By Brett Hetherington*
Summer has come and gone. As teachers welcome back students to largely digital classrooms, we look back at one summer tradition that children look forward to every year – Vacation Bible School. With COVID-19 restrictions in place, many churches were not able to host VBS programs in the traditional mode and made the decision to wait until next summer when they will hopefully be able to meet again in person. Most churches that chose to offer summer VBS did so online.
Susan Olson of Granger United Methodist Church (Canal District) shared that plans were made to create a summer curriculum portal that was added to the church website. It was designed to engage children and their families in topics of racism and societal injustices and can be used over five consecutive days or at the family’s convenience.
“Families can access the curriculum as needed, there isn’t a specific time frame that we are running our program this year,” she said, adding that a physical box shaped like churches is available for those who do not have easy internet access. The boxes include the same materials included in the digital packets.
The program has attracted attention inside the church and beyond its walls.
“We have had multiple requests from outside our community, and we are happy to have them access and download our digital resources,” said Olson. She also shared that the church is happy to print and package copies for those who might not have access to printers.
“Our church was online before the pandemic hit,” said Olson. “I have been able to take advantage of this time to update our website and make it more user-friendly and accessible. Our online crowd is growing, our Facebook crowd is growing, and even our international crowd is growing. All of this is really giving us a new definition of community.”
In July, United Methodist Church of Berea (North Coast District) focused its summer VBS around the theme of a Compassion Camp and launched it through a private Facebook Group. The Rev. Carrie Antczak oversaw the program and was thrilled with the impact it had on families within and outside the church.
“Most of the kids at VBS were from the daycare that is meeting in our church building over the summer,” Antczak said. “In fact, 75% of the kids this summer were children that we have never met before!”
Each morning during the week of VBS there was a live video stream in the private group. Then throughout the day families were invited to “visit” virtual stations in the group at their leisure featuring pre-recorded videos teaching crafts, Bible stories, games and more – all created by young adults from the church. Physical materials for the week were provided in pre-packed packages and left on the porch of the church the weekend before the program started for parents to pick up.
One mother was so grateful for the church’s VBS program that she shared this very gracious written message with Antczak:
“Our denomination didn’t have a local VBS option this summer, and we were glad to be invited to Berea’s VBS. My seven-year-old participated. Lately she has had a lot of “Zoom fatigue” so I didn’t know if she would participate or not. She ended up loving it! The videos felt personal to her and I think she liked the open format; that she could pick and choose what she did and how she interacted with the material. This was by far her favorite virtual camp of the summer. Faith formation for my kids has been challenging since shifting to virtual church, but I like that she connected with this week of lessons and clearly internalized them. It gave me ideas to take back to my own church as we try to develop ways to nurture our kids’ faith in this remote time.” – April Mather
Antczak shared, “It was great because we knew that parents and grandparents would have to do the curriculum with their children. They got to have a faith formation time with their kids they normally don’t get to experience. In fact, lots of families were interested in joining our virtual Sunday School as a result of VBS!”
Painesville United Methodist Church (Western Reserve District) leaders crafted a Bible-in-a-Box program called Creation Plus, modeled after a Camp-In-A-Box idea that the Painesville Recreation Department ran this summer. Each day of the curriculum centered around an Old Testament Scripture sharing one of the days of Creation and a corresponding New Testament passage.
“We had 22 children that participated with ages ranging from three years old to seventh grade,” shared the Rev. Dr. Jan Yandell. “Each day a box was delivered to each child at their home.”
The boxes included memory verses for the day, two songs, a prayer template, an art project, an outdoor activity, a game to play, and a snack to make with all the ingredients included. “A few youth and adults helped to pack the boxes, and we had 5 drivers delivering them every morning,” Yandell said.
She added that the Scripture, memory verse, and songs were all recorded and put on the church website so that the parents or guardians of the children could listen and learn them, but it was important that the children not be totally connected to their screens for the entire program.
Yandell said that the week of delivering this self-created interactive VBS curriculum for families to experience together really left an impact on the church.
“It was a special way of telling our children that we care about them and about their Christian education. We may continue the concept in the Fall if we are not able to be together in Sunday school. The exciting thing for us is that we had seven children that were not directly connected to the church who heard about the VBS program on our radio broadcast. They were so excited to see the driver pull into their driveway each morning, and we are excited that the gospel is spreading, and we are keeping our children safe.”
Willoughby Hills United Methodist Church (Western Reserve District) opted to run its summer outreach for children a little bit differently than others. This was the 24th summer that the church hosted a sports camp, something that leadership wanted to continue this summer in memory of the original director of the camp, who passed away this year.
Marie Grmek is in her 14th year as the second director of the sports camp and she was presented with the rather daunting task of figuring out how to honor this memory while keeping children safe.
