You'll find more "Small Sunday School" links and advice in a related topic: Small and/or Broadly Graded Sunday School, "One Room," Traditional and Rotation Model As well, some of the content that used to be posted below has been moved to our newer "Rotation in Small Sunday School" forum.
The following article by Neil MacQueen was originally posted here and has now been copied into and updated in our "Small Sunday School" forum.
Neil was one of the founders of the Model and this site, and he has created, led, and taught in both small and large Workshop Rotation Sunday Schools.
Hear Neil and several other experts in small Rotation Sunday Schools discuss the Challenges and Benefits, Tips and Tricks for Small Sunday School.
The Workshop Rotation Model in a Small Sunday School
Though the Rotation Model originally took root in mid-to-large size churches, thousands of smaller churches have since embraced and proven the scalability of Rotation Model concepts and practices. The Workshop Rotation Model can easily be adapted in small churches that have few students, or few classes, or little space. In fact, it might even be easier to use the Rotation Model in a smaller Sunday School than a big one!
If you're unfamiliar with the Workshop Rotation Model is, view these short animated presentations.
"Small" and "few," of course, are relative terms. Some "small" congregations have lots of kids, and some big congregations have very few kids.
I am defining "small" as fewer than 12 regularly attending elementary-age children.
I've done Rotation in churches with 75 regular attenders, 35, and just 8. I've done it in wealthy churches and those counting their nickels. I've set up Rotation in churches that embraced it and initially resisted it. What I learned in all those situations was that the Rotation Model can work great in any size program because it is inherently FLEXIBLE both in terms of which workshops and rooms you choose to use, but also in the activities you can choose from to suit your needs.
For most "small" Sunday Schools we're talking about having TWO grade groups, K-2nd and 3rd through 5th or 6th. Depends on how many kids you have and in what grades they are distributed (more about that distribution in a moment). That said, for some small programs ONE broadly graded class is their only option, and during some low attendance times of the year ONE class is what all small Sunday Schools have to do.
Most teachers would agree that "3" students in a class or Workshop is much better than 2 or 1, and that if your class size is only 1 or 2 kids, you should think about combining your grades more broadly. And if your combined class has a lot of young kids and only one older kid, it can be even more challenging for that older kid.
Let's hear it for "broadly graded" !
It takes an adaptable lesson plan and special teacher to handle a class spanning many grades, but successful broadly graded class can produce something that "graded" programs often only talk about. Traditionally, we've been led to believe that kids need to be separated from other kids and their parents. That's a funny idea for a program and message that values "family," isn't it? So while broadly-graded classes can be an option for any size program, and a necessity for small Sunday Schools, they can also be a blessing in disguise for a program that wants to create a family atmosphere, grow relationships, caregivers, and leaders.
...and the only way I know to meet the challenge of teaching a class or Workshop spanning 1st through 5th graders is by:
a) Having extra help. No question about that.
Depending on the age of my students, I'll sometimes have a parent or young adult/teen helping me work with that lone older kid, or the two very young ones.
b) Having adaptable lesson plans designed for a wide age range.
You have to have great activities, not pretty-printed worksheets. You won't keep your older kids if you are always using "young" activities. And you'll lose your younger ones if they can't follow along because the lesson plan's worksheet or puzzles are too hard for them (fortunately, we don't use those things in Rotation!).
c) Doing all the things you can do to grow two classes!
Check out our "growing attendance" topic.
Scheduling Workshops in a Small Rotation Sunday School
Scheduling your Workshops in a Small Rotation Model Sunday School can be an exercise in creative freedom and on-the-go adaptation to the circumstances at hand.
The following assumes you know a little about the Rotation Model... that we teach the same story every week for about four weeks in a row to all our grades. That puts all the kids and teachers on the same story. And when you have "low" Sundays, it also means that story you taught to only 2 or 3 kids won't be the only time that story gets taught! Instead, you'll teach it again next week and the next. (That's a key reason many Sunday Schools "go Rotation," so that irregular attenders get exposed to the major stories of the Bible, rather than missing 3 out of 4 different stories because they missed 3 out of 4 Sundays.)
Here's a Small Sunday School Workshop Rotation schedule similar to the one I often used in my "smallest" church. The only change for us was that we did computer instead of drama.. We had two rooms available, which mean halfway through the schedule we had to convert each of the two Workshop rooms into a different Workshop (our video became the Art workshop, our Computer room became the Game workshop. We used the church kitchen for our Cooking Workshop when we chose to use that workshop in a rotation for a particular story. We often combined our two groups for the Game Workshop --but had to make sure the games weren't too hard for the younger kids.
The optimal class size for the average Sunday School teacher is arguably about five children of similar age. If you have times of the year when you need to add an additional class or expand your class sizes, it's pretty easy to do in the Rotation Model. You just add help, or more materials, or you add another Workshop with a lesson plan and teacher for the time of increased attendance you need to cover. For example, during Advent and Lent you can add help or another Workshop, then contract again after Easter. This kind of flexibility is a godsend to small programs where a 20% increase in attendance can affect you greatly.
If you routinely have just 3 or 4 kids, and most of them younger, then you may want to EXCLUDE using certain workshops, The Grama and Game workshops, for example, typically regularly need four or five kids to pull off without much adaptation. Whereas, workshops like Art, Cooking, Computers, and LEGOS work well with younger and fewer kids.
