My Sweater Game Needs No Leveling Up

I’m kind of love with the idea of “leveling up” at the moment. The work we do is multiform, and the only way we get better is by choosing to work on particular pieces of it.

Sometimes that’s a choice to seek out a training or a coach. Learning Godly Play was a major leveling up for me (I did that with a partner–that’s never a bad idea). The Youth Ministry Coaching Program I did in 2012 was another one. I’m looking to level up even further with that particular platform in the coming months.

Other times it’s a choice to take advantage of some circumstance we didn’t create, like using a budget shortfall as a chance to level up our financial management game or putting a season of unemployment to work learning a different field. Choosing to level up means refusing to be a passive recipient of whatever slings and arrows come our way.

Where can you level up in the next six months?

(for the record, my sweater game needs no leveling up, according to Reverend Fem).

Five Things I Learned from My Christian Education Director

From Seth Godin: “Every job candidate ought to be able to outline the five lessons learned from the leaders they’ve worked with previously. Those unwilling or unable to do so are not paying attention.”

I’ll take that challenge. I’m not a job candidate, but I’m about to start a new job, and I want to be both willing and able to outline five lessons I’ve learned from the leaders I’ve worked with in my job of the last eight years.

Yesterday I wrote about my Head of Staff. 

Today is for the Christian Education Director I’ve worked with here for nearly six years.

You’re The Ministry

Christian Education Director; Director of Ministry to Children And Families; Children’s Ministry Director–my colleague has been called all of those things and more at our church. Through all those title changes, though, she has done remarkably consistent work, which I think is because she puts her personality fully into that work. No matter her job title, her work bears her unmistakable mark. It’s work only she could do in the way she does it.

Stand Up for Kids

Even in a community that is outwardly friendly and welcoming of children, people can act in a way that privileges the sensitivities of adults (guilty as charged). The only way that changes is if someone calls it out and insists it be different. Someone on our staff team has done that, and it hasn’t been me.

Work in Secret

It was three years into our working relationship before I understood that my colleague had a habit of taking people who had visited the church out for coffee. That’s not, like, an official church or pastoral procedure. She was just doing it. So she had these insights, both into particular individuals as well as into a certain profile of church visitor, that she started interjecting into programming conversations. That’s when I knew, and started to copy her.

Say When You’re Struggling

The temptation to fake it in this work is strong indeed. But my colleague has shown me how to admit when you’re having a hard time with some aspect of ministry, whether that involves a particular skill, like managing personnel, or a more meta issue, like the challenge of balancing church work with other pursuits (my colleague has been earning her PhD while on our staff). Allow people to help you.


Work Like The Artist You Are

My colleague and I completed Godly Play training together in 2010 and then partnered to convert our congregation’s Sunday School for children 100% to Godly Play. She worked like mad at that. Particularly, she sweated the artistic details of how to tell Biblical stories to children from memory, not only herself, but also the new staff of volunteers we recruited to carry the program. Teaching those skills is an art form all its own, and she developed that far more thoroughly than I did, hosting quarterly “confabs” to work on skills and troubleshoot struggles. There again, I copied what she was doing.

I took this call eight years fully aware of the things I needed to learn in the area of Christian Education programming. I got lucky with the Christian Education Director I got to work with for most of my time here, because she knew a lot of those things already, but mostly because we got to learn a lot of them together.


Why Godly Play Is So Worth What You Pay For It

It’s been five years now since my colleague and I spent a chunk of our professional capital (and a fair amount of the church’s money) on Godly Play, the Montessori-esque program of Biblical and liturgical education for children that uses hand-crafted materials made in Kansas and that requires the complete re-purposing of an entire room of the church and a demanding routine of teacher training.

It was so worth it.

Seriously, all of the fretting over how to pay for it and how to train teachers for it seems silly after all this time of routinely using it. Because now we have a network of people in our church who know it and can tell most of the stories. We have at least two generations of preschool students and a whole elementary school cycle of Sunday school kids who have been shaped by the Great Family and The Good Shepherd.

Godly Play story vocabulary has invaded my preaching. Godly Play teaching techniques have informed my youth ministry.

Seriously, it has got to be one of the most valuable church resources out there. It is so much better than almost everything else you could use to teach the Bible to children. So much better.

Twice during VBS this week I pinch hit Godly Play stories for the activities provided by our curriculum. Rather than teach about the cross by making young children write down a sin, then giving a bloody rendition of the crucifixion before instructing them to place their sins at the foot of the cross, I decided to tell the Mystery of Easter. Then I told the Good Shepherd and World Communion story to explore how it is that Jesus is with us (“He is in the bread. He is in the cup”) rather than have kids make imaginary drawings of Heaven.

So. Much. Better.

I adapted them pretty heavily. But I’ve told them a bunch, so I found that quite easy.

It was a bit of a risk five years ago to propose taking over an entire room and committing so much of our Christian Education budget for one year to Godly Play materials and training. Without a doubt, though, it is the best risk I’ve taken in ministry.

