but also in establishing a climate in which an increasing number of folks began to share and explore the growth edges in those journeys. (Charles Foster, personal communication, September 30, 2013)

C. A Deacon’s Heart in Study and Practice

The third significant contribution which Crain offers to the study and practice of Christian religious education is her theological and praxis-based articulations of the ministry of the Deacon within The United Methodist Church (TUMC) and in ecumenical explorations of the diaconate. “For many local church educators she is the ‘face’ of Christian education and the ‘diaconate’ in the denomination” (Foster, personal communication, September 30, 2013). Known to close friends and colleagues as “Dr. Deacon,” Crain is a leading interpretive voice on the study of the Deacon’s Order for her denomination. With two volumes on ethnography-based studies of the ministry of deacons, A Deacon’s Heart: The New United Methodist Diaconate (2001a) and The United Methodist Deacon: Ordained to Word, Service, Compassion, and Justice (2014), ecumenical, national, and international participation in diaconal networks, and co-authoring leadership in TUMC’s Commission on the Study of Ministry for 2008-2012, Crain is not only a faithful ordained member of the Deacon’s Order, but also a careful researcher and cogent apologist for the ministry of “compassion and justice” of deacons who bridge “Word and worship, Church and world” (2001a, p. 17). Consecrated diaconal minister in 1986 and ordained Deacon in 1997, Crain has spent the last 27 or 16 years (depending on one’s calculus) in the ministry of diakonia, practicing and articulating the varied ways in which deacons instantiate the work of “healing, justice, and transformation” in the world as “embodiment” or “living sign[s] to the servanthood of the church” (2001a, pp. 28-29, 64).

In an article delineating the intricate bi-vocationality of a deacon’s ministerial training, Crain disputed dualistic notions of professional preparation (which force false choices between religious vs. secular vocations), and explicated the necessity and complementarity of skill-sets acquired by deacons credentialed for social and religious services:

The theological imperative to love God and neighbor is integrated in diaconal work. These persons are called to bring healing to the world on behalf of the church. They are responding in faith to concrete injustices and needs…. If the work of the deacon is to be located in two arenas—church and world—then the deacon needs to be trained for both places…. In the complex cultural and social world wherein the church has its mission, a deacon must be highly trained in order to ascertain the systems and structures that limit and oppress the people whom we are called to love. (2005, pp. 58, 61)

In a more theological argument, Crain parsed distinctions drawn between the sacramental roles of the ordained orders of Deacons and Elders, proffering the biblically based view that deacons “extend the Eucharistic table into the world” (2007a, p. 17; 2001a, p. 47-50). Addressing her denomination’s foundational tenets of Eucharistic theology and ministerial authority, Crain reasoned:

Holy Communion is a celebration of God’s gifts of creation and salvation, drawing us closer to God and one another through its table fellowship and focusing our lives on discipleship for God’s kingdom…. United Methodists understand that faith is never just about one's personal piety; faith is always about joining one's relationship with God through Christ to life in the world….

I argue that because deacons are especially called and ordained to connect the graceful promises of God to the world, they should be empowered to offer the Eucharist in gatherings of the body of Christ in the midst of their missional work…. [D]eacons are ordained ministers of The United Methodist Church and accountable to the annual conference. Therefore, empowering them to offer the eucharistic feast in the midst of their missional service is an extension of the denomination's ministry. Those whom the annual conference has deemed to be worthy of ordination and full conference membership can surely be trusted to respect the power of the sacrament, and the danger in abusing it, as they offer the Meal in their ministry context to those who hunger for the gifts of bread and wine, the body and blood of Christ….

I believe in God's abundant grace. I believe that there is grace enough for multiple settings for the Holy Meal. (2003b, pp. 306-308)

While the General Conference of The UMC has yet to confer sacramental rights to ordained deacons, there is now a provision for deacons to be granted that authority by their bishop in special circumstances (Book of Discipline, 2012, ¶328). It would take the continuous work of practical theologians like Crain to delineate theological and missional arguments for more broadened understandings of the sacramental, incarnational, and authorized nature of the office of ordained deacons (2001a, pp. 62-75). Appealing to the denomination’s historical blending of tradition, evangelicalism, and pragmatism (2007a, p. 5), Crain calls the church to be “innovative” in the “creative grace of God” (p. 2) when it comes to ordering ministerial offices.

