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Interview with Church School Director Rebekah Yergo: My Overwhelming "Yes!"

Rebekah Yergo is entering her fifth year as the Church School Director at St. John Chrysostom Antiochian Orthodox Church in York, PA. The church school enrolls an average of 80 students, with classes organized by groups of 2-3 grade levels and high school students together in one class. Many thanks to Rebekah for being willing to share her experience with other directors. 

How were you called to this role/what led you to this role?

An opening became available and our parish priest approached me and asked me if I would serve. There are moments in time that you just know it’s a ‘God moment’. This was one of them for me because I said yes, just as he completed the initial question and without any elaborating. I felt this bubbling up, overwhelming yes come out of my mouth before it even registered in my brain what the question was. There are only a couple of other times I’ve felt this way about a path I’ve followed, and I’ve got to say, I like it when God makes it that obvious. It has been a fantastic journey so far.

Which curricula do you use for Sunday classes?

We have an eclectic mix; a couple of our seasoned teachers have created their own that best fits their classroom needs. We have a couple of classes that use the Greek courses and some that use varying OCEC offerings. Every third year we offer The Way, The Truth, The Life for grades 7-9. We have not found a consistent plan that works for all our teachers and all our students. Flexibility is very important in meeting people where they are both in skill and need, but one aim I have for this year is to re-evaluate the program as a whole and to address any holes in the education being provided. This will hopefully result in expanding our classes to adult/ parent education. Living out the faith and Christian education in the home is key to providing an environment where children can grow spiritually, morally and then come together socially to connect to the larger body of Christ in the church setting.

What types of Christian education events/classes for students are held in addition to Sunday Church School?

Every August we offer Vacation Church School. We just successfully expanded this program to include through grade 12 last year and are working toward solidifying the new normal. We want to include camp-like fun and give opportunities to participate to students and adults alike that cannot make the commitment during the year to any programs. Another goal I have in the years to come is expanding this event and turning it into a family camp with adult education and leadership building. We shall see if or how this will develop.

We have a yearly pageant which is lots of fun, but also LOTS of work. Our staff, parents and volunteers have worked very hard to pull together as a team to educate and encourage the kids, giving them a creative opportunity to learn about their faith and how to work together as the body of Christ. Verbalizing and expressing their faith in this way has been very uplifting and a good experience for them all. We have worked hard to make it a fun event that even teenagers want to participate in!

In the past, we brainstormed a way to be accountable for what we do in the classroom setting; a way to become more visible and connected to those who don’t come or participate, and as a way to encourage people to be faithful in attendance and volunteer in the programs. We came up with Recognition Day. On this day, at the close of the Sunday School year, teachers take turns telling the congregation a brief summary of their classroom ages, activities, goals or a funny anecdote. They then recognize students for attendance, participation and any measurable goals that they achieved in the year. Graduates are recognized on this day, and this year we will be recognizing the teachers as well. I am working towards implementing Scripture memorization for all ages for the coming year’s goals.

How do you recruit staff/volunteers?

Potential staff are personally asked after conferring with the priest. We ask for volunteers for each of our events, and I even created a booklet describing all of our programs and future programs that we’d like to see developed. Emails, announcements, newsletters, meetings and phone calls are all used. Most times these do not render new volunteers; only the standby ones come or communicate with me about needs to be met. I’ve found that new recruits and volunteers must be individually asked, in person, with a clear objective and timeframe, done in humility and love while relaying your excitement and vision for whatever said program you’re working on. Ultimately, it’s not about a program, it’s about relationships. Programs can provide a place and environment for meeting God and learning about the faith, but it’s in relationship building that the faith is lived out.

What are some of your short-term and long-term goals for your church school?

Creating an environment of zeal for the Lord; a love of Scripture and neighbor; knowledge of the history of the church are all important. From what I’ve seen, the love and knowledge of Scripture needs more nurturing in the framework of the program. Adjustments to how we do Bible Bowl and the addition of Bible Jeopardy or Memory Masters programs may help improve the environment/desire to grow in God’s Word. I want to relay to the children that the words of God in scripture is the Word of God Himself speaking to us. We discover who He is through His Word. It is vital that we pursue this.

Long-term goals include the above, as well as development of youth choir, family camp, summer Sunday school program and outreach programs.

What advice do you have for parishes wishing to establish/grow their church school? 

Pray. Research. Don’t be afraid to try something your parish has never done. Be aware that a different model than the one you’re using could vastly improve your student’s desire to participate. Don’t think you must follow a model at all. No matter what, make sure your staff and students know they are loved. They are wanted, they are needed; they are an important part of the body of Christ. Pray with them in class. Pray for them when they are absent. Reach out to families that do not come regularly, at all, or have suddenly changed their habits. They might need your help. Pray some more. Walk in love (which is not always easy - at least for me. Lord have mercy).