Several years ago, my wife and I were asked to run our parish’s Vacation Church School. We have been doing it ever since. During that time, there have been moments of successes and failures, and what we have learned can help you improve your own program.
First, if your church does not do something with youth education in the summer, they need to.
Many churches drop Sunday School in the summer, leading people to take a break from church as well. Having a mid-summer educational program helps keep some momentum, and prepares the kids for the upcoming Church School year.
Here are the tips (in no particular order).
- Be flexible to change. When we first started, we saw a measure of success, but there were committed church families that did not attend. This bothered us. So we asked them. They told us the timing did not work. We were doing the traditional day-time program from 9-noon. Yet, in our parish most families had two working parents, and during the summer the kids were in camps or day care. So we switched to the evening, and immediately we nearly doubled our attendance.
- Find an easy-to-implement program. The Greek Archdiocese has recently published several good programs on the Feasts of the Church. The other package of curriculum that we have used, as well as many other Orthodox churches, is Group’s curriculum. Group is an Evangelical publishing house, but they have a line of curriculum that fits well into Orthodoxy, making it easy to “chrismate”. It is a historical line of curriculum with titles like Babylon (life of Daniel), Nazareth, Journeys of Paul, etc. I would caution against trying to write your own, but if you have the skills and time, and it works, please share. I would love to see OCMC or IOCC develop one or two VCS programs.
- Delegate. If you are the director, don’t teach, don’t prepare food, don’t play games, don’t do crafts—direct. I promise this will save you a lot of headache and make things go much smoother. It will be enough work to make sure all the pieces are moving smoothly. Accidents happen, kids have problems, copies need to be made, etc., and if you are stuck in a room teaching, you can’t manage the program. As a director, think of yourself as the leader of a three-ring circus, making sure all the parts mesh and move smoothly.
- Plan Early. Give yourself at least 6 months to get all your people and curriculum together. It will move faster than you think. Things will change, forcing you to find alternative plans, and planning will keep you from scrambling at the last minute. Also. communicate with the rest of the parish as soon as you can. Secure the dates on the calendar at least a year in advance, and make sure everyone knows where and when you will be working. Early planning helps members put it on their calendar before they schedule vacations. We learned this lesson the hard way. One year. several events were scheduled at the same times and places as our program, and it created last-minute stress. Everything worked out, but there was a lot of juggling and hair-pulling.
- Find good people. And when you find them. keep them. If there is one key to our success. it is that we have found great workers and they keep coming back. You will often have a line of people wanting to volunteer a day or two. Avoid this. Find people that are willing to commit to the whole program. Fill out as many spots as you can—teachers, food, games, music, crafts, skits, etc.
- Integrate into the life of the Church. We do this by integrating Vespers into our program, and having the priest give a small children’s sermon as part of our opening assembly. If you do music, teach at least one hymn to the children. One year, we taught the Baptismal hymn, and coincidently we had a baptism the following Sunday. It was a large family, and many of the kids who attended VCS where there. When we began the hymn, spontaneously the children chimed in, surprising everyone, bringing smiles to every face in the church.
- Create freedom for your workers. Once you get commitments from workers, support them and let them do their jobs. If you didn’t trust their abilities, you should not have asked. Give them everything they need to be successful, but please don’t micro-manage what they do. Nothing will frustrate your people more than breathing down their necks as they try to perform their jobs.
- Create a firm schedule. Okay, go ahead and laugh. Tight timelines are not Orthodoxy’s strong suit, but be firm on this one. Everything in our culture runs by the clock, and everyone expects this except at Church. We usually break everything into 20-minute chunks: 20 minutes for games, lesson, crafts, music, etc., and then rotate the children (by age group) through the schedule. It’s not complicated, but this will create a professional atmosphere.
- Evaluate. Each year, talk with parents and teachers about what worked and what didn’t. A lot of this is pretty apparent when it is over. Tweak the program for the next year, and you will find continual improvement.
- Promote. If there is a weak spot for us, it is promotion. Thankfully, word of mouth and tradition has helped us. Yet there are still many families that are either on the fringes of the church or don’t come regularly. Promoting during those last few weeks of Church School has helped. We have taken pictures and created videos for coffee hour to promote as well. These help, but honestly we could do more here. We also encourage kids to bring their friends, and many times we have a handful of non-Orthodox friends present.
- Make it fun. Yes, you want the kids to learn, but if they don’t want to come back or you bore them to tears, learning won’t happen. Expose them to the life of the Church, but don’t expect them to complete a quiz on doctrine at week’s end. If you do music, make it fun. Play games. Go outside. Play with glitter and glue.
Vacation Church School does not have to be a burden, and can be enjoyable and successful. Take it seriously, and it can become a special ministry for your entire parish.
Do you have any tips from your parish you can share?
Photo credit for small picture above: Jah-hoo-ah / Foter / CC BY-NC
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