An Interview with W. Lee Dickson, Executive Director of the Godly Play Foundation
by Jeannie Babb
“I wonder if God has everything planned?” Asked to recall favorite wondering thoughts from children, this is the first one that comes to mind for W. Lee Dickson. It could also be a thematic question for Dickson’s own journey with Godly Play.
As of the new year, Dickson signed on to the role of Executive Director of the Godly Play Foundation — a turn in her story that she could not have anticipated the first time she walked into a Godly Play room about nineteen years ago.
“We were at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Cohasset, Massachusetts,” she recalls. ” A story was told to a group of adults nineteen years ago, at a fall orientation for parents of children in Godly Play.” Sally Thomas was the story teller, and she was telling the Great Family.
“What surprised me was the silence, and the slow place. I had just dashed home from my corporate job. I felt like I was going a hundred miles an hour. I arrived late, so I joined the meeting just as everyone had gathered in the circle. With no time to transition or cross the threshold, I found the silence and the slow pace uncomfortable initially. Somewhere around Bethel, I entered the story and was fascinated. I was also humbled by what I did not know about their faith journey. I wanted to know more.”
The Godly Play program at St. Stephen’s welcomed Dickson’s organizational skills to help the children. “It then became my ministry because I was learning so much myself by sitting in circles with children. My own spiritual journey was so enriched by the stories and by the wondering. It became my ministry because I could see the impact of Godly Play in the children who have grown up with it. Even when as adults they do not practice their faith in traditional ways, they are able to bring a dialogue with God into their lives as they face existential struggles. It became my ministry because I truly see a chaotic, complex world, and I know in my heart Godly Play can help change the world for the better.”
Of her position at the Foundation, Dickson says, “God works in mysterious and cyclical ways. My Godly Play ministry now, as Executive Director, is once again a place where my organizational and managerial skills can be of service.”
In the last ten months, Dickson has worked to put in place fundamental administrative processes and procedures, such as job descriptions and electronic payroll. The foundation has also begun actively fundraising, so another operational change involves recording and tracking those donations.
“We are so grateful to all who responded to our annual appeal,” Dickson says. “And there is still time, if some people haven’t yet donated. Any amount is so appreciated.”
Many “firsts” have happened this year. Godly Play Espanol is underway. Committees for stewardship and strategy have been formed. In the College of U.S. Training, changes include the addition of a Trainer Emeritus status that allows trainer to retire but still retain training credentials. A Trainer Portal has been added so that Trainers can manage reimbursements, keep credentials up to date, and keep in contact with one another. A resource called Legends: A History of U.S. Trainers is being assembled to keep Godly Play Trainers and their stories in institutional memory.
In other areas, progress and success continue to build. Hundreds of storytellers are being trained this year, in over 75 Core and Advanced trainings around the United States. Connections with Trainers and Godly Play programs overseas are stronger than ever. The Education Committee continues to develop and revise both the curriculum and the materials in response to feedback from the classroom. (See Images of Jesus, for example.)
Dickson says her greatest challenge is the unbounded enthusiasm of everyone involved. “So many of our people see this new era of the Foundation as a great time — which it is — and want to do everything! If we try to do everything, we will fail. We need to focus, and do what we can do well.”
Engaging with many enthusiastic, talented people is the best kind of challenge. “The ideas,
creativity, and willingness to give are a blessing for the children of our world. It’s a challenge I’m enjoying.”
Dickson continues teaching in the classroom as well, telling Godly Play stories to children in the 4th and 5th grades. “I love the depth of their wondering skills,” she says. “I am blessed with children in my circle who have experienced the spiral curriculum. They have seen the Great Family many times. They’re able to wonder about it from where they are now.”
Because these children have experienced Godly Play for many years, the circle takes less time to build, allowing more time for Dickson enrich and extend the core stories. Side-by-sides and longer stories are possible because the children walk in the door really ready. “They challenge me,” Dickson says, “and I learn from them.”
“I wonder if God created everything,” one of Dickson’s students mused, “why did he create evil?”
Another once said, “I wonder if God is real or if we made him up so we are not scared?”
Some Sunday school programs would discourage these kinds of question, wanting children to simply believe whatever they are told about God. The Godly Play classroom is a safe place to develop questions and work through doubts and existential crises. It is a place where children can grow their own faith rather than parroting a didactic message.
“I wonder how God knew the Ten Best Ways would still be needed today?”
“I wonder if God has everything planned?”
Dickson finds that Godly Play is not only a way to connect children with God; it has also become her own spiritual practice. “Preparing to tell a story is a journey that allows me to wonder and to deepen my connections. This week, for example, I’m telling The Flood in the pre-K/K room. Reading it made me wonder how bad were the people, that God brought a cleansing flood to the earth? Are we, as global people, nearly to that threshold again? Would a flood help? Why were we promised it would not happen again? Do we have to fix ourselves? And are we able? How can I help? I wonder . . .”