Planning Education Mission

A process to develop a plan of work for education in a local church setting

Developing a Plan of Work
Act on the Plan
Bibliography and Other Resources


There is great hunger in the human heart and among people of the earth for meaning and purpose for their lives and for liberating truth and power. The church is looked to by many for vision, direction, and courage. People, both within and outside of the church today, long to know the scriptures, to become articulate about faith, and to see more clearly the relationship between the gospel and the realities of the world.

The Educational Mission of the United Church of Christ, "Toward a Vision of Education in the United Church of Christ" (pp. 8-9)

Planning for education in the church frequently begins by asking members for ideas or program suggestions. Often not asked is what needs or concerns lie behind those program suggestions. Without hearing that more basic longing or hunger, some of what we design in the church fails to meet those deeper needs, whether they are in worship, mission, or education.

In our time it may be essential to begin any planning by asking, "What is in your heart and mind?" and inviting not only members of the church but also nonmembers to reflect on that in their own words.

It is significant that there are few, if any, places left in our society where such questions are asked and where we can talk about such matters. Many contemporary writers suggest that the loss of such opportunities has a great deal to do with the alienation and hostility, and even the sense of hopelessness, in our society. To be sure, people gather locally as they once did, but now the purposes are to impart information, to entertain, orif the intent is to gather "input"to have folks line up at "pro and con" microphones. Seldom are people invited to decide which issues or concerns need to be discussed or acted upon.

The irony is that the church once hosted town meetings where the public gathered in common, both to identify needs and to develop approaches that involved those affected. The church, like so many of our social institutions, seems more prepared to offer programs and solutions than to invite people to name the needs and to share in addressing them. The church is especially at risk of failing to respond adequately when we insist that the needs and issues must be those that we name or when we insist that those needs be expressed in language most familiar to us. Perhaps the church, too, is in a time of deep longing. The church no longer appears at the center of societyor even at the core of life for individual members. We struggle to know how to respond. It may be that the Word of God is being spoken to the church through hunger and longing even if it is expressed by voices and in languages that are strange to us.

This planning guide is designed to assist in developing a plan for education in a local setting, based on several principles.

First, education can happen intentionally in many places beyond a classroom.

Second, topics and formats for education are effective when based on the questions and issues of persons in that local setting.

Third, the role of the church in that setting is to help identify those questions and concerns, to help provide a context of inquiry and to provide biblical and theological reflection.

In biblical and theological terms, this process affirms that God is at work in many places and in many ways both inside and outside the church, inviting all persons to faith and fullness of life, and urging the church to hear and to speak in fresh ways concerning God's call.

The process involves the selection of a group to be responsible for the development of an educational plan, biblical reflection, steps to listen to the concerns and interests of local people, identification of common themes, and the design of the plan itself. At its core is an ancient matter of taking the time to hear what is on people's hearts and minds.


The heart of this process is to identify the questions, concerns, and issues in a local context and to provide biblical/theological reflection on those local matters. Ideally, the effort to identify these might involve several persons, including some who are not regularly responsible for the design of education, with special attention to a group that is broadly representative. For example, in a local church it might involve a church council in addition to the education committee and should include a good cross-section of the congregation, including youth and new members.

The first step is to identify the group that will be responsible for each of the steps, based on the criteria suggested above.

The second step is Bible study. Select passages such as Genesis 18:1-15, Hebrews 13:2, or Luke 24 and invite the group to reflect on what might happen if they listen to the voices of strangers. Consider the idea that it is in the act of hospitality or engagement that the word of God is recognized.

Further reflection might be done with passages such as Mark 10:46-52, in which Jesus hears a cry for mercy, invites Bartimaeus to come to him andbefore Bartimaeus' sight is regainedasks him, "What do you want me to do for you?"

What role does that question have in the regaining of sight? Is it possible that by Jesus asking the question of need, and that by Bartimaeus naming his condition, Bartimaeus is able to participate in the power of healing?

The third step is that of listening within a particular institution, such as a local church. Listening provides an opportunity to receive what is in the minds and hearts of individuals and to build relationships. Building relationships is key to dynamic inquiry. It can be done over a period of several weeks or it can be adapted for use in a two- or three-hour meeting. The form involves one-on-one conversations. In a shorter format, the group could break into pairs, with one person asking another a series of questions during a thirty-minute period; then the roles would be reversed. In a retreat format, an hour might be allowed for each person in these conversations. In an extended format, individual members of a church cabinet and education committee could visit individual members of the church, or at least a cross-section of that membership for about an hour. (Mail surveys and telephone interviews may not provide the same quality of information and do not necessarily strengthen relationships in the same ways as do personal visits.) In a local church, the one-on-one visits could be done through a series of smaller meetings in private homes. In the case of house meetings, someone in each group should be prepared to lead the process and report what was heard (see the section on "Discerning")

It is important that we invite persons to speak from the heart and the mind to speak from feelings as well as the intellect.

