This year’s conference offered courses that emphasized the importance of theological and spiritual training for adults. Keynote speakers included Kevin Allen, Fr. Timothy Baclig, and Michelle Moujaes. Held at Antiochian Village in Ligonier, Pennsylvania, from November 5-8.
Robert Snyder, the Diocesan Coordinator for Toledo and the Midwest of the Antiochian Orthodox Archdiocese, and Dr. Anton Vrame, the Director of the Department of Religious Education for the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese
November 8, 2015 Length: 1:13:34
Matushka Valerie Zahirsky: I’d like to introduce our speakers for this morning. I think [they’re] very familiar faces, but I need to read some of this. Robert Snyder is a religious education coordinator for the Diocese of Toledo and the Midwest for the Antiochian Archdiocese Department of Christian Education. He’s held this position for 20 years and been actively engaged in Christian education for 30 years. He’s a high school teacher, a teen youth advisor, and currently instructor in adult Christian education. So he’s conducted many adult Christian education workshops and has written numerous articles on Christian education for the Word magazine and OCEC Christian Education newsletter. He’s written the high school curriculum, Celebrate the Feasts and Holy Days, which I recommend highly; it’s excellent. He’s known in his parish of St. George in Akron, Ohio, for his work as a highly successful youth advisor, and he received the Teen Club of the Year Award. As a past president of the parish council and, since 1996, recipient of the Ellis Khouri Merit Award. He has a bachelor’s degree in business administration from the University of Akron.
And Dr. Anton Vrame was appointed director of the Department of Religious Education for the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese on January 1, 2007, and since 2009 he’s executive director of the Orthodox Christian Education Commission. So that, you know, is the group that all the jurisdictions belong to; we work together. Dr. Vrame has served as associate director for the Department in the early 1990s and was actively involved in the production of the Living Our Orthodox Faith curriculum, another highly recommendable curriculum. He was also managing editor of Holy Cross Press, and served as adjunct assistant professor in Christian education at Holy Cross School of Theology and lecturer in religious education at St. Vladimir’s Seminary. Immediately before taking the position of director of the Department, Dr. Vrame served as the director of the Patriarch Athenagoras Orthodox Institute in Berkeley, California. He was the lead author of a grant proposal to the Lilly Foundation, which resulted in a two-million-dollar grant. His books are The Educating Icon: Teaching Wisdom and Holiness in the Orthodox Way, and many more to come, right?
Dr. Anton Vrame: Yeah, if I can get two fingers going.
Matushka Valerie Zahirsky: He received his M.Div. from Holy Cross Seminary and his Ph.D. in theology and education from Boston College. He’s on the board of directors of the Religious Education Association, which is a Christian organization.
Dr. Vrame: Interfaith, now.
Matushka Valerie Zahirsky: Now interfaith. I’m behind the times. So Tony does a lot of different things, and these are two wonderful people. I know we’re in for a very good session. Thanks. [Applause]
Mr. Robert Snyder: Tony and I are co-presenters, so we’re going to divide this in half. What I like to do is… By nature, I’m a historian. I like history, so I like to see where we came from, how we got there. I think it’s really important with Christian education for us to do that, to get to the point where we are today with Christian education. I think it helps us to understand the models that we currently have and understand where we went wrong or where we went right.
So the first thing I’m going to open with is, going all the way back into the Old Testament, in the Book of Deuteronomy, in light of what Allen mentioned on Thursday night as the keynote speaker with regard to parents and the education of their children. This is probably the oldest account of education in the Bible, but I think it has something to say to us, so I think it’s important to hear it. This is from the Book of Deuteronomy, and it says:
You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your power. So these words I command you today shall be in your heart and in your soul. You shall teach them to your sons, and you shall talk of them when you sit in your house, when you walk by the way, when you lie down, and when you rise up. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and it shall be immovable before your eyes, and you shall write them on your doorposts of your houses and your gates.
Now, in this early account, the responsibility for Christian education is allocated to the parents. It’s not a separate entity like a Church school, etc. I don’t know that that was wrong. I think that was a pretty good model. It’s just, we’ve gotten away from that. In many respects, we need to get back to that, because, as we all know, the best way to learn is to teach. The best way to learn is to teach. So when the responsibility to teach your children comes to you, you are also learning. In Orthodoxy, everybody is a learner and everybody is a teacher. Allen, would you like to say anything about that? Okay, all right.
Following a period of time, there was a conquest, in the Babylonian conquest and exile. This was an early ethnic cleansing in which the leaders and the important people in the Jewish community were taken to Iraq and to Babylon. It was to eradicate the Hebrews and the Jews as a people and their beliefs. So to ensure that the traditions and the laws and the faith of their fathers continued, there was a formation of a synagogal schools, which means assembling together, and in this school the people were brought together on the sabbath, there was a reading, and then there was a teaching, a homily, a teaching, to preserve and instruct and instruct in the law, the traditions, and the faith.
After the temple was rebuilt and they returned to their land, the synagogal school continued on for centuries. In fact, at the time of Jesus, the synagogal school was in place. It was the most important way of teaching the people, and it’s primarily adults. So Jesus was one of those teachers. It refers in the New Testament 60-90 times that Jesus is a rabbi; he’s a teacher. When he goes into the synagogue, there is a reading, he makes a commentary. As you recall, one of the commentaries was: “In this day, this is fulfilled.” So the people became enraged. This was in where he was living. The people became enraged and tried to kill him because of what he taught after reading the Scripture.
In the Christian Church, they continued on with this format, which is a reading and a teaching, until the movement was considered totally heretical and they were expelled from the synagogue. At that point in time, the Church did continue on in this format. There was a reading and a teaching. Now, when we do our service, our liturgical service, what does the liturgical service consist of? There are three parts. Can you tell me what it consists of? What’s the first part? The Liturgy of what?
A1: The word.
