When the Center for the Ministry of Teaching (CMT) opened at Virginia Theological Seminary (VTS) in 1984, the heyday of the American Sunday school had ended two decades earlier. Few curricula were available for Episcopal parishes. No Episcopal seminary had a full-time professor of Christian education, and instructing clergy how to teach was almost unheard of.
One divinity school professor set aside a single class period during the semester for a local Christian educator to teach students everything they needed to know about running a parish education program. Qualified training for volunteer teachers was often difficult to locate, and only a small group staffed The Episcopal Church’s (TEC) overworked Christian education office.
In that near-vacuum of support for teaching and learning in Episcopal parishes, the Rev. Dr. Locke E. Bowman, Jr., and the Very Rev. Richard Reid, Dean of VTS, established the CMT, planting it in the middle of a thriving seminary campus. The Center’s mission was to support, train, and encourage volunteer Christian education teachers and leaders from across the nation and around the world.
Looking back, the vision Bowman and Reid shared with the Church was bold for its time. To truly appreciate how audacious and hopeful their ideas were calls for a brief examination of Christian education in the decades preceding the 1980s.
Christian Education before 1980
Christian education for children, teenagers, and adults had flourished in post-World War II America. A mix of social and economic forces created a perfect recipe for Sunday school success: Dizzying birthrates, a new focus on family life, and a flush economy combined with a yearning to return to normalcy following the Great Depression and the worst war in human history. Those factors fueled unprecedented growth in church involvement.
Between 1950 and 1963, church membership grew faster than the U.S. population. To handle the surge of Baby Boom children, teenagers, and their parents, local churches expanded educational programs staffed with willing volunteers wielding the latest curricula from denominational publishers.
To meet the demand and enthusiasm of that era, the Episcopal Church enlarged the Christian education department at its national headquarters and published the Seabury Series, a curriculum based on the latest educational research, psychology, and teaching methods. By the end of the 1950s, the department’s annual budget was $450,000—$4,000,000 in today’s money—and the Seabury Series was being used in at least a third of all parishes.
Thirty years before founding the CMT, Bowman was at the center of the Sunday school’s dynamic rise as aPresbyterian pastor and nationally recognized writer and editor of his denomination’s curricula for children and youth.
In the mid-1960s, Church growth began to trail off. The Baby Boom had petered out. Young Americans were growing suspicious of traditional institutions and their authority. As the civil rights movement and the Vietnam war gathered momentum, longstanding intolerance, institutional injustices, and the reliability of many stalwart American organizations—including church and government—were exposed.
Where earlier generations of Sunday school learners had quietly absorbed the Church’s inherited wisdom and tradition from its volunteer teachers, maturing Baby Boomers were challenging instructors and their ideas about God, scripture, and the Christian mission. Many teachers felt overwhelmed, unsupported, and inadequate to the task of the teaching ministry.
The backwash of the social and political turbulent 1960s and early 1970sebbed into the 1980s, when the CMT opened its doors. Since the mid-60s, Sunday school attendance in Episcopal parishes had slumped by about 40 percent. A Baby Bust had replaced the Baby Boom.
Books from the old Seabury Series were growing mold in many church basements, and funding for the denomination’s national Christian education department had been slashed. In the absence of a “national” curriculum, some Episcopal congregations adapted materials from Lutheran and Roman Catholic publishers, while others turned to Living the Good News, a resource developed by the Diocese of Colorado in 1976. Teachers were increasingly hard to find and keep, as were qualified people to train and nurture them.
Creating the Center for the Ministry of Teaching
Bowman, Reid, and others at VTS believed the time was right to consciously address the need for a resource center with national scope and appeal. They created the CMT as a space where lay instructors, directors of Christian education, and clergy nationwide and from around the world could find resources, guidance, and inspiration for the teaching ministry of the Church.
After a distinguished 30-year career in education as a Presbyterian, Dr. Bowman had matriculated to the Episcopal Church and was poised to train and equip volunteers to be effective teachers. Reid, a New Testament scholar, recognized Bowman’s abilities and commitments and appointed him in 1983 as the new full-time professor of Christian education, the only one in an Episcopal seminary.
