Over thirty years ago the congregation I serve as pastor stepped out in faith to establish a faith-based primary school. The congregation and the school are physically co-located and share some spaces in common e.g. the school regularly uses our worship space and the congregation uses school rooms from time to time. It is, however, one thing for a congregation and a school to be physically near; it is another thing for them to maintain and develop a strong partnership in ministry and mission. Sadly, there are many examples in my denomination of faith-based schools and congregations which have drifted apart over the years, becoming functionally separate in their respective foci and activities.
One of my key ministry goals since commencing in my current call has been to reinvigorate and energize the relationship between congregation and school. An initial step was for the congregation, in conversation with the school, to employ a part-time School Ministry Worker (SMW). In short, the purpose of the role is to lead the congregation in blessing the school community and to facilitate congregational connections with the life and ministry of the school. Since beginning her employment earlier this year, our SMW has organised a Shrove Tuesday breakfast for the school students (served by congregational members), coordinated a Holy Week “reflection stations” event for all school classes (overseen by congregational members), assisted with school camps and excursions, and provided pastoral care to students and staff. She has also played a key role in preparing for once-a-term Sundays we call our “Community Sundays” … Sundays on which persons of our congregation and school community are invited to come together in celebration. We work hard to involve school students (on a voluntary basis) in our Community Sunday Worship Services. With the help and coordination of our SMW, school students have presented readings, written and shared prayers, prepared artwork for display, sung in choirs, and presented dramas and liturgical dance. After each Community Sunday Service we have also had what we call “Experience” events … these consist of themed activity stations for persons of all ages to “do”, relate and reflect. And we have had food! Congregational attenders have been asked to show hospitality to our school community visitors be bringing a plate of morning tea to share, and we have provided a low cost Sausage Sizzle.
One of the outcomes of our Community Sunday Services has been some “new” attendance by school families at our other Sunday Worship Services (we have a very mixed school community, both culturally and spiritually). Our visibility to school households has certainly increased as we have expressed to them our desire to connect, relate and serve. Beyond that, however, I am confident that the Holy Spirit is at work through all the various ways our congregation and school sow the seeds of God’s word and embody the life of God.
The theme for our last Community Sunday was “Growing”. The key Bible passage for the Sunday was the Parable of the Sower and the Seed (the “stalks of wheat” visual display contained “grains” submitted by congregational attenders, each recording a favourite Bible verse). This Bible passage was especially appropriate because, as part of the Service, we gifted Lion First Bible Storybooks to fifteen Reception students of the school (the “back story” is that these Storybooks were directly donated by members of our congregation, many of whom personalized their gifts on a slip pasted into one or more). Then at the school’s weekly worship gathering the next Wednesday, over fifty more were presented by some of our congregational members. Since then, it has been wonderful to hear stories of how these Bible storybooks have been received in the homes of school households, including many for whom Sunday worship is not the practice. Today our SMW recounted a story she has heard one such home of a Reception student. The student so loves her Storybook that she “carries it everywhere”. In other homes, children insist on being read to (or read for themselves) from their Storybooks every night at bedtime. Seeds have been thrown out onto the fields and shoots of faith are bursting forth, just as God has promised (see Isaiah 55:10-11).
There are many chapters still to unfold in our efforts to better partner as congregation and school. We are currently exploring the merits of Prayer Spaces. In the future, we may look at engaging congregational members as mentors for school students (see Kids Hope). In all of this, I am confident that God is leading the way. As we act in faith, God is surely beneath us, alongside us and ahead of us. God will produce God’s fruit in God’s time … we, for our part, need to be ready to walk with our God, and to cast out into the fields whatever seeds are placed into our hands.