Summer Sunday School, VBS, & The Rotation Model

 
To Summer Sunday School?  or Not to Summer Sunday School?
Plus... To VBS or Not to VBS? (it may be a Rotation question)  v1.2 

Some musings and advice from Neil MacQueen
Your musings and advice welcome via 'reply' to this post.
 
Update: Support Members are voting in a poll about Summer options here at rotation.org
 
 
It's time to get over the debate about whether or not Sunday School should continue during the summer.
 
Summer Sunday School is a good thing, but it is also okay to take a break. Even the pastor takes a vacation, you know? And Jesus himself had to get away from the crowds. The concept of "Sabbath" and "seasons" are just as scriptural as the importance of making Bible study a regular habit.  
 
I know there are many in the church who think it is "wrong" to take a summer break from Sunday School. I admire their passion and I used to feel the same way! ...But the longer I've worked in CE, the more I've come to realize there are many ways to do things right, and quantity of classes is not the same as quality.
 
Often the strongest voices "for" summer Sunday School comes from paid CE staff and pastors, ...in addition to publisher . I have led CE programs as full-time and part-time staff person, and as an unpaid volunteer. I've done it in large churches and in small.  Especially in those smaller churches with little or no CE staff, I can vouch for the wisdom of volunteers and programs needing a break during the summer, and the kids being no worse off for it. 
 
(I'm also aware that some of our CE volunteers and leaders tend to be energized over-achievers who enjoy a full calendar of things to do. We love them for their "want to do" spirit, but they are exactly the ones I don't want to burn out.)
 
There's a natural rhythm to life which also applies to our CE people and calendars, ...a time to be born, a time to tear down, build up, a time to depart, etc, etc. (Eccl 3)  
 
If your Sunday School runs (well) through the entire summer, is well-attended and well-taught (not "church lite") then God Bless You and keep on keepin' on. 
 
But for some of us, summer Sunday School is...
  • not a tradition
  • not a feasible or necessary option
  • and can consume people, planning and resources that could be used to do other things.
In my small-ish church, we don't schedule Sunday School during July and August. Instead, we plan other types of get-togethers at other times during those months.
 
Last year we also took June off, but this year we are teaching in June for two reasons:  
 
(1) As Rotation folks, we've learned to be flexible. And this year we wanted to teach in June because we have this great idea for outdoor lessons around our small lake. 

(2) Our relatively new church doesn't have a VBS traditional or habit, so running our Sunday School through June helps fill any sense of "gap" some may feel. (And here in Florida, you don't do outdoor VBS in July and August.)
 
We are also a Rotation Sunday School, so our rooms and lessons are exciting all year round, and we don't need to "energize" our teaching methods with VBS like a traditional program might need to. What we need is something "different," as well as, a break.
 
Practical Reasons to Take a Summer Break from Sunday School 
 
1. Leadership. Small churches with little or no paid help and fewer volunteers often need more of a "break" than larger churches. That said, even paid leaders in the large church need a sabbatical.
 
For example: A large church with 12 kids per class during the fall can still hold a viable class for 4 or 5 kids during the summer. Whereas, a small church with 4 kids in a class has a problem justifying the effort for 1 or 2 kids.
 
2. Breaks in the Calendar Can Be A Very Good Thing

Several good things happen when you create holes in your program calendar:

(1) You create space for volunteers to relax and regenerate.
(2) You create space that makes you want to fill it with something different.
(3) You create space for other teams in the church to fill-in. 
 
On the planning calendar at my church, we incorporate "breathing spaces" to achieve all of the above.
 
A couple of reasons why you might want to continue during the summer:
 
(1) You have awesome plans and leadership.

(2) You won't just be "holding down the fort" with a skeletal staff and underwhelming attendance.

(3) You won't be filling the summer with "lite" lessons. 

(4) Your amazing adult ed program wants to continue, and the parents of your children want to attend those "can't miss" studies, and thus, need classes for their kids.

Suggestion for all:  
 
Try the thing you think you don't need or won't work.
 
If you think you don't need a break, schedule one, -that is: come up with something different.
 
If you think you can't pull off Summer Sunday School, try it, but with a new spirit of creativity.  
 