Mr. Snyder: Nope, that’s the second part. [Inaudible from audience] What’s that liturgy called? Liturgy of preparation, in which the Gifts are prepared, because we’re going to have communion. So the Gifts are prepared, they’re prayed over. There are numerous prayers. It seems like it’s an hour, but actually it takes much more than an hour to prepare, because there’s the baking of the bread, so there’s a lot of preparation, maybe a day of preparation. Preparing yourself, preparing the Gifts.
The second part is the service…
A1: Liturgy of the word.
Mr. Snyder: Liturgy of the word, or liturgy of the learners, or liturgy of the catechumens, which is pretty much that old format. And the third part is?
A1: Liturgy of the faithful.
Mr. Snyder: Liturgy of the faithful. In the old Church, at the end of, let’s say, the reading and the homily, or the teaching, it was said, “Depart, ye catechumens.” They were supposed to leave, because they weren’t supposed to be in the liturgy of the Gifts, of the faithful. So they would leave, but that part of instruction, which for centuries carried the Church, was the liturgy of the word or the service of the learners. So that was our Christian education format.
How old is our current Sunday school, our Sunday school format that we do in our Church school? How old do you think that is? Anybody have any idea? Was it always here?
Mr. Snyder: So give me an idea.
Mr. Snyder: 1920? Okay, let’s take another guess. Thank you.
A4: Late 1800s.
Mr. Snyder: Late 1800s? Ah, try again.
Mr. Snyder: No. Okay. Pretty much, the current format of our Sunday school stems from around 1780, in England. This format came about because there was an industrial revolution going on in England and also a population boom. Consequently, there was a huge influx of population from the farms to the cities, and they were engaged, because they had developed kind of a lock or a monopoly on inexpensive textiles, the textile industry. So the cotton was coming from the United States, and they needed—that’s the raw material—they needed labor, and the labor came from the farms of England. They wanted inexpensive labor, and so there were plenty of children. So they employed children at the age of six to work in the textile mills and the mines. And they employed them 12 hours a day, six days a week, and they did not go to school. What happened was, after a period of time of working in these sweatshops and mills and mines, their bodies were broken, they had no skills, they had no education, and inevitably they would end up in debtor’s prison or as petty thieves. That was the fate of these children.
There was a newspaper, the Gloucester Journal, inherited by a man named Robert Raikes, who was a godly man. Robert Raikes had a prison ministry, and he noticed that this was the life of these people who were now adults and in the prisons. So one day he’s coming home from church, like 1780, somewhere around in there, and he sees children who were dressed in rags and fighting and cursing and beating each other, and he says to these companion, “Why aren’t these kids in church?” And she says, “These kids don’t go to church. These are the white slaves of England.” Well, we’ve got to do something about this.
So he had a friend who volunteered their house, a Rev. Stockton who volunteered his time, and they decided to open a school on Sunday, which is the only day off that they had, and so, at ten o’clock in the morning they would come to school, they would learn writing, reading, arithmetic, and then go to lunch and then come back, and then they’d learn some passages from the Bible, and then they’d study the Bible and they had a catechist until five o’clock. Not all the kids were coming to school, and he started wondering what is keeping them from coming to school. They said, well, they’re ashamed; they don’t want to come to school because they’re dressed in rags. So he said, “All I require is that they comb their hair and that they wash their face.” So these became Robert Raikes’ what they called derisively his “ragged schools.” Or he was also called “Bobby Wild-goose” and his ragged schools, because this was unheard of, to take these incorrigible urchins, street urchins, and try to educate them.
Shortly thereafter, girls decided—and this was only for boys—girls decided or asked, “Why can’t we go to school, too?” So he made provision for girls to go to school. Quickly, within a short period of time, the environment in Gloucester, England, changed. It became more civil. The kids became a little bit more educated, that they didn’t curse and fight. So the crime rate dropped dramatically. He publicized this in his newspaper, and before you know it England embraced this concept, and by 1831, 1.2 million children were involved in Sunday school. It was a classroom model like we have here today. It jumped to Europe; it jumped to the United States. At some point in time there were 20 million people involved in Sunday school. Later on, let’s say in the 1920s in this country.
This was a transformational moment. Out of this Sunday school came the English public school system—out of Sunday school. It changed history. But what happened was, it also changed Christian education, because it got to the point where the resources, the materials, the thinking was that all our Christian education efforts should be geared towards children, when in actuality Christianity had been primarily taught to adults. The concepts are adult, and it’s more important to learn some of these concepts, like sacrificial love, as adults, because those are at points in time in our lives when we really need to know these Christian concepts. Do you have any questions about what I just said? This is important.
Rather than becoming an adult idea of education, it was all geared, primarily geared towards children. There were also two other things that happened. There were people who criticized the Sunday school. Who were the people who criticized Sunday school? Almost immediately, it came under attack. [Audience responses] Yeah, the businessmen, the industrialists who thought they would lose their labor pool. They didn’t think that maybe having a more skilled labor pool might be better for them. So they attacked it. Who else attacked it? And they were the ones who were going to church. They were the ones who were leading the Church leaders—the businessmen, the industrialists. And who else attacked it? [Audience responses] The clergy attacked it, because it was done on Sunday, and because it was done on the sabbath, just like the Pharisees. The clergy attacked it, and they didn’t want laypeople to be teaching Sunday school, because they did not have a theological education. But the people loved it, because it transformed their society. It made it more civil, a better society.
But the effect on Christianity was very profound. What happened was, Sunday school came to be thought of as being detached from the Liturgy and being detached from theology, because these were laypeople who were not theologically educated who were doing the teaching. That is what Bishop Thomas was talking about today. It’s a valid criticism. It’s a very valid criticism. They are not two separate entities; they are one. Probably the most important thing is that when you do teach Christian education, you need to connect it to the Liturgy. You cannot detach it from the theology.