Begin the visit with a conversation around the following questions:

How long have you been a member of this church?

Are there other churches you have attended or joined?

Where were you baptized?

Where were you confirmed?

Then ask:

What do you particularly like about our congregation?

What are the needs or concerns you have about our church?

What do you like about our local community?

What are the needs or concerns you have about our community?

What excites you personally? What are your passions?

What do you struggle with personally?

The fourth step involves listening in the local community. Again, the step could be done over a period of several weeks or can be adapted for use in a more limited format.

In a one-day format people could walk around the community and take videos or polaroid photos of conditions or changes. People on the street might be asked about concerns or hopes for the community.

During a two- or three-hour meeting or during a retreat or house meetings, persons might identify community persons to visit. For a more extensive listening process, the team or committee should identify the community persons to visit. Include in that list:

formal leadership, such as the mayor, chamber of commerce staff/president, school board superintendent/president, hospital administrator/board president, college president, etc.;

"informal" leadership, such as long-term residents who are involved in or especially knowledgeable about the community, such as key families, teachers, realtors, etc.;

the disenfranchised or not-so-visible, such as the homeless or hungry, youth, any group which by any standard has no voice or influence; and

leadership in other religious communities.

Begin the visit with a conversation around the following questions:

How long have you lived in this community?

Where else have you lived?

Then ask:

What do you like about our local community?

What are the needs or concerns you have about our community?

What changes do you see happening in our community?

What hopes do you have for our community?

It is important to note here that such persons are being invited to talk about the community from their personal perspective; they are not being asked to say what they think the church ought to be doing.

In steps three and four it is important to listen. One may be tempted to debate or challenge some responses, but do not. Listen to what is said and watch for those nonverbal clues which suggest strong interests or concerns.

If responses suggest more solutions than need statements, such as "We need more Bible study," or "We need a teen center," ask that person to say more about the need such suggestions would meet.

Take notes during the visit if that seems comfortable or write up the responses immediately after the visit. Try to use the words or phrases of the person visited.


When the conversations/visits are completed, the question is "What do we do with all these 'data'?"

It is time for reports and reflections on what has been heard. The group that should do this, in the two- or three-hour meeting, house meetings, or at a retreat, is that gathered group. If more extensive visits have taken place, it should be a gathering of those who conducted visits in the congregation or those who can summarize what was heard in the smaller gatherings such as house meetings, plus those who visited community persons.

Report what was said. In the two- or three-hour meeting or a retreat invite persons to share what was said in the one-on-one conversations. Share summaries of what was reported in the house meetings or the extensive one-to-one visits in a congregation. Do the same for what was learned about the community.

Reflect on what was heard. Ask the group to reflect about what they are "hearing" in these reports and, if they spent time with several persons, ask if there was anything that they "heard" or "felt" as they listened.

Identify themes that seem to be common or recurring. There may be many such themes; list them all and then identify those three to six themes which are the most common or recurring, those which seem to be of broadest interest or concern.

Discuss the implications for education. What do these themes suggest about both the form and the content of our education? Themes do suggest content, but careful attention to what is being heard might sharpen that content as well as point to where and when education is to be done and by whom. (See below for some specific Examples.)

It is at this point that intentional questions about biblical and theological content should be explored by the leadership group. Up to this point the emphasis is on listening to the words of local people. What is on their hearts and minds as expressed in their own words? Now the church begins to do theological reflection in relationship to what was heard.

What do these themes suggest about the study of scripture? Do we need basic education concerning what is in the Bible and how to interpret it? What are the Bible stories or themes that need to be explored in relationship to the themes identified by local people? How can the church help people reflect and act on those themes and concerns from a biblical/theological perspective? Some of these matters can be addressed in traditional educational formats such as forums and classes. However, there may be many concerns that have potential for broader efforts in education.

Developing a plan of work

Develop a plan of work for education in the local setting based on the themes and implications identified above. It might be used for one to three years.

The first question you must ask is, How does your church define its educational mission within itself and in the community? Does your church have an educational mission statement? Write a paragraph defining that mission.

Using the discerning process, identify all the issues that were raised both by members of the church and people from the community. By this time you should have a clear vision of what the recurring themes are. Are there particular issues that need to be addressed or particular settings for which you must plan? Make the list as complete as possible. If it becomes too long, try to prioritize in order of importance for the people that were interviewed/visited.

