by Margie Copeland
A couple of years ago my parish community finally planned and executed the parish’s first VBS—Vacation Bible School. But before the first advertisement went out, before we even had a theme, and before the plan unfolded, I had a few doubts. I wondered about scheduling, planning time, and whether this program would actually be a success. With the Lord’s guidance and support, I knew we would succeed, but beyond the spirit-filled partnership with our Lord, how does it happen?
The preparation for VBS begins about a year before the actual week. Several factors made it clear that I needed the help of many others to truly succeed. As I reflected on my past two years as a VBS director, I uncovered the most important keys to a successful VBS. Here are my five steps for before the VBS:
INVITE & EXCITE: I gathered those who supported programs for children and whose children might attend the VBS. Many of the volunteers were adult catechists and teenagers. They were given general information about VBS and invited to be a part of the team. I also shared a recent tweet from Pope Francis: “What does ‘evangelize’ mean? To give witness with joy and simplicity to what we are and what we believe in.” This sums up exactly what we try to accomplish at VBS. The added benefit is that we not only evangelize the children but also the family and all who volunteer as well.
It was made clear to the gathered group that VBS can only take place once we have a solid team. We looked at the theme and a few of the activities. Then I spent time sharing with the group how thrilling it is to see the faces of the children having such a great time and learning about their faith through the Bible. I listened to reservations and concerns. Finally we shared our hopes and desires for the VBS “look” we wanted to present.
INVOLVE: The big question is: “Who will join me in making the VBS a reality?” Before the initial gathering closed, everyone was asked to sign up for some part of the VBS planning process. By asking everyone in the team for a commitment, we could involve them immediately from the start. We assigned the role each volunteer wished to play and set a date for a follow-up planning meeting.
PLAN & PREPARE: Once a volunteer was assigned a responsibility, he or she was involved immediately. Volunteers were engaged in every detail of the planning and preparing, including simple choices such as choosing snacks and drinks. Each volunteer took a vested interest in the success of the week. It was exciting to watch the team begin to gel. They came together to help make decisions on activities, group leaders, and what creative ideas could be incorporated into the VBS.
Separate committees met several times to prepare all the materials, decorations, advertisements, and much more. These workshop days produced a stronger, more unified team.
CREATE THE SPACE: When the time came to create the environment for the VBS, we called on all team members to transform the space where the VBS would take place. Our parish had picked the theme “Living in God’s Kingdom.” Our hall became a castle with a garden and throne room. Everyone worked together as we transformed the ordinary hall into an extraordinary space for our VBS week. The VBS theme had come to life before their eyes. It was so fulfilling to see the culmination of all the hard work and planning.
MEET & GREET: A gift for the team is to see the fruits of their labor. The week of the VBS, we invite the volunteers to meet and greet the children. As the children entered into the transformed space the team got to watch their reactions, their wide eyes, and their looks of excitement. What a way to complete the “before” aspect of creating the best team ever!
The key to planning a successful Vacation Bible School is not only in what you do ahead of time, but what you do after the week is finished too. Here are my five after steps:
RECOGNIZE: Stop, look, and listen to everything that happened during the week. I let the team know that I saw the wonderful things they were doing both in the sharing of their faith and sharing of their time with the children. I mention the specific things that were successful about the camp. Each day began with the team coming together for prayer before the little ones entered. Each day ended with the recognition of what worked well, what could be improved, and what needed to change for the next day. I acknowledged their daily evaluations and allowed all the volunteers to know I was looking out for them.
REWARD: Throughout each day of the VBS we shared words and phrases with each other to provide support for the team. “Thank you!” “That was great!” “What a good way to approach that situation!” “Fantastic smile!” On the final day, the children each received a special certificate of completion. Each leader was called forward first and assisted in presenting the children of his or her group with a certificate. Then I presented the group leaders with their own certificates of recognition for their willingness to share time and talent with these parish children. After the families departed, the team members also would receive a small gift in appreciation for their service and their willingness to sacrifice a week of their summer for the joy of the children.
RESTORE THE SPACE: Now that our time together had come to a close, what we had created for the VBS week needed to be deconstructed. Have you ever finished an event, perhaps a retreat, and been left alone to reconstruct the area? What thoughts went through your mind and heart? For me, I thought about the reaction of families. I thought about the great work done by the team. The restoring of the space brings back memories of creating the space when the solidarity of the team grew stronger. But the volunteers shared that they felt a sadness that it was over. One constructive tip is to have the team share the emotions of the VBS week. What a wonderful way to explore all of the happenings of the week. It is helpful not only to share the good things, but the difficulties, highs and lows, and whatever was swirling around in their heads and hearts.
REVIEW: Many would call this evaluation time. For me it was the gathering of all that was done before and after. I collected feedback from the volunteers and made a story of everything that happened during the week. My book consisted of the daily verbal evaluations; the daily written responses of the participants; the conversations between team members before, during, and after the VBS week; and what thoughts entered into my mind as I began the process of planning, preparing, and executing the VBS week.
REFLECT: After Mary and Joseph found Jesus in the temple, Scripture tells us: “He went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them; and his mother kept all these things in her heart” (Luke 2:51). The best of anything comes from a deeper gaze. Each morning of the VBS week, I spent time in prayer sharing with the Lord the emotions and spiritual experiences that were emerging. When the VBS week ended, I firmly believed small (and sometimes great) conversions of heart took place not only in the director but also in the team and the children. In addition, I reflected on all of the aspects of the VBS—planning, preparing, creating the space, reviewing the process, and results. Being a part of a VBS team is a unique happening and it affects everyone who had any part in the process. It brought to life Scripture in ways that touched us all. Pope Francis reflected the attitude that is inherent in executing a successful VBS week: He says, “Let us ask the Lord for this grace: that our hearts become free and filled with light, so that we can rejoice as children of God.”
There was one final aspect to all of the above steps in order to have the best Vacation Bible School team ever. Prayer. Prayer is that glue. Prayer provides the answers. Prayer awakens in all of us the gifts we need to present a successful VBS week where children embrace the word and love of God.
Margie Copeland has been involved in youth ministry for more than 30 years, religious education ministry for more than 23 years, and married to Linwood Copeland for 44 years. Margie and Linwood have two adult children.
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