But this is the model that we have, and this is what happened when our forefathers came over from… in this greatest of movement of people in the 1880s to 1920, 20 million people immigrated to the United States, and when they came to the United States from Eastern Europe, from the Middle East, from Greece, etc., they tried to assimilate into our culture, and when they came to our culture what was flourishing the most was Sunday school. So they said, “To be Americans, we’ve got to go to Sunday school,” and we’ve got to have this model, which came from England, which was to eliminate child labor, educate children, educate them in God, but also to eliminate child labor. So they embraced this model. So in the ‘30s and ‘40s, our Church decided—‘20s, ‘30s, and ‘40s—“We’ve got to have Sunday school,” so they took on the Western model of Sunday school.
That’s why we have Sunday school. That’s why we have these classes where we have tables and chairs and we have an instructor who’s doing it this way instead of, let’s say, accepting the one that was given to us from the beginning, which was from the Church and from our parents. And it’s not a good model. It’s the wrong model, but we do it over and over again, thinking that we’re doing the right thing. I won’t say it’s a completely worthless model, but it’s a very limited model. And the outcome is not always that good. So it’s important, when have these paradigms, that we try to think—everybody’s been talking about “thinking outside the box”—this is our paradigm; this is our box. This is the one we need to think outside of when we think about Christian education and adult education in particular.
Well, there is an educational format in the service. We just have to recognize it, and it’s a very good one, let me tell you; it’s a very good one. Liturgy is education. So in Orthodoxy, we know that education is a lifelong process. It begins at cradle to grave. It doesn’t end at the age of 16 when you get your car keys. It is not child-oriented. It is primarily adult-oriented. Actually, I won’t say that you can eliminate any particular age group, but the real point where Christianity’s ideals have their meaning are when we become older, when we have children, when our parents are dying or sick or when we’re sick and when we’re coming to these points in our lives when we really do reach out to God, and we don’t want to reach out to God in an immature fashion, in a grade-school mindset, the way we were taught when we were in, let’s say, the eighth grade in Sunday school, because that is an immature way of thinking about God. Allen.
Mr. Kevin Allen: Just one thing. I might disagree respectfully. If, in fact, all education takes place in the liturgy, why are we losing 49% of our cradle Orthodox, according to recent data? I would disagree. I would have to say that our children and our young adults need to know why we are doing what we are doing. It’s not enough to just do it and not understand it, and especially when we bring in converts who bring in baggage. So I would disagree that all that’s necessary is to go to Liturgy. I don’t disagree that we shouldn’t bring them out of the Liturgy. We maybe need to give them another…
C1: Oh, I want to educate the children. I just think we could do it at a different time, not on Sunday.
Mr. Allen: I don’t disagree with that at all. I’m just disagreeing with the idea that all education takes place in the Liturgy, because many people don’t understand what’s going on.
Mr. Snyder: That’s what we need: to connect the Liturgy to the Sunday school. And to the Gospel, yes. I don’t disagree with what you’re saying. It can’t be just on Sunday. It’s got to be… That’s why we have a liturgical year, so we have liturgical life every single day. We have fasting periods, we have readings every day, prayer life every day. And that’s where the parents come in, because that’s where they’re with the children.
Because of our limitation of time, I’m going to turn it over to Tony at this point. Thank you. [Applause]
Dr. Vrame: I’ve got a handout. If you could just kind of pass those around. Thanks, Bob. Yeah, listening to the conversation just far, and just as a segue into what I want to do and what Bob is referring to, without—well, alluding to would be the easiest way to say it—alluding to is something that John Boojamra pointed out to us as educators many, many years ago. I think the book’s out of print now, but his book, Foundations of Orthodox Christian Education, lists in the first chapter five dysfunctions of Orthodox practice of religious education. One is the exclusive focus on children that we’ve given all these years, and what Bob identifies as the adult nature of Orthodox Christianity, of Christianity, that means we’re missing out on a lot of things by continually emphasizing children in our work. What Boojamra—if anybody remembers John, how he could be colorful in his language—talked about the trivia retention that we’ve turned religious education for children into. The connection between liturgy and the rest of the life of the Church is again something John liked to point out. Yes, the Orthodox Church is about liturgy, but the Church is more than liturgy.
So that we have to realize that there has to be an intentional educational piece, and I quickly grabbed my little pocket New Testament to double check, but from the beginnings of Christianity, there was always an intention of instruction. The immediate post-Pentecost Church in Acts 2 describes these first followers, hearing the Good News from Peter, now are attending the synagogue—of course, as Bob pointed out, they’re not quite Christians yet—and they’re attending to the apostles’ teaching. The apostles were clearly teaching, so there was some sort of instruction in Christianity going on from the beginning, so we can’t just kind of push one to the other. We’ve got to figure out how do we create this intentional process of education.
But what happens when we change our perspective from children to our a perspective on adults? We’re not going to stop educating children, but if we change the focus—if you have your camera and you change the focal point from the front to the back kind of thing—you notice how things shift, but they’re all still there. The idea of focusing on adult education—obviously the theme of this conference—but also changes our perspective on the ways we’re doing things.
So what I want to do in the time, the next 30 minutes or so, is help you think about the difference between working with children and working with adults, because I’d like to contend that the mistake we make as churches in our practice of education with adults is we too easily treat them like children, and we don’t recognize the distinct characteristics that adults have and bring into the educational environment. I want to kind of just… The handout’s going to give you some ways to think about this. You can put your own notes on it and things like that.
The first thing I want to remind you—and again, many of you are educators, know from basic educational psychology, cognitive development—we think of childhood in very distinct stages of development, going back to Piaget and Erikson and all those kinds of things, where a child is quickly maturing and developing unique cognitive, social skills and things like that as they mature. And then they enter this phase called “adulthood.” And it lasts forever, right? All of us in this room are adults, but some of us are younger; some of us are older. Yet we all live with the same characteristic, the same title, as “adults.” Whereas when we think about the children’s work that we’re doing: Oh, the preschool kids work one way, the first-graders, the sixth-graders. There are all different needs going on; there are all different skills going on, because of what’s going on in them psychologically, cognitively, physically, all of these kinds of things.
