SAN JOSE, CALIF. – In an era of rapid change in the ways and means of making disciples, one thing has remained constant: the annual winter convention of the Association of Presbyterian Church Educators (APCE) gathers hundreds of church leaders for a week of skills-equipping, idea-swapping, inspiration-sharing and superstar-commending. As January rolled into February, educators from across the U.S. and Canada gathered in chilly, drizzly and cloudy — but less uncomfortable than most other parts of the U.S. at the time — Silicon Valley to hear Brian McLaren and other featured speakers, to sit through scores of workshops, commend the Educator of the Year and to witness the passing of the baton of leadership from outgoing President Forrest Palmer to incoming President Anne Wilson.
Among the constants in APCE conventions is the full schedule of twice daily plenary gatherings which bookend over 80 different skill-developing workshops. The whole convention was preceded by three days of church educator courses for those pursuing certification. Denominational updates were also offered, including one led by General Assembly Moderator Neal Presa. Other member denominations — the Presbyterian Church in Canada, the Reformed Church in America, the Christian Reformed Church of North America and the Moravian Church — also held formal or informal gatherings of their own. A major highlight of this gathering was the assembly of bicycles for needy children in the San Jose area. Coordinated by the Valley Medical Center Foundation and carried out in one of the repeated workshops, the educators assembled a dozen bikes for the Cycle of Caring project. On Friday evening, a young girl and boy were presented with bikes, and they proceeded to ride them through the aisles in plenary and the hallways of the convention center.
When mixing with these leaders one can only imagine the difficulty of choosing a singular educator of the year. So many educators have spent a lifetime teaching, recruiting, training, resourcing and substitute-teaching for handfuls-to-hundreds of Sunday school teachers. Having received only passing commendations in their own locales, their readiness to praise and appreciate their peers is effusive. Nevertheless, every year the APCE Governing Cabinet chooses one standout to be Educator of the Year, and this year that recognition fell to Debra (Debbie) Hough of Derry Presbyterian Church in Hershey, Pa.
Hough (pronounced “hoke”) has been serving as director of Christian education at the Derry church for 20 years. While serving the local church, she has served as moderator of Carlisle Presbytery (2008) and as an adjunct faculty member of Lancaster Theological Seminary. She has co-authored with Carol Wehrheim the “Children & Sacraments” resource for “Belonging to God: A First Catechism.” With Mary Speedy she co-wrote study guides for the “Children in the Sanctuary” video and for Bill Carter and Presbybop’s video, “Jazz Belongs in Church.”
Debbie earned a master of education from Presbyterian School of Christian Education (now Union Presbyterian Seminary) in 1979. She became a Certified Christian Educator in the PC(USA) in 1980 and served as director of Christian education at Spring Hill Church in Mobile, Ala., Highland Church in Fayetteville, N.C., and St. Philip Church in Houston prior to joining the Derry church. Mid-career, she earned a master of divinity from Princeton Seminary but did not seek ordination — choosing to keep a single focus upon educational ministry.
In her acceptance speech, she acknowledged that these are tough times, especially for church educators whose numbers are declining—fallout from shrinking budgets. When she entered the field in 1979, “there were at least seven jobs for every educator. We were in high demand.” Not so any more. “How can we face the future of even more rapid change?” she asked. Referencing an essay written by former Educator of Year Freda Gardner (also former Moderator of the General Assembly), she affirmed, “We dare face the future because we still worship and serve the same creating and redeeming God of the past and our present.” She added, “We can greet the future in any form because we are confident God will never be less for us.”
What’s more, Hough added, of all of things the church can trim from its budgets and programs, education will not be optional. “Who will teach others the stories of Jesus, teach people to worship, to sing, to study, to think, to question? Who will show all ages how to serve, to give, to play and to eat at table fellowship?” Doing “more with less” became a refrain she kept soounding, beginning with tipping her hat to the rural, 60-member church of her childhood that taught her how to be a disciple and servant of Christ — even ordaining her as an elder. She concluded by citing one of her favorite Bible verses: “Keep alert, stand firm in your faith, be courageous, be strong. Let all that you do be done in love” (2 Corinthians 16:13,14).
The APCE cabinet also presented Sharon Franklin with the 2014 Lifetime Achievement Award. Franklin served as educator for Columbia Presbyterian Church in Vancouver, Washington, from 1980 until her retirement in 2012. In Cascades Presbytery she served on the Christian Education committee and on the Outdoor Ministry team. She also served on the APCE Cabinet from 1991-99.