Following the definition of “church” as both “gathered” and “dispersed” (Clark, 2005, p. 112), Crain sees herself as a religious educator and ordained clergy who gathers with the church, but equips people to disperse into the world for ministries of person-to-person compassion and systems-altering justice (personal communication, September 6, 2013)—with emphasis on the two words that were added by the 2012 General Conference of The United Methodist Church to describe the work of ordained deacons. Like her deacon colleagues, Crain is ordained to “a lifetime ministry of Word, Service, Compassion, and Justice” (Book of Discipline, ¶329), and articulates her vision for “the future of the deacons” as follows:

‘I envision thousands of deacons, Spirit-led and yet accountable to the church, serving in creative and missional settings both in and beyond the church as messengers of the gracious reign of God.’ … These deacons find their hearts strangely warmed by the call of God and the opportunity to serve in ways that expression compassion and that work toward justice. (2014, p. 107; 2007, p. 18).

This statement of call echoes her unequivocal challenge to the church and to colleagues from years ago:

Deacons lead in equipping disciples for service in the church and in the world. In ordering ourselves for this mission, I envision a church in which deacons move fluidly among its diverse functions and strata, with strong faith, developed practices in theological analysis, skills in working for healing, justice, and reconciliation, and a willingness to be accountable to The United Methodist Church. (2007a, p. 14)

Whether it is tackling the denomination’s core theological debates concerning sacramental rights or reconciling inclusion of all peoples, or scrutinizing idiosyncratic polity issues such as guaranteed appointments of clergy, or lifting up stories of deacon’s embedded work in the world, or calling the church’s attention to creating hospitable, just and loving spaces for teaching and learning, or listening to a new seminarian discern their way toward vocational clarity, Crain does so as living representation of and ambassador for the Deacon’s office.

Against Religious Educational Mandrakes…

When asked what she considers to be her “best” contribution as scholar and practitioner of Christian education, Crain wrote: “one of my proudest contributions is mentoring and colleagueship with leaders around the church and academy who passed by me on the way to their ministry” (personal communication, August 28, 2013). Drawn to the proverbial metaphor of educator as “midwife,” Crain cites impact upon her students and learners writ large to be most endearing and enduring. As of 2014, Crain has advised nine PhD dissertations, for a total of twenty dissertation committees served, with students from the U.S., Korea, Syria, Malaysia, and the Philippines, who continue to teach and lead as scholar-practitioners in their respective contexts. PhD projects under Crain’s tutelage take after her methodological orientation toward ethnographic and narrative investigations; but more so, they mirror her fascination with and respect for a diverse, multi-storied, multi-voiced world. Describing who they perceive her to be as teacher, mentor, and colleague, a former mentee wrote:

I would describe Margaret Ann as a one who stokes the flames of creativity and curiosity within the hearts and minds of her students and mentees.  She can feel where the ‘heat’ is, and skillfully prod and pursue until the flames are ignited.  She’s careful to let them know that she is not the creator of the fire, but is one who helps make room for it to breathe, burn and reach its fullest potential.

She is witty, compassionate, and trustworthy.  She is truly a gift of graciousness to those who have the privilege of working with her. (Anonymous, personal communication, September 23, 2013)

Optimistic, grace-filled, and grace-bound she may be, but naïve romanticist she is not. Crain can be bluntly candid when the work of religious education seems “predictable” and “dull” (2005, p. 137). On the future of her field and vocation, her voice can be heard lamenting unnecessary compartmentalization of educational ministry in the church, disciplinary hierarchies and bifurcations in academia, and prevailing misconceptions about the nature and purpose of Christian religious education. One could say that the production La Mandragola for her master’s thesis has been and is still continuously re-staged in the life and career of Margaret Ann Crain, each time she readies a classroom, a conversation, a gathering, or a congregation for storied imaginings beyond religious and educational delusions and hallucinations. In her own exhortative words to field and guild colleagues: “Our purposes reach beyond ourselves; we seek the healing of the world. We must never back away from this commitment” (p. 137).

WORKS CITED

Clark, D. (2005). Breaking the mould of Christendom: Kingdom community, diaconal church, and the liberation of the laity. Peterborough: Epworth Press.

Lawless, E.J. (1993). Holy women, wholly women: Sharing ministries through life stories and reciprocal ethnography. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Mezirow, J. (1991). Transformative dimensions of adult learning. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Roman Catholic Bishops’ Committee on the Diaconate. (1998). Deacons: Ministers of Justice and Charity [video]. Washington, D.C.