But when we get to adults, we have to recognize that adulthood, even with the one term—and other psychologists have begun to talk like this—it also is filled with stages, according to age, according to social roles, according to experiences and things like that. So we really need to be sensitive in our adult educational work to meet those distinct needs of the adult learner. What I want to share with you is a way of kind of structuring a program at a parish level—I know there are other workshops of how it’s been implemented here, yesterday and this afternoon—but a way of kind of categorizing the kind of programs that you may want to create in your parishes. I’ll try to give you some examples from my experience of parish work.
With adults, from the literature that I know about adult ed, there are three basic categories that we want to work with in our adult ministries: acquiring meaning, exploring and expanding meaning, and expressing meaning. Just when, or hopefully when I say these three, all of a sudden I say, “Oh, yeah, I can see the difference.” So let me just say a quick word about each one.
Acquiring meaning: it’s learning the basics of the Tradition. We have to realize that for many of us perhaps in this room, but certainly our parents and grandparents, back in the old country or here in the States, did not have opportunities for education. The parish, as Bob said, we really didn’t get into the Sunday school business at all until the ‘30s and ‘40s, depending on jurisdictional things and things like that. So our parents and grandparents had no opportunities for this. They were just kind of going for the ride with their moms and dads and just kind of this lived reality. And they need to acquire the Tradition itself. They have lots of questions. We need to offer programs for people to get those basic kinds of skills, the Orthodoxy 101 classes that so many of our parishes have introduced through the years, where the basic kinds of questions can be asked and explored, but it’s really a very, very basic level. It’s like we’re saying, “Why are we doing something in the Liturgy? Where did this feast day come from? What’s this saint?”—these kinds of stuff.
The parish I attend outside of Boston is fairly small. It’s about 175 families. A number of us said, “You know, we really need to start something for adults.” One of our parishioners is moderately theologically educated. He’s been taking courses here and there at the seminary. It’s helpful to have a seminary or a center in your backyard, where you can do these things, but he was a good reader anyways of the Tradition. So he just gathered people up, and there were about… Over time he developed a little course, a class of about 20 adults; like the kids, would leave after holy Communion, sit in a classroom. They’d sit in a circle, and he had a whiteboard, and he would say, “Ask away. No question is out of bounds.” It was really just good fellowship that was created with these adults, and lots of just good questions. And little by little, then, it became this opportunity. “Maybe for a few weeks, let’s look at some basic moments of history. Let’s look at some basic pieces of our Liturgy.” But it was very, very, very, very easy-going, very, very loose, because of the different needs of the people, but it was very similar. So it’s not hard.
On the other side—and we’ve heard the presentations from some of the presenters that are here—I experienced a classroom of this size. I would regularly pop down to Houston, to the Annunciation Cathedral, which has, I always thought, had some of the best adult religious education programs of any parish in the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese that I had ever experienced. There are others now that I’m learning about, but Annunciation Cathedral was doing amazing things.
After Liturgy—and this was a large parish, has two Liturgies—a group of people will gather in a space this size, 60, 70 people, for a 101 class, with speakers from the parish, led by somebody, a lay person, theologically knowledgeable, who coordinated an occasional speaker from outside the parish for that Sunday morning, but also a structure. He had just developed kind of his little list of topics that he dealt with every year. It had good attendance. I liked to always joke that it was just the first crack at the coffee hour food that we always would go there, but, no. This was truly well-meaning people that really wanted to wrestle with these questions. And again, any question was fair game, and he felt comfortable talking about them. So it’s this kind of just basic learning of the Tradition that we need to present and provide opportunities for, for the adults in our parish.
Second, once you’ve kind of gotten beyond the 101, you need the 201, 301, 401 kind of thing. We need to create opportunities for people to what I call “exploring and expanding” that meaning. This is the deeper work, once you’ve gone beyond the basics. It’s more than just the acquiring of information, but trying to connect it to life experience, trying to connect it more deeply, reflect on it more deeply. In fact, the activity we’re going to try to do this morning is kind of an exploration and an expansion of your understanding of Orthodox Christianity.
This is where the ministry opportunities really expand, because now almost anything becomes possible. It’s the book club, it’s the discussion group, it’s the Bible study, it’s the lecture series, it’s the kind of series we’ve been hearing this weekend that some of these parishes are offering, series kind of program. But what’s key here is it’s giving people who have some basic knowledge an opportunity to go more deeply, ask the tougher questions, like, “Why do we really do it this way?” and, again, I’ll pick on the example from Houston that I experienced a few… many years ago, of: They had a group of people that didn’t go to 101 any more.
This was a group of doctors and lawyers, mostly, that I experienced, as well as a few other people in the parish, that were gathering weekly to study issues of biomedical, legal ethics. They were reading. They were bringing their experience as doctors and lawyers to the table. They were confronted with these things all the time: beginning of life issues, end of life issues, all of those kinds of questions that are really difficult and thorny. They were reading Orthodox sources—Harakas, John Breck, Engelhardt—the whole gamut of writings at that moment in time, to really try to get to wrestle with it. And they were really trying to critique the Orthodox writers, saying, “Well, that’s a good idea, but when the law gets its way or the legal process or the medical process gets involved, now it gets thornier.” And they’re really wrestling with this very, very critically.
