Thursday, May 16, 2019

A Team Approach to Sunday School Leadership

The following interview is with the Sunday School Leadership Team at Saint George Antiochian Orthodox Cathedral in Coral Gables, Florida. Although their's is not a small church school, the concept of team leadership is undoubtedly familiar in smaller parishes where volunteers wear many hats. Sharing the leadership responsibilities of a church school can make it manageable rather than overwhelming.

The Saint George Sunday Church School has an interesting leadership structure. There is a principal, vice principal, and a team of officers and coordinators. The official role and responsibilities of the Principal are defined as, “In charge of curriculum development and implementation. Maintaining a standard of student behavior designed to command respect and minimize classroom interruptions. Orienting/training staff.  Planning and conducting faculty meetings as necessary; planning and implementing Recognition Sunday Program.” A brief description of the additional positions are as follows:
Vice Principal - Support and assist Principal in all areas.
Secretary - Take minutes of meetings, keep all Sunday School records, maintain files at Church office.
Treasurer - Responsible for the financial management and reporting of the Sunday School finances.
Public Relations Coordinator - Promote a favorable image for the Sunday School by publicizing events and programs, writing/coordinating material for the newsletter.  Update Sunday School Facebook and Cathedral website information.  Update bulletin boards, photos.
Hallway Monitor - Ensure lights are turned on and classes are set up as needed.  Deliver snacks to each classroom after the teachers arrive. Ensure children stay in their respective classrooms until dismissal bell rings.
First Confession Program Coordinator - Present 2nd-3rd graders with an 11-week program that will explain the Sacraments of Confession in order to prepare the students for their first confession.
Creative Arts Festival Coordinator - Oratorical Festival, Bible Bowl, Art, Photography, Poetry, and Writing for Pre-K-12. (Feb-Mar)
Youth Choir Coordinator - Organize youth choir; maintain records and assist Choir Director to teach/train youth to participate during services and special occasions, especially the Christmas Concert.
Snack Team Coordinator - Create a rotating schedule and coordinate with parents to prepare students’ snacks.
Godparents Sunday Coordinator
Summer Bible School Coordinator

Wafa Omeish serves as Principal. Our thanks to her and the Sunday School team for participating in this interview. Please share with us a little about the Sunday School program at Saint George Cathedral. How many students attend your church school?
For the 2017-2018 Church year there were 85 students enrolled. This current year has an enrollment of 73 students.
How is your church school organized for Sunday classes?
All students proceed to class immediately after Holy Communion. They are served a light snack before the lesson begins. Class concludes at 1pm and students are dismissed into the Church Hall. Elementary students are grouped in classrooms by grade, and 7th-12th grades meet together. We are fortunate to have a Day School attached to the Cathedral (not affiliated with Saint George), and we utilize that classroom space for Sunday Church School.

Which curricula do you use for Sunday classes?
Archdiocese curriculum and other designed materials and activities.

What type(s) of training does the teaching staff participate in?
Seminars conducted by our priest. We have previously had the pleasure of Archdeacon Saed Rihani leading a workshop for teachers. Throughout the church year, there are weekly "check in" meetings with the classes separately.

Do you hold staff meetings? If so, how often and please briefly describe the meetings.
Meetings are held monthly. An agenda is prepared by Sunday School officers, including the review and approval of last meeting minutes, liturgy report, principal report, finance report, public relation report, old business and new business.

How does your parish show appreciation for church school staff?
Staff are recognized and thanked during Recognition Sunday at the end of the Sunday School year. Appreciation gifts are presented to all staff at that time. There is also a staff appreciation dinner at the end of Sunday School year. 

Please describe the First Confession program at Saint George Sunday School.
The First Confession Coordinator incorporates material about the Sacrament of Confession into the existing 2nd-3rd grade curriculum over the course of 11 weeks. Students participate in First Confession on Lazarus Saturday and take Communion as a group the next day (Palm Sunday) as well as on Pascha.  All the participating students dress in white.  Parents are invited to join the students on Lazarus Saturday  for a small reception to celebrate the occasion. 

Please describe the annual Church School Christmas Pageant.
The Cathedral Dean and Principal decide on a program that includes church hymns and religious songs to be performed during a 1-hour presentation the Sunday before Christmas. The presentation takes place at the Church immediately after Liturgy. Rehearsals start about three weeks before and are mandatory.

