In the early 1980s when I began my ministry as a Christian educator, I “met” Verna Dozier in an article published in SHARE, a quarterly publication of essays distributed by JED (Joint Educational Development) of which the Episcopal Church participated. It was during those years that the Episcopal Church regularly sent free materials to all Episcopal churches. Lucky for me I found the packets of shelved envelopes of articles in the back of a Sunday school closet that hadn’t seen the light of day in a long time. In one of those articles, “Affirmations of a Christian Educator” my vocation was just that – affirmed – by Ms. Dozier in the opening section:
A few weeks ago I drew a vestry conference to a close with a Bible study designed to affirm the gifts of each vestry person and to challenge each one to see how each gift fitted into the whole. As a preparation for the Bible study, I asked them to be still and think of what gifts they had to bring to the parish in the coming year. Then I asked them to tell us about that gift or gifts in terms of bodily image. With the special gifts, what part of the body would they be?
I gave the formula: “I am the eye of the body because I have insight.” Many people said they were the hands of the body because they helped people. One person said she was the ears of the body because her gift was listening. One man said he was the feet because he was willing to go where he was told to do the job that needed doing. The rector, in what I thought was an inspired analogy, said he was the veins and sinews because he was all through the body and made connections of one part to the other parts.
That group heard Paul’s image of the body in the twelfth chapter of First Corinthians in a new way.
Think about that exercise for the [ministries] of the church. Evangelism, the mouth; it speaks the gospel. Social action, the heart; it loves the poor, the bruised, the troubled; missions, the ears; it hears the Macedonian call. Stewardship, the head; it weighs and considers. I started to quote St. Paul . . . “the uncomely part having more abundant comeliness.” You can have a lot of fun with this design, if you let yourself go.
No doubt you have noticed that I left out Christian education, and some of you may have guessed why. The rector’s analogy to me conjures up Christian education. We, the Christian educators, are the veins and the sinews. We hold up the whole enterprise together. Without us the meaning is lost.Viewpoints C, VI, 1 (SHARE)
In that same closet I discovered a yellowed booklet published in 1982 called The Authority of the Laity, thankfully still accessible even though it is out-of-print. While I never met her in person, over the next ten years or so I met Verna more through her many writings. The Dream of God: A Call to Return (1991), what some call her seminal book, is on my list of ten books every educator/formation person should read.
Who was Verna Dozier?
Verna Dozier was born on October 9, 1917, in Washington, DC. She graduated from Dunbar High School at age 15, then attended Howard University, where she earned a B.A. in English in 1937 and an M.A. in English Literature the following year. While at Howard, she attended the University Chapel and was greatly influenced by its Dean, Howard Thurman. She became interested in other denominations and religions and read extensively about them.
After receiving her degrees, Verna worked for 34 years in Washington’s public school system, as a high school English teacher, department chair, and assistant director of the system’s Division of Instruction, for which she developed innovative curricula. Outside of her professional work, she continued to study the Bible and the work of many theologians.
In 1950, Verna joined the Church of the Saviour in Washington, a congregation committed to education, personal devotions, and social action. She soon became known throughout the area for her approach to Bible study and for her teaching. The Episcopal Diocese of Washington recruited her to teach at its Diocesan School of Christian Living. Joining St. Mark’s Episcopal Church she taught classes, preached, served on the Vestry, and was elected Senior Warden. She also held numerous, voluntary positions with the Diocese of Washington. Her reputation spread throughout the Episcopal Church as a theologian, educator, and advocate for the ministry of the laity. In addition to speaking and leading workshops across the country, she taught at the Virginia Theological Seminary and the College of Preachers. She was awarded two honorary doctorates: by the University of the South (Sewanee) in 1988 and by VTS in 1993. Verna died on September 1, 2006.
Verna Dozier’s “Characteristics that are part of vital Christian Education programs”:
- Where the rector stands in relation to Christian Education is generally a very accurate barometer of where Christian Education stands in the parish.
- It’s not synonymous with Sunday school. It’s not a children’s program. It is an activity for all ages. Churches that tell the Story successfully tell it to everybody. You never outgrow the need to hear the Story.
- Reaches beyond the Bible. A congregation that has a program of Christian education that takes the day-by-day concerns of its people and gives gives them time and space and leadership in the sacred place to deal with the secular makes a serious witness that all life is holy.
- Broadens the subject matter with which they deal. Wherever two or three gather together to wrestle through to some answers, in the power of God who created and who loves and redeems from the foundation of the world.
- Participants participate – actively. A discussion is better than a lecture, a variety of activities better than one type.
- Affirm the process. Christian Education is always going on. Every sermon preached. Every allocation of funds in any budget. Every cause supported or denied. Every act we do together.
You can read more about her (and her writings) here:
- From the database of Christian Educators of the 20th Century through Talbot School of Theology (bio written by Fredrica Harris Thompsett)
- Her obituary from The Washington Post.
- A list of articles, books, and more, along with a video of Verna speaking from St. Mark’s, Washington, DC website called Hearing Verna’s Prophetic Voice
- Episcopal Teacher’s profile of Verna Dozier
- A number of articles by Ms. Dozier that were published in Sojourner’s
- From the leadership gallery in the Episcopal Archives
If I believe that there is a loving God, who has created me and wants me to be a part of a people who will carry the good news of the love of that God to the world, what difference does it make when I go to my office at 9 o’clock Monday morning? What difference does it make in my office that I believe there is a loving God, that God loves me, and that God loves all human beings exactly as God loves me? What different kinds of decisions do I make? What am I called to do in that office?Verna Dozier, “The Authority of the Laity,” p. 16
The lay person’s primary function is out there in the world. There is a problem when the church becomes the primary focus of their lives.Verna Dozier, “The Authority of the Laity,” p. 40