But what I remember most were the handful of mornings that I passed the door to my parents’ room and saw him standing half-clothed, one sock on, one off, staring with a foggy smile into space saying to the room, “I love her.” He spoke to no human, for Mom was at the other end of the house. He spoke to God. It is and was a formative moment for my faith development. It is woven together with so many other stories, soft and flexible as silk and strong as steel.
Quality Christian education and spiritual formation is the careful weaving together of layer after layer of stories, both human moments and God-borne moments, often in environments created by loving faithful people living thoughtful lives guided by the spirit. They share their stories, they share God’s story and they help us give words to our own stories so that we, too, can become active living people of faith. They are parents, teachers, pastors, youth leaders, choir members, cookie bakers, hammer swingers and pot stirrers. All of them gift us with the vocabulary to struggle with and to share our own faith with others. Even so we need someone to help us recognize these stories, to call them out for examination, and to teach us to taste the rich fullness of their flavor. This is the role of the Christian educator.
Some of our congregations are blessed to have unique and spirit-gifted people working tirelessly to make sure those moments, those stories, are told, created and shared. These Christian educators are an invaluable resource in a Presbyterian church that values education and nurture. Yet so many of our congregations either do not have access to these educators or undervalue the ones they have.
So how do we increase access to these creative and uniquely gifted people? How do we impress upon our congregations just how foundational the work of the church educator is to the current and future church? How do we explain that educators and pastors are not interchangeable and have different skills, gifts and calls?
Many congregations have answered the need for educational support by asking public school teachers in their midst to rise to the occasion and to volunteer as educator for their community of faith. This is a great place to start as long as they receive continuing education and support that fills out the gaps in their knowledge. One does not hire a wrestling coach to teach calculus unless they have course work in calculus! Just so, one does not call a schoolteacher to do the work of the Christian educator without additional course work. We value Scripture and the hearts and minds of our children, youth and adults more than that. So how do we support these amazingly gifted volunteers so that they can rise to the call? We provide training and support through networks of Presbyterian congregations. We may use presbyteries to sponsor training, or gather smaller groups of congregations together to pay for training, or even to hire a professional educator. Much as yoked congregations may call a pastor, so too they could choose to come together to hire other staff. A large congregation that can financially support the call of a church educator could purposefully ask their educator to share their skills with smaller congregations in the presbytery, giving 10 percent, 20 percent or more of their staff time to assisting in the organization, training and support of those smaller congregations as a part of their call to a larger congregation. Many professional educators have been doing this kind of support in their off time. But it would be healthier for congregations to acknowledge and support this connectionalism in concrete ways.
With access to social media and the ability of most congregations to access Skype and other real-time communication devices, one educator can inexpensively conduct leadership training classes over great distances, resourcing several committees and sets of teachers, youth leaders and officers without needing to be “in house.” This is especially helpful for presbyteries and territories that are dispersed over wide areas and can take several hours to reach by car. While this is not ideal, it can be a huge step forward for congregations who currently do not have access to any professional educators. It can also mean that a congregation can easily access an educator in another presbytery or synod who is working on comparable curriculum or is running a program that is of interest to that particular congregation.
Congregations could share adult teachers by Skyping into another church for class on Sunday mornings, or share a weekend workshop leader in the same way. As the technology continues to develop it is conceivable that we could have a multi-church children’s choir that rehearses via Skype. Teacher training, basic officer training, youth leadership development and committee meetings can be supported at a distance using similar technology. Educators have never been so easy to access.
Need an educator? Call the Association of Presbyterian Church Educators and ask for a list of professionals in your area. Some educators have already begun to organize consulting groups or networks that can be additional resources for the church. Look for these and support them!
How should we treat the educators we do have? Cherish them. Honor their unique call. Install them into their office, incorporating the gravitas generally given ministers’ installations. Pay them a living wage. Pray for them and nurture them as rare and wonderful gifts from God.
In an era when everyone but God has a Facebook page and tweets cover most every inane topic, it is about time we renew our focus on teaching our children, youth and adults to communicate well with God, to pray with each breath, to learn the stories of God and to share their faith stories with others. We need to learn to listen well, to interpret those everyday stories of fathers who say “I love you,” and mothers who wipe our tears, of neighbors who act with compassion, of strangers who pray our names aloud and of children whose simple words clarify our faith. Out of these we weave together a faith for a lifetime. Professional, well trained educators are expert interpreters and artists who can and do shine the light of Christ into our stories, weaving together the delicate strands of prayer, story, action and compassion into a faith flexible as silk and strong as steel.
Barbara Chalfant of Harrisonburg, Va., is an artist, writer and certified educator working with T.R.E.E. Ministries.