What are some church school challenges/issues that you did not expect to encounter, and how have you addressed them?
Attendance is low at times. Staff contacts the families to encourage improvement.

What advice do you have for parishes wishing to establish/grow their church school? 
Be organized and creative. Especially stick to the teachings of the Bible, the main component of the Sunday School curriculum. 

Thursday, March 7, 2019

The Best Way To Learn Is To Teach: Sunday School at a Mission Parish

Antiochian Orthodox Department of Christian Education
Interview Series: Church School Directors Throughout the Archdiocese
Nancy McNeil, St. Andrew Antiochian Orthodox Church, Woodway, TX
March 2019

Interview with Nancy McNeil: “The Best Way to Learn is to Teach.”
Please share with us a little about yourself and the St. Andrew Sunday School Program:
I have had the privilege to serve as Sunday Church School director in several different Orthodox parishes for over 20 years. In the 40+ years I have been Orthodox, I have continually worked with GOYA programs and Sunday Church Schools. My job as a public school teacher apparently just carried over into working with children at church.
How many students attend St. Andrew Sunday school? How is the program organized for Sunday classes and how many teachers are assigned per class?
St. Andrew is a smaller, 6-year-old mission parish and has a possible 24 students. Our average SCS attendance on Sundays is 17. We have divided the students into four classes this year with a 2-4 year-old class; a 5-8 year-old class; a 9-13 year-old class; and a high school class. Our youngest class has been blessed with a talented pre-school teacher who works with an aide. Our elementary class has two extremely dedicated teachers who have been working together since before their arrival at St. Andrew. I teach the intermediate/middle school class. Last year we added the high school class and enlisted a wonderful young couple to teach this class. Since we are still a young parish, we have been using the same teachers in each class since our inception. We did have to recruit for the high school class, and I reached out to a young couple who had recently converted and married in the Orthodox Church. They both teach in a local private school. They were slightly hesitant to take the call due to their newness to the church, but I reminded them that sometimes the best way to learn is to teach. They have brought their best teaching methods and their tremendous Biblical background to create a very effective high school class.
Which curricula is used for Sunday classes?
Our curricula fluctuate with our needs. Our pre-school class works without specific curricula and helps the students with the very basics from making the sign of the cross to stories and activities around the feasts or saints of the day. Our elementary class chose to use the “New Life in Jesus” OCEC curriculum this year. When their student group was younger, they used a variety of resources. I have also used a variety of curricula with the intermediate/middle school students. This year we are using the new GOARCH 5th grade “God Calls Us” series. The last several years I have used the OCEC materials for 7th and 8th grade. When we were just beginning our parish and I was teaching all the students together we used an excellent Old Testament curriculum developed by a deacon at our sister church in Austin along with “Let Us Attend.” I will comment that using the “Let Us Attend” with such a wide age group worked quite well for the short time we employed it. As I’m retired, I have the time to glean quite a bit of material from online resources. Our teachers seem to appreciate my sharing my finds with them as additions to our regular curricula.
Do you hold staff meetings? If so, how often and please briefly describe the meetings.
Our short time of being a mission parish, yet, our continuous time working together has allowed our SCS staff to be able to communicate via email thus avoiding physical meetings. This year we had a short meeting in August after our weekly Wednesday vespers service to set our agenda and goals for the coming ecclesiastical year. Since we have been doing much of the same work for several years, we are able to do things such as our Nativity program without extra meetings. We talk at coffee hour, confirm, and communicate via email/text messages.
Describe how the parish recognizes or shows appreciation to Sunday School staff (year-end recognition, appreciation gifts, etc.)
As noted above, our being a small, younger parish means we are short of folks to rotate in and out of parish roles. Many of us have been doing the same work for the parish since its inception. As this is the case, the parish does not tend to recognize individuals; we are all working hard.  Parishioners have shown individual appreciation to our SCS staff and myself; and I attempt to acknowledge my staff at the Nativity. I look forward to when I can hand over the reins of the SCS to someone else and we can rotate roles in a timely manner.
Do St. Andrew Sunday school students participate in the creative arts festivals? If so, how are workshops organized to create entries?
St. Andrew parish is looking forward to participating in the Parish Life Conference in Fort Worth this coming summer. Our physical proximity to the conference will finally allow us to attend, though, one or two of our parishioners have participated in the past. As we are new to the PLC we will not be participating in the creative arts festival but hope to have several Bible Bowl teams. I have encouraged our older students around the creative arts festivals, though, we have yet to organize parish entries or workshops.
Do St. Andrew students organize and participate in events with other Orthodox Christian Sunday schools/youth in the area?
St. Andrew parish has had two events with the local Greek Orthodox parish this past year. My hope is to be able to host Vacation Church School together in the future along with other youth events. St. Andrew has had five successful VCS programs and I look forward to sharing our successes. Other Orthodox parishes are over 50 miles away so our interactions with their youth is difficult. We do encourage our children to participate in the diocese summer camp program and have had good attendance from our parish in the past several years.
What is one piece of advice you would share with fellow Sunday School Directors?
I have been blessed to work with a number of gifted and dedicated church educators and clergy over the years. My godmother, Irene Cassis, has been my inspiration and mentor for all my time in the Orthodox Church as she served as the Religious Education Director for Annunciation Greek Orthodox Cathedral and for the Metropolis of Denver.  Many years ago I was able to participate in several area and/or national Orthodox religious education and youth conferences. I encourage our Sunday Church School teachers and directors to take advantage of as much personal education and networking via conferences, workshops or retreats as they can. I am delighted that both GOARCH and OCEC work hard to keep our religious education materials updated and have been surprised with the number of Orthodox online groups sharing educational materials. I pray that our Orthodox religious education programs continue to develop as beacons of wisdom.

