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Navigating challenges in adult education

by Rebecca Kirkpatrick

When I began serving my first congregation almost 15 years ago, its adult education programming on Sunday morning looked like what you would have expected from almost any other Presbyterian congregation of its size and composition. There was the small class of Bible studiers who wanted a no-frills, lay led, verse-by-verse class each week. There was the ever-morphing group of parents of a variety of ages led by a passionate and charismatic empty nester, seeking to discuss topical issues and looking for moral and spiritual support. There was even the “speakers” class that rotated through local faculty members, community leaders and special guests, which met in our fellowship hall every Sunday after the coffee hour. This class was the mainstay of adult education for that congregation. Each week, around 40+ people would settle in with their coffee and cruller to learn about the finer points of the Protestant Reformation, or the struggles and successes of local and international mission partners, or the differences between world religions, or innovative ways to study Scripture. It was our largest class and the showpiece of the adult education ministry.

But then a few years into my time there, we went through a major renovation of our building – our classrooms, fellowship spaces, music rooms and library. Everything was a little wonky the year we were under construction, but we all looked forward to the day when our coffee hour would be held in an absolutely beautiful new atrium on the main level. No longer would our forum class be distracted by those coming in and out to get their coffee and sweets. It would have its own committed Sunday morning space in the basement fellowship hall to continue the important work of exposing the adults of the congregation to important and innovative topics in the Christian and wider world.

You can probably guess what happened next – or rather, what stopped happening. People were so absorbed in fellowship, catching up with friends new and old, that they never made it to the basement for the class. They didn’t even stop talking when a variety of bells, whistles and other gently annoying reminders were employed to encourage people to go to class.

In the past it had been easy to just sit down to listen to a speaker in a space where you were already chatting. One wouldn’t want a perfectly good cup of coffee to go to waste! Our other classes ebbed and flowed after the renovation as well, though this was by no means the end of creative and successful adult education in that congregation.

This, for me, has become a symbol of the struggle that we all face in our congregations today: How do we provide adult education for our congregations so compelling that people will stop everything else in the moment or in their lives in order to participate?

I now serve a congregation five times the size of my first church, and the struggle is still the same.

I used to adhere to the “If you build it, they will come” model of adult education planning. If I just found the newest DVD series, the most innovative way to teach the Book of Confessions, the class that meant finally teaching my people all of the things that I thought they should know, then they would stop what they were doing and flock to classes, whether on a Sunday morning, Tuesday meeting or a Wednesday night.

Didn’t they know that (insert famous biblical scholar’s name here) had just published a new book? Let’s pore through that together! Didn’t they understand that when I myself read (insert Christian classic book name here), I totally re-examined my understanding of Christian faith? Certainly it would happen for them as well if we made it the focus for our next book discussion! Hadn’t they heard that the foremost authority on (insert incredibly obscure theological concept here) is now teaching at the university down the street? Why had we never invited her to teach a class?

I still find myself falling into this belief that I can – in addition to planning a five-week class on (insert cutting-edge biblical theme here) – also read the minds of the adults in my congregation to know that they will be interested in the topic and engaged by the class.

One of the solutions I have found to this conundrum of planning and running a successful adult education program comes from paying closer attention to what is actually happening in the classes than to what the class description looks like in the bulletin.

I can easily get discouraged when I download another congregation’s “lay academy” syllabus – until I remember the unplanned moment in a small Bible study when the lone teenager in the group asked the challenging question that the adults were too inhibited to ask and opened up a new level of sharing and discovery for everyone.

I can get frustrated when I hear that another church hosted seemingly the perfect and famous outside speaker that I am sure my people would have made time in their schedules to come and see – until I remember the class where a much lesser-known scholar helped members of my church finally make the connection, in a non-threatening and hopeful way, between a difficult political and economic issue and our theological tradition as Presbyterians.

I fight the urge to curl up in a ball in my office every time we recount the way adult education flourished in the past – for a different generation, in a different moment in the life of the church – knowing that too often we still measure ourselves by those antiquated standards. Then I remember that there is power in embracing our abandonment of that old model.

If we can’t be expected to measure our success by those standards, then the door is wide open to create something new and unique to a particular community, something that we haven’t even imagined yet. When we move beyond a one-size-fits-all model of adult education, we can

be open to the needs of individuals and small groups, to provide them the tools to help them on their own journey of faith.

