Team EpiscoPALS

A unique Vacation Bible School experience

Team EpiscoPALS logoFor those of us who work with children and families in our parishes, the impending arrival of summer raises a perennial question – what should we do for Vacation Bible School this year? Over the last decade, the level of financial and human resources required to pull off one of those snazzy “VBS in-a-box” programs has become too high for many parishes. We find ourselves caught between two equally unappealing options – completely exhaust both our people and our funds, or give up on VBS altogether.

In recent years, the members and staff of St. John’s, Worthington, have tackled the VBS question differently. What would it look like to resist the glossy appeal of the VBS in-a-box programs, and design an original VBS curriculum based on our parish’s unique resources and the spiritual needs of our children?

The traditional one-week, five-day format was the first thing to go. For families with two parents working full-time and for single-parent families, it is often impossible to transport kids to and from an event that occurs between 8:30 a.m. and 5:30 p.m. on a weekday. So we decided to transition to an evening VBS, including dinner, so parents wouldn’t have to worry about feeding the kids before dropping them off.

Instead of the five-nights-in-a-row marathon, we decided to meet once a week for four weeks. Having VBS on four consecutive Monday evenings in June allowed time for everyone to relax and recover between sessions and made it easier to adapt plans as needed from one session to the next.

Another significant commitment was that participation in VBS would be completely free, to ensure that no child would miss out for lack of funds. We placed a donation basket by the registration table and many families chose to donate, but no one was ever pressured or expected to do so.

And what about the themes? Early each year, the staff and lay leaders gather to discuss possibilities and choose a focus for the year’s program, based on feelings and events in the local community and input from the kids. Recent themes have included “Caring for God’s Creation” and “Super Moses, Super Me!”

In choosing this year’s theme, we considered the fact that most of our kids (and let’s be honest, many adults) do not have a strong sense of identity as church members. What does the Episcopal Church share with other Christian denominations, and what makes us unique? We wanted to create a VBS curriculum that would help kids understand and take pride in their identity as Episcopalians – and “Team EpiscoPALS” was born.

St. John’s rector Philip College shows “Team EpiscoPALS” participants what happens on the altar during the Holy Eucharist.

St. John’s rector Philip College shows “Team EpiscoPALS” participants what happens on the altar during the Holy Eucharist.

Each of the four VBS sessions centered around a particular aspect of our Episcopal tradition: the orders of ministry and their responsibilities (We are all Ministers), the global Anglican Communion and the via media (We are all Anglicans), our liturgy and sacraments (We are all Worshippers), and our beloved books – the BCP, approved hymnals and Gospel book (We are all Readers). After dinner we gathered for Large Group Time, when a clergyperson would present the evening’s theme in an engaging manner (Fr. Philip College, Mo. Abby Flemister, and deacon Deniray Mueller served us well). Each session had its own “EpiscoWords” for the kids to remember (e.g. sacrament, liturgy, collect, altar).

Large Group Time was followed by two smaller-group activities connecting to the evening’s theme, such as Remembering Our Baptism water games, creating personal prayer books to take home and designing items for a vestments fashion show. In between the two activities, participants gathered to “Meet the Saints” through a scripted interview with a church member dressed as the day’s designated person (according to Holy Women, Holy Men). Each session ended with a rousing Music & Movement Time, where kids and adults learned motions to go along with some favorite hymns, and had fun with an amazing “Pew Aerobics” routine created by St. John’s musician Melissa Christophersen Redmill.

Now that we’ve had some time to evaluate this year’s experience, it’s clear that Team EpiscoPALS was successful – in terms of numbers (43 children and 10 youth, twice as many as in the recent past, including kids from three nearby parishes), but more importantly in terms of the learning and growth that occurred. The VBS kids explored different aspects of our shared tradition, touching things they don’t usually touch and asking questions they don’t usually ask. They have begun claiming their developing identity as Episcopalians. They wear their Team EpiscoPALS t-shirts with pride, knowing that they are members of a church that is both historic and alive, and seeks to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ in each new age.

We hope to expand on this theme in June 2016, although we haven’t yet discerned how. But we also hope that children’s ministry leaders in other parishes might find something useful in our experience, and perhaps even do some adaptation and experimentation of their own. Developing a VBS curriculum based on your parish’s identity, assets and spiritual needs is not as challenging as it may seem – as long as you’re open to questions and changes along the way!

Maggie Leidheiser-Stoddard, M.Div. serves as Coordinator of Children’s and Youth Ministries at St. John’s, Worthington. Contact her at maggiels@stjohnsworthington.org.