Monday, January 28, 2019

Holy Friday Vigil and Lock-In at a Small Church School

Several parishes encourage youth participation during Holy Friday Vigil - including scripture reading, singing of hymns, and overnight activities. A brochure from TEEN SOYO is available to aid in organizing this event:

Erica Ameen is the director of Sunday School and assistant director of SOYO for St. Thomas Orthodox Church in Sioux City, Iowa. She writes about the Holy Friday Vigil and Lock-In at her parish:

We are a smaller parish, so we have changed things a bit for our vigil from what was done in the past. We do a half night lock in, starting right after the 7:00 PM service Friday night, and we go until midnight. This is open to anyone age 12 and up. To get prepared for the night, I first hang a sign in the church hall asking adult parishioners to sign up for reading times, especially in the first hour of the lock in. The kids give us their food requests, because let's be honest, they have to have all the food. Really, that's as much as we do for prep anymore; if there are new kids that will be attending the lock in for the first time, then we will share about Mary Magdalene and Virgin Mary sitting watch over Christ's tomb, and why we do it today.

We have two goals in doing the lock in: to sit vigil over Christ's tomb (and really prepare our hearts to understand the full reality of Christ's sacrifice for us), and then to strengthen the friendships between our kids. Our students are spread out within multiple schools in the area, and we want to really promote being friends outside of church and Sunday School, and that has happened in a huge way since we started doing the lock in a few years ago.

Our night runs a little like this-
After service we all meet downstairs. While we are setting up, adult members of the church start the readings and keeping vigil.The first thing we do is get everyone signed up for reading times. The kids sign up in pairs for 30-minute time slots. While they are taking turns keeping vigil, we have games going downstairs in the church hall. We have done a variety of games: Left Right Center with dice, Ten-Zee, Popcorn Olympics, Minute To Win It games. Last year, a random game of musical chairs broke out, completely unplanned and totally hilarious to watch. What is really awesome is watching the teens start to relax around each other, and really get to know each other. Someone is always keeping an eye on the clock, and each pair is ready to go up and start their turn to keep vigil. When they are upstairs in the sanctuary, it is their choice how they spend their time. They do go up together, but it is meant to be a personal growth time. Some take turns reading Psalms, some read various prayers, sometimes one will read from the Bible and the other will pray silently. All of them seem to leave the sanctuary with a better understanding of the sacrifice. 

There will be times that we have time slots open towards the end of the night, and we are never short of volunteers to go back up. What is really awesome is that by that point, as we have been playing games and hanging out together, the kids will pair up with someone completely different than their original partner.