In a 1984 interview,Dr. Bowman outlined the role the new CMT would play for people involved in the Church’s educational ministry. “Most lay volunteer church-school teachers—and there are three million of them—get asked to teach, are given some material and wished well.” He said this unfair pattern of neglect was being repeated in too many congregations. “I think they should be given training, so they know what they’re getting into—what kind of commitment they’re making—and have a chance to catch the vision.”
To help lay and ordained teachers “catch the vision” and teach the Gospel, Bowman developed an ambitious plan for the new Center, which would be a multi-tasking unit with a fulltime staff ready to aid instructors in person and on the phone. The CMT opened with an extensive library of books devoted to the theory and practice of education, a robust collection of contemporary Christian education materials from many denominations and private publishers, and a unique video lending library that mailed films to parishes around the country.
Bowman established an expansive, sun-filled classroom where he taught seminary students and trained volunteer teachers using state-of-the-art video filming techniques that allowed teachers to see themselves in action. Several generations of squeamish students at VTS watched their taped teaching sessions while Bowman provided gentle, constructive feedback.
In a time before the Internet allowed instantaneous access to information, Bowman and his staff launched a tabloid-format newspaper, Episcopal Teacher. The affordable paper was packed with news of creative church education initiatives from around the country, practical teaching ideas, book and curriculum reviews, and editorial commentary on education in the Church.
One of its first writers was George Kroupa, a Presbyterian minister, who was also involved in creating and updating curriculum and teaching Christian formation as a member of the faculty.
First published in 1985, Episcopal Teacherreached church educators in far-flung parishes and dioceses throughout the United States and the worldwide Anglican Communion ten times a year. It won numerous national awards and eventually moved to a free publication available in print or by email. Episcopal Teacherends its 33-year run with this issue.
Developing Curricula for Children and Youth
Bowman’s plans for the CMT extended beyond publishing a newspaper to producing a curriculum designed specifically for the Episcopal Church. Given the absence of materials created by the national church office and a clamoring for Episcopal-focused curricula, Bowman said in 1984, “I think the time is ripe for the Episcopal Church to develop its own curriculum.”
Four years later, a special Education Task Force created by the 1985 General Convention reported that the church was too diverse to warrant production of a “national” curriculum. Task force members recommended instead that individuals, dioceses, and institutions be encouraged to produce curricular materials on their own to serve Episcopal parishes.
Writing a new curriculum for Episcopal children was as ambitious as the founding the CMT had been. It called for a long period of preparation, major funding, collaboration with a well-established publisher, and an increased staff of professional educators at the CMT. To produce the curriculum, Bowman needed staff who were familiar with current pedagogy, human development theory, the needs of students and volunteer teachers, the Bible, Book of Common Prayer, and theology.
Finding them was a tall order, but Bowman always had an eye for talent and encouraged it in others when he saw it. In 1988, discovered Judith Seaver and Amy Dyer, two specialists in early childhood learning and development who had significant experience teaching and working in Episcopal parishes. Their intelligence, imagination, and skills, matched Bowman’s foresight and energy for the new project.
Together, they partnered with Morehouse publishing, a longtime producer of Episcopal-related books, to produce the Episcopal Children’s Curriculum(ECC),a three-year thematic cycle of materials for children ages three through grade six. Before any lesson plans were developed, Bowman and his team produced a carefully crafted theological and educational foundation paper written by Virginia Theological Seminary scholars in New and Old Testament, theology, and ethics, which included Verna Dozier (see p. 10) from the Diocese of Washington.
The ECC first appeared in 1990 with resources for pre-school children. Over the next five years, the curriculum was enlarged to include three years of teaching and learning materials for Preschool, Primary, and Intermediate levels. With its colorful resources and art, solid biblical grounding, and emphasis on the Church Year and sacraments, the ECC became a popular fixture in parishes throughout the country.
In 1994, Bowman retired and Dyer was appointed director of the CMT and the James Maxwell Professor of Pastoral Theology. Under her direction, the broad scope of the Center’s ministry continued seamlessly. In 1996, the Center’s staff began work on the Episcopal Curriculum for Youth(ECY).
