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My first call, as a pastor, came eight years ago. At the time, I thought I knew quite a bit about how to best serve my congregation through educational ministry. I wasn’t bad at it—or at least I don’t think I was. I had, however, so much to learn. Mind you, the school of experience is the best way to build and refine skills in things like education. I have spent quite a bit of time reading and reflecting over these last years, and I still have a long way to go. In this spirit, I’ve written a sort of memo to my former self about what I wish I would have known about parish education that first Call Day. Hopefully, these five reflections will help empower others to really engage in the educational process of parish education. So, here goes.
Remember that the point of education is learning
This would be the first piece of educational advice I’d give to my former self. Success in a Bible study or confirmation class is not about covering the material in time. It’s not about the kinds of activities and projects your learners will do. These are good, but they’re not measures of “success” in educational terms. Instead, you need to keep your focus on what you want your learners to learn and consider how you will know if they learned it. This is your call. Keep this in front of yourself at all times. Write out objectives for learning, not coverage or activity. At the end of the day, put yourself in your learners’ shoes. Plan what you would want your learners to know and be able to do at the end of the lesson. Then think about how to check for understanding. Keeping this in mind would go a long way to avoiding the traps of measuring success by what you accomplish or plan. Instead, keep your eyes on those whom God has called you to serve and what they’re learning.
Focus on God’s Word
I’d also tell my former self to remember God’s Word as the source of learning in the parish. In education, sticking to primary sources as much as possible is key to an honest and authentic learning environment. In the parish, the Bible is our text. It’s our source. Remember that the Holy Spirit uses the Word, not your wisdom, to create and sustain faith. So read it yourself—lots. Immerse yourself in it, and keep a record of your learning. Journal with it. Read it in the morning and in the evening. Read it in your office, but also read it at home—and not just for prepping for work. Pray for guidance before reading; then meditate on it and struggle with it. Then teach your learners to do the same. Model meditation for them. In other words, keep their eyes on the text of God’s Word. As much as is in your power, don’t make learning all about worksheets. Don’t make it all about your personal stories. Don’t make it all about the fun discussions that arise on the side. These are all useful tools, but they’re not the focus. God’s Word is the focus. Bring it back to that. I’d say, look around during class. Are your learners reading, noting, marking, digesting, processing, or wrestling with the Word of God? Are they opening Bibles? If so, you’re on the right track. Would there be any reason why they’d not consider bringing Bibles or opening them in class? If so, what are you doing instead? Be continually informed, formed, and transformed by the Word of God.
Remember that your call is to serve people
Building off the first two points, I’d continually remind myself that parish education is about God’s salvation of people. Coming out of my training, I had lots of great, deep insights and tools for applying theology. I’d tell myself to remember those! Don’t let that training slip—keep your notes close at hand! But I would also gently tell myself to take care. Remember, you can have a great idea for a class or something you care deeply about. You can prep for a big lecture with lots of references from doctrinal books and visuals in a PowerPoint presentation. Maybe it’s timely for your learners. But maybe it’s not. How do you know if it’s the best for those you’re called to serve? You need to remember that it’s not about you; it’s about your learners, those God has given you charge to serve. These are people, flesh and blood. You see, if you want the focus to be on learning (which you should), and if you want everything to focus on the Word (which is key), then how you bring the Word to people is important. I’d say to examine your people and look for learning experiences and styles that work the best for them. Listen to them. Consider strategies that are appropriate for the size of your class, that speak to your learners where they are in their lives. What about those in your congregation who aren’t in class? How do they feel about learning God’s Word? How do they get involved? Ponder these things before getting too locked into what you want to do and how you want to do it.
Learn what engagement means
I’d say to value engagement above most else in education. I’d say that always looking for the next big thing in education will leave a bitter taste in your mouth. The perfect curriculum does not exist. You will look for relevance. Sometimes, that relevance will look like shiny videos. Other times, it will look like in-depth study. Without engagement, however, relevance means little. No, I’d tell my younger self that in your teaching, think about each learner and his or her engagement with God’s Word above all else. Are your learners actively listening? Are they reading the text of God’s Word? Are they sharing with other learners when called upon? Or is half the class asleep or distracted? Pay attention. Think of yourself less and the learners more. Are you talking too long? Take a break, and have the learners share something with a neighbor. Keep switching up styles to engage every learner. You should generally avoid asking questions that are fishing for just one answer. Instead, make each question you ask your learners count. Prepare good, thoughtful, engaging questions, and get your learners to chew on those. If they need to know an insight, just tell them. Then move on to trying to get each of your learners as personally engaged in digging into God’s Word as possible.
The last thing I’d tell my younger self is to keep learning. Take advantage of educational opportunities! I’m not just talking about theology; I’m also talking about education. I’d remind myself that a massive component to parish ministry is education of one sort or another. Though there are no silver bullets when it comes to curriculum, that does not mean that you’re off the hook. Even simple things like staff devotions or opening up a board meeting provide an opportunity to teach. The first four things about education I wish I knew before my first call apply over and over again. At the same time, it’s easy to fall into a rut. The easy path in education is to simply do what’s effortless for you or what you know. For instance, your default for teaching will usually be just talking at people. Have a devotion? Just talk at your learners while sharing your personal stories or whatnot. Resist this! Do something different. Keep the above four things in mind and experiment. If you usually talk at people for a Bible class, try switching up next week to a group study. If you never show video clips to your youth, try showing them a clip to illustrate a point (or vice versa). Keep up on trends in education. There’s a whole Internet out there for you to use. I’d say that if you keep looking and learning, the people you’re called to serve will learn with you.
To those who are receiving their first call, and to those who are remembering their first call, I’d say the future is bright. The Church will remain until the return of Christ. We have work to do: to baptize and teach; to proclaim the Word of God to real people in real contexts in space and time. It’s difficult work, but it’s not about you. It’s about Christ. That, my friends, is an exciting calling indeed.
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