How the Workshop Rotation Model Can Fail
(or How the Church Can Fail the Rotation Model)
~and the keys to helping it succeed~
by Neil MacQueen
I have always considered this to be one of the more important articles here at Rotation.org because it shares valuable experience from failure, and that’s not something people often want to talk about.
And this article speaks to lots of programs and changes in the Church, not just Rotation.
Like Ham in the story of Noah, we tend to walk backward into the tent to cover up Noah’s drunken nakedness, rather than get him into rehab. Sunday School needs rehab! And that's what we created Rotation. But there are some well-known issues beyond Rotation that lay the groundwork for failure.
What's also true about these particular insights, is that they apply to most every other church ministry as well! This article could be re-titled: "How Sunday School Can Fail," or "What to Tell the Next Leader."
Are you familiar with the story of Noah getting drunk and naked? (Not recommended for Rotation, btw). There are a lot of things we can learn from other people’s failures (as well as our own). Simply walking backward into the tent to try and cover them with a blanket doesn't work.
Update: Since this article was originally posted, I've heard from more Rotation leaders who have gone through the failure. I've also experienced needing to leave a church where we were doing Rotation, for reasons unrelated to the program. Those stories and experiences have confirmed much of the common wisdom in this article.
Yes, that's right, there are churches where the Rotation Model has NOT worked well or has failed.
Why? And what can we learn from their experience? Here are some surprising and not so surprising conclusions based on my conversations with current and former Rotation churches, and discussions about this subject here at Rotation.org over the years.
Things That Cause Rotation to Fail
1. Only one person is leading the charge ...and that person leaves (physically or otherwise).
This is true whether that person was staff or was a volunteer. Lone Rangers can quickly get a program one step ahead, only to leave it two steps behind when they depart or implode, or run people off.
When a "Lone Rotation Ranger" leaves, volunteers and overworked pastors will often go back to the thing they find easiest and have the most experience with --grade level classrooms and ordering curriculum. The Lone Ranger also often lacks enough time to keep feeding the program. They do well their first year because they have enthusiasm. But there's no substitute for having enough time over the long haul to keep things running well.
Lesson: Don't be a Lone Ranger Leader. Cultivate and empower others to lead. Teach people "why," "how" and "how not to."
2. Staff Turnover
Take your pick: A new staff person comes in who...
A. doesn't understand Rotation
B. doesn't like Rotation
C. is poorly equipped to lead Sunday School
D. wants to do something else simply because Rotation is what their predecessor did.
E. thinks the solution to Sunday School is too much work
F. Wasn't their idea so they want to do something different that is
"Our new Educator/Associate Pastor didn't seem interested." "Our new pastor didn't think the kids needed all this." "Our new Director isn't as creative as the old one." "Our new coordinator doesn't have the time."
Update: Having worked with Rotation churches for two decades now, I can tell you that #2 is almost #1 on the list of failure reasons. I've seen great Rotation Sunday Schools go downhill when the original Rotation educator retired or moved on, (or was downsized during the Great Recession). The church has trouble finding someone to replace them, and when they do, it's usually someone without experience or who is working fewer hours.
Since the Great Recession of 2008, many churches have lost staff and budget. With declining membership also factoring in, people are looking for "easy." In my experience, "easy" is an exit strategy.
Two Rotation friends saw their Rotation Sunday School dismantled by other problems in their church. A new CE staff person who just wanted to order packaged curriculum. A pastor who blew up the congregation and then left. One friend retired after nearly two decades of leading their Rotation Sunday School, only to see their replacement abandon the Model over the objections of the parents. Why did the pastor or committee in charge allow this to happen? Sadly, often churches hire the wrong people, and they are left to do whatever they want.
3. The Model is poorly implemented.
Several failed Rotation churches I've spoken with really never got off the ground. One actually said, "I tried it for four weeks last July in Fellowship Hall and it didn't work." Other failed Rotation churches began rotating, but never switched their rooms over to workshops. Many successful Rotation churches point to their facility makeover as one of the big reasons attendance grew and the new program was received so well.
Update: Through my software work I often hear from alleged "Rotation" churches looking for some software and don't realize that I know what Rotation is. They start telling me about their Rotation program, and send me their Scope and Sequence, and I'm left cringing at their definition of "Rotation."
So if you think you're "doing the Rotation Model," do yourself a favor and see if that's really true by reading articles at this site.
4. "Our teachers didn't want to/didn't like the change."
This is a common complaint among failed Rotation experiments I have spoken with (and every other creative change people in churches have stonewalled).
