Back in the late 1990s, life for me was all about exam results, Take That concerts, Thomas Hardy, and choices.
Choices involving A level subjects, which universities to apply for, what to wear on Saturday night, where to go on Saturday night, and how many extra hours to work in the school holidays to fund all of the above.
Compared to my peers I was alone in making one choice regarding the use of my Sunday mornings, however, which was to teach a small bunch of adorable, wide-eyed and clever little children at my local church, the church I was christened in and taught at myself, St James’ Church of Ireland, Moy.
I taught during my GCSE years at school, balancing it with the intensity of exams and a busy social life. In many ways it was something of a dream come true - as a child, all I wanted to be was a teacher, and finally, it was not a room of Barbie dolls and teddy bears that I got to read my comic books aloud to, but real, living pupils, who hung on my every word as I read them stories about Jonah and the Whale, and smiled with glee when I stuck on gold stars on their homework.
Every week, no matter what was going on in my life, or how stressed I felt due to the demands of school life, I knew I could forget my worries for an hour every Sunday and come in and spend time with these five-year-olds, whose care had been entrusted to me.
I taught the youngest class in the whole church; I can still remember it now so clearly, sitting on ‘teacher’s chair’ against the stage in the parish hall, with my class sitting around me in a semi-circle, the other classes all dotted around the hall in similar formats.
There was a shy little boy called Douglas, a cute-as-a-button red-haired child called Jill, and a beautiful wee girl with poker straight, shiny brown hair called Alex ( I confessed to a colleague the other day that she was so lovely that I’ve remembered her and liked the name Alex for a daughter ever since).
They were all so different, yet so similar in that their company was refreshing, their innocence endearing and their enthusiasm for the stories I related to them never ending.
I have no idea whether any of them remember me, or any snippet of information I imparted to their young minds, or any shy question I answered.
But I’ll forever be thankful to them for allowing me to see the world through their eyes every week, and rediscover the wonder and happiness of the message of the Bible anew.
‘I often find children have a real talent for getting to the nitty gritty’
Forty-one-year-old Ruth Rodgers - who edits sister paper Farming Life - has been a Sunday School teacher at First Dromara Presbyterian Church for seven years, and has been a worshipper there herself for the past 13.
She was initially asked to help out with the Girls Brigade, and then Sunday School as well.
“I eventually had to give up the Girls Brigade due to work pressures, but still remained as a Sunday School teacher as my two sons were attending,” she says.
“Both have now left and my youngest son, who is 15, attends the Sunday morning Bible class for teenagers.”
Ruth, who teaches five children every week of Primary 5 age, says that she discovered that working with young people was something she really enjoyed.
“At the end of the day I believe we all have a part to play in the life of the congregation, whatever our talents and gifts are,” she adds.
“Sunday school begins at 10.30am and lasts until approximately 11.20am, with the morning church service following at 11.30am.
“A typical lesson begins at 10.30am and as the children arrive we will have a chat about how their week has been or if they have done anything particularly interesting that week.
‘‘The children love to talk about themselves and what they have been up to. It’s great to get to know them!
“The children will then go over a particular verse or catechism that they have been asked to learn from the week before.
‘‘We then go through our lesson, which can either be from the teacher notes provided, or it may be something which I have prepared during the week to tie in with a particular theme, such as harvest, or thanksgiving.
“The children complete workbooks or work sheets. Lessons are very relaxed and they have the opportunity to ask questions and discuss aspects of it as we go along. At other times of the year, such as coming up to Sunday School day or Christmas Day, the children spend alternate Sundays learning new choruses and songs as they lead praise on both these days during Sunday morning service.”
Ruth says that the most enjoyable aspect of being a Sunday School teacher is getting to know her pupils on a one to one basis.
“It is a real joy when you go through the lesson and some of the children tell you how they love God and that they have already become Christians.
‘‘The most difficult aspect is making sure the lessons are interesting, and often coming up with answers to difficult questions. I find that children have a real talent for grasping the subject and getting to the nitty gritty with some tough questions, which sometimes leave me stumped. They see things in very black and white terms.”
She continues: “I think every role within a congregation is an important part of faith and serving God, from the minister, to the choir, musicians, Sunday School teachers, youth leaders and helpers, the people who make tea and the cleaner – everyone in their own way is serving God.
“A church is not a building – a church is made up of the people, and I believe everyone has a role to play in the work of serving God. At First Dromara we have a very vibrant and busy congregation with many, many talented people who give up their time to keep all the different organisations running for people of all ages.
“As a Christian, I believe it is important to pray to God for guidance on all issues, not just in terms of being a Sunday School teacher.”
Similarly, Ruth feels that anyone involved in any of the youth organisations within a church has a very important role in shaping the young people.
“At Sunday School, our aim is to teach the children about God’s love and it is our hope and prayer that they will ask Him to come into their lives as their Lord and Saviour.
‘‘I think it does help to shape a person’s life, because I still remember a lot of the things I learned when I attended Sunday School and I remember my teachers as people who were very faithful servants.”