Christianity After Religion: The Great Reversal

First things first: Big love to Homebrewed Christianity for the link yesterday and for their podcast with Diana Butler-Bass. Before you read any further, go listen to that.

Welcome back.

Diana Butler-Bass wants to flip the script of Western Christianity. She likes this video as an illustration of what she’s after:

Christianity After Religion: The End of The Church And The Beginning of A New Spiritual Awakening is at heart an argument to reverse the order of things in contemporary North American Christianity. Beginning with faith’s beliefs before proceeding to its attendant behaviors which can lead to belonging in the religious community is a dead end. Today, people need to experience relationships of belonging to a church community before they can be apprenticed into some expressions of Christian behavior that may form Christian belief.

“Relationships lead to craft, which leads to experiential belief.”

Jesus didn’t invite followers to hear propositions about God but to be part of a band of followers. He didn’t call followers to cultivate faith but to follow him. And those who followed Jesus sometimes articulated belief that Jesus, in their experience, was “the Son of the living God.” Sometimes they didn’t. Sometimes they ran away and denied knowing him.

I doubt that this proposal will generate much controversy for readers of this blog. The people I’ve gravitated toward over the last 10 years have tended to start from the same place Butler-Bass is starting from. Many of these “Emergent” Christians have been mocked by their evangelical forbearers with simplistic pans like that they want to replace Bibles with candles and The Lord’s Prayer with yoga. That was never fair.

Yet, moving into the second decade of the embrace of these emergent ways of thinking, it’s beginning to be asked how much longer their experiential faith can relegate belief to the back pew. Statements of belief are far less important to Christian faith than previous generations of American Christians have assumed, I agree, and yet it is those beliefs that are center stage in the deepening (and likely irreparable) divide within mainline Protestant denominations in the U.S., to say nothing of the way that divide is rending the social fabric of Western civilization.

Can an embrace of Butler-Bass’s reversal change that? If a tidal wave of churches moved relationships and apprentice-style faith practices ahead of articulations of belief in their life together, would that divide be repaired? Would those churches arrest their decline and begin to grow?

Probably not. But that’s not really the problem that Christianity After Religion is trying to solve. Rather, it’s trying to advance an awakening that Butler-Bass sees happening in the expressions of the “spiritual but not religious.” Many churches across the denominational spectrum are already with her on this, like the ones incorporating interactive prayer stations into worship, the ones who have embraced Godly Play as a tool for religious formation, and the ones that are using the relational organizing methods of the Industrial Areas Foundation to strengthen the relationship infrastructure of their congregation and community.

These seem to me to be tools of the awakening Butler-Bass is describing. As tools, they require artisans’ hands and a commitment to something approaching craft. They aim for an impact scaled to a deeply experiential encounter with God, rather than a mass movement.

Count me in.

Previous posts about Christianity After Religion

A New Vision–Belonging

A New Vision–Behaving

A New Vision–Believing

When Religion Fails

Questioning The Old Gods

The End of The Beginning

The Beginning

Godly Play Gets Going (with audio)

Here’s the audio from last Sunday’s Godly Play story as sermon (doesn’t work with Firefox for some reason). The Great Family story is told exactly as it would be told to children; the long pauses are to allow the actors to complete their movements. The body of the sermon that follows is those actors’ responses to the four Sacred Story wondering questions.

It’s missing something without the visual, but it’s worth a listen. Of course, I’m very interested in your feedback.

Marrying Godly Play

For two years now I’ve been playing with these gold-wrapped boxes full of felt and crudely laminated paper figures. I sit in a circle with preschoolers and we skip our way through a cat-and-mouse liturgy of wondering and storytelling. Some of the time we use a 2” x 4” wooden sandbox. We fill it with unpainted wooden figures and march them through the Hebrew Bible narratives of exodus, law-giving, worship, exile, and return. A few rocks and some yarn are our only tools.

This is Young Children and Worship, product of the late Sonja Stewart in collaboration with Jerome Berryman. Berryman is an Episcopal Priest responsible for Godly Play, a Montessori-based program of children’s faith formation modeled after Sophia Cavalletti’s Catechesis of The Good Shepherd. Got that? Montessori, Cavaletti, Berryman, Stewart.

I spent several hours last weekend receiving the Godly Play core training. Come fall, our church’s Children and Family Ministries Director and I will pilot a weeks-long experiment in establishing Godly Play as our primary childrens’ Sunday School curriculum. I was in love with the method before the training; now I’m marrying it.

Godly Play is a multimedia experience. Only, in contrast to traditional Protestant childrens’ curriculum, books are not among the media of instruction. Not even the Bible. That’s because, while the content is thoroughly “Biblical”– bible stories make up the lion’s share of what’s presented–those wooden figures and felt underlays replace the text. The storyteller never looks at a book; the whole story is presented from memory, and the manipulation of the figures equals the storyteller’s words in importance. It’s magic (check out the demonstration below).

Are any of you using this? What’s your experience been like? Are you married to it? Flirting with it? Has anyone divorced it?