Every plan of work should include clear and measurable objectives. They represent the place where you want to be at a particular moment. As you go about writing these objectives, try to respond to the following questions: What? How? When? Who? How much will it cost?

As you do your planning, keep the following questions in mind:

How might the recurring themes shape sermon topics and liturgy?

What do we need to know more about in order to be effective in our community mission?

This could include information about the community as well as reflection on scripture.

Are there matters about which the whole community needs education?

If so, what are they and what is the role of the church?

Who do we want to help us to learn more about a concern or interest?

How should we do Bible study in relationship to these themes?

What would be the most helpful ways to include those who are concerned or interested in these themes?

Who will do the education?

When and where will it be scheduled?

For whom is the education intended and what form will it take?

How will Bible study be included in this plan?

Act on the plan

The plan of work for education will have elements that are directly related to various aspects of the life and mission of a community of faith, including worship, education, and mission. The leadership team or some other group should continue to work to see that specific events, both in design and in content, are related to the plan of work for education. Are worship design and sermon content relating to the identified concerns and issues? Are efforts in education aimed at those same concerns and issues? Are those who raise them involved, and what sort of biblical/theological reflection is happening? Is mission related to education and worship, and are there partnerships with community persons and groups?

Throughout the plan of education the leadership team or an education committee or even a church council might ask:

Are there new learnings from what we are doing?

Are there new relationships developing in what we are doing?

How do these learnings and relationships affect what we are doing in:

Bible study?Worship?



Pastoral care?



Using some of the same questions/reflections used during the life of the plan of education, ask:

What did we learn?

What new patterns emerged in our ministry?

What new relationships developed in our church and community?

How do these affect our ministry?

What do we need to do differently?

Celebrate what was learned and what is being done in worship and/or in a special event, meal, or local community gathering.

Try the listening process againit is rather like good pastoral visits!


A concern about relating the Bible to daily life results in a lectionary study group which meets to deal with upcoming texts and asks lay persons to identify the questions or issues to be developed in both liturgy content and sermon topics.

By probing the concern about Bible study, a church identifies the need for a general overview of what is in the Bible and a series about how to read it as a story.

In a fishing community a local church develops images about God for use in worship related to depth rather than height, since that is more fitting for that community's experience of sources of life.

Based on concerns in a congregation of mostly older persons, a local church sponsors with the local senior center a series on vocation for retired persons. In another church, the community forum, in cooperation with the local hospital, is about living wills for all ages; that forum leads to sessions in the high school curriculum concerning living wills.

In a community where there were recurring concerns about ethics in the workplace, the local church sponsors brown-bag lunches in several business locations to provide a place for employees/employers to converse about issues in their workplace.

A church, having heard the needs of two-career and single- parent families for the use of weekends as family time, develops another worship time during the week and includes an intergenerational time to deal with family issues.

A local church in a community facing the divisive issue of creationism in public education decides that it is not enough to take a stand on the issue, explores for itself the relationship between faith and science, holds a community forum to help the larger public understand the issue, and finally examines its own hymnody and liturgy for images that are more contemporary in terms of science.

Following several years of providing a food pantry and occasional vouchers for housing, a local church decides to work with city council on low-cost housing. The impetus is the growing concern among members that their aging parents have no retirement housing locally and that their children would have to move elsewhere for affordable housing.


The United Church Board for Homeland Ministires Division of Education and Publication is developing resources around thePlan of Work, including Foundation Papers and resource packets, in the five settings: the Local Church; the Parish Community; Higher Education; the Family; and, the Outdoors; and the five lifelong issues: Understanding Disciplines of Faith; Vocation: Called to be Disciples; Science and Technology; Human Identity, Relationships, and Sexuality; and, The Gift of Pluralism.

Bibliography/Other Resources

Bellah, Robert N., et al. Habits of the Heart. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1985.

Groome, Thomas. Sharing Faith. San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1991.

Mead, Loren B. The Once and Future Church. Washington, D.C.: The Alban Institute, 1991.

Mead, Loren B. Transforming Congregations for the Future. Washington, D.C.: The Alban Institute, 1994.

Osmer, Richard Robert. A Teachable Spirit: Recovering the Teaching Office of the Church. Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 1990.

Palmer, Parker J. The Company of Strangers. New York: Crossroad, 1985.

Roof, Wade Clark, and William McKinney. American Mainline Religion: Its Changing Shape and Future. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1987.

United Church Board for Homeland Ministries. Plan of Work for the Educational Mission of the United Church of Christ. New York: Division of Education and Publication, 1990.

United Church Board for Homeland Ministries. The Educational Mission of the United Church of Christ. New York: Division of Education and Publication, 1988.