The Catechesis of the Good Shepherd (CGS) is a three-level class that is used for Sunday School at Christ Church, Shaker Heights. Simply put, the class teaches children the teachings of the Church and of the Good Shepherd. The program is based off of the belief that God and every child are already in a relationship. The adults involved with the program are merely there to provide a place for every child to grow their relationship with God.
The first level is for 3- to 6-year-olds, and is designed to teach the students the very basics of the Church and the Bible. The children will learn, in part, the basic parts of the altar, how to set their own altar, a few parables, and some basic history of the time that Jesus lived. The materials are focused on the announcement of God’s love in the person of Jesus, the parables of the Kingdom, articles and gestures of an Episcopal service, and the sacrament of Baptism.
Level two is for 6- to 9-year-olds, and builds upon the lessons learned in the first level. The children learn more about the altar and why things are done, not just what is done. They also go into more of the morality of Christianity. Many of the activities are on the same principles, just more in depth than what is found in level one. The materials in this class focus on the exploration of parables like the True Vine and the Good Samaritan, a series of impressionistic lessons and timelines on the history of the Kingdom of God, lessons on the Bible, and the continuation of the study of the liturgy of the Church that began in level one.
The third, and final, level is for 9- to 12-year-olds. This level goes farther into the history of the Church and of the life of Jesus. The children learn about the history of the Jewish people, and focus on tying everything together that they have learned throughout the different levels. This level focuses on the study of the Hebrew people and their relationship to the history of the Kingdom of God. The typology studies that the students focus on include creation, the fall, and the flood. The children also focus on the history of Israel and the lives of Abraham and Moses. In this level, there is an emphasis on exploring the liturgy in depth. By the time each child completes level three, each of them will have created their own prayer book.
Each level is a two-hour, weekly class. No two Sundays look the same. Each Sunday the teachers show the students another activity. Once the students have been shown how to do something, they can do it as many times as they want. Leslie Swaim-Fox, the Director of Christian Formation at Christ Church, noticed that children love repetition, which is part of the reason she believes this program is so effective and useful.
The first two levels also focus greatly on improving the motor skills of the children. This is done in a variety of ways, ranging from identifying different crosses with a magnifying glass to polishing the chalice for the altar. At first, Swaim-Fox did not understand the benefit of the motor skill part of the CGS curriculum. However, after 15 years, she now believes that giving them time to grow as people, as well as some meditative time, offers great benefits to the children and the program.
The process to implement the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd is not an easy one. The classrooms, called atriums, are set up to be more like a retreat center, and are filled with all handmade items. Members from Christ Church have spent years filling the atriums with altars, signs, books, and more. Furthermore, a teacher must take 90 hours of training to be certified in a level of CGS. The teachers at Christ Church took a 2-year course to become certified in level one.
However, while Swaim-Fox acknowledges that the course is not an easy program and that it takes a lot of work, she highly encourages other parishes to look into implementing the program.
"I have found that the investment is, in a lot of ways, related to the reward,” Swaim-Fox said. “You can really talk with [the children] and learn something from them as the teacher.”
There are many benefits of participation in the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd program, including opportunities to: lay the foundation for a deep and meaningful relationship with God; fall in love with Jesus, the Good Shepherd; build a solid grounding in the theology and liturgy of the church; become a member of a community seeking to know God through reflection, prayer, and worship; and foster children's natural spirit of wonder and thankfulness. Swaim-Fox believes that the course is developmentally appropriate and, because of the way the lessons build upon each other by design, teachers never have to reteach the students something. The theology taught is not “watered down” for children, but is instead distilled to the essential elements so that it meets the children where they are at spiritually and developmentally. She also believes that CGS is a good growing opportunity for the parish. She noted that because the children learn the parts of the service during class, they truly understand what is going on in church and believes that makes a difference for the congregation as a whole.