Children’s Ministry at Raleigh Court Presbyterian
As outlined on the RCPC website and in the RCPC Mission Study Report developed and published in 2014, the vision for Children’s Ministry at Raleigh Court Presbyterian is to extend the love of Christ to all the children of our church as well as those outside our doors. RCPC strives to make young disciples who are in a relationship with one another, God, church, and the world around them. The Director of Christian Education and the volunteers who work with the children strive to build the children’s knowledge of the Bible and to have their love of their Lord grow and flourish. This is done through the in depth and intentional programing provided to the children in:
• Sunday School
• God Alive: mid-week children's program
• Children’s Worship
• Special Season Opportunities
• Vacation Bible School
• Weekday Preschool
Raleigh Court has had excellent staff and volunteers who have been committed to creating experiences that will enable children to know the stories of the Bible, to apply the Biblical principles to their lives, and to actively become the hands and feet of Christ in the world.
Directors of Christian Education from 1990-present
Mary Lea Hartman – DCE from 1991-2002
Mary Lea Hartman served as Director of Christian Education (DCE) from 1991 until her untimely death from cancer in 2002.
Mary Lea came into the DCE position as an interim after Margaret Norris left the position in 1991. Mary Lea was serving as the Presbytery Resource Librarian when the Presbytery Library was housed at Second Presbyterian Church. She was very knowledgeable about resources so she was a great choice for interim DCE, and it was soon decided that she would be the perfect fit for the permanent DCE position. When she first started as interim, she asked Susan Kessler who was working as the Nursery Coordinator to read the book, Young Children and Worship, by Jerome Berryman and Sonja Stewart. Susan immediately became hooked on the concept presented so in 1991 Mary Lea and Susan set out together to start an RCPC Children’s ministry program like the one outlined in the book. They secured the help of Mary Jo Shannon, a Montessori teacher, who helped them understand the wisdom of an interactive systematic ministry and to help develop appropriate materials to enhance the worship experience for young children. This was the start of the amazing children’s worship ministry that still serves our church today. At that time Mary Lea and Susan committed to being the two leaders for the program for an entire year before training others in order to ensure that this program was being orchestrated as it was truly intended to be done. A few years later they attended a training session led by Sonja Stewart’s daughter and it was after this training that a dedicated Children’s Worship room was established in the church. The program was initially called “Alleluia” and so many children participated that they had to have two rooms. The name was later changed to “Children’s Worship” after they saw that people failed to realize that this was a true worship service designed to be age-appropriate for the children involved.
In her tenure Mary Lea attended a workshop about LOGOS. She was so excited that she invited Linda Mayes, the Director of Music Ministry, and Susan Kessler to attend a meeting at the Presbytery level about the Ministry. The three returned committed to establishing this program at Raleigh Court. It took a full year of work, training and planning to get the program up and running, but the ministry started in the fall of 1996.
Mary Lea worked tirelessly during the construction phase for the new fellowship hall, gathering area and preschool wing. The church had been busting at its seams for space for children, youth, and Sunday school class space. She worked to develop a shared space concept with the preschool so that this space was seen as a place to nurture children in their faith and knowledge of the love of Jesus. She helped develop the church’s “Operating Manual” in order to have a written covenant about classroom usage and care.
Mary Lea was the first DCE at Raleigh Court to have a computer! She saved documents to floppy discs and made sure information was stored in an effective way. When Susan Kessler became the next DCE after Mary Lea’s passing, she inherited those discs which were extremely helpful in keeping alive the programs Mary Lea had started.
Even as Mary Lea’s cancer progressed, she tried to continue to serve the church. She worked from home and had others carry out her plans. After her death, we learned that she had even developed a plan for saying good-bye to the children. She ordered small lamb figurines to be passed out during Children’s Time. She planned the message and picked out an anthem for the children to sing. She wanted the children to know that Jesus was their shepherd, and they were his sheep. Her message assured each of them that Jesus knew them by name and would take care of them and love them. The story of the “Good Shepherd” and the “I am the vine; you are the branches” story Jesus told were her favorites. The Vine and Branches Banner that hangs in the sanctuary was made by Mary Lou Prillaman in her honor. The Children’s library downstairs was dedicated to her because of her love for books, her love for children, and her dedication to our church.
What better way to record the history of our Children’s Ministry Program than through interviewing those who made it happen!