Now, the first time that I encountered that group, I was really just blown away. At that point I was, what? I had just gotten my doctorate, I think, and I was just down there doing something. I was pretty proud of myself—I’ve got a Ph.D. and all of this stuff. I was like: “Ohh, wait. I am way out of my league. Way out of my league.” They were taking this topic to a level I never got in seminary, I hadn’t thought really hard about. I certainly hadn’t read all the books on biomedical ethics that they were reading. And I was just really blown away, but they were bringing that experience to it. They were challenging what they were reading in Breck and Harakas and Engelhardt, and going: “How does this all square in real life?” Most parishes probably won’t be able to get that high-powered of a group, but it’s indicative of what’s possible once you’ve got beyond the basics.
The third piece is expressing meaning, putting it into practice, but also putting it into practice and thinking about it. These are the people in our parishes that are really committed to the charitable and philanthropic work. These are the people who are really into IOCC, [Orthodox Christian] Mission Center, and their side of education is a little bit different. They’re not just thinking about the application. They’re not like people who just like being busy. They also want to put it into practice and do it from really good theological principles. So they might also just be saying, “This is what we do: we help the poor, but now we’re trying to connect it to an Orthodox tradition that says we should help the poor.” It’s that kind of conversation. You can see the slight difference. It’s not just an intellectual approach. It’s not just what I’m doing personally. It’s how the Church behaves in the world that becomes important as another avenue for adult learning.
Again, a very straightforward example: you think about why we might want to have some sort of environmental consciousness as Orthodox Christians. Then how we understand that environmental consciousness from our we treat nature in our liturgical life, the way we bless water, the way we use material goods, that it’s maybe infusing us with our “green” understanding of Orthodoxy that we want to put into practice. So we’re tying the riches of our Tradition to what we’re actually doing in the world.
So you have these three basic areas, and when you begin to kind of put it into practice in a parish, you can kind of structure for each one, and knowing that people are in different places. It’s not always basic. There are opportunities for the book club. It’s also opportunities to be putting it into practice that become really, really important. Making sense? Again, I’m trying to give you categories to work with so we can kind of expand the offerings of what we’re trying to do.
What I want to do now is, again, what makes working with adults different from working [with] children. As I like to say all the time, adults have one really good characteristic that makes what we’re doing differently. They can talk to us and tell us what they want. Children, not so much. They complain and they can tell us stuff, but you as an audience today can walk in, you have a question on your mind, and you can ask about that. I, as teacher, don’t always have to try to figure out where you are, what you need. You can tell me. You can tell me what interests you. You can tell me the question you have. You’ve got the problem you want solved. Children—it’s limited.
Adults, also, unlike kids, have the ability to walk out of the room. If you don’t like what you’re getting here this weekend, you can leave. There’s no parent who’s going to ground you, tell you you can’t participate in the GOYA group or the basketball program of the parish because you didn’t go to Sunday school. You just can’t get up and walk away kind of thing—you can, and that’s an important difference. Adults follow their felt needs and are very self-directing. So in the programs that we’re offering, we also have to be sensitive to the fact that they can do that. We really do need to meet their needs, because the center of attention isn’t necessarily the topic; it’s the learners themselves.
One of the things that came out of the presentation last night, I thought was so interesting was the subject that was being taught wasn’t the Bible; the subject was the people. That’s kind of a bit play on words there. The subject was the people. I don’t teach Christian education at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology. I teach young men and women who want to serve the Church. I do that through a vehicle called a course in religious education, but I’m actually teaching younger men and women who can tell me what they want, can ask me questions, can bring their concerns to this. Now, I have a program structure that I think works for that, but they can tell me. And that changes everything. It’s a very different way of thinking about it.
In a few more minutes, let me think again, structurally here to help you understand, and this is part of the handout. When we think about adults versus children, the self-concept is really, really different. Children are largely dependent. They make fairly few decisions in the course of their days. Somebody’s always telling a child what to do. You as a parent are telling a child it’s time to get out of bed, time to eat, time to brush your teeth, time to go to school, time to go to soccer practice. If the child says, “I don’t want to brush my teeth today,” you say, “You have to do it anyways,” right? Somebody’s telling a child what to do most of their lives.
I hope nobody had to call you this morning to remind you to brush your teeth. You as adults are pretty independent. You know what to do. You’re the one making all the decisions, and you’re self-directed. It’s a big difference. So you’re kind of responsible in a different way for learning as adults that a child really isn’t.
The experience level is different. You think, yeah, kids have lots of experiences, but they’re fairly tight lists of things. You can’t ask them stories about: “Tell me about a time when you did this or you felt this way.” The stories get fairly limited fairly quickly. In this room, there’s a wealth of stories on anything. I could ask almost any question: “Tell about a time when you felt God’s presence in your life, or felt this call to service.” I mean, there are dozens of stories about that.
So the experiences that adults bring to this—and they want to share them—already in the Q&A that Bob received is your experience of some of the challenges of our child-centered Sunday school model. If we just went around the room, you would all have them. Yeah, there would probably be common themes, but there would all be lots of them. So our experiences are different, and our adult education needs to draw on that experience and needs to remember that adults have all these experiences.
The readiness to learn is different. Children typically are learning developmental tasks. When you get to be nine years old, it’s time to learn something else, because your brain and your body are ready to do it. There’s not a lot of application of it, and I’m going to combine something in the interest of time, this orientation about postponing application. When you were in fourth grade and you learned everything there was to know about history in a fourth-grade classroom, you weren’t going to do much with it. But somebody said, “Well, now you’re cognitively ready to learn this kind of history.” All of a sudden you can start making a historical connection to a date and a year and a place, and you’ve developed beyond “a long time ago…” Again, think about the difference between a second-grader and a fifth-grader. A second-grader, it’s always: “Yesterday was a long time ago. Last week was a long time ago. The fourth century was a long time ago.” But by the time you get to fifth and sixth grade, you’re cognitively ready to put it together in pieces. But there’s not much you’re going to do with that. You always have to postpone application.
