What has become an annual ritual for many churches—the “Blessing of the Backpacks”—has taken on special importance at First Presbyterian Church in Findlay, Ohio. This year the event was integrated into the larger concept of commemorating milestones within the life of the church and its members, with “back to school” being just one of them.
“We make things personal,” said Jessica Myers, bridge minister at the church, who coordinated the blessing for approximately 30 students, preschool through college. “We have parents and caregivers talk directly to their children, or to their spouse or partner who is going back to school as a teacher. We have them bless them and place the sign of the cross on their forehead and say, ‘Jesus goes with you wherever you go.’”
“We continue with a congregational blessing where the children stay in the worship space and whoever is around them lays hands on them, saying God is still creating in the world and desires us to gain wisdom,” she said.
The blessing this year included a bulletin insert that church members took home to encourage them to continue praying for students, teachers, and professors in the church.
Saying milestones are always marked with a gift, such as a candle at baptism, Myers said the church gave each student and teacher a bottle of hand sanitizer on a carabiner that could be clipped onto a pack. An inscription read, “First Presbyterian Church—Go with God!”
“God is with them,” she said. “God goes before them and after them and is with them.”
Along with the back-to-school milestone, she said, the church will celebrate members’ baptismal anniversaries, beginning confirmation, high school graduation, obtaining of drivers’ licenses, and 50 years of church membership, among others. But rather than let these observations be one-time events, Myers said, the milestones are a way to involve families and the whole church in faith formation. Milestones, she said, are key to continuing faith reflection beyond the church walls.
“We’ll be doing a gifting of Bibles for third graders,” she said. “We see this as a way to connect parenting and faith at home as the primary mode of faith development in the 21st century. The idea is those milestones, and what surrounds them, empower families to engage their faith at home. The congregation makes a commitment to follow through with the promises they made in the baptismal vows, and the parents make a commitment to teach them and read the Bible with them.”
Broadway Presbyterian Church in Manhattan also holds an annual “Blessing of the Backpacks” service. Pastor Chris Shelton presents a thematic worship service that includes the entire congregation, with a special focus on school-aged children.
During the service, congregation members make their way up the aisle, with their backpacks, briefcases, messenger bags, and tablets to receive a blessing for the new year of learning. This year’s service was held September 18 and was designed by pastoral intern Timothy Wotring. The theme was based on “carrying gratitude in your backpack” and was presented using a school-oriented version of Jimmy Fallon’s “Thank You Notes” skit.
“Back to school is a busy time for us around First Presbyterian Church [Dallas],” said Joshua Taylor, director of worship and music at First.
The church held its annual Back to School Blessing and Teacher Commissioning during worship August 28. “It is always an important event in the life of our church as we see the connectivity between education and our role in the community,” Taylor said. “We also commission our Reading Partners, which is an outreach and volunteer program with the Dallas Independent School District.”
On August 28 the church also celebrated Scholarship Sunday, a recognition of members’ generosity that made 85 scholarships available to students in the congregation and students from its Community Ministries Youth Program through the Community Ministries Scholars program.
“As for my own family’s story, we arrived at FPC when my oldest daughter was four months old,” said Taylor. “The church has always been a loving community for her. Thanks to that supportive and safe place, she is so ready for school. I can’t help but think that all of those people embracing her, supporting her, teaching her, and just loving on her played a significant role in preparing her for this new beginning.
“Oh, that every new kindergarten student had such a community.”
Gregg Brekke, Editor, Presbyterian News Service
Today’s Focus: Denver Presbytery
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PC(USA) Agencies’ Staff
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Gracious God, we ask you to keep the vision before us of what it means to be disciples. Generations before us have followed your light; may we reflect your light for future generations. Amen.