Educating for Values, Not Doctrine

The Kirk School

Photo Credit: Kirk School
Photo Credit: Kirk School

What is this anomaly?! A church school that doesn’t teach doctrine? A neighborhood mission that does not proselytize the Christian faith? How does this satisfy Jesus’ command to “Go into all the world and preach…” Are we not missing our best opportunity to spread the gospel and proclaim the Word?

The congregation of Kirk O’ The Valley Presbyterian Church, a PC(USA) congregation located in Reseda (Los Angeles), CA, has a long history of accepting differences and of promoting social justice. The church holds the strong conviction that it is God alone who looks on the heart; as such, we should leave questions of judgment to God. This conviction is central to the life, ministry, and mission of the entire congregation; therefore, it is no surprise that it extends to the ministry of the Kirk School, the church’s largest mission.

It is with that spirit that the school has thrived for 55 years, first as a preschool, and now with the addition of a K-5 elementary school. The Kirk School stands in a rather unique place among church-affiliated schools. It seeks to promote a faith-friendly, multi-cultural, values-based campus, but it does so without instruction in any sort of doctrine. The Kirk School facilitates the instruction and formation of children in an atmosphere based on respect for differences and tolerance in diversity. The congregation of Kirk O’ The Valley has intentionally chosen this method of engaging in educational mission in the surrounding community. We take the position that, since the people of the world struggle so unsuccessfully to live peacefully in the midst of diversity, our mission and purpose should be teaching children to live with integrity in their own faith while at the same time accepting others whose faith may differ.

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The Kirk School stands in a rather unique place among church-affiliated schools. It seeks to promote a faith-friendly, multi-cultural, values-based campus, but it does so without instruction in any sort of doctrine.
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At the beginning of each year, the staff identifies the traits on which the school will focus that year when it comes to character development. The Kirk School chooses and celebrates character traits that are valued among all religions: honesty, kindness, resilience, courage, reliability, leadership, optimism, etc. A school-wide assembly is held each month, during which the ‘character trait of the month’ is announced and demonstrated in the form of a skit or story acted out by the pastor and a team of children. Teachers follow-up on this presentation in the classroom, discussing the character trait in the context of lessons and referring to it throughout the month. Each teacher looks to identify which student in his/her class serves as the best example of the trait during the month, and those students are chosen to receive awards at the next assembly.

Christmas Eve Worship at Kirk O' the Valley  Photo Credit: Kirk O' the Valley
Christmas Eve Worship at Kirk O’ the Valley
Photo Credit: Kirk O’ the Valley

These monthly assemblies are where our best teachable moments emerge. Each teacher calls forward the student chosen to receive the award for their class and speaks directly to him/her about the character trait and why, specifically, the award is being given to him/her. As we go through the six classes, all students present hear what is being said, why it is important, and how these particular students came to be honored.

The church’s ministry is not just the education of children, but the formation of individual character in holistic community. Although the church tends to express its values in a more “churchy” vocabulary than the language of the values expressed in the school, all reflect the common grace of the gospel, promote reconciliation, and teach us to live in community with each other.

Over the years, this approach to values-based education has created a unique culture in our school, causing it to stand out among the others. Families often come to the Kirk School from schools that employ similar approaches but lack the intimacy of our implementation. Time and time again, these parents express amazement at the Kirk School’s effectiveness in promoting good behavior and moral sensitivity in children.

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The church’s ministry is not just the education of children, but the formation of individual character in holistic community.
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Parents and children are asked to share about each other’s cultures and religious traditions as holidays present themselves for classroom enrichment. These experiences allow children firsthand inquiry and exposure to diversity and tolerance needed in a multi-religious and multi-cultural society. Our Christian faith and Western traditions make room for other faiths and traditions to have space at the table.

Students at Camp JOY, the Kirk's Vacation Bible School Photo Credit: Kirk O' the Valley
Students at Camp JOY, the Kirk’s Vacation Bible School
Photo Credit: Kirk O’ the Valley

Our church does not in any way hide its identity as a faith community, nor do we neglect the important task of Christian education. We offer an opportunity for those families who want more involvement in the Christian faith to send their children to our after-school Christian Education program, Camp J.O.Y. – Jesus, Others, You. Parents of students at the Kirk School regularly find themselves seated in our sanctuary, where the monthly assemblies (to which all parents are invited) are held, along with several other activities. Furthermore, there is always the open invitation to attend Sunday morning worship and children’s Sunday school. But church attendance and participation in the faith-life of the congregation is not and will never be a prerequisite for a child’s participation in the education and values-formation that takes place in the Kirk School itself.

Our small congregation of 80, or so, who attend worship, regularly ministers to children who are a part of the larger Kirk community. We minister to those who are baptized into our community and to the 75-100 children who attend VBS, to those parents who mourned but are shunned by their own religious communities and to those parents who attend here and then reconcile with their former church families, to those who seek spiritual direction and those who may never join, but we remain their Kirk.

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Our church does not in any way hide its identity as a faith community, nor do we neglect the important task of Christian education.
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All decision-making at the Kirk School is done according to what is in the children’s best interest. We hold to this principle in all we do, from administrative decisions regarding enrollment to the depth of investment in each child by the classroom teacher. At times, adhering to this principle requires the strength of Christian discipline, the jaw-clenching determination to do the right thing for the child, whatever the consequences. While these actions are not always visible to our families they do reflect a way of doing business that is grounded in Christian practices and beliefs that we believe is a positive reflection our faith to the families and community.

Photo Credit: Kirk School
Photo Credit: Kirk School

There is a waiting list for enrollment at our school, and some families can choose to send their children to any school of their choice. Other parents struggle with a placement for their child. There was one student who was rejected by three schools due to his physical ailment. A fourth school accepted him, but eventually asked him to leave because his physical condition created issues that the staff were unwilling to handle.

We accepted this student fully aware of his medical condition. The first few weeks were difficult for the teacher. She went beyond what most teachers would be asked to do for a child. The little boy is now thriving and the impact on his family is nothing short of profound. Their gratitude to the Kirk School and our teachers is expressed abundantly, and they have sought to give back to the Kirk School and Church community in ways that have deeply enriched us.

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Does intentionality in promoting and practicing Christian values through the education and character development of children adequately respond to Christ’s call to proclaim the gospel? Our congregation thinks so.
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Kirk O' the Valley Presbyterian Church, Easter Sunday Photo Credit: Kirk O' the Valley
Kirk O’ the Valley Presbyterian Church, Easter Sunday
Photo Credit: Kirk O’ the Valley

Of course, some may still ask – are we missing an opportunity? Does intentionality in promoting and practicing Christian values through the education and character development of children adequately respond to Christ’s call to proclaim the gospel? Our congregation thinks so. We believe that our 55 years of proclaiming the gospel in this unique way has stood the test of time and borne more fruits than we could ever have hoped for. We are affirmed by the number of current and former families who return to express their thanks, as well as by the second generation of families who enroll their children in the Kirk School because of their own positive experiences as children. We are thankful for this opportunity to serve and to be blessed by our community. We have come to believe that this is what being the Body of Christ is all about.

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AUTHOR BIOS: Pastor Lindsey Carnes is a teaching elder who has served at Kirk O’ the Valley Presbyterian Church for 5 years. Carol Piekaar has served as the director of Kirk O’ the Valley School for 15 years.

Read more articles in this issue: A Pedagogy for the Distressed!

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