The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church. (2012). Nashville: The United Methodist Publishing House.


 

 


Bibliography

Books/Monographs

Crain, M. A. (2014). The United Methodist Deacon: Ordained to word, service, compassion, and justice. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press.

Crain, M. A. (2010a). Staying awake: When God moments echo in community. In D. G. Baker (Ed.), Greenhouses of hope: Congregations growing young leaders who will change the world. Herndon, VA: Alban.

Crain, M. A. (2007a). The promise of the United Methodist Deacon in the twenty-first century: Partners with the whole people of God. Nashville, TN: General Board of Higher Education and Ministry, UMC.

Crain, M. A., & Seymour, J. L. (2003a). Yearning for God: Reflections of faithful lives. Nashville, TN: Upper Room Books.

Crain, M. A., & Seymour, J. L. (2001a). A deacon’s heart: The ordained deacon in the United Methodist Church. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press.

Crain, M. A., Seymour, J. L., & Crockett, J.V. (1993). Educating Christians: The intersection of meaning, learning, and vocation. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press.

Scholarly Essays/Articles

Crain, M. A. (n.d.). Richard Murray. Christian Educators of the 20th Century Project. Retrieved September 1, 2013, from http://www2.talbot.edu/ce20/educators/view.cfm?n=richard_murray

Crain, M.A. (n.d.). Taylor and June McConnell. Christian Educators of the 20th Century Project. Retrieved September 1, 2013, from http://www2.talbot.edu/ce20/educators/view.cfm?n=taylor_mcconnell

Crain, M. A. (2010b). Staying awake: When God moments echo in community. In D. G. Baker (Ed.), Greenhouses of hope: Congregations growing young leaders who will change the world. Herndon, VA: Alban.

Crain, M. A. (2008). Our dialogue is a sign of hope. Religious Education, 103, 136-137.

Crain, M. A. (2007b). Reconsidering the power of story in religious education. Religious Education, 102, 240-248.

Crain, M. A. (2006). Redefining the fundamental questions. Religious Education, 101, 438-442.

Crain, M. A. (2005). The diaconate as dual-skilled ministry: A proposal in support of dual degree programs for formation. Journal of Religion and Spirituality in Social Work: Social Thought, 24 (1-2), 55-63. (Co-published in Lee, D., & O’Gorman, R. (Eds.). (2005). Social Work and Divinity. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1300/J377v24n01_01).

Crain, M. A. (2003b). Who should preside at Eucharist? Quarterly Review, 23 (3), 302, 306-308.

Crain, M. A., & Seymour, J. L. (2002, Fall). Christian Education into the future. Christians in Education, 8, 4-6.

Crain, M. A. (2001b). Looking at people and asking ‘Why?’: An ethnographic approach to Christian Education. Religious Education, 96, 386-394.

Crain, M. A., & Seymour, J. L. (1997a). ‘Thrashing in the night’: Laity speak about religious knowing. Religious Education, 92, 38-53.

Crain, M. A. (1997b). Making sense of primal stew. In E. Lawless (Ed.), Women preaching revolution (pp. 19-25). Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Crain, M. A. (1997c). What shall we do?. In E. Lawless (Ed.), Women preaching revolution (pp. 198-205). Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Crain, M. A., & Seymour, J. L. (1997d). Assessing approaches to Christian Education. In J. L. Seymour (Ed.), Mapping Christian Education: Approaches to congregational learning (pp 90-92). Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press.

Crain, M. A. (1997e). Listening to churches: Christian Education in congregational life. In J. L. Seymour (Ed.), Mapping Christian Education: Approaches to congregational learning (pp 93-109). Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press.

Crain, M. A., & Seymour, J. L. (1996a). The ethnographer as minister: Ethnographic research in the context of ministry vocations. Religious Education, 91, 299-315.

Crain, M. A., & Seymour, J. L. (1996b, February). The cry for theology I: Laity speak about theology. PACE.

Crain, M. A., & Seymour, J. L. (1996c, March). The cry for theology II: Laity speak about the church. PACE.

Book Reviews

Crain, M. A. (2012). [Review of the book Will there be faith?]. Religious Education.

