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February 7, 2007
Church educators told to ‘fly forward’ by first looking back
APCE conference helps participants network, re-charge batteries
by Evan Silverstein
PHILADELPHIA * One thing the Rev. Mary Wright Gillespie, a retired Oregon minister, pledges never to do at any cost is to miss the Association of Presbyterian Church Educators (APCE) conference.
For some 30 years Gillespie has been faithfully attending the annual APCE-sponsored events, which bring together Christian educators, clergy, lay Christian education volunteers and others involved in the educational ministry of four Presbyterian and Reformed denominations in the United States and Canada.
“I always come to APCE,” Gillespie said during the four-day 2007 APCE Conference, which started here on Jan. 31.
Gillespie, 76, specialized in education while serving as an associate pastor for 25 years at churches in California before retiring in December 1998. She was an APCE cabinet member for six years during the 1990s.
“It is the one thing during the year that really enriches me, inspires me and keeps you knowing what’s happening in the world of Christian education,” Gillespie said of the conference. “But also it’s old home week. We see old friends, people we’ve worked with in other parts of the country, and it’s just the best conference the church does.”
The spirited worship-and-music-filled event was intended to give its more than 1,100 North American participants opportunities to see the advancement of education in the church through networking, workshops, a plenary speaker and a lively resource Market Place that included more than 50 exhibitors and Christian bookseller Cokesbury.
“The worship has been great,” said Julie Giegler, a repeat APCE conference-goer and director of Christian education at Fair Oaks Presbyterian Church in Oak Park, IL. “I always learn things from the workshops as well. I would say the speaker and the worship is more for me, the workshops more my job. And I need both.”
Also during the APCE conference there was an African dance performance, a jazz concert, Irish folk dancing and a clown named “Oki,” also known as the Rev. Bill Pindar, director of Stony Point Center in New York.
But there was no clowning around when it came to the event’s effectiveness, according to Gordon Lindsey, a first-time attendee who is associate for Christian education and adult ministries at the Presbytery of the James.
Lindsey described some of the conference speakers as “insightful” and “thought provoking” and found the event’s vast networking potential beneficial.
“You have the opportunity to inspire Christian educators with the speakers that are here,” he said. “Then very, very important is the dialogue that goes on among educators themselves * whether it be in the workshops or over lunch and dinner. It’s that cross-fertilization of dialogue that’s so helpful.”
The program’s theme, Sankofa: Flying Forward Reaching Back, was inspired by a philosophical principle of the Akan people of West Africa called Sankofa, which holds that in order to move into the future one must go back and learn from the past.
The philosophy is symbolized by the mythical Sankofa bird, which was the conference icon, shown flying forward with its head facing back and holding an egg in its long beak to symbolize the future.
Keynote speaker the Rev. Frances Taylor Gench considered the Bible’s connection to the Sankofa theme in her plenary presentations.
“The Bible is, after all, the primary textbook of Christian education, providing both roots and wings for the community of faith,” said Gench, professor of New Testament at Union Theological Seminary and Presbyterian School of Christian Education in Richmond, VA.
“We cannot look back, cannot understand who we are apart from its witness to our history and identity as children of God, nor can we fly forward without it.”
Gench, who served on the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s Theological Task Force on Peace, Unity and Purity of the Church, said new developments in the field of biblical studies bear significant implications for teaching ministry * developments that shed new light on Christian roots that “can help us fly forward more faithfully.”
She said teaching and preaching have yet to catch up with new research among scholars that dispels prevailing misconceptions about women and Jews in the Bible. Untruths that Gench said continue to be propagated in many Sunday school classrooms and pulpits.
She said “interpretive litter” often trivialized, marginalized and even sexually demonized women throughout the pages of the Bible.
“It is surely time to reframe their portraits and Christian educators play a crucial role in reshaping how they will be remembered by future generations,” Gench said of women in the Bible.
Meanwhile, she said new manuscripts, new artifacts and new methods of study, along with sober reflection on the Holocaust, have led to dramatic new understandings of first-century Judaism, debunking negative stereotypes of Jews portrayed in the New Testament.
“It is bad history and bad theology, and we do Jesus no favors by lampooning the Jews,” Gench said. “He was one of them, after all. Thus, we will consider ways in which we can foster a deeper understanding of our Jewish kin so that as we fly forward we might move beyond the teaching of contempt that has so often characterized Christian perceptions of Judaism.”
In another plenary presentation, Gench examined the media’s impact on public perception and discussion of the Bible. Later she discussed wrestling with the Bible and teaching others in light of post-modern developments.
The Rev. Joan S. Gray told the conference that the work of Christian educators has comforted and inspired her while traveling across the PC(USA) as moderator of the denomination’s 217th General Assembly.
“I want to salute you on behalf of the whole church,” Gray said. “Thank you for making the lifeblood of our church flow and the ministry and mission go on in the midst of what is a very challenging season for our church.”
APCE, a professional and ecumenical organization, serves the educational ministries of the Reformed family of churches in association with the PC(USA), the Presbyterian Church in Canada, the Reformed Church in America (RCA) and the Christian Reformed Church (CRC).
APCE installed its new leaders during the event. Susan Penrod of Mission Presbytery is the new president; Dianna Wright of Charlotte Presbytery is president-elect; and the Rev. John Johnson of Tropical Florida Presbytery is past president.
The group recognized retiring PC(USA) national staff member Pat Murphy for 14 years as APCE’s conference office coordinator and registrar.
Also during the conference, APCE honored elder Sylvia Washer with its 2007 Educator of the Year award.
Washer, a Texan who served more than a decade as executive presbyter of Mission Presbytery before retiring in December, had previously worked as a church educator for several congregations and New Covenant Presbytery.
“I really care about the future of Christian education in all of our denominations. It’s a really big issue for me,” Washer said at an awards dinner during the conference. “It is a great blessing to me and I thank you so much.”
A member of Madison Square Presbyterian Church in San Antonio, TX, Washer has written church school curriculum for the denomination and is a co-author of Get Ready! Get Set! WORSHIP!, a book aimed at helping congregations include children in worship. She also worked on the team that created a new music resource for Reformed worship called Lift Up Your Hearts, published by Geneva Press.
Washer said she never stopped considering herself a church educator, despite spending the last 13 years as a middle governing body executive.
She voiced support for amending the PC(USA)’s constitution to allow for the ordination of Certified Christian Educators as ministers of the Word and Sacrament.
APCE adopted a statement during the conference, which it sent to the PC(USA)’s Theology, Worship and Education program area, affirming the organization’s desire for establishing an ordained office for Certified Christian Educators.
“I think it’s something that would enrich our lives together and be exciting,” Washer said of the ordination idea. “I want to imagine a church that values and understands the ministry of Christian education.”
APCE presented its 2007 life achievement awards to Jeanne Payne McIver, an APCE cabinet member and certified Christian educator from Dayton, OH; and Connie Nyquist, a certified Christian educator from Houston, TX.
“Children need advocates,” McIver said. “They often have no voice in the church and educators can be the advocates for children. Don’t let the people in your church forget that all children need good, safe places. Safety and security for children is one of our important jobs.”
Nyquist said she believes as educators “we are in the process of helping those among whom we serve discover their gifts and then equipping them to use them.”
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