A personal experience with "trying the thing some didn't think would work"
 
Many years ago as an unpaid Christian educators in a small church, I was told "we don't have summer Sunday School because the families won't support it." We had about 15 kids on the roll.  
 
I said, "let me organize and help teach it, and give the regular teachers a rest."  We instituted some rotation-model style lessons and rooms, --and we averaged 12 kids every Sunday!    They liked it so much that they adopted the Rotation Model that fall. We called it "Camp Bible Wahoo" and the lessons are here at rotation.org. In my current church where I am paid staff, we already do Rotation, and take a break from that in July and August. 
 
 
The Rotation Model, VBS, and Alternatives
 
Historically speaking, in many churches VBS was the "substitute for Summer Sunday School," and in many, the antidote for 9 months of boring Sunday School
 
As a "substitute" for or break from summer Sunday School, VBS is a pretty good idea.
In the past, VBS in some communities fulfilled important needs, such as, reaching out to un-churched kids, providing something for kids to do during the summer, or filling a supervision gap. These are all worthy goals. But in many churches, VBS looks a lot like their regular Sunday School program condensed into a more intensive week. (BTW: The idea of week-long "Bible camp meetings" goes back to the 19th century, and used to include entire families! Kind of a shame that modern VBS publishers and church camps turned this tradition into "kids only.") 
 
Planning a VBS, in addition to your summer Sunday School, is a big commitment of volunteers and effort that many churches can't support, and frankly, probably don't need. Simply put, big glitzy events look good to some, but aren't always great ministry.
 
Lingering out in the church is this romantic notion that VBS is great "evangelism," and "attracts new families." I hope this was true for your VBS program, but for the rest of us, the statistics don't lie. Most of the kids who came through VBS programs over the last 3 decades didn't come back to church as adults. It was "feel good" programming, that may have done some good things, but who's cost vs benefits can seriously be questioned. VBS is a BIG DEAL for many churches in terms of money, volunteers, and stress. Whereas, there may be other less stressful ways to achieve the benefits we are praying for.
 
I don't write this to disparage good VBS programs, -and if that describes yours, then don't stop!  But, I've done all sorts of VBS programs in several churches large and small, and here is where it has led me:
 
I have weighed the cost in volunteers, earth-moving effort, cash, staff stress, and the nominal effect on attracting new members, -and have decided to encourage churches where I've served to consider doing something different than the traditional VBS
 
In particular...

I've gravitated towards a more "family-ministry-like" summer program
, taking a break from our terrific Sunday School and for-going the annual VBS juggernaut in favor of more low-key fellowship style meetings throughout the summer. 
 
For example:  a cookout with games, songs, and a fun Bible lesson.

 Benefits: 
  • Not as glitzy as VBS, but summer is a great time for families to come together.
  • Easier to plan and lead than VBS, and less expensive.
  • Values and encourages parents to be part of their childrens' spiritual education.
  • Invites older members to participate without having to lead.
  • And unlike your "one week only VBS," I can schedule a few of these family-centered events throughout the summer so that they are hard to avoid!
 
For some Rotation Churches, the inclination to move AWAY from scheduling a traditional VBS might be even stronger, and here's why...
 
Our regular creative Sunday School workshops bear a STRONG RESEMBLANCE to the creative methods and environments most VBS' strive for.  
 
In fact, in the early days of the Rotation Model's development, some people called it the "Vacation Bible School model." Thus, if you have a really creative Rotation Sunday School, you may need something VERY different or more laid back than a traditional razz-a-ma-tazz VBS. That was the point of VBS -to offer something very attractive and creative which Sunday morning didn't bother to do. But Rotation Model did transform boring Sunday School, so what should a Rotation church being doing that will be markedly different during the summer? Again, the answer for me has been looking at ways to bring families together, rather than creating just another creative way to separate kids from their parents and the rest of the congregation.
 
Whatever you are doing, don't be afraid to ask some hard questions, even if you have been doing it a long time with apparent "success." 
 
For me, I've boiled down the hard ministry questions to these two:
 
Does it "work" ?
Or is it "just work" ?
 
I started off this article by saying that there are many right ways, not just one. I hope this helps you discover what's right for your church.
 
<>< Neil MacQueen
 
Your replies welcome!
 

Neil is a Presbyterian minister, church educator, and long time contributor to Rotation.org's resources and ongoing discussions.
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