"Manning Up" VBS
The Vacation Bible School at Bailey Memorial United Methodist Church in rural Rosemont, W.Va., may be small—38 kids this year—but it’s breaking new ground.
Bailey’s program was a test run of Cokesbury’s new VBS curriculum for 2012, entitled Operation Overboard. Directing was church member Albert Simon—who believes he’s the only man to field-test a Vacation Bible School curriculum in the U.S.—with help from 25 teen and adult volunteers, about half of them male.
“We’ve broken the stereotype that says that Vacation Bible School is just for women and children,” said Mr. Simon. “VBS is a community event for us. We have young men and fathers who take the week off just to be there.”
This time of year, Vacation Bible Schools are a staple of many churches around the U.S. Because they are usually offered during the day, stay-at-home moms traditionally ran VBS in the past. But leaders of successful programs say it’s crucial to get dads and other men in the church involved.
“It’s more meaningful to kids when they see both parents taking part in this,” said Mr. Simon. “A lot of school-aged children don’t get a lot of exposure to male leadership outside of the home.”
But how to get men to pitch in? Many work during the day. Even those who are available may hesitate to pick up the goofy puppets or feel put off by fussy craft projects.
Start by just asking, says Theresa Plemmons Reiter, children’s minister at FUMC in Lakeland, Fla., and author of Nelson's Children’s Minister's Manual (Thomas Nelson, 2011). Her church’s VBS attracted a capacity crowd of 525 children and 300 youth and adult volunteers. She details her recruiting tactics in a chapter in her book titled “Keeping the Bar High and the Begging Low.”
“I don’t do a blanket request from the pulpit,” she says. “I ask the specific people I want for specific jobs, and I tell them why I want them.”
She buttonholed a male physical education teacher in the church, for example, to lead the rec area at Lakeland’s VBS, and tapped young men who are students at nearby Florida Southern College, a United Methodist-affiliated school.
Carrie McCool, children’s ministry director at Christ UMC in Lafayette, Ind., issued a challenge last year for fathers in the church: Take off one morning from work to help out at VBS.
“I told them we needed more of a male presence, and they stepped up,” she said.
Many VBS veterans say that male volunteers are particularly important for kids in middle school—an age when many boys begin to write off VBS as too childish or uncool. When men are involved, Mr. Simon says, older boys are more likely to stay interested.
“When they see one of our male college students helping out, then they think, ‘If it’s cool for them, it’s cool for me, too,’” he said.
Similarly, Kercida McClain, education minister at Laurel Heights UMC in San Antonio, Texas, recruited a retired man in the church to lead the 6th grade VBS program. Unlike the activities for younger kids, this grade’s VBS was largely devoted to mission projects, like building planter boxes for the church’s garden—a good fit for that church member.
“Some men aren’t going to want to glue things on a paper plate in the arts and crafts room,” she said. VBS can offer more appealing tasks for male volunteers, she added, “If you allow yourself to not do things the way they’ve always been done.”
“We’ve had men in charge of our 5th and 6th grade programs,” said Cheryl Brown, VBS director and a member of First UMC in Richardson, Texas. The church takes a “tween-oriented” approach for that age group, with activities like a pizza party, and male volunteers seem more at home with that format.
Many VBS directors say they can get more men involved when they invite them to help with activities they’re likely to enjoy. At Wesley UMC in Austin, Texas, this year’s VBS included a “Let’s Move” component to encourage kids to exercise and eat well.
“We had men leading the outdoor activities,” says director Sheldy Starkes. Wesley’s VBS is also offered in the evenings, making it more doable for dads.
Similarly, Mr. Simon says that men at his church enjoyed the challenge of woodworking projects—creating elaborate backdrops, props, and lawn decorations for VBS.
To make a VBS more male-friendly, set the schedule early so that those who work may plan vacation time, advises Betsy Parham, associate editor for Vacation Bible School at Cokesbury. And build flexibility into the volunteer schedule to make it easier for men to participate.
“A lot of guys can’t take off a whole week for VBS,” said Ms. Brown. “So we rely heavily on ‘floaters’—people who volunteer for only one or two days. Floaters report to us in the morning, and we send them to work in areas where we know we might be shorthanded that day.”
Like many working moms, Josh Beardsley, a member of FUMC Lakeland, didn’t let his day job stop him from pitching in. He served as director of VBS last year, even though he was unable to take the entire week off. Mr. Beardsley handled the recruiting and preparations; a co-director ran the day-to-day.
“I wanted to let my daughters see that I was involved in VBS,” he said. “My dad was a Sunday school teacher when I was young, and that made a big difference for me.”
Male pastors can also boost the “male presence” at VBS by making appearances at key events during the week, and if they can make a splash, even better. A highlight of Richardson’s VBS was an appearance by the Rev. Clayton Oliphint, senior pastor, who played the drums and performed a rap version of “Jesus Loves Me” for VBS participants. Lakeland’s three pastors turned up in costume—a chef, bacon and eggs—in a VBS skit that had the kids giggling with delight.
Mr. Simon, who’s been involved in helping design Cokesbury’s curricula, says it’s important for VBS leaders to be sensitive to activities that might seem too childish or “girly” for boys—but is quick to say that gender stereotypes don’t necessarily apply.
For example, some worried about whether boys might perceive Cokebury’s 2010 theme, “Shake ’Em Up Café,” as too feminine, but he saw just the opposite. Boys see chefs like Emeril on TV shows, and admire them, and loved the theme, he said.
Ms. Reiter says it’s important to generate excitement and energy around VBS, and men are more likely to respond.
“I act like VBS is the biggest and grandest thing ever,” she said. “I say, ‘This is going to be huge and you are going to want to be on board.”
At First UMC in Plano, Texas, minister with children Mardi Bowen pitched the chance to volunteer at VBS as a form of mission that takes place within the church.
“We talk about how it’s important for dads and granddads to be active in the church and growing in their faith, and for children to see them doing that,” she said.
Finally, Ms. McClain says, never underestimate how giving men opportunities to volunteer at Vacation Bible School can change lives.
At the last church she served, FUMC Elgin, Texas, a 64-year-old man who’d never attended the church turned up to help set up VBS during the work days. The man enjoyed himself so much that he asked if he could come back for VBS, too, along with his granddaughters. Two weeks later, he was baptized and joined the church. His granddaughters presented him for baptism.
“VBS is the only unadulterated evangelism tool we have left to us,” said Ms. McClain. “It’s an opportunity to get so many people into our doors for the first time and to love it and come back. It touches so many different lives,” she said. “We think it’s just about children. Well, it’s not just about children. It’s so much bigger.”
This article first appeared in the United Methodist Reporter. Used by permission.