Conversely, many successful Rotations point to "new teachers" as one of the most positive results of the change. Some of us have long suspected that the reasons some things don't change are because the (last) people running things like it their way --and were willing to turn a blind eye to their problems.
One need look no further than the story of the Titanic to realize that some people are unwilling to change course and quite willing to go down with the ship.
5. Few good intentions can overcome a difficult schedule or a preacher nobody wants to hear.
Twenty-five minute Sunday School classes, 8:30 a.m. Sunday School, long-winded uninspired preaching and worship. These are just some of the problems some Sunday Schools that tried Rotation were faced with. It's tough to get folks to come, let alone stay in some churches.
Update: Sometimes the failure is in Adult Education's lack of quality. Kids don't drive themselves.
I've quoted that phrase so many times that I'm enlarging it:
"Kids do not drive themselves to church."
If you are not cultivating (evangelizing) adult ed, your children's program will suffer.
The corollary to this is a new pastor who blows up the church, forcing key people to worship elsewhere or hunker down. It happens more than you want to know.
6. The congregation, leaders, minister, and/or staff are engaged in dysfunctional behavior.
One Director of Education said to me, "God himself couldn't build consensus around here." He had left the church where they had attempted to do the Rotation Model, because of personality conflicts with other key leaders.
Update: I experienced this first-hand in TWO former churches. In the first, the pastor started to disengage and do some dysfunctional things, which led key people to pull back or leave. In the second former church, the pastor raided the Sunday School budget for other things and didn't stand up to church "facility bullies" who had no children in the program. Sad and sadder.
7. Many failed Rotation churches also cite the "burden of coming up with lessons."
8. High Expectations (especially in a low expectations church).
Some failed or failing Rotation churches expected big attendance increases. When it didn't happen, they switched back or lost heart. Some leaders and committees with high expectations crashed on the rocky shore of a congregation of low-expectation members.
While it is true that we are in the evangelism business (i.e. we are supposed to be attracting new people), you can't expect to fill a hole overnight that you've been digging for twenty years. The short-term best many churches should expect is to improve the experience of learning for the kids they do have. It should go without saying that Sunday School is the not the main reason people join or leave a church. (But Sunday School attendance is often a bell-weather of problems.) The best Sunday School in the world can't overcome a lousy preacher.
Success needs to be measured in many ways, not just one, and not just by attendance.
Update: I've met Rotation churches which were "sold" on the idea that Rotation would increase attendance, and when it didn't, they junked it. Be careful what you promise.
9. The Rotation Model isn't for everybody. It doesn't solve all your ministry's needs, and may not fit every church's situation.
The rotation PHILOSOPHY, however, does fit most teaching situations: Slow down, focus on major stories, teach creatively, repetition is the cornerstone of remembering.
No matter what model "works" for you, it MUST work to attract and actually teach your students in a memorable way, or it's a failure.
10. Churches that change their Sunday School, but don't change their habits.
Bad habits can include lack of oversight, lack of emphasis on CE, letting staff make all the decisions, underfunding, lack of pastoral engagement, etc. Long-term, it's not the diet that makes you lose weight, it's the change in habits.
11. Some churches have a history and personality of low commitment.
How well will a low commitment church do with recruiting teachers? Not very well. Church research and experience indicates a way to correct this problem in the short-term: bring in new members who don't have the low-commitment habit.
Hitching your train to the little engine that thinks it can't, or doesn't think it needs to, won't work. You need the engine that "think's it can."
Where are these new little engines that think they can? They may be standing back from the wreckage of your current train. They may not be any of your current CE regulars at all. They may be among your new members, or small group of people you need to recruit by issuing a challenge, rather than simply looking at them as people to fill slots on a chart.
Update: In churches where last minute planning is the practice, people get recruited to "fill slots" in the classroom, rather than being invited to become part of the vision and process. This doesn't build community or ownership. I've experienced this in some of the churches I've attended as a "pastor on the loose". Some leaders simply view you as someone to help them fill slots. That approach almost ensures eventual failure.
12. The Lure of the next "New and Improved"
After doing Rotation for a few years, some churches succumb to the bright and shiny advertising of a THE NEXT new curriculum someone is trying to sell them.
What busy Christian educator wouldn't love to be able to "order your way out of hard work" ?? We all yearn for a magic bullet wrapped in cellophane. Their colorful flyers full of smiling children can eventually wear you down. A word of warning: I've had many conversations with curriculum publishers and watched the industry for a long time.Their low-paying, high turnover positions almost ensure a steady flow of new products, rather than improving on old ones. They are caught up in "product cycles"...which is shorthand for saying, "when sales start to slump it's time to find the next new thing to sell".