Adults, on the other hand, their developmental tasks are typically around their social roles: They’re getting married. They’ve started a new job. They’ve just become parents. It’s not because all of a sudden, physically, they’re capable of doing something that they weren’t capable of doing or knowing the year before. All of that’s basically in place once we hit 12, 13 years old. And they can walk out of the room, and they want the opportunity to apply what they’re learning fairly quickly. It’s not about postponed application, as I was saying.
This weekend is a good example of that. Hopefully, if we’ve been successful at this seminar and these institute sessions, you can take all of what we’re learning and go and do this. Hopefully we’ve set you up so that you could try to create some sort of adult education ministry in your parishes and dioceses, however you want to do it. There’s fairly immediate application of this. You probably came here because you perceived the problem, or somebody said, “Go to that, because I want you to set up the adult ed ministry in our parish.” You have a new social role now in this parish. See the difference?
Last, sum, some last points: We have to remember with adults that we’re working with a different kind of age group. One, first and foremost, our capacity to learn doesn’t decline as we get older. Just because I’m in my late 50s doesn’t mean I can’t learn anything any more. Just because I’m 65 doesn’t mean I can’t learn anything any more. It is still possible. Of course, we can get to a point in life when learning is much more challenged, that can happen, too, but it generally does not decline with age. It merely changes. Adults typically need, for example, in an aging phenomenon, more time to retrieve what we know. We’re not as quick. “I know who you are, but I can’t remember your name” kind of thing. “I know the Church had something in the Seventh Ecumenical Council, but I can’t remember where it was—give me a minute.” That’s not declining; it’s just our response time has started to slow down.
Second, related to that, adults learn best when they’re not in stressful settings. They need to be relatively comfortable. They need to be in an environment where the lights are nice and good and nobody’s really pressuring them to learn something. It’s not Jeopardy! with the music playing; you’ve got 30 seconds to come up with the answer—that’s stressful. It’s much easier to win at that game, sitting on the couch at home, than I’m sure it is for those people on the stage. That’s stress. So if all of a sudden, I’m in a stressful situation in this room, all of a sudden people start freezing up. They don’t want to be stressed.
Time. Time is really important to adults. Think about your life and how many things you have to do on any given day and week. Think about how far out in advance you can schedule your life. You’re laughing, right? because it’s not very far for most of us. Not very far. So that means our program needs to be well thought-out. If it says it’s going to start at seven, it had better start at seven. We probably need to tell people what time of the evening it will end, because if they’re families, they may have a babysitter at home, to whom they’ve said, “We will be there by nine o’clock,” to get the babysitter off to wherever he or she’s going. So time is valuable. They don’t want to waste time in programs and waiting for things to get started and all those kinds of things. It’s valuable. They can’t plan their lives out too far in advance. Six, eight weeks for most of us, probably? It’s really tough beyond that in many cases. So it says something about how we need to structure it.
Finally, I want to remind us about adults, especially as we age, that we need to be really, really careful, we need to attend to the physical changes that all of us are going to experience if we’re not already experiencing as we age in the adult work that we’re doing. I especially want to focus on that for older adults, especially our ministries as churches is going to shift very dramatically in the next 20, 25 years to our aging Orthodox population; that we need to be attentive to that kind of special need of the older adult in terms of accessibility into the space, getting in and out of chairs. Too comfy in the couch—my parents, if they’re listening to this: Your couch in your family room needs to go, because you can’t get in and out of it too easily—kind of stuff. It feels nice to get into that nice, comfy couch, but they have a hard time getting out of it. It’s got to be comfortable, and easy enough to get in and out of.
There need to be bathrooms close by. A story that was really fairly comical: There was an adult men’s group at a church in Atlanta that got together regularly for coffee. The parish had created a space for that near the offices and hall. The men would get together and the priest would sit there, and they’d start some sort of conversation and sometimes they’d just hang out. And they realized the bathroom was just a little too far away. Fortunately there was a janitor’s closet nearby, and they all dug into their pockets and said, “We’re putting the bathroom there.” Because as we get older, you know, we don’t want it so far away any more. They needed something they didn’t have to climb a lot of stairs for and go up and down for. So it becomes really, really practical in how we minister to that population. Most of our parishes are not particularly senior-citizen–friendly. There are lots of stairs, dark corners and all those kinds of things. So we really need to become attentive to that.
Finally, we need to, again, speak clearly, loudly. Once we hit about forty, our hearing starts to decline, and we need to be attentive to that. So does the room need a microphone? I know I have a big voice; nobody has too much trouble hearing me anywhere, but that kind of thing so that people can actually hear us. That becomes important. So we really just need to be attentive to the needs that the adult population that we have has as we’re working with them.
Questions, and then we’re going to move on to a group activity to kind of take this the next step. Kevin?
Mr. Allen: Under your “Readiness for Learning” on the first page of this paper, it says, “Spiritual discipline of emptiness and letting go.” As I read that, I’m looking at Buddhists. What do you mean by that?
Dr. Vrame: Well, it’s actually part of where adults are. The recognition that, as we age, the letting go of the life around us, our lives change dramatically as we age. Our friends die on us; our parents pass away. We have to be prepared for our own deaths, the deaths of loved ones and things like that. The letting go of our possessions. You think of all of the downsizing that the senior citizens in our parishes are doing, and their hesitation about that. They like their space, they like their house. There’s a natural comfort with it, which I understand, but at the same time, they need to let go. And how do we begin to work at that? I think as Orthodox we have a real strong sense about this idea of letting go of things. It becomes an opportunity to talk about that as Christians. We’ve been taught to let go of the material desires, that our lives are going to change. There’s something to pray about, something to experience with that. So that’s what I’m meaning. This becomes now a topic for adult ed. The 30-year-old new parent probably is going to be less interested in that than… Last night we heard about [how] they did the estate planning group. That’s letting go. We have to realize that we have to let go of our goods. We can’t take them with us.
