Start with Why

I’m a member of a cohort of folks actively engaged in Christian educational ministries for local congregations. Some of us are gainfully employed to lead the educational programs for adults, youth, and children. Others of us serve (have served) by teaching at the seminary level and developing curriculum for our denomination (Presbyterian Church USA). We meet every month by Zoom conference to encourage one another in the exercise of our vocations.

At our last meeting, one of our members expressed a desire to talk about the challenges of doing church work during a pandemic and wondering if this is in fact a new normal for the church. She asked, and we all nodded, “How do we do educational ministry for a new and strange reality”?

I wonder whether we might be asking the “how” question prematurely, without first asking why we do educational ministry in the first place. Simon Sinek has famously reintroduced many of us to the “why.” In his Ted Talk, Sinek reminds us that every organization operates on three levels: what we do, how we do it, and why we do it. Further, most people can tell you what they do within an organization, some can tell you how they do it. However, very few if any can tell you why they do it, aside from citing desired outcomes, like making money. The why is caught up in words and concepts like purpose, calling, and vocation. Why do you do what you do?

Simon Sinek

Like the teacher who tells the student “what” (read this book) and the “how” (you’ll find it in the library; the English language is written from left to right and top to bottom on the page; there are several metaphorical frames of reference you’ll need to know to understand the author’s intent), the Christian educator can get caught up in the “what” (read the Bible) and the “how” (insert higher critical methods of biblical study and the like).

The “why” is the more difficult question and is seldom asked, except by honest kids who wonder why they need to read the Bible at all. If we don’t have a compelling, ready response to the “why” for Christian education, then what do the “how” and “what” matter?

What is your why? This is mine:

When my son David was a child, we had a regular bedtime routine (liturgy?). Following his bath and after his teeth were brushed, he would snuggle up in bed and I’d read a story or two from his children’s story Bible. David couldn’t get enough of the David and Goliath story. He loved the blood and guts of it, but as we would later learn, he also saw himself in the shepherd boy.

When he turned 20 years old, David was diagnosed with osteosarcoma, a deadly bone cancer. Over the course of ten years, he endured six surgeries, including the amputation of his right leg, and several rounds of chemotherapy. During his first round, and before his leg was removed, David wrote a blog post about his experience. In it, he recalled David and Goliath, and likened his challenge to that of his namesake. The story gave my David courage, comfort, and strength as he faced the enemy that would ultimately take his life. That was not a small thing.

I teach people to read and understand the Bible because life is hard. I do it because the words and stories have provided me and my loved ones succor and strength, resolve and renewal. Especially now, when so many people are hurting and looking for help, the word and words of God hold promise for us all.

What is your why? Tell your story to those you teach. Let them see the Bible through your eyes, your heart. As they encounter the text, tell them what it means to you, why it matters to you.

Now let’s talk about “how.”

A Coach’s Coach

May 12, 2018 initiated a devastating year for me (Mark). My adult son David died after a 10-year struggle with osteosarcoma. Then, on March 1, 2019, I was laid off by my employer of 13 years.

The anguish of the past year remains mostly unresolved in my heart. I miss my son terribly; he was my best friend. I miss the work that gave my life meaning and the people with whom I spent most waking hours for more than a decade.

People suggested that I see a therapist following David’s death. I sought help at a local grief center, but quit after two sessions. I felt the grief counselor was focused on empathizing with my loss, filling up the silence with stories of her own tragedies. I needed someone to walk with me through my grief, yet remain outside my experience—because it was MY experience.

This is where I brag on Peggy, my wife and my partner. Peggy is a bonafide certified coach. Without an official “coach-coachee” relationship, Peggy would occasionally throw a question my way when she noticed me struggling. Questions like:

“What one word describes your grief today? How is that different from last week?”

“What color is your grief?”

“What are some ways you can honor David’s life?”

“Where do you imagine your grief will have led you after another five years?”

And then following my lay-off:

“What have you learned about yourself in the way you responded to the news?”

“How can you be kind to yourself? How will you do that?”

Peggy has a way of inviting her clients to take a step back and look at their situations from a different angle. My grief persists, but thanks to Peggy’s ability and commitment to professional coaching, each day is a bit better. Three steps forward, two steps back, sometimes—but I am moving forward.

Curriculum is Not the Problem!

It’s common these days. We look at the problems in our church’s education ministry and blame the curriculum. It doesn’t do this or that well enough, there’s no video component, it’s too hard to decipher, or it’s so easy that we’re done with a lesson in 15 minutes. So the search goes on for the new, the improved curriculum, that can’t cost too much or demand too much, but it had better be thorough in its representation of the gospel.

Curriculum is not the problem, friends. Our expectations concerning the curriculum are. If you use a curriculum produced by a denominational publishing house or one that is meant for mass consumption, then there’s no way it will please you in its entirety. Something in it won’t work for you. In fact, every curriculum developer I know expects the users to adapt and modify it for their own particular setting.

The onus is on you and me, the users. Don’t buy curriculum thinking it will solve your attendance problems or transform volunteers into master teachers. It won’t do it.

Today, it seems that churches use curricula that meet one of two criteria, aside from cost: its theological underpinning or its ease of use, which often boils down to accessible arts, crafts, and videos. If I were to choose, I would err on the side of the theological bent of the curriculum. Does it represent our theological tradition? How does it understand God? Do the interpretation of Bible stories focus more on what God does or on human actions? What view of God will the learners take away from the formative event in which the curriculum is but a tool? What understanding of the church does the curriculum convey?

If you find a curriculum that supports your theological tradition, then you might have to adapt or add activities that better engage your learners. It’s up to you and your education partners to make assessments and adjust as necessary. For example, if you locate a curriculum whose ecclesiology is on point with your tradition, but all of the activities focus on the individual’s response, you may decide to add community-based learning activities. That way the experience of community coheres with the theological point you want to make.

Let me know how I can help you and your church assess your educational and formational ministries.

—Mark Hinds