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An unlikely leader

APCE’s Educator of the Year sees education as act of ‘unbinding’

February 2, 2010

Photo: Jann Treadwell

Jann Treadwell

NASHVILLE

 Jann Treadwell’s background might not be typical of church educators. She didn’t go to Sunday school or Vacation Bible School. She went to only one youth group meeting. And she didn’t major in education in college.

But those facets of Treadwell’s life have not diminished her impact and skill in educational ministry. In fact, she has become a force in Christian education, most recently exemplified by her being named Educator of the Year by the Association of Presbyterian Church Educators.

“To be presented as APCE’s Educator of the Year is mind-boggling given my history,” Treadwell said.

Treadwell’s husband, John, is a fourth-generation Presbyterian, and many of the couple’s early dates were at church.

“I came to the Presbyterian Church through lust evangelism,” she joked at the awards presentation, held at APCE’s annual event here Jan. 27-30.

After marrying, the Treadwells joined a church in Dallas. She began teaching Bible stories to fifth- and sixth-grade students. It was through these classes that Treadwell herself learned the Bible stories, working to keep one week ahead of the lesson plans.

She later entered the Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University, where she earned a master’s in Religious Education. It was there that she learned more about Presbyterian traditions.

“I felt like Cinderella — the Presbyterian shoe fit,” Treadwell said.

Unbinding, with God’s help

One Bible verse in particular has stuck with Treadwell, and she used it to describe her thoughts on Christian education.

The story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead includes the phrase “Unbind him, and let him go” (John 11:44).

For Treadwell, unbinding is what educators are meant to do. They unbind people from their biases, freeing them, “to help them be all they can be.”

This work does not mean ripping off bindings, especially with children and youth, she said. Educators don’t tell them their ideas are wrong, implying that there’s one answer to questions. Instead, Presbyterian educators believe in the priesthood of all believers and invite students to ask questions and voice doubts.

“As educators, unbinding, with God’s help,” is the work we do,” Treadwell said.

Unbinding requires relationships. In education, this means equipping and empowering others with whom you work. Treadwell encouraged staff educators to work with other employees, volunteers and groups to come up with ideas.

And Treadwell herself has been unbound by other educators, who she said have helped free her from lack of self-confidence and biased world views. She also credited the youth she has served for 22 years.

“I have learned as much from them as they might have learned from me,” she said.

Treadwell is also a “tiger” when it comes to advocacy on behalf of youth, said her friend and presenter, Mary Marcotte, who works at the Presbytery of New Covenant.

At the 218th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) (2008), Treadwell was the overture advocate for adolescent development resources, including human sexuality. The overture was approved and was a response to the 217th GA (2006) decision to stop distribution of such curriculum.

Those materials had taught adolescents how to view sexuality with God’s purpose in mind, Treadwell said. Throwing away the materials and teaching abstinence-only education disallowed the realities of current culture and presented a shallow and unrealistic view to youth, she said.

Treadwell said the youth she works with want to know what God says about human sexuality and culture, she said.

Treadwell ended by saying that unbinding happens both ways and that together, communities work at this task.

“I am a most unlikely educator, but God has placed many people of all ages on this journey to shape me,” she said. “I let go, and simply give thanks to God.”

Lifetime Achievement Award

Also honored on Jan. 29 was Evelyn Edwards, who was presented with APCE’s Lifetime Achievement Award.

Described by presenter Bruce Harvey as a “rock” for children and adults, Edwards served as director of Children’s Ministry at First Presbyterian Church in Greensboro, N.C., for 22 years.

Edwards encouraged fellow educators to stay connected and help one another.

“We are the ones who are encouraging and supporting those around us,” she said, adding that educators also need support. “We must go out of our way to befriend other educators.”

Edwards said she is thankful for growing up in a faithful Presbyterian family. She also credited a former pastor who encouraged her to get involved in Christian education. He saw in her things she didn’t see in herself, Edwards said.

“We can do that for each other,” she said, adding that Christian education is about nourishing gifts and sharing faith.

“Ours is a ministry of encouragement,” she said. “It’s not about numbers. It’s not about percentages.”

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