For me, the last hour of the Vigil is the most important. As I mentioned before, our kids go to a variety of schools in the area, however it seems that they are all dealing with the same situations in school. Peer pressures, school and home pressures, all sorts of things that maybe don't seem to be such a big deal to adults, but we have to remember that is their life and what they are living. For the last hour of the night, my parent volunteers keep vigil over Christ's tomb while I take all the kids to the teen room for conversation. With the parents not around, the kids seem to open up a little more. During this time, I usually have some conversation starters ready to go, just from what I have seen and heard from the kids in the previous months. (Every Sunday we end Sunday School by praying all together. The kids all get a piece of paper to write prayer requests down, without leaving their names. The teachers of course know by handwriting who has written what, but the things we have learned doing this have been amazing, and that is usually how I get my conversation starters). For the last hour, I listen to these teens support each other, understand each other, give each other advice. I see the older teens helping the younger teens to know it will get better, or this is how I handled a situation just like that. I watch as the kids share their fears, and their accomplishments, and most of all I watch the love of Christ pour out to one another. The playing games at the beginning of the night is always fun, but really its just an ice breaker so that when we get to this point, they are comfortable to be open and honest with each other.

As far as safety is concerned, as soon as everyone has left the 7PM service, all doors are locked in the church. Anybody that would need into the church has to call my phone. We ask the kids leave their phones in coats so we don't have that as a distraction, and parents who aren't volunteering have my number in case of emergency. Boys are girls are not left alone together without a third party, unless siblings are reading together. There is always an adult present with kids.

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Veteran Educator, Thriving SOYO Department, In-House Curriculum, Western Rite Parish

An Interview with Arlyn Kantz
St. Peter Antiochian Orthodox Church, Fort Worth, TX
Arlyn Kantz journeyed from an evangelical background to Orthodoxy seven years ago. She has taught history and Bible at St. Peter’s Classical school for the past six years and has served as director of Christian Education for the parish for the last three. Before becoming Orthodox, she worked in curriculum development for special populations while raising four children. She and Will, her husband of 25 years, recently handed off the reigns of a thriving SOYO department to capable younger hands.

How many students attend your Sunday school? How is your program organized for Sunday classes and how many teachers are assigned per class?
We have approximately sixty children in our parish, birth to eighteen. Twenty-two attend Sunday School on a regular basis. Sunday School meets after mass for forty-five minutes. Our children are organized into three classes: PreK-1st grade, 2nd-6th grade, and then 7th-12th grade. Our two younger classes do not hold firm to the boundary of age, depending on attendance and maturity and the preference of some children to be with a sibling. We do hold a firm line though on attending SOYO, as teens need a space of their own. We are blessed to have two teachers per level. Sometimes teachers rotate every other Sunday and sometimes they team teach depending on what is going on with their personal schedules and the number of children attending each Sunday.

Which curricula do you use for Sunday classes? Please also describe the curriculum created by St. Peter Christian Education Ministry.
SOYO leaders create their own program as they sense the needs of the group and are directly answerable to our priest, Fr. Mark McNary. Younger students are taught using in-house curriculum that has been tested through use in the lower grade Bible classes of our classical school. Sunday school teachers adjust lessons to be more applicable to mixed level classroom and a student population more sporadic in attendance. As lessons are polished, they are added to the parish web site where they are available to teachers to choose from and adjust to their specific needs. Our curriculum is always a work in progress. In fact, we welcome suggestions outside our parish to better serve, if possible, the wider community.
As the first Western Rite director to be interviewed, are there any unique characteristics of St. Peter Sunday school to discuss in comparison to Eastern Rite Sunday schools?
I am not familiar enough with Eastern Rite Sunday School programs to make a qualified comparison. I am confident that they, like us, are striving to make disciples and bring children into contact with the Holy Trinity and His Bride the Church. Because we are situated in a city that home to a large Protestant seminary, it seems good to us that our materials are presented as Bible studies and infused with commentary from the Fathers. We use terms most easily understood by the culture we are trying to reach. The saints and traditions are woven through, but as a support to scriptural interpretation, not as the lesson itself.
How do you keep SOYO/teen students involved and engaged in Sunday school? 
We are blessed with a very supportive priest in the area of teen SOYO. Additionally, we have two energetic and spiritually mature leaders who take the youth into their hearts, praying for them regularly and investing on a personal level. SOYO leadership creates an interactive atmosphere so teenagers are not subjected to simply a second sermon by an adult figure, but are given the freedom to interact, both asking and answering spiritual questions. A mixed set of activities are rotated including crafts, group building, introspection, and sharing.

