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Interview with Matthew Duncan: the goal is to be engaged with each other

Antiochian Orthodox Department of Christian Education
Interview Series: Church School Directors throughout the Archdiocese
Matthew Duncan, St. Mary Antiochian Orthodox Church, Pawtucket, RI

July 2019

The Goal Is To Be Engaged with Each Other


How long have you served as Church School Director?

This is my first year as Sunday School Director at St. Mary. Before that I taught our teen Sunday School class and was the SOYO adviser.

How many students attend your church school? How is your church school organized for Sunday classes and how many teachers are assigned per class?

We have about 50 students on our rolls (but we don’t get that many on a weekly basis). Currently, our Sunday School is made up of four classes: preschool-kindergarten, 1st-3rd grade, 4th/5th grade, and middle school/high school. Each class has one teacher, except the middle school/high school class, which has two teachers. We also have a music teacher who teaches our students Liturgical music every other week. Our teachers—Jiana Dayekh, Nancy Muller, Holly Lazieh, Elijah Vollendorf, Andrea Vollendorf, and Maureen Gurghigian—are all extremely hardworking and dedicated. We’re very lucky to have them in our Sunday School.

Which curricula do you use for Sunday classes?

Right now each teacher is responsible for their own curriculum—in consultation with me, the other teachers, and our priest, Fr. Elie Estephan. But we are working toward developing a more consistent, coherent curriculum—particularly for the younger classes. Specifically, we are starting to implement an Orthodox version of Catechesis of the Good Shepherd (https://www.cgsusa.org/de...). We’ve done a lot of research on this and talked to a lot of other Sunday School Directors, and Catechesis of the Good Shepherd seems to be the best game in town.

How do you use summer months to prepare for the next church school year?

Last year we started a (now-annual) summer camp for our Sunday School students. It goes all day for a week, and includes Bible and music lessons, arts and crafts, games, etc. We have also been working to provide our parents with resources so that they can continue their students’ religious education at home—whether during the summer or just during the week.

Is there some type training/orientation for teachers during summer/fall months? If so, please describe.

We haven’t had any formal training for our teachers in the past. But we have started meeting regularly to discuss all things Sunday School. We met a bunch of times this past summer and have been meeting monthly during the school year. Also, this summer we hope to have two of our teachers participate in a week-long training session for the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd.

How do you approach potential volunteers for church school? What approach have you found to work best?

I suppose my general approach has been to just start a conversation with potential volunteers—at coffee hour, over email, on the phone, or wherever. These conversations aren’t always about signing up for anything or even about the particulars of Sunday School. Oftentimes I just want to hear their ideas. I suppose this has made it easier to bring people into the Sunday School fold and to ask for help when we need it, though that’s not generally been my intention in starting these conversations. Our parishioners are pretty good about stepping up to the plate when we ask for help—especially, I think, when their ideas are taken seriously.

Please describe how the church school year opens.

Our summer camp is in August. So that serves as a springboard into the Sunday School year. Then, in September, on the first day of Sunday School, Fr. Elie blesses the students and teachers, we then do introductions in the classrooms with students, teachers, and parents. Then we have a special Sunday School luncheon.

Are there plans to develop/implement any new programs or events in the new church school year (2019-2020)? If so, please describe.

Yes. One new project that I am especially excited about is called “The St. Paul Project”. It’s being put together by our teen class teachers/SOYO advisers, Elijah and Andrea Vollendorf, who also happen to work in the tech industry. The St. Paul Project is an online resource for learning about the Orthodox faith. They are launching with a catechism course, but hope to provide a wide variety of courses in the future for all ages with topics including theology, history, music, philosophy, and more.

In addition to this cool new project, we have started a series of liturgical demonstrations—led by Fr. Elie—either before the Liturgy or during the Homily. Topics have included the preparation of the blessed bread, the censer, vestments, confession, and the bier. The aim is to give our students (and adults!) a behind-the-scenes, nuts-and-bolts education about the Liturgy. And the more general aim is get our students more involved in the liturgical life of the church. To this end, our music teacher, Maureen Gurghigian, has also led our students in singing the Communion Hymns during Communion. We aim to have them do a whole Liturgy sometime in the Fall.

We’ve also added a bunch of social/fellowship events to our calendar—my wife, Megan, and another parishioner, Nancy Sterpis, have been handling event planning. We’ve gone bowling, roller skating, had a harvest party and a one-day Church camp, for example. This year we hope to have some events where the adults can interact more with each other while their kids are doing some activity.

By the time this interview comes out, we will also have hosted a YES (Youth Equipped to Serve; https://yesnorthamerica.org/) trip at our parish. We hope to make that a regular thing. And, toward the end of this summer, the folks at “Be the Bee” are coming to our parish to lead a retreat for our kids, parents, and teachers. Then, of course, there’s also our implementation of Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, which has benefited from the hard work of our teachers—especially Nancy Muller and Jiana Dayekh, whose classes are most directly impacted.

So we have a lot of new things going on. The goal is be engaged with each other—students, teachers, parents, Fr. Elie—on a more consistent basis, because we realize that Orthodox education isn’t, and can’t be, just be a once-a-week, one hour thing.

Please describe almsgiving/outreach programs at St. Mary Church School.

In addition to our YES trip, our students have been involved in several one-off outreach events. For example, each year we put together thanksgiving baskets for some nearby folks who could use some help. Also, this past year, around Christmas time, we collected gifts that we then distributed to kids in less fortunate circumstances. Our SOYO has also done some things—I know this year they plan to start a monthly raffle during coffee hour that will directly benefit outreach. We have also partnered with our parish-wide outreach committee to help with their soup kitchen and food pantry.

I want to do more of this. And I would love to find a consistent, long-term connection with some outreach program. This is super important to me. In fact, I consider outreach to be absolutely essential to Orthodox education.