These are five qualities to focus on in this new moment of adult education:

Screen Shot 2016-08-08 at 12.06.28 PMRelational: The amount of information available to people these days on matters of faith, Scripture and being present in the world is greater than ever before, and it is literally in the palm of people’s hands. The church is no longer the sole keeper of information, with adult education as the primary means for imparting this information to our members. But the church does continue to have unique access to the resource of relationships that we build with one another when we study together.

Studying Scripture in community allows us to experience multiple facets of how the word of God applies to our modern lives – not just the one that I experience as an individual. Exploring issues of faith with one another means that we can offer both support and challenge through the ups and downs of the life of faith.

In all that we do in our adult education programs, we should be asking how this class, group, lecture or event is helping to build relationships among our people.

Invitational: People need to feel that they are invited to participate in adult education. We need to communicate in helpful ways both what we are doing and why we are doing it. People also need to feel that they are invited to share their ideas and needs when it comes to adult education. I try to create an open-door policy when it comes to adult education, letting my congregation know that I am always interested in knowing what they want to study: Come to me and talk about what you are looking for, and we can partner together to create something that meets those needs.

When people have an active part in creating the adult education “curriculum,” they are much more likely to become evangelists for studying together, inviting others in the congregation and in their lives to participate.

The issue of invitation is pertinent to the relationships that form in our especially successful adult education classes – relationships that are so strong that the class becomes more of a small group. Great adult education can happen in small groups, and it is possible that down the road this is what most adult education will look like, but leaders need to be aware of the courage that it takes to step into a class that is advertised as being open to new members but feels very closed.

Screen Shot 2016-08-08 at 12.07.06 PMIntergenerational: Often when we talk about intergenerational ministry, we think of integrating children and youth into more elements of the life of our congregation, which is a wonderful thing. But when we talk about intergenerational adult education we are really talking about creating a space where adults are able to build relationships with other adults who are experiencing a different moment in their life story. For example, sometimes the most helpful person to study with as a young parent is not another young parent, but rather an experienced parent or grandparent. In an effort to grab people’s interest and meet their individual needs, we often create educational opportunities that target one particular group of people, whether by design or by default.

It seems intuitive that people would want to gather together with people they can easily relate to and who are experiencing the same moments in life. In truly intergenerational adult education, the wisdom and encouragement, the caring and compassion and the hope and community that are shared far surpass any lesson plan or curriculum.

Accessible: The concern that I hear most often when it comes to what keeps adults from diving into adult education – especially more intimate classes – is that they don’t think they know enough or have enough background in the Bible to be an active participant in the group. Almost every time I ask “students” to share what they are hoping to get out of a class, the majority talk about their inhibitions and their perceived deficiencies when it comes to knowledge of the Bible and theology. Privately they often share that it makes them feel embarrassed and inadequate when one or two members of the class dominate the conversation.

In all of our classes, no matter the topic, we should strive to create space for people at all different points in their faith and educational journey. I am always quick to share my own deficiencies, or to make sure that my parishioners understand that there are very real limits to my knowledge and that we are partners together in the educational process.

Grateful: It is all too easy to feel overwhelmed or even underwhelmed by this particular moment in adult education in our congregations. In the moments that we feed the anxiety over the program, we can lose sight of the importance of giving thanks for the people. Whether we begin or end a class with prayer, for me it is always a prayer of thanksgiving: thanks for the time that each of us has
given to be present with the others, thanks for the openness and sharing offered in that space, thanks for the Word of God to be studied and discovered in a new way because of that particular combination of people gathered together.

There is no perfect plan, no perfect curriculum, no perfect time or place and certainly no perfect congregation. No matter the newest trend or the oldest standard, we are called in this moment to be thoughtful and intentional, creating opportunities for relationships. We are called in our work with adults to do the same things in our classrooms that we do with children and youth: to teach them how to be on a journey of faith with other people and
to be to be church with one another. This is what will compel people to engage: knowing that they are wanted and that a space has been created for them – a space full of grace, where learning is inevitable.

Rebecca KirkpatrickREBECCA KIRKPATRICK is associate pastor for adult education and mission at Bryn Mawr Presbyterian Church. Prior to that, she served as a mission co-worker with the Evangelical Theological Seminary in Cairo, as well as an associate pastor for 10 years in a congregation in Indiana.