When the 50th Anniversary Team began its work and chose its theme, Circles of Faith: Fifty Years and Beyond—Connecting, Enriching, Empowering, Sustaining, we could hardly have imagined just how challenging a time was on the horizon. But in the midst of planning for our organization’s milestone, we are brought up short by the need to respond to an urgent crisis that seems to have arisen in the blink of an eye. APCE, both as an organization and as individual members, is responding with creativity and perseverance, helping Christians widen the circle of faith.
Still, we need to celebrate who we are and begin to dream big dreams about what we might become in the next fifty years. It’s also worth taking time to look back at how we got here. For many years before APCE came into being in 1971, there was a great cloud of faithful witnesses at work in predecessor organizations in the denominations that later merged to form the PC(U.S.A.), as well as in ecumenical partners who joined us in educational ministry. As we look at our past, we find many themes and issues with which we resonate today. But there’s something else underlying our history as an organization. Though we only get hints of it in our written history, our current pandemic is not the first serious cultural and societal crisis that has impacted our faith and the ways in which we seek to nurture it in others. The challenging events in our nation’s history have always served to shape our calling as Christian educators.
As we embark on this trip back in time, we look back to the Presbyterian Church in the United States (PCUS) just over one hundred years ago. Our first and best historian, Agnes Peebles (whose work is the source for this article), turned one hundred herself this past January, born just a few months before the Association of Church Educators (ACE) had its start. As fate would have it, those long-ago educators had just recently lived through a pandemic of their own— the 1918 flu. They were also on the other side of World War I.
The story of ACE begins in the summer of 1920 in Montreat, NC. For those in the so-called southern church, Montreat Conference Center functioned as a sort of Mecca—a holy place where, if not actually required, Presbyterians looked forward to pilgrimages every summer. Twelve professional workers who were attending the Leadership School there met one afternoon and organized the Christian Workers’ Association of the Presbyterian Church in the United States. We find a clue to its purpose—and a connection to our own organization— in the minutes of the 1927 meeting. Like APCE, the organization was to meet annually for presentations, discussion, and fellowship.
Fast forward to 1931, the Directors of Religious Education attending the Leadership Training Conference at Montreat were called together to discuss addressing challenges in local church work. Though there is no mention of it in our history, the Great Depression had begun in 1929. Surely that reality was a primary challenge for churches and for their educators. Later that week, those in attendance voted to form the Association of Directors of Religious Education, to include all men and women who were paid Directors of Religious Education (later broadened to include Pastors’ Assistants and Directors of Young People’s Work). In 1946, the organization changed its name to the Association of Professional Workers in Religion. A final name change came in 1961, when the organization became the Association of Christian Educators (ACE).
By 1937, the organization had grown large enough that the group was given a separate place on the Leadership School schedule. Like APCE’s Annual Events of today, the association addressed practical challenges and heard speakers who were noted scholars in their fields, such as Dr. Hilda Niebuhr and Dr. Lewis Sherrill. For the next thirty years, the organization’s life centered on that annual meeting. In 1962, no meeting was scheduled in Montreat, so educators could attend the Covenant Life Curriculum Seminars. Because the Moravian, Cumberland, Associate Reformed, and Reformed Church in America denominations were partners in this new curriculum, those educators became a part of ACE.
Over the decades, the organization made course corrections reflected in frequent changes to its constitution. Many churches were employing persons without graduate degrees, so the organization worked to maintain professional standards. And there were challenges related to certification, continuing education, and how educators related to congregations, pastors, and other staff.
An issue that surfaced in those early years was the status and recognition of educators. You may be surprised to learn that the ordination of educators was on the radar of the church as early as the 1960s. The PCUS General Assembly Permanent Theological Committee reported in 1963 that nothing in Scripture or the church’s standards seemed to forbid a new category of ordination for educators. ACE’s Executive Committee received a proposal from its Personnel Committee on exploring the concept of ordination. Twenty years later, the southern church would finally act on the ordination of educators.
Racial diversity—or the lack of it—was another issue among Christian educators. The Assembly’s Training School (later PSCE), from which many members had graduated, had close ties to ACE. To encourage a more diverse student body for the ATS, the Association established a fund in the early 1940’s originally designated as a scholarship for “a girl of another race.” In 1943, a Japanese-America student was awarded the first scholarship—this in the face of the bombing of Pearl Harbor by the Japanese in 1941. Later, the description of the scholarship was revised to read, “to help students from many countries participate in graduate study at PSCE.” Some photographs of that time suggest that diversity was viewed through the lens of foreign mission. Today, we wince at images of groups of mostly white women in ethnic dress. Clearly, educators of that time, like the culture in which they served, had a long way to go in addressing diversity. The same can be said of us.
Although there are glimpses of the effect of societal upheaval and crisis on Christian education, we are left with few details. We know that World War II must have been powerfully disrupting. Our history records that in 1945, though Washington had requested that no conventions be held, the organization held four regional meetings requiring minimal transportation.
The turbulence around the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights movement challenged educators and their churches to deepen their understanding of faithful responses. In 1969, the National Council and denominational education meetings were to be held in Chicago, which had been wracked with racial confrontations and labor union problems. After meeting with Mayor Daly, the organizations decided to refocus their event as a witness to the city, with Dr. Rachel Henderlite exploring the theme, “Change! Challenge or Crisis?”
So in our earliest beginnings, we educators lived through pandemics and wars, upheavals and enormous changes. Through it all, we have been part of expanding circles of faith that touched every challenging aspect of living. And we adapted, finding innovative ways to nurture faith. But the story of ACE is only half the narrative. Educators in the northern stream of the Presbyterian church would become an organization known as TAUPCE, a story for another day.