Praying by Name for School Teachers and Staff

On Sunday my congregation prayed for the teachers and staff of our community’s schools. We prayed for them by name – over 100 of them.

I asked each student in my church to make a list of their teachers and their school staff – office staff, cafeteria staff, maintenance staff, etc.. To help them with this task, we had an online form on our website that families could use to submit names. We also had a My School Prayer Worksheet kids could download, complete, and bring to church. We also had blank forms at church that many kids filled out that morning.

The prayer took place during the Children’s Message, and also included a Blessing of the Backpacks (a “back to school” theme for the Children’s Message). I spoke briefly with the kids about the good and holy things they are doing at school, and the people whose holy work it is to care for them and help them learn.

After thanking God for all who care for our children and help them grow and learn, I read all the names that were given to me. It was a bit ridiculous, and it took some time to read the 100+ names (which I tried to do with speed yet also with dignity), but it was so worth it. Praying by name for our teachers and school staff was a powerful experience, and a very vivid reminder of all the people in our community who are committed to the care and education of our children. One member of the church commented that it was great not only to pray for her kids’ current teachers, but to pray for teachers her children had in previous years whose names were submitted by younger children in the congregation.

At the end of the prayer the congregation cheered and let out an enthusiastic applause. It may have been a cheer of relief at the end of such a long prayer … but I’m much more inclined to think that the congregation was truly joy-filled by naming in prayer so many teachers and caregivers whose vocation it is to nurture our children in learning and growth. Such people truly merit not only our prayers but also our cheers. I’m glad we did both.

11870924_10206321051079286_7337353756989982197_nAfter the Children’s Message and prayer, I spread the prayer sheets over the altar. Those names were there as I preached (yes, I preach from the altar), led the Prayers of Intercession, and as I presided at Holy Communion. It was particularly powerful for me – and I shared this observation with the congregation – to prepare to serve the food and drink of the Lord’s Supper as the names of cafeteria workers graced the altar. Holy Food. Holy People. Holy Callings.

It was a good Sunday, and an experience I’ll certainly do again in the future.

The Unfortunate Scheduling of Spring Break Over Holy Week

Spring Break in the Arlington Public Schools, and in many school districts around the country, coincides with Holy Week, the week stretching from Palm Sunday to Easter Sunday which includes the observances of Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and the Vigil of Easter.  Though Holy Week moves from year to year depending on the dating of Easter, and thus is rarely a true mid-term break between January and June, the schools continue to peg their Spring Break to Holy Week, for what I assume originated out of an institutional respect for the religious observances of many of their families.

But really … does the scheduling of Spring Break during Holy Week encourage religious observance?  No, it doesn't.  In fact, I would contend that it actually does harm to Holy Week observances.

Most churches that observe Holy Week do so with services on Palm Sunday, an evening service on Holy Thursday, an evening service on Good Friday (with, perhaps, a prayer vigil or some other solemn liturgy on Friday mid-day), perhaps an Easter Vigil on Saturday evening, and Sunday morning services.  With the possible exception of the mid-day liturgies on Good Friday, there is no Holy Week observance that is better facilitated by the cancellation of schools or that would be harmed if schools were in session.  Just as with Ash Wednesday services, kids can go to school in the morning and go to church in the evening (or attend morning services before school, as is the practice in some churches).

The truth is that many families use Spring Break, the only week-long stretch when schools are closed from January through June, for travel – ski trips, college visitations, or a trek to Grandma's house.  And who can blame them?  For nearly six months children and families have little opportunity for extended travel, and it is more than understandable that they would make use of that week to get away and do things they otherwise cannot do.

However, because Spring Break is scheduled over Holy Week, churches see diminished attendance at Palm Sunday services and Sunday School programs, and at Holy Thursday and Good Friday liturgies.  This scheduling mechanism, which I'm assuming originated out of a sense of respect for the Christian observance of Holy Week, has had the (unintended) consequence of harming that observance.  Because public schools schedule Spring Break during Holy Week, fewer people participate in Holy Week liturgies and activities.

I would like to see Spring Break scheduled as a true mid-point in the winter/spring calendar, giving teachers and students alike a week off halfway through the term.  I understand that schools need to recognize certain religious observances in their scheduling – Christmas, for example – for if a significant number of students are missing school due to a religious observance, the school's educational mission is harmed.  Perhaps schools could close for Good Friday in recognition of the religious observance, as some school districts with significant Jewish populations close for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.  But I'd be glad if schools remained open on Good Friday, too (truly, how many families would keep their kids home from school for a religious observance on Good Friday?  Very few, it seems to me.). 

Christians don't need the schools to insulate and protect their religious practice.  Members of minority religious groups don't have the luxury of scheduled days off for their holidays, and I don't think that we Christians need that "luxury" either.  For as I noted above, the state's insulation of religious observances with scheduled days off from school actually does harm to those observances.