Entries with tag religious education .

Learning to Live "Synodically"

A Reflection on the Forthcoming Great and Holy Council.

A few weeks ago, at the invitation of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, I had the wonderful opportunity to spend a couple of days in Istanbul for a gathering of Orthodox scholars from around the world. The purpose of the meeting was twofold: a) an opportunity for the Ecumenical Patriarch to learn about a “younger generation” of Orthodox scholars, our areas of concern and interest, and how these areas intersect with the work of the Patriarchate; b) a meeting with His Eminence Metropolitan John (Zizioulas) of Pergamon to discuss the forthcoming Great and Holy Council. The news about the gathering, including the statement from His All-Holiness to the group, photos, and the list of the participants can be found on the patriarchate’s website.

The discussions about the Council were wide ranging. Over four hours, we learned how challenging it has been to develop the statements that the Council will review for final ratification and even to plan for this historic event. Others have discussed many of those challenges. A statement made by Metropolitan John to us bears repeating and reflecting upon. He said, “We are learning to live ‘synodically.’”

The word “synod” in Greek is “synodos” and combines syn- for together, odos for road. In the Synaxarion, we read of a saint and his or her “synodia,” the companions, the fellow-travelers, as it were. A synod is an experience of walking together, to be on the same road. Is this what Metropolitan John meant?

When I was in elementary school, our teachers required a class to line up straight to move from one place to another (do they still do that?). It taught us discipline and kept order in the hallways. On the way home from school, my friends and I would walk as a group (do children walk to or from school any more?), with someone leading, some lagging, some off to the side. The loudest voices often dominated any conversations, but not always. On that walk, there could be many different conversations. Sometimes everyone talked about the same thing; sometimes the conversation would be just with the person walking closest to you; and we didn’t always agree on everything. But, we walked the same path. We walked together daily.

There are instances of “walking the same road” in the Gospels. As an itinerant teacher, we see Jesus teaching in many places, including as he moved from one place to another. As a result, his followers would walk with him as he taught, including “on the road.” For example in Mark 8:27, they traveled to Caesarea Phillipi. The pericope records only one conversation—the famous, “Who do you say that I am?” discussion—but it is easy to imagine that there could have been many conversations occurring between Jesus and his disciples, or between the disciples on their journey. They probably did not walk in a line, but in a group, with some closer to Jesus than others, some in the back, lagging behind, perhaps others off to one side. Yet they still walked the same road as one group.

Rarely are groups univocal, speaking with one voice. And we can be alarmed when a group does achieve that level (have you seen the political rallies on television lately?). But we pray in the Divine Liturgy, “Let us love one another so that with one mind we may confess: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Trinity, one in essence and inseparable.” The love we share as Christians unifies us and we are able to speak as one body and confess our Faith. The Holy Spirit empowers the Church to speak as one (See Acts 15:27, “it has seemed good to us, having come to one accord”. Recall how statements from the Councils are collective statements of the Church’s Faith, usually beginning “We…”). Conciliar documents direct the leaders on the path to follow in matters of doctrine and praxis. Our goal in the Church is to care and maintain for our unity through dialogue and conversation, to ask for the Holy Spirit to enable us to walk together, so that we may speak as one community and so that God speaks through the Church.

If I understood Metropolitan John correctly, the fourteen autocephalous churches—the four ancient patriarchates and the more modern nationally organized patriarchates and churches—are learning what it means to walk together as one group, as one Church. For decades and centuries, they have shared one Faith, but lived largely independently, making decisions for themselves. Now they are trying to walk together and make decisions for all. Like any group walking together, there are many voices, many conversations, many interests, making it challenging to speak as one. This Council’s great challenge will be to overcome local interest in favor of global commonality.

Two American aphorisms might be helpful to understand the challenges inherent in this forthcoming Council. As the US Congressman Tip O’Neill so famously put it, “all politics is local.” In this situation for the Council, local interests and conversations could prevail over the global. The second is “Will it play in Peoria?” refers to how any action may be received by a mainstream audience or consumer. In the case of the Council, statements and actions of any participant may be for consumption back home, rather than necessarily for the good of all. In response, perhaps the words of Augustine of Hippo are useful, “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, compassion (should it be, love, since the Latin term is caritas?).”

The upcoming Council, will be a first step in learning to live synodically. Which or whose conversations will matter the most? Will it be only Constantinople and Moscow’s? Will it be possible for other voices to get a word in? Will it be possible to speak as one? Will the global needs of Orthodoxy prevail over any local or narrow parochial interests? Will the synod reach accord and agree to walk together on the same road?

Thank the Teachers!

How will you thank the teachers?