An Interview with Susan Kessler – DCE from 2002-2012
1. What led you to serve our church in the area of Children’s Ministry?
I had been volunteering in many areas of the church (Kid’s Kirk, Children’s Worship, Nursery, Vacation Bible School, and Sunday School) since I had two sons that were attending these programs. Our DCE, Mary Lea Hartman was dealing with cancer, and I was trying to help her as much as possible on a volunteer level. I am an educator at heart and have experience working with young children. It was a natural fit for me to use my gifts to serve in the Children’s Ministry of our Church.
2. How did you come into the position of DEC?
As Mary Lea became more ill from cancer, I took over the leadership of several areas of the Children’s Ministry. She was sharing with me many of the behind-the-scenes details such as ordering Sunday School curricula and making the Nursery volunteer schedule. After her death, several folks asked me if I would be interested in being the DCE. This had never crossed my mind. I was not sure I was even qualified. A search committee was started to find an interim and work on the job description and search for a new DCE. At the same time as all of this was going on, the church was working on trying to retire the debt from the construction of the Gathering Area, Fellowship Hall and Preschool Wing. A dessert-informational event was held in the new fellowship hall. Our pastor, Tupper Garden, began to speak about the way our church could serve others if we could retire this debt. He used the story of Esther, “for such a time as this” Esther 4:14. His words spoke to me in a different way that evening. I felt a presence about me that was quite strange. It was hard for me to focus on the rest of the talk. Was God calling me to respond to this need for filling the interim position of DCE “for such a time as this”? I shared this feeling of being “called” to respond with several people and they all confirmed that they too felt this was a calling. After a long conversation with our Pastor, I was offered the interim position and began serving. At the time, the DCE position was full-time and wide ranging in scope. The position was responsible for every facet of Christian Education from the Nursery, mid-week programing, youth, and adult ministries as well. It was decided as the Interim for me to focus on Children’s Ministry and just consult as needed with Youth and Adults. I was part-time serving 20 hours a week beginning in May of 2002. This continued through the fall of that year. During this time, I decided to apply for the position of DCE and went through the interview process. On Christmas Eve our pastor informed me that the committee had decided they would like to extend an offer for me to be the Director of Christian Education beginning January 1, 2003. Over the next few years, my hours increased as I took on more responsibilities. I began working with the youth and adults more and continued all we were doing with the children in a full-time position.
3. In what years did you actually serve as DCE and what programs were you responsible for? What programs did you start or continue that you felt in your heart were answers to the needs in our church and the call of God?
I served as the Interim DCE from May – December of 2002 in a part-time role. I became the DCE in January of 2003 and served until June 2012. I was responsible at first for the Children’s Ministry as the Interim, but over the next year or so, as the DCE I took on more of the responsibilities of youth and adult ministry and became full time.
In 2002, our Children’s Ministry programs were thriving with three rooms for nursery (Infants to Young 4s). We had a large Children’s Worship program where children left the service before the sermon for a 4-part worship service that was Montessori based and age appropriate for children 4 to 8 years old. (Young Children in Worship by Jerome Berryman and Sonja Stewart) We had so many children that we needed two rooms and created duplicate materials and set up. I was part of the team that originally started Children’s Worship, so I was trained and felt it was very important to keep the integrity of this program and bring others to be trained also. This program has proven to be timeless and continues today.
I also had been part of the team that started our mid-week LOGOS based Children’s program we called Kid’s Kirk. I had been serving as the LOGOS Director so now I needed someone else to serve in that role and work with them to keep this ministry running well. We had about fifty children from kindergarten through fifth grade coming on Wednesday afternoons for Bible Study, Choir, Recreation, and a meal together. The LOGOS program is based on Acts 2:42. I worked hard to get people in the church to attend LOGOS training and then understand their calling to serve in various ways to support the program.
Our previous DCE, Mary Lea, had tried very hard to start a rotation-based Sunday School program. She only used the rotation style a few times a year. It was very popular with the children, and it allowed more flexibility with our teachers to serve for one month at a time instead of an entire year. Volunteers enjoyed this flexibility and would sign up to serve various workshops several times a year. I worked to develop a scope and sequence so the children as they grew up in the church developed a broad base of Biblical knowledge. Soon, I had the rotation Sunday school model in place all year and it was very successful. Two other programs that I did not start and are in place in every church were very special to me. I enjoyed planning and directing both Vacation Bible School and Confirmation for our eighth graders. These two programs were engaging and fun! With our Confirmation class I started the mentoring program that is still in place today. It warms my heart to see young adults now still have a relationship with their Confirmation Mentor.
