(Sunday) School’s Out for the Summer? : Summer Struggles in Ministry with Children and Youth

*The Struggle* I began my current position as Director of Ministries with Children and Youth in the middle of August of a year when the weather was warm and beckoned people beyond the walls of any building (especially in Chicago, where many buildings do not have air conditioners). I showed up to church for my first Sunday and there were no children and one or two youth. The seminary intern at the time even said to me, “I don’t think the church has any children or youth.” I was confused. Where were they?

Over the next few months I learned that there were in fact children and youth in the church. “Rally Day” brought them all back for what, for this Southerner, was a combination of “Homecoming” and “Promotion Sunday.” As I got to know everyone, I listened as one by one families gave reasons for not coming to church over the summer. Vacations, summer sports, going out on the lake, visiting family, wanting to sleep in or have family time, etc. etc. I was delighted to have everyone coming to church more regularly for the school year, but as we began to plan for the next summer’s activities, I started to wonder…would people show up?

My position was changing from 3/4 time to full time and we were growing momentum within our ministries with children and youth, so I did NOT want to lose that energy. I feared that in stopping our Sunday school over the summer or by not having regular fellowship meetings, we would struggle to build it back in the fall and each year would be a roller coaster of highs and lows. What would we do? Attendance especially in Sunday school was already unpredictable and varied, even during the school year and would undoubtedly be even more difficult to predict over the summer. Further, our age ranges were so spread out that we would not have enough of one age group to warrant more than one class. ONE class, for children AND youth?

The Chicken or the Egg? As we began to plan for the next summer’s activities, I began to wonder. Did parents not bring their children over the summer because they were really all on vacation (all summer?), or all out on the lake every Sunday? Or perhaps…would there be some children who could come this week or that. Then, if they came, what was there for them, if there was no Sunday school or fellowship group meetings? Finally, one mother spoke the truth about why her kids did not come: “it’s harder to convince them to come over the summer because there’s nothing really going on.”

*Not Just Me* I recently posted on the UMC Ministry with Children facebook page and this “nothing going on” was confirmed by several people who shared how their congregation does not have regular Sunday school for children over the summer. Further, many churches change the time of their Sunday morning worship, affecting the whole morning schedule and/or eliminating Sunday school from the menu altogether. This, to me, creates an unnecessary barrier for people who already struggle with establishing a routine of going to church, and, if attention is not given to crafting (and communicating) a truly intergenerational worship experience, as the mother articulated, there would be this sense that there is “nothing really going on” for kids or youth. Yet another struggle that many shared and that I myself have experienced, is that many teachers want a break from teaching over the summer. So unless someone has a cloning device or an especially loving partner, family member, or friend, finding teachers over the summer presents a challenge.

*Brian* In my “call story” for the Board of Ordained Ministry and in several interviews for ministry positions, I have shared about my experience as a teen youth going to Sunday school. Many times I would be the only person to show up, or one of only three or four. But our teacher, Brian, was there every week. Even when he wasn’t scheduled to teach, he would check in on us and stay with us if the scheduled teacher didn’t show up. This meant so much to me at the time and continues to fuel my passion for ministry in small churches where there are often only a few that show up sometimes. Those few youth matter. By showing up and being with me and the few youth that occasionally straggled in, Brian helped us feel like we mattered. He embodied God’s love for us in a very simple way that made a big difference.

*Do SOMETHING (and do it well!)* Some in the UMC Ministry with Children facebook thread shared about continuing ministries over the summer. My first summer here, we decided to keep going with our Sunday school classes. It was the first time in a long time that the church offered faith formation classes for children and youth. I was determined to do SOMETHING, knowing that it would be challenging at times and require the ability to adapt each week depending on who showed up. I had youth serve as helpers for the youngest kids as we played games, did crafts, and explored various Bible stories involving water. We’d act out the story and play with water in some form. Our attendance ranged from 2-22 (no joke).

That summer we had several visiting families with children/youth. When they showed up, something was happening! It is no surprise that they ended up joining the church and are now some of our most devoted members.

Last summer we continued Sunday school as well, but with some changes, as not all the youth wanted to work with the children. Some weeks our youth would have their own class (pending my ability to find teachers), and some weeks youth would serve as helpers (either directly with the kids or behind the scenes helpers). It was not a perfect, textbook answer to our situation, but it worked.

One success I’m particularly excited about is that instead of having Sunday evening youth fellowship meetings at the church, we met at people’s houses. Host homes would provide a snack (or meal, depending on the host) and the space, and I would bring the devotion and games to play. We had decent attendance and it was a wonderful way to get to know each family better.

*But what?* As I plan for this summer, I face an even greater age span of our most regular participants. I face families communicating a crazy summer scheduled filled with vacations and camps and so much more. I know that we must offer some way for children and youth to participate in the life of the church during the summer, but it seems like I’m filled with more questions than answers at this point. How to split up the age groups? How shall we structure the time together? What are ways to involve adults in passion-based teaching/learning (i.e. our Garden Team Leader facilitating the children caring for our community garden as an act of serving God and our neighbor) rather than just filling slots to comply with Safe Sanctuaries? How do I orient my teachers to the possibilities of two or twenty and not rely on my own abilities of handling such situations?

As I write all this I am filled with hope…and the thought that summer is an opportunity to be creative, to try new things, to not be so rigidly bound by the structures that parallel the school year and to be open to how the Spirit guides me to craft our summer faith formation opportunities. My prayers are with you all asking these same questions and would love to hear what you all are doing!

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