By: Tammy Winchip
When we inherit things it not only means the fine china, it also means the expired #10 cans of green beans. What we inherit can be a case of the good, the bad, and the ugly…or a case of the good, the not so good, and the fabulous. It takes some care and planning to re-shape or polish a valued ritual. In my most recent call I inherited a fourth grade Catechism Class. Here are the steps I took in approaching this ritual.
Step 1: Treading Lightly
When I am new at a church, I try to be open to the history and practices of that congregation. During introductions, casual conversations often lead to the sharing of personal opinions. “Let me introduce myself. I’m Anne and I have been a Sunday School teacher for 16 years. I have taught children to youth, but don’t ever ask me to teach that Seniors Class [insert eye roll here].” When a ritual is one I am unfamiliar with, I try to be extra attentive to the unsolicited messages I am receiving. Realizing that just as I am sizing up a situation, there are members sizing up my responses, too. Walking into a new situation, I never know what is beloved and what is despised. Of course, some rituals lie in between, but those aren’t the ones you generally hear about. This step helped me understand how valued the Catechism Class had been as part of the Christian formation of elementary children.
Step 2: Gathering Specific Information
I found a variety of files from years past and random game pieces for which I didn’t know the source. Once I collected what I could from cabinets and drawers, I moved on to what is the equivalent to eye witness interviews. Some of my immediate colleagues had seen and even helped with the Catechism Class. From them I learned the origin and evolution of the class and that it was something my supervisor valued. This is vital to know, especially if it was instituted to achieve some strategic goals. Another important thing I learned was that there wasn’t other church programming dependent on or built around this ritual. If there had been I could have really ruffled feathers without considering the effects of any changes.
Depending on the size of your church and the interest level of the head of staff, the people most involved may be volunteers who have previously overseen the ritual. These are your “boots on the ground” people. They may be exhausted, they may be overly invested, or they might be the most pleasant people you’ve ever met willing to help wherever they can. We all hope for the latter folks. In any case, they can often fill in details that others cannot. I met with the four main teachers of the class and took good notes.
If you are really unfamiliar with a ritual, I’d recommend checking with colleagues serving other churches and visiting publisher websites to see if there is new or recommended material that could be beneficial to you.
Step 3: Weighing the Options and Drafting a Plan
Equipped with this information I weighed the pros and cons of its many facets and with deliberate intention typed up a plan. Being a goal-driven person, I believe that our activities need to have written and articulated purpose(s). When we specify the goals, it helps congregants to: 1) verbalize why we participate in the ritual, and 2) understand why we include certain practices and exclude others.
First, I sent this draft to my supervisor to be sure it was congruent with the overall mission of the formation department. Then it went to the teachers for a read through. I wanted to work out the kinks and any objections before we implemented the plan…not in the middle of it.
Step 4: Meeting with Your Team
Knowing I cannot rely on emailed material to be read, I planned a face-to-face meeting with the teachers. This gathering was the chance to clarify any questions they had, pinpoint who would do what, and read body language. If someone was uneasy with something in the plan, it likely would show in their eye contact or body posture.
Step 5: Experiencing the Ritual
When the class started, I had to trust the work that had been done and the Holy Spirit. As a co-leader I modeled following the plan, observed when I was not leading, and encouraged those who were leading. Periodic check-ins helped the teachers feel supported and gave them a chance to interject ideas. On the last day of the class I included a feedback sheet (you could also do an online survey) for students to complete.
Step 6: Celebrating and Evaluating
Knowing my teachers are overbooked and still committed to leading, I met them for coffee to express the church’s gratitude for their ministry and to exchange feedback. They shared ideas on classroom space and parent participation that will help next year look a bit different from this year…putting a little polish on an old ritual.
Tammy Winchip is the Director of Children’s Ministries at First Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, NC. She is a certified Christian Educator and graduate of the Presbyterian School of Christian Education and Columbia Theological Seminary . She has served churches in Tampa Bay, Shenandoah, Providence, and Charlotte Presbyteries. Tammy lives in South Charlotte with her husband Joel.