If this were not true, then we'd see them refurbishing and updating old VBS curriculum, for example, and improving the lessons they published 5 years ago. The Bible stories don't change, and our kids grow up and out of the program, so they COULD build on, refurbish, retread some of the older and former "new and improved" every few years. But publishers don't because "new" sells, not "improved". And they know many churches are searching for "the next thing" and the new group in charge of publishing believe they can feed that beast. Cynical? Perhaps. True? Yes.
Buyer Beware. "The answer" will not come wrapped in cellophane. Didn't in the past.
Case Study of One Church's Failed Rotation Model
Regarding the church in question, I'm friends with several of the teachers and C.E. committee members. I introduced them to the Rotation Model in 1997. After a 2 1/2 year experiment, they went back to traditional Sunday School. The following conclusions are based on conversations I had with the staff person and friends.
The congregation had grown older and the number of children had shrunk over the last fifteen years. The congregation had a well-lamented uninspired commitment to Sunday morning education dating back the late 70s. The congregation was conservative, heavy into its history, and located in an aging, declining community that had seen better economic times. In a sense, they were expecting failure, and their embrace of Rotation was half-hearted.
The Associate Pastor responsible for CE had a rocky relationship with the congregation for several years leading up to the demise of their Rotation Model. The staff person was creative, liked the Rotation concept, but felt the congregation didn't take Christian education seriously.
A year before the eventual departure of the Associate, the Senior Pastor openly questioned whether or not the church should even have Sunday School, which began to suck the energy out of the volunteers trying to make it work. Both staff members were going through personal problems during the past several years. Within several months of deciding to go back to traditional Sunday School, the Associate Minister left. The previous Associate minister in that position also had a less than happy relationship with the congregation.
Many of the Rotation volunteers had a less than ideal relationship with the CE staff person. Two of them I knew personally. They both worked as public school educators and had children in the program. One still teaches Sunday school and uses Rotation principles. Their opinion was that with the little support they received, the goals and expectations were set too high.
I had been in their church building twice during their conversion to Rotation. Their workshop decor was less than inspiring. This was due in part to the fact that they had to co-exist with a large daycare.Recruiting was a problem. The former Associate Pastor didn't like recruiting, apparently didn't delegate it, and wasn't good at it. Their lesson plans were above average. By all accounts, the Model was well-received by the congregation and liked by many volunteers. Their attendance was better the first year than the second. Many of the proposed changes and improvement to the classrooms, however, never materialized. They "settled."
Their traditional model attendance now is lower than it was with Rotation. Some of the creative teachers who helped launch Rotation felt somewhat abandoned, some quit. The Associate Pastor left the congregation due to problems NOT associated with Sunday School. Even without their problems, their Rotation Model may have failed anyway. Some new ideas just do. All creation is subject to frustration. They needed to have a healthier staff and volunteer situation before going Rotation. And they needed to embrace the transformation, rather than stop short.
What Makes for a Successful Rotation Model in Churches?
The list for "what makes for success" looks a lot like the OPPOSITE of what makes for failure:
Teamwork, attention to workshop design and decor, "new blood," healthy worship services, healthy adult ed, supportive staff, reasonable expectations, resourceful & creative leaders, changes in organizational habits, keeping the nit-pickers and facility bullies at bay. and longer leadership tenures.
I'm sure there are other ingredients. Any of us would be lucky to have just most of what's on this list!
And then there's that last key ingredient -the Spirit of God which blows in some churches like a whisper, and in others like a strong and steady breeze. On this subject, my best advice is to have your sails - your best effort - fully deployed for whatever God has in store for you.
Changing Your C.E. Habits
There are Rotation Churches which have done well implementing the Model for the first few years and then saw some old problems creep back in. After a wave of enthusiasm, they'll see a drop in enthusiasm or attendance. Or begin to look back longingly on the excitement of doing something new, and start looking for "the next thing", rather than continuing to remodel their Rotation and their approach to organizing, recruiting, training, and marketing.
Unfortunately, almost all volunteer-led efforts go through these cycles. Never met a program that didn't. Losing a key enthusiast or two (like a staff person or creative teacher) makes for a tough cycle. Other realities and problems in the church or on the staff can thwart best intentions as well. The Apostle Paul wrote in Romans 8 that "All creation is subject to frustration."
Even in a supportive congregation with a creative CE team and supportive staff, you can expect some frustrations. A few of those frustrations, however, can be "planet killers" (as they say in sci-fi). Such was the case in the church described above. Their Rotation Model failed due in large part to attitudes that were both historic and exacerbated by the particular staff person who was leading the program at that time. In another church, that staff person may have led a very successful Rotation Model.
