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‘Be strong and courageous’

APCE Educator of the Year encourages others to realize their value, increase expectations

February 9, 2011

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M.

Calling it “overwhelming” and an “incredible honor,” Ginny Ward Holderness accepted the Association of Presbyterian Church Educators’ annual Educator of the Year award Feb. 4.

Holderness is a graduate of Westminster College and the Presbyterian School of Christian Education. She now serves as consultant for Christian education at First Presbyterian Church in Wilmington, N.C.

The Rev. Brian Blount, president of Union Theological Seminary, introduced Holderness as a “tiny package” of “boundless energy, frenetic joy, insatiable passion, and herculean faith.” Holderness is a skilled mentor, teacher, leader, preacher and speaker, he said.

And Holderness displayed these traits in her acceptance speech, taking the opportunity to urge her fellow educators to keep their standards high for their work, their students and their callings.

“What I love about APCE is it’s a community of encouragers,” she said, adding that “We encouragers are losing our courage. We are running on scared.”

There is much talk about how the world is changing and how the church is no longer at the center of it. But instead of recognizing this change, many educators have thrown in the towel, she said. Educators assume Christian education isn’t valued. They assume Christian educators are seen as little more than Sunday school teachers with no theological depth. They see the decreasing job security and benefits that come with their careers. And they fall into a funk.

“Well, APCE, we know better,” Holderness said. “Educators, there should be no question about your value.”

Buying into the buzz of what culture says causes some educators to lose their courage, she said. For example, culture says people won’t commit, so educators lower their expectations of church members, asking them to sign up to teach Sunday school once in a while instead of asking them to make a yearlong commitment.

Even though a strong student-teacher relationship is essential to faith development, educators believe the buzz and run scared, Holderness said.

But no matter what the buzz says, three things still hold true:

  • People are looking for what gives their lives meaning
  • People want to make a difference
  • Relationships are key

People will be motivated by educators’ passion and energy, Holderness said. They will commit to things that give their lives meaning. This task sounds easy, but it won’t be as long as educators are ruled by fear.

“You don’t expect much, you won’t get much,” she said.

Another problem plaguing educators is ownership and territorialism. Many educators feel the need to do it all, but that way of operating means “we burn ourselves out instead of inviting others in,” she said.

Educators know well the joy of seeing a student grasp an idea and begin to grow their faith, Holderness said.

“Who are you to keep that experience to yourself?” she asked.

Holderness spoke on Joshua 1:9, “I hereby command you: Be strong and courageous; do not be frightened or dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.”

God is not merely making a suggestion to Joshua; God is commanding him to be strong and courageous, Holderness said. And God commands the same of educators.

Lifetime Achievement Awards

Two APCE members were also honored with Life Achievement Awards, which honor retired educators.

Martha Bess DeWitt served Westminster Presbyterian Church in Nashville, Tenn., for 25 years. She was that church’s first educator.

DeWitt grew up in the hills of eastern Tennessee, where her family was very involved in the local Presbyterian church. They prayed together every morning and night, and the family’s knowledge of God sustained them in life and death.

When her grandmother dies, DeWitt was afraid to go to the funeral because she had never been to one before. But when she arrived at the funeral, she was relieved to find that it was just church, a place where she had long been nurtured.

“In that church, I met a man who said and did such amazing things that I wanted to follow him,” DeWitt said.

She took that passion for Jesus into her work as an educator, introducing children to that same man.

Barbara Murphy said being honored by educators — some of her biggest inspirations — was “unbelievable.”

Murphy taught Christian education at California churches before becoming involved with the Presbytery of Los Ranchos, where she served in a variety of positions. She eventually took on a full-time call, which included working with Christian education for all ages, a resource center, church development, congregational studies, pastor nurturing and ethnic ministries.

Through this work of supporting the ministry of educators ended up nurturing her, Murphy said, adding that educators encourage people to live out their faith and make the world a better place.

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