By: Joyce MacKichan Walker

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Debra (Debbie) Hough has been selected by the APCE Governing Cabinet as the 2014 Educator of the Year. This honor follows a 35-year career as a director of Christian education, work that was God’s clear calling, and her deep privilege to embrace. During that time she has nurtured, challenged, and shaped countless children, youth, and adults in congregations. And she continues to leave her mark of excellence and her untiring advocacy for educators and educational ministry in denominational, ecumenical, and community settings.

Debbie grew up in southwestern Pennsylvania in a rural coal mining and farming area. A life-long Presbyterian, she was ordained as a Ruling Elder in 1973. Her first career involved mathematics education. She has degrees from California State College (now California University, BS in Ed.) and Indiana University of Pennsylvania (M. Ed.). In 1977, she answered God’s call to educational ministry in the church and graduated from the Presbyterian School of Christian Education (now Union Presbyterian Seminary) in Richmond, VA, in 1979. During her two years at PSCE she served on student government; with a cadre of students planned and managed an event that brought Avery and Marsh (contemporary music innovators of the time) to the campus; worked for teacher/leader trainer, innovator, and professor Donald McInnis; and did research for Charles Melchert, professor of religious education and dean of the faculty. Mastering information and gaining skills was never enough for Debbie. She was interested in the big questions, the challenging ideas, what was on the next horizon, and the thing that everyone else was afraid to tackle. She graduated as PSCE ’79 class president into infinity and in 1990 was awarded the Carmichael Fellowship for graduate study, a track she never pursued but one that coveted her engagement. For some reason that no one can remember, most of the PSCE class of ’79 had nicknames. Debbie’s was “The Incredible Hough.” The Incredible Hulk was a television show at the time—enough said.

Debbie became a Certified Christian Educator in the PC(USA) in 1980. As director of Christian education, she served Spring Hill Presbyterian Church in Mobile, AL; Highland Presbyterian Church in Fayetteville, NC; and St. Philip Presbyterian Church in Houston, TX. Always wanting to know and be and do more, Debbie entered the PC(USA) Ministry of Word and Sacrament care process in the early 90s and attended Princeton Theological Seminary. Although nearly certified ready to receive a call and a 1994 M. Div. graduate, she chose not to seek ordination. God had called her to educational ministry and it was in educational ministry that she would labor tirelessly, push boundaries, innovate, and spiritually nurture the whole person in the multi-generational congregational context to which God called her.

She has been DCE at the Derry Presbyterian Church in Hershey, PA since 1994, and her longevity is a testimony to the impact of her ministry. Dick Houtz, pastor at Derry, says of her:

For some 20 years now, with great skill, intelligence, and hard work plus a gracious and joyful spirit, Debbie Hough has reached out to all ages, making Christian education a vital part of our ministry, mission, and worship at Derry Presbyterian Church. All the while, she has given time in sharing her significant gifts of leadership across every level of our church, from Derry to the General Assembly and around our world—from Nicaragua to Zambia to Pakistan. We at Derry Church have been truly blessed by Debbie’s ministry and care, and we rejoice in her recognition as Educator of the Year.

Christian education is more than a passion and vocation for Debbie. It is a life-work that shapes and is shaped by theology and educational pedagogy. For Debbie, Christian education is:

  • providing welcoming environments where persons of all ages may encounter God’s mission and God’s story and find themselves in it
  • an endeavor that intentionally seeks to be biblically grounded, historically informed, communally nurtured, ecumenically involved and socially engaged
  • constantly challenging teachers and learners to longer and deeper witness, service, mission, education, stewardship, fellowship, prayer, and above all, worship
  • planned for, yet allowed to happen, and uses our many intelligences to fashion us into disciples of Christ.

Educational ministry in Debbie’s congregation and in all her educational endeavors shapes hearts and minds for a lifelong response to God’s call to, and gift of, discipleship.

Debbie’s service to the congregation has always gone hand-in-hand with her service to the larger church. She was secretary and president of the Eastern Region of APCE. She served as moderator of Carlisle Presbytery in 2008 and as a delegate to her synod, and has always actively participated in committee work as well as in the bigger visionary questions that face presbyteries and synods. Besides exemplary leadership Debbie models exemplary teaching. In addition to regularly teaching in her congregation she has been an adjunct faculty member of Lancaster Theological Seminary. In 2010 she taught the Educational Theory and Practice Certification Course for Christian educators at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, and in the summer of 2012 co-taught the Polity, Program and Mission offering at the meeting of the General Assembly. She serves on the PC(USA) Educator Certification Committee, and was moderator of that body in 2012.

Her reputation for deep, wise, transformative educational practice has garnered attention in the curriculum publishing world as well. With Carol Wehrheim, Debbie co-authored the Children & Sacraments resource for Belonging to God: A First Catechism. And with Mary Speedy she wrote a study guide for Children in the Sanctuary video. She has also written curriculum for the United Church of Christ and for the PC(USA). Debbie and Carol also authored “A Journey of Faith with Harry Potter,” a curriculum that must-not-be-published. (If you ask, she’ll give it to you.) Most recently, with Mary Speedy, Debbie wrote a study guide for Bill Carter and Presbybop’s video, “Jazz Belongs in Church.”

In her spare time, Debbie is an avid collector of paper dolls and other kinds of dolls. She loves going to auctions and movies, reading mysteries, and spending time with her three best buddies, Alaska, KC and Coco (cats, not people).

Joyce MacKichan Walker was the 2008 Educator of the Year and a fellow 1979 classmate of Debbie’s at Presbyterian School of Christian Education.