PC(USA) churches mark transition for students as school year begins

Blessing of backpacks, teachers honors commitment to education and family

by Gregg Brekke | Presbyterian News Service

Bless_BackpackLOUISVILLE – 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,” says Jessica Myers, bridge minister at the church, who coordinated the blessing for approximately 30 students, pre-school 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 says. “Part of that is through education and through our schools.”

The blessing included a bulletin insert church members took home to continue praying for students, teachers and professors in the church, even if they didn’t have school-age children.

Saying milestones are always marked with a gift, such as a candle at baptism, Myers says the church gave students and teachers a bottle of hand sanitizer on a carabineer students can clip onto a pack that reads, “First Presbyterian Church – Go with God!”

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Personalized hand sanitizer from First Presbyterian Church in Findlay, Ohio. (Photo by Cynthia Holder Rich)

“God is with them,” she says. “God goes before them, and after them and is with them.”

Along with the back to school milestone, she says the church will celebrate members’ baptismal anniversaries, beginning confirmation, high school graduation, reception of drivers’ licenses and 50 years of church membership, among others. But rather than let these observations be one-time events, Myers says the milestones are a way to involve families and the whole church in faith formation. Milestones, she says, are key to continuing faith reflection beyond the church walls.

“We’ll be doing a gifting of Bibles for third graders,” she says. “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, empowers 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. Past themes have included Dr. Seuss, Little Golden books, and an “Inside the Actor’s Studio” edition.

Congregation members make their way up the aisle during the service with their backpacks, briefcases, messenger bags and iPads to receive a blessing for the new year of learning. This year’s service will be held September 18 and was designed by pastoral intern Timothy Wotring. The theme is based on “carrying gratitude in your backpack” and will be 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],” says Joshua Taylor, director of worship and music at First.

The church will hold its annual Back to School Blessing and Teacher Commissioning during worship August 28. “It is always an important event in the life our church as we see the connectivity between education and our role in the community,” says Taylor. “We also commission our Reading Partners, which is an outreach and volunteer program with the Dallas Independent School District.”

Last week, the church 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,” says 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.”


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