Crain, M. A. (2012, August). [Review of the book Christianity after religion: The end of church and the birth of a new spiritual awakening]. Christian Educators Fellowship. Retrieved from http://www.cefumc.org/displaycommon.cfm?an=1&subarticlenbr=150

Crain, M. A. (2005, January). [Review of the book Remembering the future, imagining the past: Story, ritual and the human brain]. Christian Educators Fellowship Newsline.

Crain, M. A. (2002, April). [Review of the book Women as learners: The significance of gender in adult learning]. Teaching Theology and Religion.

Crain, M. A. (2001, February). [Review of the book Students as researchers: Creating classrooms that matter]. Teaching Theology and Religion.

Crain, M. A. (1999, October). [Review of the book Learning from our lives: Women, research and autobiography in education]. Teaching Theology and Religion.

Crain, M. A. (1999, February). [Review of the book Making large classes interactive]. Teaching Theology and Religion.

Church Publications

Crain, M. A. (2008-2011). Editor of Christians in Education, the publication of Christian Educators Fellowship.

Crain, M. A. (2008). Effects of Monitoring on our Students. ‘The Flyer’ newsletter of COSROW.

Crain, M. A. (2008). Teaching the Bible using multicultural resources. Christians in Education.

Crain, M. A. (2008). Teaching/Learning spaces and fostering faith. Cokesbury.

Crain, M. A. (2005). Cutting edges. Aware.

Crain, M. A. (2005). Teach our children, live in love and justice. Being a 21st Century Christian in the United States. Evanston, IL: Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary.

Crain, M. A. (2000, March-April). The thirst we all share: Pastors and parishioners yearn for God. Circuit Rider, 12-13.

Crain, M. A. (1995, Spring). Children and Holy Week. New Invitation for Pastors.

Crain, M. A. (1994). Storytelling tree teacher training. Vacation Bible School Directors Manual, Cokesbury.

Crain, M. A. (1991, Spring). Removing barriers to adult education. Leader in the Church School Today, 19-21.

Crain, M. A. (1989, Summer). Orienting teachers. Leader in the Church School Today, 50-52.

Crain, M. A. (1988, Fall). Theology and children’s music: A guide for selecting materials. Quarter Notes, 9-10.

Crain, M. A. (1985-86, Winter). Nonverbal communication. Church School Today, 20-22.

EdD Dissertation   

“An Ethnographic Study of Perspectives on Authority of Adult Sunday School Participants: Hearing the Voices.” Vanderbilt, 1991.


Excerpts from Publications

Crain, M. A. (2007). Reconsidering the power of story in religious education. Religious Education, 102, 240-248.

If you want to understand who I am as a religious educator and what deep convictions motivate my work, then you need to hear that story. It reveals much of my identity, the “who am I?” story. But you would need other stories too, the ones about my father s death and my daughter’s recovery. You would need to hear about my first experience at a conference of Christian educators and the wonderful feeling of being accepted. You would need to hear the story of the day that my pastors called me to the church office for a chat and ended up offering me a position on the church staff, “temporarily and part-time” until they could get a student from the seminary. And how I took that job and loved it and never left and eventually earned a doctorate in religious education in my quest to understand how people come to faith and to make space for doubt. These stories carry my identity. (p. 242)

Crain, M. A. (2007). The promise of the United Methodist Deacon in the twenty-first century: Partners with the whole people of God. Nashville, TN: General Board of Higher Education and Ministry, UMC.

As followers of Jesus, we too seek not to be served but to serve. Taking liberties with the text [Mark 10:45], we might have it read, ‘I came not to be deaconed but to deacon.’

Crain, M. A. (2005). The diaconate as dual-skilled ministry: A proposal in support of dual degree programs for formation. Journal of Religion and Spirituality in Social Work: Social Thought, 24 (1-2), 55-63.

Although I identify myself primarily as an ordained deacon of the United Methodist Church and I am a part of a seminary faculty, I call myself an ethnographic theologian. By that I mean that I study people, congregations, and cultures to learn about how God is acting in the world today and what God might be asking of us. I believe that we can indeed learn about who God is by listening to people of faith talk about how God has been present in their lives. We learn about God—that is, we do theology—by looking at the social interactions and structures that make up cultures. The study of the ethnos is a theological method. (p. 59)

Crain, M. A. & Seymour, J. L. (2003). Yearning for God: Reflections of faithful lives. Nashville: Upper Room Books.