Sustaining a creative, volunteer-based program (such as Sunday School) is not for the faint-hearted.
Attitudes can take a long time to change. The influx of committed new members is often what creates new opportunities. I wish we could "convert" member's attitudes, but in fact, most churches have to "recruit" new attitudes. This often happens when a new pastor or small group begins to attract like-minded individuals and those individuals begin to assume leadership roles.
There are a number of research projects and books about why churches can get enthusiastic about something, see improvements and then find themselves back in a down cycle a few years later. Most of the research and thinking points to the fact that churches change their programs, but often don't change their management style --"the system" of delegation, recruitment, oversight, planning, eventually draws the program back to what created the need for creative change in the first place.
EXAMPLES: The initial burst of creativity ends right at the beginning. Or the initial burst of "sign me up" peters out and the "lone ranger recruiting mentality" takes back over (one person cannot do recruiting justice). Many staff people aren't good at delegation. Or some volunteers aren't good at follow-through and nobody is holding them accountable. In the initial wave of enthusiasm, they increase their commitment and follow-through, but then fall back into old habits and expectations.
One of the churches I've been in had a system in place where one committee tried to do too many things. Guess what? They didn't do many things well! Answer? They thought the solution was to find new committee members for their meat grinder. The real answer was to "change how the work gets done."
One of the books I've been quoting lately is called KICKING HABITS by Tom Bandy (Abingdon Press). Bandy identifies the church's knack for being creative about our programs and message but NOT our organization. Churches can be like a dieter who fasts to lose weight only to gain it back because they didn't change their eating habits. He gives practical but risky solutions to solving "system" problems. "Risky" because of our sacred cows about polity, power, and decision making.
The critical question for the church is "what is it about our system/management style that creates downturns and what can we do to recognize and push out of the inevitable downturns?"
You can't get rid of the cycles, they're natural. But you can do healthy things to move back on the upswing more quickly, and make the low spots in the cycle less like dead spots.
By the way, dear pastors and church staffers --the habit that needs kicking may be yours (and mine!). I've met a lot of church staff who view creative new ideas as KEYS to be tried in a lock. They keep searching for the right key that will solve their problems. They bounce from idea to idea as if on a search for the Holy Grail. It's time to kick that habit of looking for magic bullets and Holy Grails, and admit that the first change needs to be in ourselves. Three metaphors!
Last but not least... SEARCH COMMITTEES need to be careful of who they hire. They need to hire people who are committed to making Rotation BETTER, and who will listen to parents and other leaders. Will they practice "Not Invented By Me?" Are they good teachers who have no leadership ability? Or vice versa? Are they easily overwhelmed or organized?
Update: I'm seeing rotation churches who simply got away from the reasons why they changed in the first place. They lost the memory of what it was they were trying to fix, what didn't work, and why certain aspects of Rotation, like 4 to 5 weeks on ONE story, are so important. THEY DRIFTED AWAY. They let their rooms go stale. They bought Rotation curriculum that was too simple, or too complex.
Revitalizing Your Program
The first place to begin revitalizing is revisiting the REASON you made changes. Over time, people tend to forget WHY they are doing something, and sometimes HOW. Your teachers need to hear this, your staff needs to hear this, your parents and kids need to hear it --again, and again, and again.
Remember too that the Model draws on creative people, not merely those who are willing to help. Unfortunately, creative people tend not to make long-term commitments (their energy to do something new gets turned elsewhere). Look at the next couple of years and share a vision for what you hope to build upon the foundation you are just now laying.
Staff changes can be the biggest catalyst to a downturn (or upturn). When the church is looking for a new staff person, make sure they are thinking about the KIND of person needed for Rotation work AND someone who is going to recognize that change can be programmatic AND systematic. If your staff person is thinking of leaving, or if you are a staff person viewing this as you last effort that "better work," I would seriously question your timing.
This last thought can't be repeated enough...
- The Rotation Model began as an IDEA and commitment to doing something that solved problems and addressed real needs.
- It's the idea that we MUST do better, because the work is too important.
- It admits that you don't learn a story in just one week, and teachers usually don't get the lesson "right" the first time.
- It admits we need to change habits, and sometimes, personnel.
- The Rotation Model calls for change in how we teach, but also our assumptions about what we teach and when.
Did I mention that running a Sunday School, being creative, and sustaining momentum is hard work? If you have leaders who aren't up for that, then change the leaders.
<>< Neil MacQueen
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Copyright 2000/2012/2017, Neil MacQueen. Printed from Rotation.org.
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