Joshua Archey had some reservations at first about becoming a Christian educator.
It’s not that he wasn’t already an experienced teacher, ruling elder, Christian education committee member, Sunday school volunteer, and—not least of all—a loving parent of a five and a two-year old. He was all of those things.
But when his home congregation, the First Presbyterian Church of Farmington, Mich., asked him last year to step up as the interim director of Christian education, the seasoned educator—certified to teach German and mathematics at the secondary level in the state of Michigan—was sensitive to the fact that he holds no such credential in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).
But all of that is now changing.
The whole process began when the church’s former director of Christian education gave her notice to the personnel committee in 2014, not long after Archey had been ordained as a ruling elder.
After the search to find her successor had begun, Archey recalls that the personnel chair kept coming back to the session month after month to report that there were still no applications for the position, prompting Archey to approach the Christian education director himself prior to her departure.
“When I told her that I didn’t want to see the Sunday school and youth programming at church fall through the cracks once she had left, she told me, ‘I think you’d be great in this position,’” Archey says. “Then I thought I should also talk to the pastor to see what he thought.”
Once Archey had spoken with the Rev. Jim Faile, the church’s interim pastor—who encouraged him to apply—an interview soon followed, and Archey officially became First Church’s interim director of Christian education in July 2014. Not long thereafter, he began the process to become a certified Christian educator in the PC(USA).
“I had a lot of doubts about being the right person for this job, but my presbytery certification advisor [Sherrill Heinrichs], asked me, ‘Do you love Jesus Christ and the kids,’” recalls Archey, “and she said, ‘That’s all that matters. You don’t need to be certified in Christian education. Just care for them and show them you love them.’”
He presses on because he sees the role of the Christian educator as vital not only to his particular congregation but also to the larger body of Christ.
“I think it’s critical that our kids and our youth have role models that they can look up to outside of their school and home environments,” Archey says. “When they come to church—whether it’s two times a month or every week—they should feel like there’s a place for them, that someone cares about them, and there’s someone there other than their parents they can talk to if they have a concern.”
Archey creates such an environment not only by building relationships with the church’s young people—often attending their school and other outside activities—but especially by teaching them the stories of the Bible.
“The Bible is timeless,” he says. “I think of stories about all sorts of different people, many of whom are just regular people. We’ve been talking in Sunday school and children’s time about how Jesus called ordinary people to be his disciples.”
“Just because we’re ordinary doesn’t mean we’re not special in God’s eyes.”
Archey’s commitment to modeling to each child that he or she is unique and special is also reflected in the denomination’s new children’s curriculum, Growing in Grace & Gratitude, which he has ordered for use by the church starting this fall.
An important new feature of the curriculum, published by the Presbyterian Mission Agency’s Congregational Ministries Publishing, is that it offers church leaders support for children with disabilities and special needs.
The Stories, Colors & More component of Growing in Grace & Gratitude includes a “Children with Disabilities and Special Needs Support Map” that helps leaders become familiar with developmental terms and descriptions, and provides ideas for enabling all children to participate in various activities.
“It’s nice in that it reminds you to meet the students where they are and helps us to make each lesson understandable and accessible to them,” Archey says. “It reminds us that people learn in many different ways. If an arts and crafts project won’t work well for your group, for example, you can select from among the multiple activity choices that touch on children's different ways of learning.”
Because the church currently has one student on the autism spectrum and Archey’s own 5-year old son has some sensory-tactile issues and doesn’t like to “get his fingers in messy things,” Archey says that having several different activity options to accompany each lesson is good.
“One size doesn’t fit all,” he says.
The inclusion aspect of the new curriculum is close to Archey’s heart for another important reason. He has mild cerebral palsy. And while he is not wheelchair bound, he does walk with a limp.
“People have talked to my wife about it, asking her if I am okay,” he says. “I’d rather have it be out there. I’d rather they ask, and have their questions answered.”
Inclusion, Archey says, is about making everyone feel loved and accepted. Himself included, especially as he takes on life’s new challenges.
“Everyone deserves an equal opportunity,” says Archey. “In my experience people make assumptions that don’t always turn out to be true. You can prove people wrong, whether it is a learning disability or a physical disability, as in my case.”
“Everybody has challenges,” he says, “they’re just in different forms.”