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The Secret to Effective Church Programs

 

I’ve been skeptical of the effectiveness of Sunday School for much of my adult life in ministry. Until my 8 year old son had his nouna as his teacher.

Then I noticed something that changed my thinking. Teaching Sunday School gave a structured opportunity for my koumbara to share our faith with her godson. And for my son, having Nouna as his teacher gave him an example of an adult--who he knew loved him--deeply invested in teaching our faith to him.

Could she have done this another way? Absolutely. Would we have made the time amidst our busy lives and Boston traffic? I’m not sure.

When we talk about engaging our young people in the Church, we immediately think of programs. But programs don’t engage people; people engage people. Programs are simply the vehicle whereby people engage people. It’s not an abstract lesson that has an impact on a student; it’s the lesson taught through the engaging and engaged teacher. The lesson comes alive in and through the person of the teacher.

It’s not the camp programs or property that make a difference in kids’ lives. It’s the camp staff who make a difference, in and through the curriculum and the beautiful space.

And it’s not some abstract training curriculum that gets those staff ready to have a significant impact on the kids’ lives. It’s the camp director teaching and coaching the staff that prepares them for the campers.

So in this line of thinking, programs are simply the structure by which we invest in people. For young people especially, any ministry to and with them rises and falls on the quantity and quality of the interactions that they have with leaders—leaders who are striving to actively grow in their love for Christ and His Church.

Therefore, our most pressing and urgent question is:

How can we invest in and develop our leaders? To focus on children, youth, and young adults, we have to focus on mobilizing the people who make a huge difference in their lives.

So that begs the question: who are they?

Here’s a provisional list with a challenge: What would happen if we focus our ministry energy on thinking through how these cohorts of people can grow in their own desire and commitment to invest in our youth and young adults? How would we reshape our programs themselves for clearer focus on this?

Parents – The religious background of the parents is still the most influential factor on kids’ faith. Ground zero for faith formation is definitely families—how can we energize and support parents in their sacred role as leaders?

Grandparents – The Office of Vocation & Ministry at Hellenic College Holy Cross recently collected narratives of young adults 23-29. In these, young people repeatedly mentioned grandparents as role models and nurturers of their spiritual development. What could we do to encourage grandparents in their holy task?

Godparents - Our church has mentoring sacramentally built into its structure. Every child gets a second set of parents who can fan the flame of faith in our children and be that alternate model to one’s own parents for what it means to be an Orthodox Christian. How can we support Godparents to play this role in the lives of their godchildren?

Youth group leaders – GOYA leaders and advisors. This is perhaps the most obvious group, but too often we don’t think through the growth and development of these leaders. What do they need from us to remain sustained and inspired in their work? What resources and training do they need?

Sunday school teachers – Talk to a kid who had an amazing Sunday school teacher. Their role is incredibly significant. How can we find and then keep sustained those lay people who have the gift of investing in young people?

Other mentors – Young adults say regularly that they would love mentors. A wonderful 27-year-old colleague and I were recently talking about mentoring. She said, speaking of this very cool 45-year-old friend of mine who currently works on clean water initiatives for India, “Oh if I got to talk to her in coffee hour, I’d be so psyched!” Our young adults want mentors to help them professionally and personally. What can we do to make this happen?

Camp directors – These are perhaps one of our most valuable assets in the church, whom we need to support and sustain with continued resources and training. They are not only leading the campers to have pivotal experiences in the Church, but are helping their young adult staff grow into what it means to be a young adult in the church, what it means to be an Orthodox Christian as a young adult. How can we support and invest in them?

Of course, our clergy are the foundation of this entire vision. We see it with so many of our incredible priests: they personally invest in youth and young adults—and all the leaders mentioned above—and make relationships with them a priority. As a result, the whole parish benefits. But the question for all of us who are laity is: do we provide the support that our priests need to spend time with youth and young adults and/or their leaders? While a priest’s love is infinite, his time is definitely finite. If priests want to spend more time leading the youth and leading the leaders of youth, do we help him protect this time?

So this is the secret: programs are simply the structure by which we invest in people. We need to find ways of educating and energizing our faithful to continually realize and be supported in the deeply important role they have in the faith lives of our kids. If we can, our programs might look very different. The impact on our young people might just shift dramatically.

And our parishes might just find this a wellspring of joy! We shift away from thinking of programs as events we have to pull off—yet another thing to cram into our calendar. Instead, any program or ministry is simply the way in which we are able to be communities of people striving to know Christ and the beauty of His Gospel for and with our young people.

  

Dr. Ann Mitsakos Bezzerides is Director of the Office of Vocation & Ministry at Hellenic College. In addition to offering programs and resources for HCHC students, OVM is home to both the CrossRoad Summer Institute and the Telos Project.