Vacation Bible School: Key Challenges and Manageable Solutions
by Marlene Sweeney
Vacation Bible school provide a unique opportunity to reach out to children and families in your community.
Vacation Bible school provide a unique opportunity to reach out to children and families in your community. Lazy summer days can be turned into focused fun and learning. God’s Word can trump the usual mindless activities of long hot days. Families can be challenged for the first time to explore biblical history. Together, everyone is invited to learn more about God and one another.
There is no one right way to run a vacation Bible school. Creativity, commitment, and hard work are the necessary ingredients, regardless of the program you use. Now and the months ahead will be a critical time to consider your game plan and the challenges you may face in making this year’s VBS the best yet in your community.
Behind every good VBS is good leadership. Someone needs to set the vision, coordinate the efforts, and be responsible for this parish event. In some communities, the director of religious education or youth leader has VBS written into her or his descriptions while other churches rely on non-staff persons or a team of individuals who are willing to give of their time and talents to plan and run VBS.
Many parishes that have a long-standing tradition of VBS find that establishing a leadership model of succession has worked well. One person is designated the VBS coordinator for one or two years. During that time, the person works with a partner who is being mentored to accept the responsibility in subsequent years. This model works particularly well where a course of action has already been established.
However, if this is your first year of offering VBS, be clear as to who is taking responsibility for this event. Ideally, include a staff person in the initial leadership planning so that philosophies, procedures, or space issues do not become problems at a later date.
Once leadership is established, set a vision. The goals of VBS will vary from parish to parish, but how you spend your time together will reflect the tone of your faith community. What is it you most hope to accomplish in your time together? Who are your targeted VBS attendants? After listening to working parents lament their inability to participate with their children in the morning hours when VBS was usually scheduled, one large suburban parish decided to hold VBS in the evening. After working hard to implement family-centered catechesis during the school year, another parish held a family VBS so that middle-school-age children and teens could be included.
Leadership and vision should possess a strong sense of where VBS must put its emphasis and plan accordingly.
Choosing the best dates for VBS is important. Consulting with staff about possible conflicts (parish picnics, carnivals, and summer outings) is paramount. Beyond parish, local community events such as parades, founder’s day, and the Fourth of July will impact your attendance.
Sadly, there is no perfect week for VBS, but being aware of as many variables as possible helps determine the best time. Are there neighboring parishes offering VBS? Depending on the size of your community, is it feasible to work collaboratively? Can you work with other parishes to offer your programs at a 3- or 4-week interval, thus allowing families to plan around their vacation and choose one of the offered time slots? Might your community work with others to offer programs the same week but with different age groups? Have you thought about offering the same program and sharing materials where possible?
Once you find a week that works for your parish, veteran VBS leaders suggest you keep the same week from year to year. Parishioners learn to plan and count on the designated week each year. A “usual week” affects attendance as well as the availability of volunteers.
After the date is determined, begin to share the plans in every way you can. “Save the Date” notices can be sent through religious education programs, Catholic schools, e-mails, websites, parish bulletins, and community blogs. Make sure the publicity starts early and targets the group you are most interested in reaching.
If you have a limit as to how many children can be enrolled, share that information in the publicity. “First come, first served” always prompts timely registrations. Open enrollment may sometimes work in a small community, but having a sense of how many youngsters to expect makes for easier planning and less last-minute stress.
There are many ways to conduct registration. Some parishes decide to hold registration on a pre-determined Sunday in spring. They find having one Sunday set aside for VBS registration raises the community’s awareness and helps people focus on enrolling their children. (Yes, you can turn in a neighbor’s registration if the family is out of town).
Some parishes send home forms, set a cutoff date, and watch registration trickle in all spring. Still others post registration on their parish website and receive most of their registrations electronically.
These internal approaches would not work well if the intent of leadership is to evangelize families in your community who do not normally attend church. Registration then is best accomplished through notices in the local paper or community bulletins.
Leadership’s decisions about when and where to conduct VBS seem small compared to how. I remember serving on a planning committee that met for several years to explore possible VBS agendas to be implemented in the future. But “the future” never arrived, probably due to the magnitude of the search as well as the loss of momentum by members.
“Keep it simple” seems to work well when beginners sit down to plan the experience. Stories, songs, prayers, games, crafts, and skits comprise the curriculum for most good camp experiences, regardless of age. There is no need to reinvent the wheel (unless you really want to) as there are an increasing number of published VBS curriculums available each year which will meet, if not exceed, most leaders’ expectations. Simply Google “VBS” to find more published curriculums than you could possibly review.