Mr. Allen: I just love that phrase, “spiritual discipline of emptiness.” [Laughter]
Dr. Vrame: Yeah. Again, it’s part of being an older adult, to think that… Think of all of our elderly parishioners, many of our unmarried parishioners. I saw the Pew statistic that just came out a couple of days ago, [which] said a very high percentage of that sample was never married. 20, 25% was never married. There’s a lot of our people who are living alone in our parishes, either by choice of not choosing to marry, through divorce, but also just through aging and loss of a spouse. And living alone and learning to live with that and to understand that there’s a spirituality around that. There’s a religious experience around that.
Mr. Allen: That’s a good point.
Dr. Vrame: ...that we can work at. And, of course, sometimes we counteract by bringing them into a community to work on that together and be mutually supportive of one another in this thing we call the Church. You’re alone, but maybe really not alone in the support and care of this community. Yeah, there’s a lot to try to repeat for posterity’s sake here, but I think the main point is: How do we try to reach those people who don’t want to go to the program but are just there for Sunday Liturgy? If that’s a good encapsulation.
Mr. Allen: I don’t want to just write them off, although there are times I feel like writing them off.
Dr. Vrame: Yeah, “love them anyways,” as Mother Teresa would say. I think the challenge… I think that you hit the first thing, the sermon. Can that spark education? I heard… I had a speaker in one of my seminary classes the other day who said, “Now, here’s a really risky thing for a priest to say. At the end of his sermon, to say: Any questions?” [Laughter] That might be very risky for a clergyman to do, but he’s turned his sermon into an opportunity for a few minutes for people to ask questions. Fr. Stanley Harakas, when he would talk about these things in his preaching, he would do the once-a-month… He would have a box in the back of the narthex. He would say, “Put your questions in,” and he’d open up the box: “I got a question on this, and there are two or three that are similar: what the Church teaches about something,” and that would be his “sermon” for the month. So it became that kind of classroom environment for part of his sermon. He would do that once a month. That could be a way of engaging people.
And, as I know, if you get to go to Gerry Clonaris’s piece this afternoon if you didn’t go to it yesterday, I know what St. Nektarios in Charlotte has been all about. It’s marketing, marketing, marketing! They’ve created… They really lean on good sales principles here of trying to eliminate all the objections that people would have about participating in the adult ed work that their parish is doing. So they say, “Well, it interferes with dinner.” There’s food. “We can’t get babysitters.” They provided babysitters. The list kind of went on. “The timing’s wrong. I don’t drive at night.” Well, it’s during the day for that crowd. So they really tried to think all the possible objections of when people could reach. But there will always be people, like we heard the other day: “Well, we know it all anyways. What’s the difference?” Teach them anyways.
[Inaudible from audience] And this hesitancy has come about because I think people are afraid to commit. Again, I pick on some of the things we’ve done with good intentions in parishes, and I always pick on the Bible study as the example of that: the Bible study that never ends. At one level, yes, I never want to stop studying the Bible, but at the parish programmatic level, it’s the same 15 people that have been studying this book for 25 years. That’s actually, as an adult, that’s an intimidating environment to step into. If I knew that this group has been going on and on and on, and I’m a newcomer, I might feel intimidated about joining that. So the stopping and starting principle of an adult ed program could be really useful.
My parish priest back home, he did this. He said, for example, one of his Bible studies was on the 11 resurrectional gospels that are read during Matins/Orthros. That was his Bible study one year. So you knew it was only going to last 11 weeks, one a week. And then he stopped, took a couple of weeks off, based on the seasons of the year. People aren’t interested in a lot of this stuff between Thanksgiving and Christmas, so you take the pause, start up again in the winter months. And he started something new; it wasn’t the 11-week [program]; it was something else, six to seven weeks. Of course, by then Lent is kicking in, we kind of go into educational mode as a parish with our Wednesday night speakers after Presanctifieds and things like that. So that kind of intimidation, the intimidation factor because the program’s ongoing, I don’t know how to check in… It takes time. The group that I did… I participate in my parish education group, and they know I’m on the road a great deal, so I said, “I can’t be the leader,” because between the first of October and Thanksgiving I’ve been to my parish I think two times, just because work takes me away. But I said, “When I’m there, I will sit with this group. I have no problem with that, but somebody else has to take the lead.” And that’s the kind of nature with these things in our parish’s lives that we have to give them that consistency and opportunities.
And the key here is intention. We need to become intentional, to create an adult conversation about matters of faith. Again, this would be the sermon idea, bulletin insert kind of idea that I would suggest. I did this a couple of weeks ago, and it was really interesting, the reaction I got to it. I was at a parish in Chicago, and as part of my sermon that I was asked to deliver was: “I hope today in the coffee hour, I want you to talk about the following questions.” I was in Chicago, and I said, “Okay, yes, you can talk about the Cubs for a couple of minutes. You can talk about the Bears game that day—but I’d like you think about and talk to one another about—” It was right before the feast of St. Demetrios, and I made a connection about how their connection to Christ was so strong it was greater than life itself. “And talk about times when that connection to God was strong for you as your fellowship. Yeah, then go on and talk about the Cubs and the Bears. That’s okay, I get it.” But bringing that kind of intention to create this adult conversation.
I’ve gone on a little too long, but that’s okay, and we’ll try to dive into our activity as a group. Thank you. At the end… One characteristic at the end of this, if we have time—I have a handout if we don’t—we have one unique characteristic, one unique cohort of adults that I want you to think about that might need to be ministered to differently, and part of the literature that’s coming out in the last ten years, and that’s this new category called “emerging adults.” If we have time, I’ll try to highlight what that means, because it’s a term we’re encountering more and more, and it is going to change, I think, the way we think about adult education in our church. So that should keep you in the room, I hope. [Applause]
It doesn’t take a great deal to get an adult conversation going. It took just a little bit of a spark, a few minutes of a video, a few minutes, a few passages to read. Of course, you’re kind of a primed audience for this sort of thing, so it’s not like we had to work too hard to get you interested, but you can see the variety of source material that can become a source of a great teachable moment with adults that can then be kicked off into an entire study of a particular topic, through the Bible, through the Fathers, through the liturgical, canonical—all these pieces of our tradition that started by reading a passage from Les Misérables. So it’s really quite interesting.
