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The Ear: A Safe Place for Conversation


Vicki Saunders and Cynthia Westerbeck share leadership of the long-running “Choir Room Sabbath School” at Pacific Union College.  Saunders is assistant professor in the Nursing and Health Science Department and coordinator of the Health Science program, and also works as a registered dietician. Westerbeck leads the English department there, and takes as her scholarly focus British literature, especially Shakespeare and literature of the Enlightenment. She was PUC’s Educator of the Year in 2007.

This is another of The Ear’s occasional interviews with leaders of great Sabbath School classes.  The hope, as always, is that these classes may inspire other classes, perhaps yours, and other leaders, perhaps you.

The underlying assumption is that Adventism in the church’s older strongholds will certainly decay unless a large share of the membership participates in serious, shared study of the Bible.  A laity disengaged from Scripture, after all, is a laity easily manipulated, easily diverted from the path of genuine discipleship.

Here, then, is the perspective of these two Sabbath School leaders. —Charles Scriven

Question: What are one or two keys, do you think, to building a great Sabbath School class?

Answer: The key to answering this question is in recognizing that there are so many different definitions of a “great Sabbath School class,” – depending on individual needs and preferences. So any great Sabbath School class has to begin with a group of like-minded people, who then attract other like-minded people, until there is a critical mass of people who understand and foster that spirit which drew them together to begin with. The true key (more than leadership or format or subject) is having interesting discussion partners who remain interesting to each other over an extended period of time. 

Unlike a job, class, church or even marriage, there is no contract or vow obligating members to remain part of a Sabbath School community – so it is a tremendous gift when a group of people choose to come together voluntarily to serve each other’s spiritual needs. Although this kind of chemistry cannot be forced, it can be fostered by giving members a stake in the community and responding to the changing needs of the members. But in the end the most important key to a great Sabbath School class is facilitating conversations that remain interesting and relevant to the members.

Question: How do you build community—the sense that your class is a mini-Christian family—among participants?

Answer: We feel fortunate to have inherited a long, rich tradition of community that has been a hallmark of the nearly 50-year history of this class.  The class was created in the early 1970s by PUC faculty members like Walter Utt, Louis Normington and Don Warren as a safe place for conversation – and that remains the “tie that binds” the community despite changes in leadership and structure over the years.  In addition to presentations and discussion, we have found it valuable to begin class with some weekly traditions (initiated by individual class members) such as the singing of a hymn and a responsive scripture reading which provides a sense of unity and consistency from week to week. We also take time at the beginning of each class for announcements, including celebrating joys and praying as a community for any challenges facing members of our class. Finally, we try to hold a Sabbath School potluck at least once each quarter as time for fellowship outside of the context of the class.  

Mostly, we are just awed and humbled by the many ways in which the class members contribute weekly to this community – whether by volunteering time every Friday to make sure the chairs are always in perfect order, or by faithfully selecting and practicing a hymn that fits the theme of the week, or by being active contributors and listeners in ways that model our commitment to honest, thoughtful, respectful dialogue.

Question: Do you follow the church quarterly? Always, sometimes or never? Why?

Answer: We like the idea of building a series of conversations around a new topic each quarter – and are (usually) happy to join with the global SDA church community in our choice of topic.  But we also embrace and value our freedom to approach that topic in a way that is of greatest relevance to the particular interests and needs of our Sabbath School community.

Based on the general topic of the quarterly, we draw up a list of approaches to that topic that we think would be of particular interest to the class and we also consult with our regular discussion leaders to see what perspective they would be most eager to contribute to the quarter’s conversations. We are fortunate to have many resources (from the college, the hospital, and the community) which allow us to bring to the conversation a rich diversity of perspectives.

Question: Do you bring in guest teachers? Are some taken from the membership of the class?

Answer: We have a roster of teachers we draw from who usually teach no more than once each quarter. While the majority of our teachers also attend the class on a regular basis, we welcome guest teachers whenever we become aware of an out-of-town visitor who is available to speak on a topic of interest to the class. Also, sometimes we seek out guest speakers from our community who have expertise to contribute to our series of discussions for a particular quarter.

Question: Does your class attract some people who may be on the “edge” of Adventism? If so, how does it happen? Is intentional effort put into doing this?

Answer: Because our discussions tend to be more about asking questions than dictating answers, this naturally attracts some who might be less comfortable in more traditional venues – although this is not the result of any intentional recruiting effort outside of word-of-mouth and our weekly email announcement.  One of the most effective means of attracting a diverse audience has been in the choice of presenters.  For example, we’ve found that the best way to inspire students to join our discussions is to occasionally invite a student to lead the conversation – which naturally leads to their friends attending and often returning once they discover the novelty (in their minds) of adults engaged in respectful, spiritually relevant conversations.

Question: If your class is intellectually adventurous—you take up matters many would be uncomfortable with—how do you maintain good relationships with the rest of your congregation?

Answer: We have been fortunate to have a very supportive pastoral staff which recognizes that fostering diversity in small groups is essential to building a vibrant, unified church community and are happy to be just one of many mutually supportive Sabbath School options at the PUC church. We are grateful for the support of the pastoral staff and try to reciprocate their support by respecting the concerns and values of the congregation. While we do want to be a forum for honest exploration of spiritual issues, we try to consciously do so in a way that respects those church members or visitors to the class whose views might differ from ours.

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