Following the pattern of development used in producing children’s curriculum, youth ministers from across the Episcopal Church gathered at the CMT to share ideas, identify the needs of young people and their teachers, and frame general themes. A foundation paper was written, and a cadre of talented writers was recruited to compose lesson plans for Younger Youth and Older Youth. In the process, Dyer hired Dorothy Linthicum, a former journalist and education consultant active in the Episcopal Church as a teacher, to help orchestrate the editing and production of the project.
Materials were developed based on up-to-date research on youth development, Multiple Intelligence theory, and beliefs about how young people grow and express their spirituality. Unique features of the ECY were its connection to popular culture through a variety of media and its recognition that older youth could begin to serve as leaders in their own lives. The curriculum was completed in 1999 and provided 12 modules each for Younger and Older Youth.
On the cusp of the new century, the CMT and its staff had fulfilled Bowman’s original mission to meet “a hunger for Biblical literacy” in the Episcopal Church and to lead clergy and parish leaders to recognize that “we are all one Body,” and “every one of those children is a precious part of that Body.”
Expanding the Ministry of the CMT
During the final decade of the 20thcentury, the CMT continued to expand its ministry of support for volunteer teachers and directors of Christian education at all levels by growing its video lending collection to over 2,000 films, enlarging its library to more than 5,000 books, and collecting samples of curriculum published privately and by every major Protestant denomination.
The doors to the Center’s brick Georgian building remained open six days a week, including Saturday hours for teachers, clergy, and education directors who needed last-minute ideas and resources. Throughout the year, the CMT hosted conferences and meetings and consulted with countless seekers whose mission was to provide effective teaching in the Church.
During that time, the CMT also created the Master of Arts in Christian Education (MACE) degree, which was first offered during the regular academic year and then moved to an intensive summer program. Many summer MACE students were already providing Christian formation in churches, but they needed more flexibility in scheduling classwork around busy lifestyles.
In 2007 Ian Markham became Dean and President of Virginia Seminary with a vision of opening the campus to its neighbors. This included appropriating Packard Laird to become the new campus Welcome Center, which resulted in relocating the CMT. After months of renovation and a careful downsizing of the resource collection to better reflect the changing needs of the church, the CMT moved into historic Key Hall in Spring 2009. About the same time Dyer was tapped to fill the position of associate dean. In the fall of 2009, Lisa Kimball assumed the directorship of the Center for the Ministry of Teaching and joined the faculty as Professor of Christian Formation and Congregational Leadership. Under her leadership, the CMT has transitioned from a bricks and mortar center toward a physical and web-based hub supporting extensive digital networks providing resources, training, and consultation on Christian education.
To build a robust online presence, Kimball hired new staff to help teachers, clergy, and education leaders connect with resources and expert consultants over the Internet. Over the past decade, the Center’s digital and in-person initiatives ushered in a new era of ever-expanding ministries and enhanced webs of connection for Christian educators from different traditions and denominations.
The findings and resources resulting from the CMT’s action research in the past five years has been made available to those who teach children, youth, adults, and older adults in different settings and contexts. Conferences and webinars continue to train teachers and leaders and make accessible new ideas and insights into the teaching ministry.
The original vision of Bowman, who championed cutting-edge technology to train and support the Church’s teachers, continues to grow through the work of Kimball and her staff under a new name, Lifelong Learning: Christian Formation and Discipleship. The ECCand ECY are no longer in print, but in keeping with the digital age, remain available on the Lifelong Learning website. A range research materials and seasonal resources appears regularly on websites associated with Lifelong Learning (vts.edu/lifelonglearning), including Building Faith (buildfaith.org), eFormation (eformationvts.org), and Episcopal Teacher (episcopalteacher.org), which are accessible from anywhere in the world at the click of a mouse. The Lifelong Learning hub houses an extensive curriculum collection and foundational texts to support Christian Education courses and in-person consultations.
As the 21stcentury unfolds, Bowman’s vision to help Christian leaders teach the Gospel throughout the world will continue to thrive in different ways, under new names, and with fresh leadership. New and exciting models will emerge, as they did in the past. And God’s people—of all ages—will be served.
This article first appeared in Episcopal Teacher: Winter 2019 Special Issue, pages 4-7