Last year, Paula Zavitz completed a goal that she had been working toward for nearly a decade: becoming a certified Christian educator in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).
Zavitz, who works as director of children’s ministries at First Presbyterian Church in Rapid City, South Dakota, is the only certified Christian educator in her presbytery and state.
Certification is designed to recognize and enhance the ministries of professional church educators through an intensive program of study, mentoring, service, and examination. The process “was a lot of work,” Zavitz says, but it affirmed her calling. “It made me feel I was in the place God wanted me to be.”
Zavitz was already working at First Presbyterian Church when her pastor told her about the Association of Presbyterian Church Educators (APCE) and encouraged her to attend one of their annual events. It was there that she learned about the certification process.
Zavitz recalls that when she first began telling church colleagues about educator certification, “they had to look in the Book of Order to see what it was.” But her congregation and presbytery supported her as she worked with an educator certification advisor to fulfill the requirements.
She says the courses she took—some at APCE events and others at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary—were very helpful. A course in Reformed theology deepened her understanding of the Christian faith.
“It’s not what people hear in popular media about what Christians believe,” she explains. “People come to me and ask me things, and now I feel I can give a response that is helpful and true and aligned with what our pastor would say.”
The courses required for certification are biblical interpretation, Reformed theology, religious education theory and practice, worship and sacraments, human growth and faith development, Presbyterian polity, and Presbyterian program and mission.
Building relationships with other church educators is another benefit of the certification process, Zavitz says. She can’t drive across town for coffee with a colleague, but she can pick up the phone and ask for advice about an educational strategy or for resources on a particular topic. “I have a network of people I can call on for help.”
Gaining a support network is one of the benefits cited most frequently by people who have gone through the certification process, says Martha Miller, manager of ruling elder resources and educator certification for the Office of the General Assembly. “People who take the courses together often find a network of people they’ve bonded with,” she observes.
Certification also provides recognition and protection for educators, Miller says. Presbyteries are expected to maintain minimum standards for salaries and benefits of certified educators. The PC(USA) Book of Order grants Certified Christian Educators voice at presbytery meetings and voice and vote if they are ruling elders. Certified educators are also granted “access to the area of presbytery that oversees ministry” (G-2.1103b), which means they have oversight by the presbytery’s commission on ministry.
Miller says there are approximately 650 certified educators in the PC(USA) and about 180 people currently working toward certification.
When a person decides to become certified, “it makes a strong statement,” says Elaine Barnett, who has been a certified educator for thirty years. “It’s saying, ‘I want to be recognized for what I do, and I want to have accountability.’”
Barnett has worked in congregations and served on the staff of the Presbytery of Tampa Bay. Now retired, she is the Education Certification Advisor for seven people in three Florida presbyteries who are working toward certification.
She says certification benefits not only educators but the congregations in which they serve. For example, Barnett tells the story of a session member in the congregation where she was working when she began the certification process. This elder “didn’t see Christian education as much more than Sunday school for children,” she says.
“But as part of the group that worked with me [toward certification], she began to see what Christian education can be in the life of a congregation. She saw the possibilities and became an advocate for me.”
Barnett believes certification is more important than ever today, when growing numbers of church educators are entering the field without having studied Christian education in college or seminary. These “homegrown educators,” as she calls them, often bring to the job deep faith and valuable skills in teaching or administration.
The certification process, Barnett explains, builds on those strengths and helps educators “understand working in the church as a calling.”
Many church educators begin working in their congregations as volunteers, teaching Sunday school and vacation Bible school, or leading the youth program. Zavitz began her professional life in secular education. But volunteer work in the church led eventually to her job as director of children’s ministries.
Now that she is certified, she says, “I feel I’m better equipped to do the work I do.”
Zavitz says the costs of certification—tuition fees, travel expenses, etc.—may discourage some from entering the process. Congregations and presbyteries should help with those costs, she believes, because ultimately they will share the benefits. They will have well-equipped professionals leading their educational programs.
“I think the church is better when its leaders have a deep understanding of the faith,” Zavitz says.
Resources and information about the certification process are available at www.pcusa.org/christianeducators. Miller says the redesigned website features a tab for congregations, offering tools to help churches learn about certification so they can encourage their educators to begin the process.