Gelsinger on Sunday Schools, Part 3: Teachers and Altar Boys

Editor’s note: In 1938, Fr. Michael Gelsinger, with his wife Mary, published a Handbook for Orthodox Sunday Schools. Gelsinger was one of the most influential convert clergymen in American Orthodox history. He served in the Antiochian Archdiocese, and this book was published with the blessing of Metropolitan Antony Bashir. We’ve serialized the book’s introduction, and are running it in a four-part series. (Click here for Part 1, and click here for Part 2.) Today, we’re publishing Part 3, in which Gelsinger talks about Sunday School teachers, as well as how to educate adolescent boys.

Teachers of Orthodox Catholic children must necessarily be persons exceptionally loyal to our Orthodox Religion and sincerely devoted to the work of religious education. Lack of experience and training can be corrected, but nothing can make good and useful Teachers of those who are lacking in love for the Orthodox Church or who out of vanity or selfishness find more pleasure in ruling their pupils than in serving them.

When a Sunday School is first organized, some of those appointed to serve as Teachers may have little or no acquaintance with the material they are to teach. The first thing for any such Teacher to do, of course, is to study, and study hard. What he doesn’t know, he must learn; and he must learn without delay. It is not enough to study the lessons from Sunday to Sunday; from the beginning the Teacher must know all that is to be taught to his class during the whole year. The Teacher’s success or failure is of immense importance not only to his pupils but also to the whole Orthodox Church in America. There is no future for our Religion in America unless we can hold fast to our children; and we cannot hold fast to our children unless we teach them. The Teacher of a Sunday School class, therefore, should not forget that he bears a great responsibility, and that he his strictly accountable for what he does with the pupils entrusted to him for instruction.

Every Parish must develop an efficient program for improving the performance of Teachers already in service and for training new Teachers. For improving the work of Teachers already in service, one important means is to have Teachers’ meetings at least once a month so that problems of teaching and discipline may be discussed and solved. The training of new Teachers is best carried on in classes especially organized for that purpose and conducted by the Priest or under his supervision. Before new Teachers are given classes they ought to serve as assistants to Teachers already in service, so that they may see the methods of teaching and discipline practically applied in a classroom.

The training of Teachers must include not only the matters taught in the Sunday School class but also an ample amount of background material. For example, every Teacher ought to know how to find in the Service Books all the things needed for the Vespers, Orthros, and Liturgy of any given day. American conditions require that Orthodox people in general should have wider range of information than is now usual among us, and certainly our Teachers should be among the first to set the example of acquiring it.

All Teachers must be made to understand that discipline demands skill and self control. A Teacher who shouts or scolds is a poor Teacher. Because he doesn’t know how to control his pupils, he loses control of himself. Becaues he loses control of himself, he gives way to excitement and irritation; and so having become as childish as his pupils he joins with them to make reverent attention impossible. Religion cannot be taught in anger nor learned by resentful and rebellious minds. Almost all difficult disciplinary situations have very small beginnings; there is no excuse for allowing a minor misdeed to develop into a major crisis. Teachers in training should be reminded again and again that our Orthodox children come to Sunday School gladly; that their mischievousness is innocent, not criminal or wicked, and represents energy which is useful when properly controlled and directed; and that a Teacher must know how to control without provoking resentment or antagonism.

Every Sunday School should be inspected several times a year by the Parish Priest to make sure that instruction is really effective. The best way to test the effectiveness of instruction is to ask the pupils questions about the material they are supposed to have learned. If any class falls short of a reasonable standard of achievement, an immediate inquiry ought to be made to find out why the work is not better done.

Boys and girls above the age of twelve present the most difficult problem for us at present. If they have been taught in their earlier years, the difficulty in many Parishes will be to find Teachers who can direct them in more advanced studies. If they have been poorly taught in their earlier years, or not taught at all, they will submit reluctantly to instruction that is better suited to their needs than to their years; for children of that age rebel against doing work that is being done in the same School by others who are much younger.

As far as adolescent girls are concerned, there would seem to be no solution except to entrust them to some well-bred woman who has a natural talent for guiding girls of that age. But for adolescent boys there is a plan which any Parish Priest can use. The plan is to use adolescent boys to serve at the Altar, requiring four or more to be on duty every Sunday.

In the parish of St. George in Niagara Falls, New York, a boy begins to serve in the Sanctuary as soon after his twelfth birthday as he can be used. For three months he must serve every Sunday. The Priest explains the Liturgy to him, and the older boys instruct him in his duties as Server. At the end of this period of apprenticeship most boys are trained well enough to serve without direction, and are able to describe the Liturgy from beginning to end with a fair idea of what the Service means.

The plan has in view not only the giving of instruction in Religion, but also the developing of young people who will be fitted to take a responsible part in the life and work of the Parish. Accordingly, during the three months of his apprenticeship a boy is required to obey not only the Priest but also all the older boys who may be serving. In this way a newly enlisted boy learns how to be one of the rank and file for the sake of the common good; the older boys who have latent capacity for leadership have an opportunity to develop it; and all the boys gain experience in the art of working together in harmony.

During the Proskomide of the Liturgy, boys serving their apprenticeship stand near the Priest so that they may see all that he does and may understand what he teaches them as to its meaning. Beginning with the Liturgy of the Catechumens, two boys stand to the North of the Altar and two to the South. Each pair is composed of one boy still in his apprenticeship and of an older boy; behind each pair stands another boy still older. Each pair is directed by the boy who stands behind it, so that everything may be done rightly and promptly, — as, for example, when processions are formed for the Entrances.

Carrying out this plan adds greatly to the burdens of the Priest. He must be gentle and patient if he is not to make himself unfit for his holy duties; and yet it is far from easy to train boys to serve reverently when there are so many of them serving together. But the rewards of success are worth far more than their cost. The boys learn the Service far better than would be possible under any other arrangement; they learn how to work together; and they are kept in close connection with the Church at the very age when they would be most likely to drift away.

After the period of apprenticeship a boy serves in rotation with the other older boys. On Sundays when he does not serve he is required to worship with the people. As he grows older and the number of boys available for duty increases, he serves less and less frequently; but presently he comes within the reach of still another plan, devised to give him a continuing sense of active participation in the life of the Parish.

For when a boy reaches the age of fifteen he is eligible for membership in the Orthodox Frontier. This organization, which began in St. George’s Parish in Niagara Falls and is spreading to other Parishes, is different from other organizations of young people. Although it has a rich program of recreational activities, its chief aims are to spread the Orthodox Religion and to defend the Orthodox Church against all her open and secret enemies. The Orthodox Frontier intends to be what its name implies: an aggressive army of young men who fight vigorously to extend the power and influence of the Orthodox Church. And as such a purpose cannot succeed without personal devotion, the organization requires its members to obey strictly all the laws and precepts of our Religion, — especially to attend Services regularly and to worship devoutly. The religious training of our young people is incomplete unless we can develop in them an enthusiastic love for the Church; and the Orthodox Frontier is intended to provide for our young people a way to express actively the loyalty and devotion which the Church inspires in them.