We don’t have a lot of time. I’m going to just say a couple of sentences about this thing called “emerging adulthood.” I just want to sensitize you to this group of young people. There’s a handout that’s coming around, too, that you can take. I want to just sensitize you and make you aware of the work of a psychologist whose name is Jeffrey Arnett. He teaches outside of Boston, and about 15 years ago, he proposed a new stage of human development. You don’t hear about that every day. And he called it “emerging adults,” and it’s the cohort basically 18-30 years old, 18-25. You think: college student, right out of college, that type of age.
He began to think about this group because the question that he would pose to them was: Do you feel like an adult? Because the literature, our way of understanding adulthood up to that point was you went from adolescence to young adult, adulthood type of thing. And when he started working with this audience—and again, those of us who work with college kids can think about our experience with them: Do you feel like an adult? And they would say yes and no. And he realized something different was transpiring in the lives of this age group than we hadn’t thought about before. He’s begun to study it very carefully. He’s written a number of books. On the bibliography that was given to everyone the first night we were here, the non-asterisked books were about this category, one called Emerging Adulthood by Jeffrey Arnett, as well as how to minister to this group by two authors whose names I always botch so I won’t even repeat it, but it was on the list, about what are the ministry challenges in this age cohort that are worth reading if you’re working with college, OCF students.
And the yes and no phenomenon happened in a couple of areas; that this is an age group, because of the nature of our society and the social roles that are changing around us and the way we’re changing things, that they’re really, A, they’re postponing marriage. The average age in the United States is in the 27-28 years old to get married. So this idea of being a young adult and entering adulthood is pushed out further than it ever was before. So what he began to discover was that these young adults, that they’re in this journey about their personal, intimate lives—“Whom will I marry?”—and not resolving that until much, much later, frequently. If the average is 27, that means there are people pushing this off much, much later. And to recognizing how that’s transforming how they approach their own lives. I think that’s a great opportunity for ministry: to help young people think through the question: “Whom will I marry? How will I live my life in an intimate relationship or a celibate relationship? How will I think about my sexuality in a society that’s got sex everywhere but wants…?” And they’re just trying to figure it out.
I used to work at the OCF in Berkeley when I was at the Athenagoras Institute, and I used to joke—I don’t care what the topic of the week was, we could make everything about sex and marriage with this group, because it’s where they are. So they’re working on this issue, and it’s not until they resolve the question, “Shall I marry? Whom will I marry? How will I understand that?” that they say, “Now I feel like an adult.”
The second area was work. This is an age where the nature of our job market has become so fluid that young people in this generation are really trying to figure out what their adult job will be. And they don’t settle in on it sometimes until well past college, well past graduate school. And they’re really kind of doing this vocational exploration for a much extended period. Again, very different, probably, from our experiences. We went to college, we got a job, and we’re on a path. Where these young people, because of the nature of the job market, they’re jumping from job to job every six months or a year. It’s dizzying to keep track of. They’re really trying to explore. And yet, I think an opportunity for Church to say: What do you want to be when you grow up?
And then finally, the worldview questions. Again, you think about working with college students and the emerging adult. They’re really trying to figure out their place in the world, and they’re being confronted and challenged by lots of worldviews and ideologies and “What am I going to be in this world?” and it’s not getting settled for them in a very easy way. I think there’s an opportunity for the Church to reach out and walk with, as I like to say, young people who are working on these questions. What Arnett has discovered is that, until these questions settle in, which is typically around late 20s, maybe even early 30s, this is just this very, very fluid period. And when the questions start to settle in—married, a job for more than six months, a more or less stable worldview and how they see their role in it—that that’s when they start to say, “I’m an adult.” I think it’s a really unique opportunity. So you’re going to see lots of literature. There’s already lots of books being written: ministering to the emerging adults, emerging adults in our parish, all those kinds of things, by lots of other Christians, and that’s where this is coming from.
Religiously, this is a really challenging group, because there’s nothing normative about them. This is a group of highly individualized, highly diverse religious beliefs, with no real certainty. Again, this is the risk we face as Church as we move forward in time, that without the predictability… The predictability that we lived with was that we might drift away from our parishes and our churches, college is where we’re kind of settling in into life, but it seemed like almost all of us started to come back. We don’t know that that will happen with this generation, this age group. The challenges are great, and so it’s creating lots of institutional angst for a lot of people. When you start to explore it with them—and this is where Arnett’s going—he wrote an article called, “A Congregation of One,” that it’s really a highly individualized challenge, religiously, for people, and I think it creates a challenge for a church.
Related to that, and in a ministry question, because of how technology exacerbates this, the increasing self-selection of “what I find appealing,” that, too, will create a challenge for church that we have to work on. There’s a great quote in the book on ministering to emerging adults that says, “In a world where you can download”—and it’s written by Evangelical Protestants—“praise music that you like, get a sermon from a preacher you like, support the social causes through GoFundMe and things like that, and PayPal on your own, getting up on Sunday morning doesn’t seem all that necessary.” I think we see a lot of some of that even in our own religious communities. Why go to my local parish when I can just get the music with the Liturgy that I happen to like—YouTube or online—and put it on my headset and listen to that wonderful church music that I like in that Orthodox world while I’m jogging. I don’t need community for this. And we’re seeing this attitude very, very strongly in this cohort, and it’s something we’re really going to have to work at as Church. Again, we’ve run out of time. There’s lots to talk about and say, but I just wanted to sensitize you to the language that’s out there about this cohort. Thanks! [Applause]