“In a normal year we would run a traditional VBS program for three- to five-year-olds at the church while the sports camp itself would be held at a park about two minutes away from the church,” she said in explaining that the camp would start with running, followed by a break for devotions and music, then some games with teams, lunch served picnic-style, basketball, crafts, more running, and then swimming until parents picked up their children. “We would run from 9:00 a.m. until 4:00 p.m. and would have 75 to 100 kids from the community and the church.”
This year was Sports Camp: The Pandemic Edition.
“Each day started with a Zoom call,” shared Grmek. “It was a little out of my comfort zone to host a Zoom call with 100 people, but it worked.” The teams of kids from years past became teams of family members this year. The Zoom call in the morning featured discussion about the Bible story for the day in breakout rooms, utilizing the Orange curriculum FOCUS.
Grmek explained the biggest hurdle of distance camp for a sports-related event such as this – competition – was rather easily solved. “Each team would earn points for walking or running and completing activities in their packets. For instance, they could make encouraging cards, bake and deliver brownies, donate blankets to a shelter, pick flowers (with permission) for a neighbor, clean a sibling’s room – all activities intended to serve others.” The packets included approximately 20 pages of such activities. At the end of each day, families logged their earned points into a shared Google document.
One element that was able to remain from the traditional sports camp was supporting a local charity financially. Normally the running portion of camp serves as a fundraiser. “This year we were able to support Royal Family Kids Camp, and we already have a relationship with some of the kids involved there so a lot of our kids were able to put real-life faces to the fundraising they were doing,” Grmek said.
Perhaps the biggest impact she saw this year was what happened at home. “Families were doing ministry at home!” she said. “As part of the honor system with inputting points and taking pictures of their activities, they were documenting themselves actively doing ministry together! Families were discussing the Bible and doing missions together!”
One other bright spot from this pandemic edition of sports camp is the idea of the home element. Grmek and her team are considering keeping a hybrid form next year to keep the conversation going at home. “We want the parents to continue to be involved at the end of the day and continue to do missions projects together with their kids.”
The volunteer team at Faith United Methodist Church (Tuscarawas District) knew it was not possible for volunteers or children to do VBS in-person this summer, but the volunteer team was determined to offer VBS in some fashion. This made Kathy Schmucker incredibly proud to be able to work alongside such dedicated servants.
“It was simply amazing,” Schmucker told me.
This year’s adaptation for VBS took place primarily on the church YouTube page and church website. Volunteers created video content teaching lessons, games, and other traditional elements and combined them with curriculum videos produced by the publishing company, from whom the church received permission to share online in a limited capacity.
“The most valuable part of VBS for us every year is the music,” shared Schmucker. “Every year we provide audio CDs to families to take home at the end of the week to carry the music with them as a powerful tool to cement the message the children learned.” This year the church made certain that every kit assembled included a music CD as well as coloring sheets and other activities – some of which were inspired by another church that had hosted its own virtual VBS.
“The virtual VBS this year was so popular that we even made the kits available after VBS was over!” said Schmucker.
There is no exaggeration in that statement. One family took its kit with them on their vacation to Utah. Some grandparents mailed kits to grandchildren who live in other states. One family was even preparing to send a packet to a family who lives in China!
The reach of VBS was not just measured in how far the church was impacting in its ministry, but in how it was impacting families in its own homes. “Families were thankful for the opportunity to do VBS together, and they enjoyed sharing pictures of how they were doing VBS at home. Families went all-out,” said Schmucker. “One family even decorated their living room to look like a mountain and train track because the theme of our VBS this year featured those elements!”
Schmucker and her team opted for pre-recorded video elements instead of live-streamed video and Zoom calls because many families in their church were suffering from burnout after months of distance learning for school. “The kids have been on Zoom all day long for school, parents have been in meetings all day on their computers, so many people have just been trapped by Zoom,” she shared. The idea of pre-recorded videos that families could access at their leisure without needing to adhere to a strict schedule was appealing to many families. “We kept the videos up for 30 days and people could watch any time. Normally VBS only takes place during the day and that limits who can participate,” shared Schmucker. She went on to share that by opening up the curriculum to parents to observe at home with their children at their own pace, it puts the emphasis of success on the shoulders of the parents and not the church. “It’s up to the parents to help their kids engage in VBS this year.”
This summer has been a challenge to churches the world over. As we struggle to learn new ways of meeting together, and new ways to simply say “hello,” it is encouraging to see churches that have been able to see this global pandemic not as a defeat to be suffered, but as a challenge to be overcome.
The Conference Communications team would like to share other stories that highlight ways that each of us is answering the call of Bishop Tracy S. Malone to reach out to our communities in creative ways. Please e-mail your ministry story to EOC Director of Communications Rick Wolcott at firstname.lastname@example.org.
* Brett Hetherington is the Communications specialist for the East Ohio Conference of The United Methodist Church.