Selecting a Program
Because publishers of Protestant material have long held the market in VBS curriculum, many of these offerings reflect their traditions. For example, many Protestant programs offer the King James translation of Scripture as well as other references that may not meet your community’s needs.
Instead, contact Catholic publishers your parish already uses for educational purposes. Ask them to send you samples of their VBS programs. A larger publishing company will usually send a sample lesson, a leader’s overview, and some idea of what the program’s extra materials look like for welcoming, publicity, and promotion. Regional sales representatives are well-informed and willing to answer questions and concerns you may have about implementing their programs.
When you review materials, keep in mind your goals, the ages of the children you expect will participate, the cost, and the convenience of the material for use by adult volunteers. It is encouraging to see an increasing number of VBS programs reflecting the Catholic tradition, using the New American Bible translation, and providing our children with connections to their own faith experience. The market is vast; review each program carefully.
Many parishes with an established VBS use the same curriculum for years, making adaptations to fit their community. One VBS leader shared, “The general themes work well and everyone loves the child-centered music. So we add touches of our own from year to year.
Finding the resources that best fit your community needs may be trial and error for the novice. Feedback after your initial experience will prove beneficial for future planning.
Recruiting a Team
It is the responsibility of leadership to establish a team of volunteers who will commit themselves to implementing the program. Published VBS curriculums often give suggestions about the different roles people need to assume (craft leader, facility director, small-group leaders, song leader, etc.). Like most ministries, choosing people of different ages and talents will create the best mix for a successful team.
Be clear and specific about the needs and expectations for volunteers. When you recruit support, reach out to senior citizens as well as young people in your parish youth group; both will be invaluable to your program.
Several months before the actual event, you may want to publish a list of volunteer opportunities as well as a wish list of items you hope to have donated for VBS. This early call for help can begin conversations within the community and serve as a springboard for a personal invitation as planning heightens.
A great vacation Bible school program relies on dependable volunteers. Since it is usually of a short duration, people are willing to help. However, it is summer—and dealing with the unexpected is to be expected! Train more volunteers than you need so that absences do not hinder the overall experience for the children attending. If you plan for everyone to work in pairs, there is less chance of needing last-minute adjustments.
Coaching the Team
Being part of the vacation Bible school team can be spiritually enriching for everyone. If leadership sets a warm and encouraging tone, everyone will feel welcomed, heard, and appreciated. Teams need to be formed in a prayerful style that brings people together to grow and share in God’s word. Personal agendas and rivalries have no place in this teamwork.
Teams need plenty of time to share ideas and review all materials. They need to work at anticipating and answering a number of questions: How will we reach out to parents? Will family members be welcomed to be part of the activities? In case of inclement weather, is there an alternate location for outside activities? Will we be given emergency contact numbers?
Before opening day arrives, every volunteer should be given the complete plans for the week. Flow charts naming activities, locations, and leaders work well.
Short, intense times for this kind of training do not allow opportunities for answering every question and anticipating every kind of detail. Group leaders need to be prepared and secure in their positions. It is up to leadership to raise issues of safety and address concerns in the community.
After all the dreams and plans of our vacation Bible school experience have taken on flesh and life, we are left with the hope that the work of making God’s Word come alive in our community has resulted in transformation. Change in people’s lives, however, can be difficult to measure; evaluating your program will be easier.
Evaluation is crucial on several levels. Certainly, the team’s input about how your VBS program realized its vision is important. Feedback from children and families also is vital. Most parishes rely on handout evaluation forms or surveys posted on their websites. Unfortunately, filling out forms can be limited in the type of feedback offered.
Many smaller parishes schedule home visits after VBS. What a wonderful way for two or three members of the leadership team to reach out to parishioners in the name of the larger community. A pastoral visit of this kind is scheduled for a convenient time, kept brief, and centered on listening to the family share its personal experience of participating in this year’s program. In larger parishes, this technique might be limited to first-time participants.
One of my favorite memories of being part of a VBS team was gathering a few weeks after the closing program and watching the videos gathered from the week. Reliving those special days set the tone for our group conversation: Did we accomplish what we set out to do? What were some of the individual highlights for leaders and participants? Sharing stories, laughing at unexpected moments, and praying together once again made for a memorable evening.
Measuring transformation may not be possible, but there was a sense that evening of something sacred having happened in our not-too distant past—and we had all been changed by our coming together.
Marlene Sweeney, MEd, MA, is a Certified Pastoral Associate in the Archdiocese of Chicago. Marlene is a writer and poet whose works have appeared in numerous books and periodicals. E-mail Marlene at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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