Catechesis of the Good Shepherd and Godly Play:
Two Excellent Montessori Methods of Christian Formation
What are the Differences, and Do They Matter?
By Cynthia Coe
Years ago, as a novice to children’s Christian education and a first year student in Virginia Theological Seminary’s master’s degree program in Christian education, I dropped a file folder of papers and got them hopelessly out of order. I frowned, unable at a glance to figure out which Sunday school lay-out map pictured a Catechesis of the Good Shepherd atrium and which pictured a Godly Play classroom. I couldn’t, at a glance, tell the difference. A few months later, after beginning training in Level One Catechesis and completing an intensive weekend training course in Godly Play, I could indeed tell the difference and even give a synopsis of the two programs to interested parents and clergy. But I am still reminded that at first glance and to most people looking at the programs for the first time, the programs are remarkably similar.
Both programs are offspring of Maria Montessori’s work among impoverished children in Italy at the beginning of the twentieth century. Both feature elements of a “prepared environment” of hands-on materials with which children may freely explore scripture and theological concepts. Both emphasize quiet listening to God. Both put high value on the child’s ability to experience the work of the Holy Spirit on his or her own.
Perhaps as importantly, both Catechesis and Godly Play are in the business of providing excellent Christian formation opportunities for children in a well thought-out manner. Designers and trainers of both programs have paid careful attention to age-appropriateness, scriptural integrity, and theological content. In my observations, excellent, dedicated teachers who are wonderful ministers to children are drawn and are actively working in both programs.
Teacher Training – What are the Goals?
While both programs provide excellent Christian formation for children, they arrive at this point by two very different routes. Catechesis requires teachers (“catechists”) to attend 90+ hours of training to become certified in Level 1 (for 3-5 year olds), then further 90+ hour courses for Levels 2 and 3. These training courses are typically conducted through weekend retreats over a two year period. Catechesis training includes lectures and meditations aimed at giving Catechists a very rich grounding in the material presented. In my observations, many people who enthusiastically sign up for these very lengthy training courses say they are looking for a Christian formation experience for themselves as much as they are looking to work with children.
In my mind, Godly Play is more of a skills-based training. The basics of the Montessori method are presented, along with the general theological and methodological bases of the program. However, the beauty of Godly Play is in its very hands-on emphasis on giving prospective teachers actual experience and practice in giving presentations to children and in actually using the materials with their own hands. Trainees are sent out in small groups to study the presentation, work with the materials, and practice giving the presentations. Those who complete the weekend can go back home with several presentations soundly under their belts. The training is very positive, affirming, and builds great confidence in the prospective teacher. It is not necessarily a Christian formation experience for adults (although I have to say I gained many personal spiritual insights in working with blank pieces of paper and crayons myself in the training.) Godly Play training is wonderful for those who may have already taken Bible studies, EFM or other adult Christian formation studies and mostly want to learn the specific methodology of Montessori-based formation.
Thus, the training experiences of the two programs are, in my mind, like comparing the proverbial apple and orange. Many look to Catechesis for a full adult formation experience (whether it was designed as such or not). Godly Play assumes participants already are well versed in the basics of the Christian faith and scripture (or perhaps invites those aren’t into further adult studies).
Is there a common ground of shared concerns and practical challenges? In my experience, it is becoming increasingly difficult to recruit adults willing to take the 90+ hour course required to become a catechist. Looking around at the parents of children in my atrium at Church of the Ascension in Knoxville this past year, most of the parents are professionals. Even if these parents (many of them women taking a break from careers to raise small children) were to sign up for a lengthy training course, they would almost certainly move on to other ministries or volunteer jobs or exclusively paying jobs after their children start school. Realistically, the one weekend course offered by Godly Play is about the most they will attend.
Does this mean Catechesis is entirely out of bounds for most volunteers? Not necessarily. Parents continue to be interested in “helping.” I can’t help wondering if an “assistant” certification, focused on skills rather than theology, and offered within a do-able time period (like the Godly Play weekend trainings) might help Catechesis continue into the future.
Time is indeed of the essence when administrators, clergy, and Christian education committees make decisions as to which children’s Christian formation curriculum they choose. This element of time and what is realistically “do-able” is, in my opinion, at the crux of Jerome Berryman’s revisions to Catechesis as manifested in Godly Play. Most Episcopal parishes offer a one hour block of time on Sunday morning for children’s Christian formation. Catechesis, I understand, was designed for a two hour block of time, not necessarily on Sunday morning.
This element of time constraint is critical in understanding why a particular parish might choose Godly Play over Catechesis. The time required for teacher training is one major element. Another major element is the time and effort required to procure the materials used in the classroom or atrium. Most of Catechesis materials must be hand made and custom made; Godly Play materials may be ordered over the internet. While the materials used in Catechesis tend to be beautiful products of loving and heart-felt labor, the reality is that many typical parishes just can’t pull off the materials-making. As a level two catechist at a typical medium sized parish in the Knoxville suburbs, I struggled to teach an atrium with only half the needed materials. It was a miserable experience, and the program was eventually discontinued. Personally, I just don’t have the skills to make materials, and I have gleefully ordered materials from Godly Play that are also beautiful, well made, and ready for me to use. It’s a stewardship issue for me – my gifts and talents are in teaching and ministering to kids; not in carpentry. I am absolutely fine in someone else using their own gifts and talents to make the materials and getting paid for their labors. Many in the church do get paid fair salaries for their efforts!
Does this mean that Catechesis will slowly but surely get snuffed out by an American culture of “not enough time” and not enough workers in the vineyard? Maybe not. Catechesis, as I’ve experienced it, does best when it is presented as designed in a two hour block with trained catechists, proper materials, and kids arriving in comfortable play clothes brought by parents who really and truly want them to be there. This scenario might not necessarily be the same as a typical parish Sunday morning Sunday School offering.
In fact, in Knoxville, the programs that have recently thrived have been the programs offered outside the Sunday morning time block and even outside of the parish building. One home Catechesis atrium now attracts more children than the Sunday morning parish program. In the past, weekday morning and weekday afternoon programs at Church of the Ascension were enthusiastically attended, and there was never a lack of trained and available catechists.
More importantly, these non-Sunday morning programs reached children who really and truly needed them. In one weekday two-hour program, one child’s parent had just passed away, another child’s parent was diagnosed with cancer, and yet another child’s father was about to head off to combat duty overseas. The two hour block, guided by two experienced children’s ministers, gave us an opportunity to minister to these children in a quiet, spiritual retreat atmosphere using the longer period of time we really needed. After teaching this particular atrium, the Sunday morning program felt very, very rushed to me.
Catechesis “outside the box” of the typical Sunday morning format also opens up the door to ecumenical offerings, creating opportunities for both resource sharing and theological sharing. I was continually amazed at the number of denominations represented in training courses in Knoxville. Participants from Methodist, Orthodox, and even Evangelical churches joined Episcopalians and Roman Catholics in community centered around Catechesis. In this respect, Catechesis might serve best when it is outside just one denomination.
Anglican vs. Roman Catholic – Does it Matter?
Does it matter to Episcopal parishes seeking quality children’s Christian formation whether the program is Anglican or Roman Catholic in origin and design? While Catechesis has a wonderful ecumenical following, those selecting one curriculum over the other do look at the underlying theology of a program or curriculum. For instance, the designers of the Episcopal Children’s Curriculum very consciously make sure the theology and practice of the Book of Common Prayer is reflected in the curriculum. Generally speaking, an Episcopal parish choosing a curriculum anew would be better served by calling up the church-owned and sponsored publisher than, say, a fundamentalist Baptist publisher when seeking options.
Is the Episcopal Church “close” enough to Roman Catholicism to share or simply tweak the same curricula for its specific uses? My own opinion is that the person teaching the curriculum makes a huge difference. My own teaching of Catechesis and Godly Play is nearly identical. That is because I am Anglican, and Anglican theology is going to seep into my teaching no matter what program or curriculum I teach.
With that said, there are a couple of important differences between Catechesis and Godly Play which some would find important when choosing one program over the other. The first concerns the Old Testament – Godly Play teaches it; Catechesis does not in programs for younger children. Personally, I love the Old Testament lessons of Godly Play and find them both age appropriate and scripturally sound. My own children love the lessons given in the OT desert box, and I have gained many insights from the OT materials myself. Godly Play is indeed more Trinitarian in its focus and thus more in line with the theology of the Book of Common Prayer than the more Christocentric nature of Catechesis.
Another seemingly small but perhaps important difference is the focus on “wondering” in Godly Play. If the difference between “proclamation” in Catechesis and “wondering” in Godly Play is seen as a notable difference, I might suggest that this difference is not just about words. The Anglican Church does encourage its parishioners to do more “wondering” than the Roman Catholic Church. We Anglicans are encouraged to use our brains to think about theological issues as part our Anglican “3 legged stool” of scripture, tradition, and reason. What the Catechists might call Berryman’s openness to “the fact that children may go off on their own tangents as they try to make meaning for themselves” might be a reflection of a more Anglican perspective on scripture.
Does all or any of this matter? It depends on your priorities and your goals for Christian formation of children and of adults. What a parish values, what it hopes to accomplish, and what it can realistically pull off will drive the choice between one program or the other. If a parish chooses Godly Play, that might mean the parish chooses to be more in line with Anglican values and the Book of Common Prayer. That might mean the parish is being realistic about what it can offer and what its volunteers can reasonable do. That might mean that adult Christian formation is already in place or that adults will seek their own formation in other, separate ways.
If a parish chooses Godly Play or another Episcopal curriculum for its primary Sunday morning offering, this might simply mean that Catechesis would be better presented in another venue, in another time period, or in some other manner which would allow the Catechists to best use their time, talents, and perhaps consolidate resources on a community wide or other shared basis.
The two programs are both great choices for what they are and do not by any means need to be seen as opposing forces.
An Update: Jerome W. Berryman, the founder of Godly Play, has published a discussion of this topic in his book, The Spiritual Guidance of Children: Montessori, Godly Play, and the Future (Morehouse Publishing 2013). I highly recommend you read the Rev. Dr. Berryman’s account of the history of Godly Play, along with its differences from Catechesis, found in chapter 3 of this book.
For a review of this book, please go to: http://etchristianformation.org/2013/10/23/the-deep-roots-of-montessori-based-spirituality-how-will-they-bloom/