Do members of your SOYO/teen group organize and participate in events outside of Sunday school?
SOYO youth provide leadership for younger students at the parish’s annual Vacation Bible School. This past year the teens created and manned games at a fall festival outreach for the local community. Youth leaders also issue challenges to encourage spiritual awareness during the week and fellowships are held in private homes.
Please share with us about your Sunday school Lenten programs/activities/outreach.
During Holy Week the youth lead off by manning the first hour of the Paschal vigil.
Do you have advice on how to schedule teacher training events and how to prevent teacher burnout? Are there any resources that you utilize for your own development and enrichment?
Teachers meet a couple time a year informally but most of our communication happens in passing and by email. Most of our volunteers are veteran educators so it is very much a team approach. Most of us come from Protestant backgrounds and are on a bit of an adventure rediscovering the Bible through the eyes of the Fathers. We very much lean on the commentary found in the Orthodox Study Bible and Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture by Manlio Simonetti. Teacher burnout is always a danger but having two adults committed to each classroom helps ease the problem. We are always looking for and praying about the inclusion of fresh volunteers, guarding against a sense of ownership of a particular ministry.

Are there students with special needs in your Sunday school ministry, and how have you addressed and accommodated those needs so that all students feel welcomed?
We have one student with severe autism who attends SOYO every week. The youth and their leaders have a deep appreciation for his purpose in the Body of Christ and are naturally inclusive. A presentation was given to the ladies group specially about autism and it seems to have affected positively the whole parish body.

Thursday, December 13, 2018

Interview with Church School Director at Holy Trinity Orthodox Church, Little Rock, Arkansas

The latest interview in the ongoing series with church school directors throughout the Antiochian North American Archdiocese is with Sammye Fuller, Director of the (small) church school at Holy Trinity Orthodox Church in Little Rock, Arkansas.

From the Antiochian Orthodox Department of Christian Education (AODCE):

Sammye shares what is it like inside the Holy Trinity small church school…
How they creatively work with resources...
How they structure classes...
What curriculum/technology is being used...
How they keep teen/SOYO students involved and engaged in Sunday school…

Sammye Fuller: “Supporting Sunday School as a Teacher, Then as Director”

Sammye Fuller is in her seventh year as Sunday School Director at Holy Trinity Antiochian Orthodox Church in Little Rock, Arkansas. The parish has 25 students enrolled for the 2018-2019 school year.

Please share with us a little about yourself:
Technically, I have been the Sunday School Director for about seven years. However, since we did not have a Director before that, and I was the only Sunday School teacher in the beginning, perhaps it has been longer.

How is your church school organized for Sunday classes and how many teachers are assigned per class?
We have four classes. The preschool class is for 2-ish to 5 years old, with one teacher and one or more helpers when available. Parents often stay if needed. The elementary class is 6-9 years old. There is one teacher and usually one helper, sometimes two. The middle school group is 10-12 years old. This class has one teacher. A helper can be added if needed for any class. The high school class is 13-17 years old. However, having so few children in this age group, it meets every other week and has two teachers that share the teaching.

Which curricula do you use for Sunday classes?
Our preschool teacher has material she has collected and created that is used in a three-year cycle: Old Testament, New Testament, and Feasts and Saints. The elementary and middle school classes use Living Our Orthodox Faith. The high school class uses material researched by the two teachers. Additionally, the three older classes meet for 10 minutes at the beginning of class to learn the books of the Bible in preparation for learning to do “sword drills”. We find that quite a few of our children do not make it on time, so we looked for something to do while we gave them a few extra minutes before starting the lesson.

How do you keep teen/SOYO students involved and engaged in Sunday school?
This is a very tricky subject. As a small church, we don't always have children of every age, thus the blended classes. In the years we have had Sunday School, our teenage population has been small, sometimes as few as one. Recruiting teachers is not easy, so using a teacher for one or two students has been a difficult choice. And, the older children don't always want to be added to a younger class. This year we were able to offer a class every other week for our teenagers. They are currently studying the Ecumenical Councils. They will also look at contemporary heresies. The subject matter seems to interest them, and they use smart phones to find information related to the topic during class.