The Dromara woman wasn’t brought up in a Presbyterian herself; she attended Rathfriland Baptist Church until she was 19, and joined the Presbyterian church when she got married.
“When I first went to Sunday School, it was held in the old church which was basically a wooden building situated on the current site of Rathfriland Baptist Church,” she relates.
“When Pastor Jack Anderson came to the church, building work commenced on what is now the current church at the Loughbrickland Road.
“I remember being picked to present the bouquet of flowers to the Pastor’s wife on the day the church was opened, and I still have the picture somewhere.
“Sunday School, which was from 3pm to 4pm, always started with the singing of choruses and we would have had a quiz of some sort or ‘Sword’ (Bible) drill, where we sheathed our swords (Bible under our arms), drew our swords (Bible held in the air) and then we had to race to find a particular portion of scripture.
“The first one on their feet won. Looking back this was a great way of learning where all the books of the Bible could be found and stand me in good stead to this day.
“I remember in particular one year our teacher challenged us to memorise the whole of Isaiah 53, and those who were successful received a £5 note as a special reward!
“I think back with great fondness of all my teachers from Sunday School, many of them who are still playing very active roles in their various churches and am grateful for their dedication and faithfulness.”
‘You have the privilege of seeing the children grow in their faith’
Karen Webb has been worshipping at Lisburn cathedral for over 20 years, and first became a Sunday School teacher at the tender age of 15.
The 52-year-old, who also lives in the city, is married to Tim and has two daughters, 21-year-old Amy and 19-year-old Caroline.
In July 2013, she was commissioned as a church army sister, and she is also currently the children’s ministry coordinator for Lisburn Cathedral.
“I have always worked with children,” she says.
“At Lisburn Cathedral we do not run the typical Sunday School model - we call it Kidzone, and it is for children aged four - 11. We have around 50 children.”
Karen explains that the children will leave the Sunday morning church service at around 11.20am and congregate.
Kidzone will include an opening prayer, ‘sharing news time’, and praise and games.
“There will also be a video or Bible reading on the day’s theme, and a talk given using visual aids, to help the children apply the story to their lives,” she says.
“Then the children are split into age appropriate groups to do a worksheet or craft or discussion on the theme.
‘‘We end with prayer and a closing song / prayer or recap.”
Lesson planning in Lisburn Cathedral, it seems, is well organised.
Karen reveals: “We meet together at the beginning of each new term to pray and to outline the term’s themes.
‘‘Sometimes, if it is suitable we will follow the same teaching programme as the sermon series in church.
‘‘This gives the families the opportunity to discuss the topic at home. We have four main leaders who take it in turns to lead each week on a rota basis. The leader prepares the lesson for that week and lets everyone else know what they are required to do.
This rota is emailed to everyone and all helpers know what each week’s theme will be.”
For Karen, the most rewarding aspect of her role is quite simply seeing the children understand God’s love for them and to grow in their Christian faith.
“I love to hear them pray each week for their families and friends,” she adds.
“I feel as a children’s leader, I am called to share my faith and teach the faith to the next generation.
‘‘It says in Deuteronomy 11:19: ‘Teach them to your children, talking about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up.”
‘Positively influencing a child is different from indoctrination’
During the week, Ulster Unionist politician Danny Kennedy is busy with his duties as the Assembly member for Newry and Armagh, as well as being the Province’s Minister for Regional Development.
But on Sundays, you’ll find him at Bessbrook Presbyterian Church, where he is the superintendant at the Sunday School there, having been involved in the teaching side of his church life here since 1995.
“I had never had a teaching role in the Sunday School before, and I was somewhat apprehensive about it, but I soon found it to be very rewarding, not only in my own spiritual development, but because it was also a great privilege to be able to share the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ with young children and hopefully help provide a Christian foundation in their young lives,” he says.
Today, there are just seven pupils who attend Sunday School in this South Armagh church, which Danny says is due to a combination of the impact of the Troubles and economic issues.
Nonetheless, those who do attend enjoy meeting at 9.45am every Sunday for opening prayer, followed by choruses, stories and Bible verses.
“Finally, we close in prayer and ask God’s blessing on our Sunday School until we next meet,” adds Danny, who says that the most enjoyable aspect of teaching for him is the “openness and honesty of the children.”
He says: “You never can predict what they will say, or what they will tell you. But they leave themselves very open to hearing and believing the Gospel, which is the most important reason for any Sunday School to exist, no matter how small.”
And he says that he believes his role as a Sunday School teacher is “by far the most important” in his life.
“Helping to share the Gospel of Jesus Christ and seeking to provide guidance and Christian influence to a new generation - this is an awesome responsibility and I do continually seek God’s guidance on how best to do this.
“I think the role of the Sunday School teacher is absolutely crucial in shaping a young person’s early life, and there is an opportunity to really positively influence a child with not only Christian values, but also Christian beliefs.
‘‘This is entirely different from any form of indoctrination. However, given the challenges young children from a very early age now have to deal with, I think teaching them the truths contained in the Bible and making these real to them, there is surely no greater privilege for any Christian.”