By Josh Gibbon
Is it worth the effort? This is the question we asked experienced Special Religious Education (SRE) teachers and providers. Their answers will inspire you and give you some practical tips in developing a fruitful SRE ministry.
If you mention the letters ‘SRE’ around Stephen Cathcart, senior pastor of Southern Illawarra COC, he lights up.
I asked him why SRE (a.k.a. scripture teaching) in schools is still a valuable ministry, and before I could finish my sentence, Stephen said: “We often say, ‘We’ve got to reach the lost!’ and ‘How are we going to do this?’ and just down the road is a local school where we have access to be involved as a Christian in this community.
“If you’re praying for a heart for evangelism, hey, this is the place! Some people get excited when three non-Christians turn up to church, whereas every week I probably speak to 40, 50, 60 non-Christian people every Wednesday morning!”
“Scripture teaching has been a high priority in my role as a pastor because it just opens so many doors to ministry in the local area. We can’t just complain about the younger generation … we’ve got to be involved in shaping it. Scripture teaching is the place to be.”
Inspired by Stephen’s passion, I searched a bit further and asked other experienced SRE teachers and providers: “Why should we and how can we develop fruitful SRE ministries in local schools?”
Here are some stories, stats, and tips they passed on to me to inspire, motivate, and enable your church to get involved in SRE in your local area.
Two stories of ‘fruit’
Rosemary Payne from Campbelltown COC has been teaching SRE at Ambarvale Public School for five years. She is passionate about this ministry and loves to encourage her church to get involved. Her belief in SRE is partly due to its role in her coming to faith at a young age.
Rosemary loves building relationships with students, staff, and the local community. She volunteers her time outside of her SRE class hours to serve practically, which is often where she sees the greatest fruit.
Due to the school’s trust in her, Rosemary was given a beautiful opportunity to serve a little while ago.
She shared: “We had a very sad incident a few years ago where one of the teachers of the school was sadly diagnosed with a brain tumour, and she passed away. The whole school community was just devastated. Because I knew the lady, and I knew the staff, who were just hanging on by a thread, I went to the principal and just said, ‘Look, the kids know me, and I know the kids. I’d like to offer you my help for that afternoon when the funeral is on when the kids might need someone else to talk to.’
“I just hung around with them at a memorial garden they had set up. Some of the kids had a cry. I knew the lady was a committed Catholic, and I was able to tell the kids I think she had faith in God, and I think she’s okay now because God has her. I wasn’t speaking to them as a teacher, I was speaking to them as someone who knew about faith.”
Stephen Cathcart shared from his experience of 24 years of SRE teaching that one of the greatest fruits he’s seen has been the way it brings churches together across denominations. Together, churches in the Illawarra have built strong relationships with schools and families, seeing youth ministries grow and being continually invited to be more involved in schools.
“In 2018, one of our local primary schools, Tallimba Public School, asked us if we could please get a Bible for their school library because the kids were coming in asking if the library had a Bible so they could prepare for their scripture lessons.
“There wasn’t funding through the Department of Education for this, so we said yes, we will buy three different Bibles for the three different stage groups. Anyway, we let that news out to the other schools, and they didn’t want to be outdone, so they asked for Bibles for their libraries.
“And then we were invited along to the assembly of the school to present the librarian with the Bibles. When we did, the librarian grabbed the microphone and started showing the students and explaining how to use them. She basically did my scripture lesson for me!”
The current need
CEO of Christian SRE, Murray Norman, said there is a great need for new SRE teachers as kids are asking the big questions of life more than ever in response to the pandemic and bushfires of the past two years.
“Young people and families have been asking a lot of questions, like: “Where does hope come from? My world’s out of control; are there answers?” And when they go looking, faith is one of the places that people can find answers.”
Before lockdown, Christian SRE was aware of 10,500 SRE teachers across 2300 NSW schools teaching approximately 380,000 children across an average school week.
Christian SRE predicts a need for 20 per cent more teachers in the new year due to retirement and the inability of some teachers to return to SRE teaching after lockdown. That’s 2100 new teachers needed in 2022. Currently, Fresh Hope churches contribute 60 teachers across 93 schools in NSW.
Kate Haggar from Why SRE?, a ministry of Anglican Youthworks, said that the 2020 and 2021 lockdowns had been the longest pause in SRE since the Public Education Act in 1880.
As SRE teachers begin to enter school again, Murray and Kate want to encourage the local church to consider their commitment to this ministry. They both believe the next few months is the perfect time to begin preparing for a successful 2022.
Building a fruitful SRE ministry in your church
So, what can we be doing now to be ready for the beginning of 2022? Whether you’re just considering getting SRE started in your church, or if you’ve been doing it for a while, here are some tips from experienced SRE teachers that will help you build strong and fruitful SRE ministries.
There are four key words of advice that have been common across the SRE teachers I interviewed. They are: Trust, Team, Time, and Training
Trust. The goal of a successful SRE ministry should not be about just getting into schools and teaching classes. It should be about building relationships of trust with the staff, parents, and kids. The greater the level of trust built, the greater the opportunities that have unfolded for SRE teachers in local communities.
Team. The most successful, long-lasting SRE ministries are those that established a team within and across churches. This ministry is not a one-person job. Just like any ministry, it takes a tribe. If you want to start strong, start by developing a small team of teachers, prayer partners, and support members within your church. Consider starting a team in collaboration with other churches in your area that may also need more support. The more people that believe in this ministry, the healthier it will be.
Time. As with any successful ministry, a flourishing SRE ministry takes time. Consider how to set your SRE team up for the long term. What do you hope this ministry to look like in two to five years?
As in Rosemary and Stephen’s case, the greatest opportunities that have opened to them have been due to the time they’ve put in outside of class hours. It’s this time of practical service and relational intentionality that builds trust. Without this, SRE ministry can become quite one-dimensional, becoming confined to the classroom.
Training. The biggest barrier to finding volunteers has been the intimidation around the task of managing a classroom. Volunteers rarely succeed when they are thrown in by themselves unless they have a background in education. Instead, see if you can send your volunteers in with other experienced SRE teachers to shadow them for a few weeks.
Before entering schools, volunteers are required to undertake a six-module course that covers SRE legislation, curriculum, class management, some theology, and some theory on child development and learning styles to prepare volunteers well. Now is the perfect time to get volunteers started on this!
Christian SRE and Ross Stewart at Fresh Hope can connect you with local teachers and provide you with training programs. Check out their details below.
For more information about getting started with SRE, resources, and support, contact Ross Stewart at: [email protected] or (02) 8573 6000
For some helpful resources, check out Christian SRE’s website HERE.