Do you hold staff meetings? If so, how often and please briefly describe the meetings.
No, more email and quick visits at Coffee Hour.

Please share with us about your Christmas program (past and/or present).
The Christmas program is usually a traditional telling of the Nativity, presented by the preschool class during coffee hour. Some years, the older children have taken part.

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Creative Arts Workshops in a Small Church School Setting

The 2019 Creative Festivals Theme was recently announced by the Antiochian Orthodox Archdiocese: 
Antiochian Village: 
Past, Present and Future
“I can do all things through Christ 
who strengthens me.” (Philippians 4:13)

Please note: The Department of Christian Education organizes the Creative Arts Festival which includes art, photography, poetry and creative writing. The Department of Youth organizes the Bible Bowl and the Oratorical Festival—for more information, please click on this link:

Planning for the Creative Festivals in a small church school can be challenging, especially if resources are already stretched and staff are already wearing multiple hats. The key is to be creative with the Creative Festivals! Here are suggestions from a Creative Arts Coordinator at a small church school. 
Joy Wise is Coordinator at St. Thomas Orthodox Church in Snohomish, Washington.

"I made the decision to work on the CAF during Sunday School. I spent time getting familiar with the theme and the lesson plans, which I found invaluable. I was working with middle school aged kids, and spent about three weeks developing the theme with them. I took it in small chunks and encouraged them to relate the theme to what they see/experience in Liturgy. The lesson plans were really great. I looked at the plans for all ages, and ended up using ideas from each of them. I also used a vlog from "Be the Bee." It helped to expand the theme."
Lesson plans for Creative Festivals 2019 for grades PK-12 are available at: 

Gathering Materials for Creative Arts Festival (CAF) Workshops
"I found that it is helpful to have good quality poster board. This is the base of every project. Pay attention to the size requirements of the CAF. I had all kinds of crafting materials: colored pencils, paints, glue, scissors, straight edges, lots of scrapbooking paper and card stock, colored pens, glitter. I gathered it all at sales and with coupons. The main thing is to have the materials displayed in a way that is easy for the students to access. And, it is helpful that the kids have a nice space to work in."
Creative Arts Festival (CAF) Eligibility, Rubrics, Submission Requirements
"Familiarize yourself with the CAF website. Look everything over so that you know the rubrics for each entry. Contact the CAF director for your diocese. Let them know that you will be participating. Ask if you can help them in anyway and if they have any further requirements. You have to think ahead to get ready for shipping the artwork. Make sure that you know the "due date." "

Approach for This School Year
"We are looking at a new year for CAF and a new theme. Since we are a small parish, we have chosen to teach the CAF Theme throughout the year in our Sunday School classes, and will focus on the actual art projects on a quarterly basis. We want to stretch it out in order to develop the theme thoroughly. The theme has so many layers, and we want to make sure that each student has the time to understand the theme and how it relates to Liturgy, to their community, and to themselves. So we will review it throughout the year as we work on the art projects."

Multiple Posters for the 2019 Creative Festivals are available to download and print: 

Thursday, August 30, 2018

Approaching the New Church Year

Dear Sunday School Directors,

As the excitement of the new church year approaches, I greet you with a prayer for the new year that can be shared with church school staff and students:

I am pleased to announce new curriculum is now available from the Antiochian Orthodox Department of Christian Education (AODCE). This curriculum focuses on the life of Christ as shown through the Great Feasts of the Church. Lessons for K-12 students are free to download on the Department's website:

In September's issue of The Word magazine, several Orthodox Christian Education resources are highlighted by the AODCE, including the theme for the 2019 Creative Festivals. Please see the the full version at the end of this post.

By using the following link, you will have access to three Orthodox Christian Christmas plays from Orthodox Witness. These plays are free!

I invite you to join the Facebook community of Orthodox Christian Sunday School directors. The group discusses topics relevant to church school directors and provides support directly from the AODCE and fellow directors. This Fall through Facebook Live video, I will review the new Great Feasts of the Church curriculum, as well as other materials and resources. Please join us!

In Christ,
Anna-Sarah Farha
Associate, Antiochian Orthodox Department of Christian Education