10 Things Every Church Educator Needs to Know
The ministry of the trained, paid, full-time professional congregational Christian educator has seen a dramatic arch over the last 20-some years. Once a viable ministry professional pursuit supported by seminaries, denominations, and congregations it may be on the list of endangered species list among “worst prospective jobs for seminary graduates.”
That does not mean that people are no longer called to that vitally important ministry. But now that ministry more often than not is filled with passionate lay leaders and ministry staff largely untrained in religious education. In some churches it’s a part-time position, and arguably, in most churches it’s a volunteer position.
It’s not surprising then that we get so many requests for help from congregational educators asking “how do I do this job?” If I were to share an elevator ride with one and had to give a quick answer, it would include these points:
1. Philosophy Matters. No educational enterprise succeeds without a strong foundation, and that includes clarity of its informing educational philosophy. Your philosophy of education will provide discernment about the who, what, when, where, and how of your educational approaches and programs. Do you have a guiding philosophy of education (a legitimate philosophy, not notions, predilections, hunches, beliefs, or prejudices).
2. Your church’s size will determine educational programming. The context of your congregation will to a great extent determine the nature, shape, and scope of your religious education program. Some of this is pragmatic: a smaller congregation will have fewer resources than a large congregation (budget, facilities, staff, volunteers, etc.). But a part is cultural and relational. For a small church, attempting to emulate the programs offered by a large church fails to appreciate the advantages and strengths of a more authentic approach for its context.
3. Your church’s life cycle stage will shape its educational program. Every church goes through a predictable lifecycle. The educational needs and capacities of a congregation during each particular stage is different. To learn more about congregational lifecycles and its educational implications see The Hidden Lives of Congregations.
4. All common trade market curricula are the same. A common plight of the church educator is the perennial search for a better Sunday School curriculum. What that really means is that your Sunday school teachers have used the same curriculum product for three years and are starting to be unhappy with it—-and it happens about every three years. Church curriculum publishers don’t write curriculum for your church. They create products with the lowest common denominator to sell as widely as possible. Your church is unique—no one writes curriculum for your church. The answer, of course, is to move from consumers of a product to curriculum developers.
5. Everyone outgrows any educational program. If only because of maturational development, everyone outgrows an educational program. You wouldn’t go back to high school to meet your adult learning needs would you? The best reason people outgrow a program is that you’ve been successful in helping them grow in learning and faith and they have achieved the educational intent of that program (see point 1 about philosophy). But that means that they need something different, not more of the same. What will you do when someone outgrows Sunday School? Give attention to the spiritual and learning needs of your members and shape your programs accordingly.
6. Your people don’t read the Bible enough or in the right ways. Biblical illiteracy remains the most significant liability and impediment to spiritual growth in our churches. Let’s face it, most church members get to hear very short passages, with little context, during the Sunday worships service. Those who attend Sunday school will read a few more verses (perhaps disconnected from the text used in the worship service). And tragically, most don’t pick up the Bible during the week. Spiritual formation and maturity in faith requires the individual and corporate disciplined practice of Scripture reading. You have to program that.
7. You’re not doing enough teacher training. Any educational enterprise is only as effective as its teaching faculty. Most church teachers are passionate and dedicated volunteers with little training in the teaching arts. Most don’t have an informing philosophy of teaching and learning (see point 1), and most don’t know the difference between pegagogy, method, and technique. Ongoing teacher training should be a regular part of your religious education program. Here is one opportunity.
8. You’re not doing enough assessment. There is a difference between activities and outcomes. Most churches focus on counting how many learning opportunities they offer, but fail to assess the outcomes of those activities. What difference does it make that you are offering programs? What difference is it making in the lives of the participants? Are your church members growing because of what you are offering in your educational ministries? How do you know?
9. You’re not doing enough intergenerational programs and experiences. Churches are by nature communities of faith, and communities are generative: they pass on their culture, beliefs, practices, and faith to the next generations. The tendency toward age-graded, segmented and siloed programming in churches sabotages this critical function of being a community of faith. Offering intergenerational religious education is more than an occasional program, it is a way of being and doing church.
10. The most transformative educational experiences happen outside the church buildings. The educational experiences we offer to our members when they come to church are important, but the most transformative experiences, those which facilitate spiritual growth and lead to spiritual maturity happen outside the church building. Growth in faith requires the practice of faith. How much of your programs are focused on learning about faith in a classroom as opposed to practicing faith daily in the life of your members?
If you want to help your church educators develop their teaching capacities consider inviting them to take the new online course “12 Days to Becoming a Better Christian Teacher.” This is a 12-session interactive self-directed study. Invite your church faculty to take it together.
Israel Galindo is Associate Dean for Lifelong Learning at the Columbia Theological Seminary. He directs the Pastoral Excellence Program at Columbia seminary. He is the author of the bestseller, The Hidden Lives of Congregations (Alban), Perspectives on Congregational Leadership (Educational Consultants), and A Family Genogram Workbook (Educational Consultants), with Elaine Boomer & Don Reagan, and Leadership in Ministry: Bowen Theory in the Congregational Context.
His books on education include Mastering the Art of Instruction,The Craft of Christian Teaching (Judson), How to be the Best Christian Study Group Leader (Judson), and Planning for Christian Education Formation (Chalice Press).