It’s still that time of year. Another Sunday Church school year is about to end. There will be programs to recognize the achievements of the children. They will receive certificates, pins, and gifts. Students who will go off to college might receive a larger gift bag or toolkit for their dorms, a Bible, an icon, a prayer book.

What about the teachers? How will you acknowledge that from September to mid-May, around 35 weeks, their gift of time to the parish has been huge. They have been prepared lessons, organized projects and events, remained in contact with students and parents, attended meetings and seminars, read books, prayed for their students.

Church leaders should not take the teachers for granted. They are “major donors” to the parish. They might have been “pressured” to teach, but once they accepted, they have been there week after week. They spent time with their students, saw their faces, celebrated name days and birthdays, all to help them grow in their knowledge of the Orthodox Faith and Way of Life.

Some people dismiss the work of the teacher in the parish, saying things like, “It’s just Sunday school. No big deal.” And they wonder why they have a difficult time recruiting teachers. Some people say that the only requirement to be a teacher in a parish is a “warm body,” (I’ve heard that said about clergy too!). And they wonder why teachers get “burned out.”

In their book, The Other 80 Percent, authors Scott Thumma and Warren Bird note the following about church volunteers. “Any church that wants to strengthen its volunteer efforts should engage in regular training sessions and mentoring, rotate its leadership of groups, reflect its member diversity in committees, and offer public acknowledgement, reward, and recognition of volunteers.” Parishes that do this are twice as likely to be described as “spiritually vital.”

What to do?

Public recognition. Invite the teachers to come before the congregation, to receive a small gift, and tie it with huge thanks. Pray over them and bless them and their ministry. Include photos and biographies in parish newsletters and bulletin boards. Post photo displays on the parish television, power point style, in the parish fellowship hall. Post them online.

Regular training and mentoring. Use a buddy system of teachers. Pair up an experienced teacher with a novice, not in the same classroom, but a mentor. Offer regular training sessions, to study issues of faith and education. Encourage attendance at and financially support their participation in seminars.

Place some time limits and rotate. Teach for a few years in one grade, then take a break or move to a different dimension of the program, then return to a new grad or a new ministry altogether. Find new ways for teachers and others serve in the program, from finding small, manageable tasks, to utilizing new and other talents and skills of teachers.

Above all, huge thank you’s to the teachers!

 

The Potential of Religious Education, even Sunday School

On any given Sunday from about September to May, I conservatively estimate that at least 10,500 young people attend a parish religious education program, with at least 2,625 adult volunteer teachers, with the support of the 600 clergy in the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America (You can do the math: 525 parishes: an average 20 students, 5 teachers per parish.). Whatever the size of your parish’s program, you are participating in the single largest program of the Greek Orthodox Church on a national scale. If we were to include all Orthodox Christian parishes in the US, the numbers would, of course, be even larger.

Handing forward the Orthodox Christian Faith and Way of Life to another generation ought to be a central activity of every parish and family. As Orthodox Americans, we have been thinking about the best ways to teach the next generation, pretty much since we arrived on these shores. Implicit in this effort has been the realization that our educational efforts are essential to “make it” in America. This realization has become more important today. As the sociologist Peter Berger advised an Orthodox audience more than a decade ago, we can no longer “take it for granted” that our children will remain connected to the Church and their Faith. If we fail in our educational ministry, you and I could be the last generation of Orthodox Christians in America. It’s a great responsibility and challenge.

“Knowing” is more important today than perhaps ever before; we don’t call it “the information age” for nothing. We are bombarded by all kinds of information from a dizzying array of sources. As Orthodox, we are often asked to explain what we believe to others, so knowing the facts is important. Educational experiences that foster thinking provide the space for separating the wheat from the chaff through study, questions, discussion, and action. Of course, we can “know” in many ways, but religious education creates, at least, the opportunity “to know” in our minds.

Religious education has the potential to fill the minds of young and old and expose them to the treasury that is the Orthodox Christian Faith and Way of Life. Religious education, when done well and for all, provides everyone in the community an opportunity to acquire the knowledge of the contents of their Faith and ask honest and critical questions of it, hopefully getting good answers, so that they can more deeply appropriate its truth and wisdom in their heads, their hearts, and their hands.

As a Church, we have yet to tap the potential of good religious education, even in the Sunday school model. There are real strengths in the schooling approach to religious education. Yes, there are challenges, but there are advantages as well.

Focused, sequenced, and age-appropriate study. Religious education should follow good educational practices, utilizing what we know about how people learn over their lives and the best ways for teachers to facilitate learning. One benefit of a textbook series is that someone has done that work, sequenced what is to be learned in an orderly way that makes sense for someone over time. Is it everything that can be learned about any given topic? Of course not! There is always more to be learned and experiences to process, which is why it takes a lifetime.