We believe that theological reflection—the process of telling one’s life story, yearnings, and faith-related questions—is critical for all people. Too often church leaders have assumed that they can impose meanings on which people can base their lives. The Christian tradition, while always in the process of reform, offers truths and wisdom. We find that people draw on that tradition as it fits or seems to speak to their yearnings. But life experiences compel theological reflection. People think about their faith as they need to, and they rely on whatever understanding is available. We have learned that if we do not listen sensitively to others—if we assume we know the meanings people must accept—we risk being irrelevant and ignoring how God’s presence reveals itself in their lives. (p. 20)

Crain, M. A., & Seymour, J. L. (2001). A deacon’s heart: The ordained deacon in the United Methodist Church. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press.

When we speak of the ministry of the deacon as “incarnational,” we mean that the embodied, concrete person of the deacon has the potential to act in ways that are Christlike. When we speak of the ministry of the deacon as “sacramental,” we mean that the deacon and the actions or ministries of the deacon become a window on the Holy by pointing to Christ or mediating the presence of Christ among us. (p. 63)

Crain, M. (2001). Looking at people and asking ‘why?’: An ethnographic approach to religious education. Religious Education, 96(3), 386-394.

I believe that many adults in North America are yearning for God, or for meaningful spiritual dimensions in their lives. I believe that God is seeking to be in relationship with us. I also believe that much of what we do in faith communities may not speak productively to these yearnings. This, ironically for the one who found no value in Sunday school, has become a basis for my vocation: research in the field of religious education. (p. 387)

Crain, M. A., & Seymour, J. L. (1997). ‘Thrashing in the night’: Laity speak about religious knowing. Religious Education, 92(1), 38-53.

Our research suggests that we religious educators have not invested the energy in helping people know the processes of theological meaning-making. We seem not to have created the communities where these processes can be practiced. Indeed, we have a challenge of listening to people and supporting people as they thrash in the night. (p. 52)

Crain, M. A., & Seymour, J. L. (1996). The ethnographer as minister: Ethnographic research in ministry. Religious Education, 91(3), 299-315.

Ethnography rests on the theological awareness that life in the cosmos is interconnected with God. Our actions must strive toward wholeness and justice as we attempt together to discern God's presence and engage in transformatory activity toward the kin(g)dom. Moreover, we and those we interviewed were often moved by the incarnation of God's grace in the shared stories. God's presence is discerned in the concrete and particular lives of people and communities. Perhaps the best hope for the church and for God's kin(g)dom lies in lay people claiming their roles as theologians. If so, religious education needs to become “faithful conversations” seeking to understand the gracious presence of God in experience—seeking for wholeness, interconnection, and justice. (p. 314)

Seymour, J. L., Crain, M. A., Crockett, J. V. (1993). Educating Christians: The intersection of meaning, learning, and vocation. Nashville: Abingdon.

While the goal of Christian religious education is to incarnate wholeness and justice, the process begins as religious educators seek to create hospitable and just spaces in which to practice God’s presence. We invite others, by our very “being,” into the process of meaning-making. More than being mere role models, we too inhabit that space; we do not stand above or outside the space. Meaning-making profoundly focuses us on our own struggles for meaning, as well as on the construction projects of others. We are vulnerable. We must be authentic. Incarnational religious education may require simpler structures, but it asks more of the educator. We are fragile together and searching together to embody the call of God for justice in all creation. (p. 188)


Recommended Readings

Crain, M. A. (2014). The United Methodist Deacon: Ordained to word, service, compassion, and justice. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press.

Crain, M. A. (2007). Reconsidering the power of story in religious education. Religious Education, 102, 240-248.

Crain, M. A., & Seymour, J. L. (2003). Yearning for God: Reflections of faithful lives. Nashville, TN: Upper Room Books.

Crain, M. A., & Seymour, J. L. (2001). A deacon’s heart: The ordained deacon in the United Methodist Church. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press.

Crain, M. A. (2001). Looking at people and asking ‘Why?’: An ethnographic approach to Christian Education. Religious Education, 96, 386-394.

Crain, M. A. (1997). Listening to churches: Christian Education in congregational life. In J. L. Seymour (Ed.), Mapping Christian Education: Approaches to congregational learning (pp 93-109). Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press.


Author Information

Mai Ahn Tran

Mai-Anh Le Tran (PhD, Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary), serves as Associate Professor of Christian Education at Eden Theological Seminary

Biola University
13800 Biola Ave. La Mirada, CA 90639
1-562-903-6000