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Vacation Bible School in the ‘new normal’


Safe and fun summer ministry for children and families

By Becky D’Angelo-Veitch | Presbyterians Today

Charlotte Nance-Allbright, director of Christian formation and education at First Presbyterian Church in Burlington, N.C., gathers the children for a time of online fun and learning. Courtesy of First Presbyterian Church

In the midst of canceled events, ranging from graduations and weddings to the 2020 Summer Olympics, and even the PC(USA)’s 224th General Assembly — which opted for an abbreviated virtual assembly in June — local church programs like Vacation Bible School are perhaps “small potatoes.” However, as congregations have long moved on from “How are we going to celebrate Easter?” to the ever-burning question, “What is the new normal?” one thing is apparent: How congregations approach summer ministry might provide answers for the wider life of the church, as lessons learned by doing things differently in July and August may provide the groundwork for post-pandemic ministries — especially ministries to children.

“Instead of giving up because our traditions have been shaken, we are using our time to think creatively about how to connect our children and families to the lessons and the good news we share at VBS,” said Charlotte Nance-Allbright, a certified Christian educator and the director of Christian formation and education at First Presbyterian Church in Burlington, North Carolina. 

First Presbyterian’s VBS team didn’t waste time dreaming about what a virtual VBS would look like. Plans were laid out to do a Zoom VBS launch two weeks before the official start of the program, having team members drop off “VBS to go” boxes on doorstops (as a “ring and run surprise for the children,” Nance-Allbright said), and even having a drive-thru option in the church parking lot to accompany one of the VBS Bible stories. As these ideas came together, the VBS planning team began to see a blessing in disguise: Doing a virtual VBS wasn’t just limited to children.

“The children and youth now had a wonderful opportunity to experience and share faith formation with their families, who are often not with them during these traditional summer events,” said Nance-Allbright.

Nance-Allbright is just one of the many Christian educators who is finding the challenging times the church is in as “exciting opportunities for all ages to think in new ways.”

“For years, Christian educators have been saying we need to rethink how things are done, but not many leaders could find the time to do that,” she said. “Now there’s no option but to explore something new. The space to make shifts is here. This is a great time to imagine, dream and wonder.”

At First United Presbyterian Church in Fayetteville, Arkansas, Kristi Button, director of Christian education, is all about involving families in not just experiencing, but also in creating a reformatted, weeklong VBS. Five families have stepped up to record Bible stories for sharing online, while others are contributing video activities connected with their family’s areas of interest, including games, cooking and art. As with the VBSs the church has done in the past, the virtual offering will include an opportunity to serve others.

“We will be working with agencies ahead of time to determine what would be helpful, such as filling little, free pantry boxes,” said Button. The pantry boxes are a trend that began showing up on church lawns a few years ago as a way to serve those in the community who needed both amenities and convenience. The pantry boxes have become even more valuable now in a time of social distancing by providing safe access to food and toiletries as well.

“We do not want any part in being the ones who bring [COVID-19] back. We don’t have any gatherings of children right now, and our older volunteers are not going to do anything for a long time,” said Button. “But filling pantry boxes is something that children and youth can do safely.”

Be wary of virtual overload

As much as churches want to provide spiritual formation opportunities for families in any way possible, many Christian educators recognize that families are often burned out from a bombardment of online educational obligations and content delivery. 

Stephanie Fritz, who was named the PC(USA)’s associate coordinator for Faith Formation in January of this year, sums up the thoughts she’s heard from educators around this topic by saying, “The questions that I am being asked are the right ones — namely, ‘What do our families actually need from us?’”

On a Zoom call in late spring, co-sponsored by the Association of Presbyterian Church Educators (APCE) and the Office of Faith Formation, this concern was expressed again and again according to Fritz. For families that are feeling fatigued from the daily oversight of schoolwork, providing formal lessons and materials for Christian education may be adding pressure.

The Rev. Sarah Illiff-McGill agrees, citing that not only are she and other parents in her congregation of Buffalo Hart Presbyterian Church, outside of Springfield, Illinois, feeling overwhelmed by all the virtual church offerings, but that people are still grieving the “old” ways of being the church that are lost right now — and maybe forever.

This fatigue does not mean that we don’t acknowledge the importance of parents as primary faith educators, notes the Rev. Karen Wright, associate pastor at Southminster Presbyterian Church in Prairie Village, Kansas, but it does mean that “we shift our delivery and expectations.” For example, Southminster will focus on sending one Bible story a week to families,  so as not to inundate parents, and invite them to connect the stories in a variety of ways in their everyday activities. 

At Buffalo Hart Presbyterian, Iliff-McGill is sending families worship boxes, much like meal subscription boxes, that have everything needed to provide a simple accompaniment for worship, including craft supplies and basic directions.