4. I hope my grandchildren will know that during my time as the DCE my faith grew as I let God call me to do things, I was not sure I was equipped to do. I learned to trust that God is in control and that I could not force things to happen. I also learned that I am loved and can share that love with others freely and in his name. I hope that when they see my name on the church playground, they will know how honored I was serving the children, youth, and adults of this church in Jesus’ name.
An Interview with Leigh Sacket, DCE from 2012 - present
1. What led you to serve our church in the area of children’s ministry (even prior to becoming DCE)?
In my former life, I was an art educator with Danville Public Schools. I had picked a career in education over computer graphics because my love and desire to teach was greater than my love and desire to create my own art. When my mother passed away, something happened to me, I encountered the living God in a way I had not known before. This led me to a call of teaching the children of our church about this God I encountered, through Sunday School and Kids Kirk. Eventually, that led me to teach adult Sunday School as well.
2. How did you come into the position of DCE?
Susan Kessler, our previous DCE and wonderfully dedicated member of our church, told me of her plans to retire. She told me she could envision me as the next DCE, and I could too, I felt a strong call to this position. I was hired as the interim DCE in May of 2012, knowing full well I may not be hired for the permanent position. But then something amazing happened. Anne Travers approached me about the two of us becoming the DCE together and splitting the position with Anne overseeing adult and youth ministry and with me overseeing children’s ministry. I could see it … a dream team, two passionate servants who valued education and faith formation together leading the church we love!!! We wrote out a detailed proposal and pitched this to the pastors at the time and to session. They hired us! For two years Anne and I grew and joyfully led the ministries of Christian Education together. Then my dear friend Anne answered a call to take a deaf education position in the Roanoke City School system. At that point RCPC hired me as the full-time DCE. Although it was heartbreaking to lose my right-hand woman in ministry, shortly thereafter my husband became very sick with cancer and passed away. It was a blessing to have the full-time position, in light of what was happening to my family. I am always grateful to serve the people of RCPC and especially grateful for the role this church and its people have played in the life of my family through our joys and sorrows. For a while I served as the DCE overseeing children, youth, and adults, not a job for the faint at heart. But eventually we created a position for an Associate Pastor for Youth, and I continued my role as the DCE for children and adults. My call to this vocation was firmly set in my heart, so I began to pursue a Masters of Christian Education at Union Presbyterian Seminary and received my degree in May of 2019.
3. What programs have you started or continued that you felt in your heart of heart were answers to the needs in our church and the call of God?
Over the last eleven years in the life of this church, I have been so fortunate to work with an amazing staff and congregation. The wonderful thing about working at RCPC is it never feels like work, it feels like being supported and joined in a shared vision to serve our Lord with passion and great energy! It never stops feeling that way.
At RCPC, we feel strongly about our ministries having an overall scope and sequence. With Andrew’s arrival as Senior Pastor, he and I set out to develop a comprehensive scope and sequence of the children’s ministries that gives the reasoning behind each ministry and how the ministries offered build upon one another so that when children reach the end of their 5th grade year, they have a broad and deep knowledge of their faith and have been given many experiences to encounter God!
In reflecting on my coursework on child development, I know that experiential learning powerfully brings biblical concepts to life, so at RCPC we have focused much of our children’s ministry on learning by doing and then reflecting. At God Alive, our mid-week ministry for elementary school age children (which was formerly known as Kids Kirk) we set out to explore our faith with our God who is alive in all that we do. We do this through worship, play, mission, and reflecting on the Bible stories and the overall theme of the year. To keep our older kids aware of God’s lively presence, we added a special program for 4th and 5th graders where we recognize their maturing faith and their need to have outings that are specified to their age and development. These special 4th and 5th grade outings focus on mission work, fellowship, and leadership in the church.
The little ones of our church partake in Sunday school and in Children’s Worship, but we wanted to add a ministry that focused on fellowship and interactive play; a ministry that was a steppingstone to our God Alive ministry. In the heat of the pandemic, in the fall of 2020, we created an outdoor classroom ministry for our 3 and 4-year-olds called “Living the Word.” At Living the Word, the children engage in Bible stories that come to life through outdoor activities. Our youth help to lead this ministry. Both Living the Word children and God Alive children have planted tomato gardens, cucumber gardens, and winter gardens over the last 4 years. The fruits of our gardens have been made into pickles given to those we are grateful for, and we have made several lasagnas over the years for the Rescue Mission. We created a one-day Winter Vacation Bible School in February that caters to our littles ones of ages 3 – first grade with our upper elementary age children and our youth as leaders and helpers.
Jesus declares that you cannot enter heaven unless you are like a child. Children are exceptional leaders who show us how to live as people who are grateful for all that God gives. We take the leadership of children seriously at RCPC. In 2013, we began having Children’s Ministry Sunday. This takes place on a Sunday in the spring. Our Preschool children and God Alive children lead this service. Our God Alive children also lead the 5:00 Christmas Eve service and in 2019 we started presenting to the congregation a Christmas Pageant!
It occurred to me that within Christian Education for children we often teach children the BIG Bible stories, but we do not teach them about our faith and why we read the Bible and the “why” behind what we believe. So at RCPC, we developed a 2nd grade Sunday school class called “Our Faith,” that incorporates some long-held 2nd grade milestones of RCPC, like 2nd grade Bible Presentation and Children at the Lord’s Table, into a year-long class that essentially focuses on what we believe as Christian people and how we put our beliefs into action.
Bible Depths Sunday School class was developed for the same reason, we felt our children needed to take their faith understanding a step further. Bible Depths is designed for 3rd – 5th grade. In Bible Depths the children explore the whole Bible within a three-year timeframe. This class was built with the understanding that upper elementary age children are ready for a deeper look into the stories of their faith.
I cannot share about my time at RCPC without saying that my favorite adventure in ministry came at a terrible moment in our world’s history! This was during the Covid-19 pandemic. In 2020-21 God Alive could not meet in the church so we headed to the mountains! Every Wednesday we hiked along the trails of our beautiful Roanoke valley. We hiked over twenty trails during this time. We sang, learned a Bible lesson, and formed relationships on those trails that follow us everywhere we go!
In adult Christian Education Ministry, RCPC has had a history of amazing Sunday School classes like The Seekers, who have 25-30 people attending each week. We felt the need for other educational opportunities for adults to study and form relationships outside the Sunday school hour, so we began small group ministries that meet each week. I created the small group lessons weekly that focus on the sermon and scripture from the previous Sunday.
Within the last 3 years, we have had a boom of young adults and young families visiting and joining our church. We recognized the need for a young adult ministry that focuses on the particular faith inquiries and needs of those in their twenties and early thirties. Presently, we have begun and are building a Young Adult Ministry that meets for fellowship events monthly and does seasonal devotional studies together.
For years, Mary Jo Shannon created a RCPC Lenten Devotional book with talented writers of our church. We brought this great ministry back! For the last 3 years we have created a Lenten Devotional book with entries from our congregants and we have also created Lent bags filled with at-home Lenten practices for our church members to engage with during the season of Lent. This was born out of the pandemic, but we continue this ministry today.
One of my favorite ministries that we have created and implemented in recent years is our annual congregational retreat to Massanetta Springs. This is a time where so much intergenerational ministry occurs as the young and old of our church collaborate and play together. The retreat is the type of experience that implants itself in the memory of our people. When they think of interaction with their church family, they recall times shared around a campfire or engaged in a reenactment of Jonah and the whale!
A gift to me and I hope to others has been Andrew implementing the voice of our Director of Education within worship leadership. Since 2016, I have had the privilege to lead weekly in liturgy and in crafting and offering the prayers of the people and Children’s time.
4. What would you like future generations to know about in years to come?
I would want to tell future generations that I do not think it is possible to be a part of a more loving and faithful congregation. God found me here. And then I have been so privileged to see God find others through this wonderful vehicle of the church. I will never tire of watching what God is up to at 1837 Grandin Road and how that action of God ripples out into our community and into the world through the lives and growing faith of these people. When we create and lead ministries, I ALWAYS keep in mind that I have no idea what God may do within these ministries. The fruit of such work may be seen today or tomorrow or years from now as a child grows into adulthood. It is quite a privilege and one I do not take lightly. I pray that this place will always continue to be so vibrant and continue to listen faithfully to the voice of God.