Adults mentoring students. Teachers take up a lot of time and space in young people’s lives. At church, they can instill a love of learning about the Faith, because they are excited about learning it. They are role models, guides, and coaches in living the Faith, because they are striving to put their Faith into action.

Community building. A classroom setting is a good place for people to get to know one another; relationships are formed and a community is built. Studying together fosters relationships because of the work of the class, discussions, projects, games, and celebrations. In the parish, a classroom experience is just one of a few ways young people can meet regularly and become friends. They can mentor one another as peers, student to student. In a class, we learn what it means to be a part of a community.

Reflection and making connections. A classroom is a good place to make an intentional connection between the praxis and experience of the Orthodox Way of Life with the content of the Orthodox Faith. Customs, traditions, and practices are connected to stories, events, and sources. Hymns have words that relay ideas, concepts, doctrine, and teachings. A classroom is a good place to ask the questions, “What does that mean?” and “Why do we do that?” One of the great truisms of education is that we can learn little from experience without reflecting on it.

This being said, we must state that we have too easily limited our understanding of curriculum to a printed book. The entire life of the parish is the curriculum. Which physician would you prefer? One who only read medical textbooks or one who went to a medical school filled with labs, good teachers, hospital internships and residencies? The same is true for the Church. Schooling in faith -- reading a textbook, answering questions -- is just one dimension of the much larger curriculum of the parish that teaches us what it means to be and live as an Orthodox Christian. The curriculum that is needed is a dynamic parish community filled with good worship and liturgy, opportunities for service to the world and parish, good fellowship and organization, and fellow parishioners who can talk about and share their knowledge, experience, and wisdom that comes from a life in the Church. In such an environment, classroom experiences fill in the knowledge about the Christian life that is being lived.

Religious education programs should not happen during the Divine Liturgy or any other worship service of the Church. For the better part of the last fifty years, Orthodox Christian religious educators, the Department of Religious Education, and Clergy Laity Congresses of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese have reaffirmed this message repeatedly.

There may have been an unintended byproduct of this message. Some people say that the main reason they attend church on Sundays is to send their children to Sunday school. Perhaps, just perhaps, they have figured out when Sunday school begins and time their arrival just for that! Perhaps, just perhaps, (as one of my students observed), attendance at Divine Liturgy was better when people came to Liturgy from the beginning because they knew that’s when Sunday school began and they sent their children to class while the adults attended Liturgy.

Finally, permit me to share how religious education occurs. Volunteers handle the overwhelming majority of this work in our parishes and Metropolises. They are the little recognized heroes and heroines of this ministry. In my travels around our Archdiocese, I see creative and dedicated teachers, supervisors, and clergy, who week after week strive to teach the Faith. St. Paul ranks teachers after apostles and prophets, and before miracle workers (1 Cor. 12:28). Yet these teachers are apostolic and prophetic, and week after week, they perform miracles.

There is no expansive educational bureaucracy to support them. There is one Archdiocese office of seven people that creates textbooks and supplements, magazines, videos, develops programs, and now websites, blogs, and social media discussions (and it takes real money). They also seek out other materials created by Orthodox sources and evaluate resources created by non-Orthodox, so that they might be purchased and distributed to parishes (We maintain a catalog of nearly 800 items.). They spend time on the phone advising parishes and teachers about these resources, and take their orders, answer their questions, pass along tips and ideas about improving a parish program (We have about 7000 customers, parishes and individuals, from all Orthodox jurisdictions in North America and the English-speaking Orthodox world.). And we are responsible for keeping track of it all – accounting, reporting, computers, files, etc. (We average 3000 orders per year.) As I like to say, this dedicated group of people is too few people trying to meet too many needs.

In the first description of the Church after Pentecost, the community gathered daily to attend to the teaching and fellowship of the apostles (Acts 2:42) and the breaking of bread and prayers. Education in faith has been an organized and intentional activity of the Church since its very first day. Our task is to honor that legacy with the best educational ministry we can.

Engaging Parents with Religious Education

I have the impression that most parents don’t have a good idea about how much work is involved in organizing a Sunday Church school class and, especially, what kind of learning is occurring in that class.

Our approach to involving parents in religious education thus far has largely been, the “send things home” model, usually artwork and crafts made in class. If all the parent sees is the art project that the child takes home, then, perhaps, they believe that the whole class session was devoted to its creation. They might not see the story time, the reading and discussion, the Bible Study and worksheets that were worked on before the art project commenced.

One result of this vision of Sunday Church school is that parents might be thinking “not much is going on there,” and thus it’s an easy choice between participating in religious education or participating in some other non-church related activity.

Perhaps, if parents began to see that their children are learning in Sunday Church school, the choice would be harder for them. If parents could see that participating in religious education was helping their children understand their Orthodox Christian identity and talk about their Faith better, then they might see the value of the program.

So, how can we engage parents with their children’s learning? The key is for teachers to form a relationship with the parents of their students through regular contact. Telling parents what Bible stories and books are being read, what hymns and prayers are being taught, what saints are being included, what liturgical practices are being practiced, and more, lets parents see that there is more going on in Sunday Church school than what can be shown with all the glitter and glue.

For example, collect the email addresses of parents by class. Inform the parents that they will receive a message from the teacher about the topic of a lesson, with questions and answers for them to discuss with their children on the way to and from church. Short bullet points are enough.

Second, find ways for the children to show what they are learning to the community. For example, after the second graders learn the Lord’s Prayer, let that class come forward in Liturgy and lead the congregation for a few Sundays. When the fifth graders study saints, let them make and display posters about saints in the church hall. During a fellowship/coffee hour, have the children near their posters to answer questions from the parishioners. Of course, someone should announce that this is occurring and encourage parishioners to visit all the posters and talk to the students. Encourage the teens to participate in the St. John Chrysostom Oratorical Festival and deliver their talks to the congregation, if need be outside of the judged Festival itself. Consider adding the poetry and essay divisions and allow the students to publish their poems and essays on the parish website, in the parish bulletin, or make a special parish newsletter designed by the students.  At the end of the Sunday Church school year, over a series of weeks, have a few classes present something that they’ve learned to the congregation.

Involve the generations. Invite adults, especially senior citizens to classes to talk about their faith journey, how their faith influences their life. With younger classes, parents and grandparents can be those extra helpers, reading a story, comforting a child, or assisting with projects. Hold an open house during fellowship hour, allowing the parish to see what’s being taught.

Find ways to extend learning into daily life. Organize a book exchange/swap. Create a reading list for books that can be read at home. Create a list of tasks that students can perform at home, from helping with chores to leading a dinnertime prayer.

Over time, I believe parents will begin to see that Sunday Church school is teaching their children the Orthodox Christian Faith and Way of Life and see that this is the better choice for Sunday mornings.

 

Back to Sunday School Planning

The onslaught of  “back-to-school” newspaper ads and television commercials has begun. The beginning of another school year is just around the corner. The time has also begun to plan for another Sunday Church School year.  Here’s a checklist.

Meet with the Priest.  Are there any issues that he needs addressed this year? How will he want to be involved with the program this year that might be different from other years? How might he work with teachers on training matters?

Teachers and Assistants. Do you have enough teachers? Are all the teachers ready to start? Need to find a few more? Will they need assistants? Do you need any substitute teachers? Are all the background checks complete?  What about special programs: Oratorical Festival Chair, Music Teacher, Arts and Crafts specialists? Have you planned some meetings to deal with administrative matters? Have you planned for some training sessions? What will the focus be?

Lists. Do you have the class lists ready for each teacher? Student’s information (birthday, nameday, special issues like allergies), parents contact information (especially email), how they’ve offered to assist the program that year. Do you have a list of all the teachers, assistants, all the contact information.

Review the calendar. Set the days for registration, when classes will begin and when they will end in 2015 (include a day for preregistration for Fall 2015). Note the days for when Sunday school will not meet because of Church holidays (Pascha is April 12, 2015), vacation seasons, or special parish events. Note the days for special programs, like Christmas pageant rehearsals, the Oratorical Festival, retreats and service projects. Select days for teacher training meetings. Make sure that all of these are on the parish master calendar. Distribute the calendar to all in the parish.

Check the supplies. Will you have enough textbooks, teacher’s guides, Bibles, icons? Do you have enough materials, paper, pens, crayons, glue, notebooks, and all the rest. Take advantage of the back-to-school sales.

Are the classrooms and teaching spaces in good order? Are there enough desks, tables, chairs, whiteboards. Do some need repair or replacement? Are they sized correctly for the class? You don’t want the furniture designed for kindergarten to be in the space that you’ll use for high school and vice versa! 

Electronics. Do you have projectors and other display technology? Is it all working? Are all the cables in the right place?  Does the wireless network work? If it’s password protected, do you have the proper passwords?

Pray. Pray for the teachers, the students and their families. Pray that the 2014-2015 Sunday Church school year be a year of growth and learning for the teachers, the students and their families.

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