For many congregations, a summer altered by pandemic distancing guidelines doesn’t mean that reaching out to the community must stop. Third Presbyterian Church in Rochester, New York, has partnered with two housing communities in the city — Wilson Commencement Park and Sojourner Home — to provide a program, “Summer Sizzle,” which has brought teaching artists into these transitional housing communities to work with the children and their families, as well as providing field trips across the region.

Melanie Jones, the church’s arts and enrichment director, in seeking ways to keep the program running in a safe and creative way, says technology will play a big role with plans for virtual tours, instructional videos and even the utilization of ride-sharing apps to transport supplies to the children.

Reimagining summer camps

VBS is not the only summer ministry impacted. There is also the question of how camps and conference centers can continue connecting with children and youth.

Brian Frick, mission associate for the Presbyterian Mission Agency’s Formation and Camp and Conference Ministries, notes that “attending summer camp has a huge and measurable impact on faith retention in children and youth.”

Of those who cited being religious at the beginning of the National Study on Youth and Religion, 80% of youth who had a camp experience claimed to be religious three years later, compared to just 56% who did not have a camp experience. “Camp is clearly vital if we hope to instill a lifelong faith in future generations,” said Frick.

So, how are Presbyterian camps creating opportunity in a summer of pandemic alternative living?

At press time in late spring, Lea Kone, camp director of Camp Whitman on Seneca Lake in the Finger Lakes region of New York, said all plans were a “moving target.” Because of how “highly regulated” camps are, Camp Whitman was “awaiting guidance” from the American Camp Association, as well as state and county health departments, regarding the level at which the camp may function, she said.

Kone, who also serves on the board of the Presbyterian Church Camp and Conference Association, shared that camp directors were gathering weekly to discuss and brainstorm possible scenarios with support from the PC(USA)’s Office of Christian Formation.

For Camp Whitman, Kone says that there are a number of options on the table for this summer from “business as usual” to “virtual camp” and with numerous options in between. 

“Most camps, Whitman included, are in a spot where we are hopeful that we can run something at whatever level is deemed to be safe,” Kone said. “All the things that make camp special are even more needed this year: roaming around in nature, being in community, sharing in devotions, dealing with anxiety and healing from the trauma of quarantine.” 

All of that may still need to happen in nontraditional ways. According to Kone, one such way would be to offer a “traveling summer camp,” where small groups of campers and minimal staff could gather at churches or parks, thus bringing a camp experience to children and youth who might never otherwise experience that.

The Presbyterian Church Camp and Conference Association is also offering a virtual camp portal. Created in partnership with the Office of Christian Formation of the Presbyterian Mission Agency and the web developer Worship Times, the portal will offer a venue for participating camps to put daily and weekly activities online.

And, like an in-person camp experience, the day will be broken into morning and afternoon blocks. For these blocks, the camp may use their own content, or they may choose from a shared content library. These could be videos (or another medium) sharing arts and crafts activities, Bible studies, links to Zoom gatherings, a hike on their trails or anything they can dream up. The camp portal will run through mid-August.

One thing is for sure: Doing nothing is not an option for Presbyterian camps. “While it might be the best (or only) financial decision for some camps, it isn’t the mission decision that any of us want to make,” said Kone. “Camps are seeking to be involved in the community, so it is a struggle to sit back and not respond, especially when there are so many communities in need right now.” 

Kone pointed to the fact that at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, camps within the Presbyterian Camp and Conference Centers Association offered their kitchens and gardens to feed people, provided child care for first responders, hosted stranded travelers and served as FEMA sites.

When asked what good might come from the pandemic moving forward, Kone said, “I really see this as an opportunity for a lot more sharing and community building within presbyteries.”

Beyond summer programming

When the summer sun begins to wane and fall’s vibrant colors begin appearing, what will children’s and youth ministries look like? Over the past few months, it has been said that these are unprecedented times and so, as such, churches do not have a playbook to follow moving into the start of a new program year.

Will distance Christian education continue? Will some faith formation naturally move to home-based settings?

As congregations seek to answer these questions, the Office of Christian Formation has been consistent in updating toolkits for congregations on its website. The APCE continues to plan video calls and webinars to guide congregations.

The Presbyterian Publishing Corporation (PPC), for its part, will continue providing tips, assistance and resources to help maintain ongoing educational ministry. And through it all, something new is being experienced in the ministry to children and families that perhaps has never been thought of before.

According to the Rev. Meg Rift, curriculum editor with the PPC, the phrase “reformed and always reforming” has never “felt truer than now.”

Becky D’Angelo-Veitch, a certified associate Christian educator, is the director of faith formation at Third Presbyterian Church in Rochester, New York.

Helpful resources

The Office of Christian Formation has compiled children and youth ministry ideas.

The Association of Presbyterian Church Educators has a resource page for remote ministries.

For the latest on summer camps, visit the Presbyterian Church Camp and Conference Association website.

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