Celebrating the Lay Academy, Embracing the Damascus Project: A Story of Transformation

This year’s Wisconsin Conference Annual Meeting will include a celebration of the 26 years in which the Lay Academy transformed and equipped the saints of the Wisconsin Conference. Wisconsin Conference Life is taking a look back at this beloved program, whose success has shaped the Damascus Project and enabled us to transition from in-person to online delivery of the curriculum and sense of community that helped make the Lay Academy so special. Click to read more about the Lay Academy. This month’s story comes from Jeanne Williams, a Lay Academy participant from 2016-2020 who serves as director of education at First Congregational UCC in Ripon.

By Jeanne Williams

I signed up for Lay Academy when I was one year away from retirement as a professor of educational Studies at Ripon College. Our pastor at the time had approached me about a new position opening up in our church as director of education, inviting me to bring my teaching expertise into the local church. I was excited about this opportunity but felt woefully unprepared to share faith and to teach children about the Bible. Lay Academy was a way for me to connect to people in the wider UCC and to build the background I felt I needed for the work of shaping our congregation’s educational ministry for children and adults.

From the beginning of my Lay Academy experience, I knew I had made the right decision. Leading up to that first session with the amazing Dow Edgerton, we were assigned to read all 150 Psalms from beginning to end. Prior to this assignment, I had primarily related to the Bible as a piece of literature to analyze, but this assignment and Dow’s lectures introduced me to how the Bible, and specifically the Psalms, function as a basis for faith.

I remember wanting to bang my head against the wall because it was hard to read some of those Psalms. But I did it and I’m so glad I did because what I came to understand, with Dow’s help, was that the Psalms cover the gamut of human emotion and experience. The Psalms express anger, frustration, joy, doubt, faith, despair, confidence – the whole range of what it is to be human. For the first time in my life, I was able to connect with scripture emotionally and as a basis for nurturing faith. I knew then that this was what I needed and also what I wanted to teach to our children. I wanted them to know the Psalms and the stories of the Bible so that they could carry those stories with them throughout their lives. I want children to have these stories in their heads because stories help us understand ourselves and one another. They help us build empathy.

This experience directly affects how I teach Sunday School and how I have worked with our pastors to shape the educational ministry of our congregation. It has also changed how I relate to scripture in my own life and how I hear the texts that are part of our liturgy. My life and through me the ministry of First Congregational, Ripon, were transformed by the Lay Academy.

Join us June 10-12 for the Wisconsin Conference Annual Meeting, where we will celebrate the Lay Academy’s history of transforming lives and congregations.

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