One way to deal with fluctuations is to PREDICT THEM and schedule accordingly. Talk to your parents and ask them to alert you to the Sundays they know they won't be there. Even if they text you an hour before class is can give you the time to adjust. See some of the tips below for how to go with that flow!
There's another way to schedule your workshops in a small Sunday School where Sunday-to-Sunday attendance can be unpredictable. I call it the "Split/Combine" option.
See a video clip that explains this "split and combine" approach
when attendance is small and unpredictable.
The assumption here is that "splitting" into two different age groups is always better for the kids when you have enough kids to create two functional classes.
What's a functional minimum? That depends on your activities and the ages of the kids who are there THAT Sunday. TWO kids per workshop is a good minimum. That means if you have three kids in attendance, you should probably group them together.
- If you have four, five, or six kids of similar age, keep them together.
- If you have four or more kids in attendance, but some are very young, and some are very old, then you'll probably want to split them.
The key strategy in the "Split or Combine" Schedule is to have two teachers plan for two identical but age-grouped workshops. Then on each Sunday "at 8:59 am" you see who is in attendance and split or combine accordingly.
If you combine all the kids, the teachers combine too. Depending on the workshop activity and level of age-adapting you need to do, you can have the older kids do a "break out" or separate study within the combined class --something that's much easier to pull off when one of the teachers has already prepared for the "older" lesson anyway!
Art usually doesn't require many students. Games often do --depending on the game. Software is easy just with one student if that's all you have! But the student may feel "by themselves" if you're watching a video. This is why the decision to split or combine isn't always based on numbers.
The reason you plan and teach two identical workshops in this "Split or Combine" scheduling trick is so that regular attenders get a new type of workshop each week no matter whether they were combined or split the week before. (If you try and hold two different workshops on the first week, like art and drama, but on the second week combine everyone into art, your regular attenders will say "I already did that." Place two identical but age-adapted workshops each week makes sure regular attenders get a new workshop each week.)
See a video clip that explains this "split and combine" approach
when attendance is small and unpredictable.
"Workshop" rooms/spaces in the Small Sunday School
Some small Sunday Schools have a lot of empty space and classroom because their church was once much larger. Many have limited space.
In "the classic Rotation Model," each workshop had its own room. An Art room, a room dedicated to Video or Games. But in small Sunday Schools with limited space, rooms have to pull double or triple duty. One week your classroom is your Art Workshop, the next it's the Video Workshop, the next its the Game Workshop. In fact, many small Rotation Model Sunday Schools have become very creative at quick conversions of their rooms from one purpose to another each week.
For example, instead of those "theater seats" or a room full of beanbag chairs for your Video or Theater Workshop, a small Rotation Sunday School needs moveable or stackable fun chairs, like folding director's chairs or those stackable plastic adirondack-style chairs kids love to lounge in.
Instead of those big older tables that are too heavy to move out of the way or set up, the small Rotation Sunday School invests in the more modern plastic tables with folding legs like the ones they sell at Costco.
Got a room that's too small to store various supplies? Instead of a giant cabinet of art supplies, get one of those wheeled carts so you can move your supplies in and out of your small room.
Small Rotation Sunday Schools have turned supply closets into computer labs, knocked out walls between two small rooms, and moved their Cooking Workshop to the church kitchen!
In the "classic Rotation Model" setup, you have a different teacher for each workshop. In a small Rotation Sunday School, you likely have just one or two teachers teaching all the workshops or dividing up the teaching schedule. In my two small Rotation Sunday Schools, I recruited people to teach with me, and substitute for me from time to time (I really love to teach in person!)
How to find more students immediately!
As mentioned above, most groups work best when you have "enough" kids to feel like a group for the activity you have planned. The difference between 2 kids and 4 kids in a class is dramatic for a Game Workshop, but not as critical for the Art Workshop. But no matter what your activity needs, increasing the regularity of attendance and adding NEW attenders is straight up discipleship and evangelism.
"Finding more students" begins with keeping students you already have, and means activating and creating good habits among your young kids and families, but also NOT LOSING your older students.
Here are a couple of things you can do to find and keep more students:
Of course, invest in a fun, engaging way to teach and design your classroom. The Rotation Model done right does that!
Recruit a teenager to help you teach and pay special attention to your older students.
Give older kids responsibilities, including asking them to help you teach and lead activities. They want to be treated like older kids, so recognize and feed that need.
Invite families to "teach a Workshop lesson together." These can be families of your children, or families of a teen or young adult in the congregation.
Plan special workshops and activities as a time to INVITE the friends of your children to attend. For example, encourage the younger kids to have a friend sleepover the night before and bring them to a special Breakfast Cooking Workshop or Seder Meal.
Promote, promote, promote. Text them updates on upcoming and past lessons. Post to your group's Facebook page. And get the families to text you back when they can't make it. (Encourage a sense of accountability).
Make sure your hallways and classrooms/workshops are bright, colorful, inviting, and even whimsical. They are kids after all.
According to Barna Research's 2021 Survey, 59% of visiting parents who are already committed disciples, choose their church based on its CHILDREN'S MINISTRY.
I hope you've found this brief article helpful. Certainly, it's only the beginning of a discussion and you're welcome to post questions and your own insights.
Here are some related topics in our Getting Started with the Rotation Model forum: