As the church program year draws to a close, many of us will begin to consider end-of-year gifts and recognition for teachers and other lay leadership. I faced this tradition down last year, as I tried to find a gift that both fit our budget and acknowledged the difficulty of volunteering with our Children & Youth Ministry during covid-tide. A small potted plant; a tin of cookies; a bar of artisanal soap; a bouquet of flowers; a soy candle –none seemed quite up to the task of what we were trying to convey: “Thank you for your abundant creativity, flexibility, and perseverance over the course of this very difficult year. Here’s a jar of yummy jelly.”
Getting Curious: Why are we doing this anyway?
Now, I love yummy jelly, don’t get me wrong, but I did begin to wonder why we continue this tradition of token (and relatively impersonal) gift-giving. And I began to ask questions:
- How did this tradition get started?
- In what ways is it working?
- In what ways is it falling short?
- Who would be hurt if we shifted the tradition?
- What are we trying to accomplish here?
- What really matters about end-of-year gifts and recognition for lay leaders?
- And, finally, is this tradition in keeping with our values and our mission?
The last question led me to consider our formation offerings and culture. Saint George’s Episcopal in Arlington, where I serve, seeks to cultivate an intergenerational community where all feel seen, heard, and valued. We are also a Catechesis of the Good Shepherd community. Catechesis, at its core, seeks to embrace and celebrate the already existing interpersonal relationship between the child and God. And it encourages a sense of wonder, joy, and generosity, as our children work alongside their catechists (teachers).
I became curious about how we might incorporate this posture of wonder, joy, and generosity into our end-of-the year tradition of recognition and gift-giving. Could we cultivate gratitude in a new way, letting our children lead us?
And there it was– my Eureka! moment. Our children had to be involved! Truly they are the ambassadors of gratitude, the ones who constantly remind us that God is in the little things. It is often their unadulterated words of wonder, love, and praise that stick with me long after they are said and done.
Creating A Video of Thanksgiving
I asked our parish families to submit short video clips and/or artwork giving thanks, and then, in partnership with them, I worked to weave individual expressions of gratitude into a video for our teachers and lay leadership.
I wondered if this ask would be too much for families, particularly towards the end of a stressful year for all. And yet, the project seemed to energize rather than drain, as video clips rolled in of children joyfully expressing appreciation in word and art for things big and small. Parents and caregivers got involved as well, both behind and in front of the camera, as did clergy.
While I expected solid participation, I was truly moved by the words of our children and families, which did not stop at a general “thank you,” but articulated the variety of ways that our teachers and leadership meaningfully impact this slice of our beloved community.
“Thank you for your dedication to us.”
“I love the story of the mustard seed. Thank you for sharing it with me.”
“Thank you for giving your Sunday mornings to our children. It means more than you know.”
“Thank you for sending me a card about my sick dog. That really meant a lot to me.”
Interwoven throughout these thoughtful, sincere, and often specific expressions of gratitude were pictures of our year and a very special offering from two members of our choirs for children and youth: a song that they wrote and performed.
Alleluia Alleluia. Thank you for all you do.
Alleluia Alleluia. We appreciate you.
I had no idea how moving this experience would be for us all. Our teachers and lay leadership were moved by the expression and, I trust, truly felt our love and gratitude. Our children and youth felt lifted up as well, as they took ownership of their experience and voiced their appreciation in their own ways. And the project served as a meaningful and intentional way to reflect upon the year and to give thanks for our common life in community.
Added bonus: sharing the video with our parish community writ large invited those not involved in our Children & Youth Ministry to catch a glimpse of its depth and beauty, serving our goal of better integration across ministries (and more successful volunteer leader recruitment!).
I love giving (and receiving) gifts and they certainly have their place as an end-of-year tradition. Our video project was a gift to be sure –one that fed us all, not just the intended recipients. By asking questions, naming intentions, and casting our net a little wider, we were able to bring new life to a beloved tradition.