Ten Things I Have Learned About Christian Educators in 40 years

Before revealing my list of 10 things I have learned about Christian educators, I want to focus on a key Bible verse ó Acts 2:42: “They devoted themselves to the apostlesí teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.”

You will recall the context of this passage as the Day of Pentecost. The followers of Jesus had experienced an amazing, transforming, empowering gift ó the gift of the Holy Spirit. They were empowered to proclaim the good news of Jesus. Bystanders thought they were drunk; but Peter, as their spokesman, said it was too early in the morning to be drunk and then preached a sermon. A person in the crowd asked, “What are we to do?” Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized.” That day 3,000 believers were baptized and added to the company of followers of Jesus. The verse that follows immediately after reporting the baptism of 3,000 is, “They [the baptized ones] devoted themselves to the apostlesí teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” I think it is significant that teaching is first in the list of marks of the early church.

The point of this introduction is to remind educators, and pastors who see themselves as teachers, that we are members of a great company of servants who continue in the tradition of our forebears in a profoundly important and worthy ministry. We, with the teachers and educators of the past, were there at the beginning of the churchís formative years, and we have been present in every generation of the churchís teaching ministry since. Itís different now, but it is still teaching and learning; it is still leading and participating; it is still serving and being served in the name of Jesus Christ our Rabbi, our Master Teacher.

When I think about the long history of the church I realize my career as a church educator has been a very brief one. However, these 40-plus years have taught me a lot. Others may have learned different things, but this is what I have learned about my colleagues in educational ministry in our churches.

1. Educators make do, and often do very well, with very little. Educators receive very little recognition or affirmation for their work. Their churches give them very little continuing education money. They work within a very small budget for Christian education. And they often experience very little commitment from too few of the church members with whom they work. However, despite receiving very little, many Christian educators accomplish a lot. They lead the children, youth and adults of their churches into many nurturing, transforming experiences.

2. Educators are inventors. Those before us, and some of our colleagues who read this article, were and are wonderful inventors of creative ways to teach in the church. We invented learning centers as a way of responding to the needs of learners to have a variety of learning experiences and resources. We invented simulation games to involve learners in vicarious ways in the realities they were studying. We invented how to lift pictures from magazines with clear contact paper to make slides for projecting on a screen. And we invented the workshop rotation model of church school that has become an exciting way to breathe life into a tired, old institution. The list could go on and on, but it is clear to me that to be a church educator is to be a creative inventor of new resources, new activities, new possibilities for engaging children, youth and adults in studying and learning from the Bible and from the churchís life and faith.

3. Related to being inventors, church educators are very generous. They are willing to give it all away. Sometimes in a kidding way they say, “I stole this idea from so-and-so.” I donít see it as stealing. My observation is that when educators find there is someone who would like to use their ideas they are more than willing to give them away. They feel honored that their ideas were helpful. They make copies. They fax their ideas to those who ask. They share them via e-mail and Web sites. Seldom do they expect anything in return. The reward is in knowing that someone else has found their idea useful and that many others will benefit from what has been shared.

4. Church educators often jump on the bandwagon of the latest fads. The good news is that we are always looking for new ways to do the age-old work of teaching in the church. We are open to the new and the innovative. The bad news is that as soon as the next new thing comes along many of us jump onto that bandwagon and forget what was good and worthwhile about what we had been doing. There was a time in the í70s when simulation games were the rage and in the same decade many educators were doing values clarification strategies. How many are doing those things today? The answer is, very few. Why not? The dynamics and benefits offered by simulation games and values clarification strategies are just as valid today as they were in the í70s. Is the Workshop Rotation Model of church school a fad that will fade as soon as something more attractive and promising comes along? Or can we learn from this new model to adapt its principles and capitalize on its benefits for decades to come? We need not be embarrassed about continuing to do those things or using those resources that have proven their worth over many years. Telling a good story and telling it well, in creative ways, has been an effective teaching technique for centuries and continues to be today. We can learn from our Master Teacher about the importance of good stories and story telling.

5. Educators work exceptionally hard. They are there early and they stay late. If they are half time or part time they often work more hours than expected. They move a lot of tables and chairs. They make many, many phone calls. They cover a lot of the details behind the scenes so that those whom they serve will be successful in their teaching and leading. Educators work so hard they often donít take good care of themselves. They donít take enough time for Sabbath renewal. Their “to-do” lists are so long they are often distracted from their prayers. Though this observation may be true, I have also noticed in recent years that educators are at the forefront of learning about and practicing spiritual disciplines. They are sharing their learning and experiences with their teachers and leaders, as well as with children, youth and adults they serve.

6. Educators love to be with other educators. We are a fun crowd with which to be associated. We know how to plan good conferences, retreats and other nurturing events. We know how to play as well as to work. We are a great support group for one another. For seven years my wife Pat and I have been part of an ad hoc planning team for our annual regional Association of Presbyterian Church Educators (APCE) conference. We all travel quite a distance but not one of us wants to miss a meeting because we will miss being with our friends and colleagues. We always begin our meetings with time for prayer and reflection on Scripture and then we take time to check in with one another. Over the years we have cried and laughed, we have grieved and celebrated with our friends. We work hard in the five hours of our meeting; we accomplish a lot. But, even more important, we have received and given support to each other. I am sure many church educators could tell similar stories.

7. I have observed and been part of dozens of teaching, planning, working teams over the years. I have learned that church educators are great team players. They work hard to be collegial and cooperative. They are willing to take turns leading the team and when they are not leading they are willing to pitch in and do their part. There are not very many “solo” church educators in our churches. If they try to do it by themselves they are quickly overwhelmed and burn out. In order to be effective in their ministries, church educators have learned they must work as helpful team members. I have also learned that as helpful, supportive members of church staff teams many church educators have enhanced the effectiveness and the reputations of their heads of staff.

8. Educators care deeply about the children, youth and adults of their congregations. This is true not only of educators; pastors care deeply about those whom they serve. However, I sense that educators care about persons in different ways. They care about their families and neighborhoods. They care about their hopes and dreams. They care about whether the youth are getting along with each other in their meetings and outings. They care about what the members of the congregation are learning and whether they are applying those learnings to their living. Many educators find themselves in the role of mentor with persons of various ages. As a mentor they become the friend, guide and fellow pilgrim with others on their journeys of faith.

9. Educators love the Bible and love to share it with children, youth and adults. We read the Bible a lot in our planning for teaching, in equipping others to teach, and in leading groups. But we tend not to spend enough time studying the Bible for ourselves, for our own inspiration and formation. We need to read and study the Bible not just as part of the work we do but also because it is necessary for our own spiritual formation.

10. Number 10 is “fill-in-the-blank.” This is where you add what you have learned about church educators by observing them or being one. Think about it; what have you learned in the course of your career about Christian education and those who exercise significant leadership in that arena? There are many more things that could be added to the list. With a blank in which to add another idea we symbolize that as educators we are the best learners in the church. We know we cannot limit our learning to any list of 10 things. There is always more to know, to experience and to learn.

I believe that being one of the churchís educators for 40 years I have associated myself with a marvelous company of good and faithful servants. If your church has such a church educator, you are truly blessed. If you have an educator as a colleague you know of what I speak. It is a wonderful privilege to have been a pastor teacher for these many years. I may have retired but I havenít quit. I am still learning, serving, exploring new frontiers, and building new networks. May it ever be so.

Posted April 30, 2002


Donald L. Griggs, a retired Presbyterian minister and well-known educator, recently served as a visiting professor at Union-PSCE. His latest book, The Bible from Scratch: The Old Testament for Beginners, was published in January.

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