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The Ear: The Pearsons on Sabbath School and Church Life “at the Edges”


Most adults who worship at the Newbold Church do not participate in a Sabbath School class.  At least in Adventism’s older strongholds, most churches are probably similar in this regard. But great classes still work. The Newbold class led by Mike and Helen Pearson has met for some 35 years, drawing anywhere from four to 40-plus to a room in Salisbury Hall, Newbold College’s administration building. Subject matter makes a difference. “The largest continuous attendance we have ever had,” they say, “was the quarter when we studied Song of Solomon and word got round among the students that we were talking honestly about God and sex!”

Both Mike and Helen bring well-honed discussion skills to their class. Until his retirement last Christmas after 42 years on the job, Mike taught ethics, philosophy and spirituality at Newbold College. For a time, he was the college’s Vice-Principal. All along he encouraged generations of students to engage the basic ethical question, “What ought we to do?” In her roles as an English teacher, PR consultant, broadcaster and counsellor, Helen has been training people to communicate since 1969. Since the mid-90s she has been co-ordinator of the Newbold College Counselling Service and also an elder of the Newbold Church.

The Pearsons share a particular interest in helping women and men to integrate spiritual, intellectual and emotional maturity. They continue, both together and individually, to speak and to lead retreats, mostly in Europe. They have been married for 43 years, and have two grown children, Martin and Emma, and two grandchildren, Sienna and Sebastian.

Here is their perspective on the class they love to teach:

Question: How did your Sabbath School class begin?

Answer: It began as a result of an attempt by the Newbold Church’s board to build community and fellowship in a congregation of widely disparate members. Sabbath School was divided into groups which functioned for the 60 minutes of Sabbath School. A traditional Sabbath School with the usual format of shorter classes met for the sake of visitors. Eventually, most of the groups went back to the traditional style but ours liked getting together—we meet for 75 minutes—and has continued ever since. People often say a shorter Sabbath School discussion stops “just when we’re getting somewhere.” We thought we had an opportunity to “get somewhere.”

As a college-centered community, we are naturally mobile. Very few of the original group remain with us. People have come and gone, left the area, left the church, died. Some drop by when they visit Newbold from far away or even from abroad. Some, of course, participate for a while and find our approach is not to their taste.

Question: How do you build community?

Answer: From our earliest weeks we have always sat in a circle. We are very clear that this is a discussion not a lecture. We have always believed that people speak differently to people whose faces they can see. In the last few years, the college has installed a circle of desks in ‘our’ room. Too many church encounters are conducted while looking at the backs of other people’s heads!

Before settling down to the class we often chat about the week past for a while. This puts us in touch with what is going on in on in each other’s lives. It also means that we are speaking real “everyday” language about our experience rather than religious platitudes. There has always been impatience in the class with traditional religious language. ‘Don’t preach at me. Tell me how it is trying to live your faith in the office, in the classroom, in the supermarket, in the family.’

We have always encouraged the members of the class to volunteer to lead the discussion. This means that not everyone who leads is a trained teacher but we encourage everyone to contribute their take on whatever is under discussion. Some people have brought music to illustrate their point or to get a discussion going; others bring you-tube clips.

We pay particular attention to group dynamics. We have always made it a rule to try and share “airtime.” On rare occasions, the pressure to let someone else speak has not always gone down well with members who want more time themselves to talk and we have had to take care of that outside the class. When discussion gets passionate, we try to stop and give those who haven’t spoken yet time to speak. We have rarely had professional theologians in the group. Sometimes we wish we had and wonder if it is a weakness but it may also be a strength not to have a specialist whose presence might inhibit conversation.

Question: Do you follow the Sabbath School quarterly?

Answer: We have made it a rule to follow the agenda set by the quarterly. We always begin with a Bible reading, usually from the lesson but always on the subject of the lesson. So we start where the lesson starts but we rarely finish where it finishes. We were encouraged in this by a visit we once had from Clifford Goldstein, the quarterly editor, who advised us to use the lesson plan as far as it serves our purpose and throw it out when it does not. It seemed like good advice! We make exceptions to the ‘follow-the quarterly rule’ at Easter and Christmas time and also occasionally if some major happening in the world forces upon us some particular question about the meaning of our lives.

Honesty has always been a key value of ours and from the beginning we have had other people who have helped us in promoting that value in the group. We try to pay each other the respect of telling the truth about our experience of God and the church even if it does not reflect well on ourselves, our group, or our church. Some of the long-time members are of a certain age and have lived long enough to know that the conventional answers do not always work.

We try to find ways of giving Adventist teaching new significance and do not shrink from questioning it. Participants know they are free to say exactly what they think. That is a ground rule of the group. Visitors recognise this fairly quickly and like it or loathe it!

Question: How about ups and downs in the class’s life?

Answer: Over the years, the class has gone through cycles in terms of vitality and numbers. There are times when there is a general dryness. But somehow we have kept it going because in many ways this is ‘church’ to us. If the worship service somehow disappoints the Sabbath School class will lead us to say that it was ‘good to be in the house of the Lord’.

For us, one of the evidences of the work of the Spirit in the class is that it’s not always the most educated who speak the word in season that seems to galvanise the others in the group. A word, a testimony, a question, a personal observation or insight, a Bible text–we’ve come to be grateful that the Spirit has certainly blown where it listeth. And we still don’t always listen as well as we might.

Question: What do the rest of the congregation think about your class?

Answer: Probably some people see us as a bit marginal. Some have told us that we “ask too many questions!” Others express gratitude that they can say what they think and hear others doing likewise. We tend to believe that important things happen at the edges of the church. We have sometimes had members who come only to the class but do not attend worship services. “Only connect” is a motto of ours!

Question: What has kept your class going for so long?

Answer: There is a core group of probably half a dozen people who have stuck with it. There have been times when the two of us have had other responsibilities – Mike as vice-principal of Newbold College, Helen as first elder of the church – when our contributions have been minor. Others have carried the load of teaching and organization. Although this is often called Pearsons’ class, this is and always has been a team effort. A number of us have wintered and summered with each other for many years and have given each other invaluable support through bereavement, illness, unemployment, discouragement, failure, and other losses. We celebrate each other’s happiness. The class does from time to time have small projects outside the Sabbath meeting. And sometimes we go out to a concert, to eat together, to celebrate a birthday. It all makes honesty in the class much easier. We are a Sabbath School class not only on Sabbaths – here is a vital key to the class’s long life. We belong to a caring support group. For us the Sabbath School class has become a primary place of belonging.

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