Leading the Congregation Toward a Vital Sunday School

January 4th, 2011

For all of the evangelical fervor, social activism, and organizational genius that have marked Wesleyan Methodism, one of its distinguishing marks has been an emphasis upon education. More widespread and expansive than any other educational structure or form in the life of the church has been the Sunday School. One cannot trace the history of the Methodist movement without tracking the history of the Sunday School movement.

Today, a vital Sunday School remains essential. Larger membership churches, where attendance in each act of worship can be many hundreds— indeed thousands—of persons, depend on strong Sunday School classes to offer not only teaching and learning but also pastoral care and spiritual formation. Middle-sized local churches look to strong Sunday School classes for all ages as the fundamental program unit of their congregations for all ages. And local churches with few members may be situated on circuits or charges with schedules that include worship only on alternate weekends, but the Sunday School meets every week. In those cases, the vital Sunday School is truly the center of church life. It is how disciples are “formed.”

Yet, in some quarters today, there is heavy grieving about the decline of Sunday Schools. Can falling attendance trends be reversed? Is the “Sunday morning” model still viable? Are there enough volunteers available to staff Sunday Schools? Aren't there so many demands on schedules that Sunday Schools are a relic of the past more than a road to the future? Can church leaders realistically hope for a vital Sunday School in the years to come? Should church leaders continue to try?

Every setting is unique, of course. Contexts and circumstances vary. But creative leadership that counts on commitment to the church and calls forth compromise can enable a Christian education program to be that vital force in a congregation.

Metropolitan Memorial UMC

One congregation with a remarkable story to tell about its revitalized Sunday School is Metropolitan Memorial United Methodist Church in Washington, D.C.

Metropolitan has had a long and outstanding period of service to the denomination and the nation. It has served as the worship home for Presidents, Vice Presidents, Supreme Court Justices, members of Congress, ambassadors, diplomats, and government officials as well as educators, physicians, attorneys, musicians, artists, and more. In the 1990s, the church increased its programs of community outreach, enlarged its staff, opened a shelter for homeless persons on site, engaged in a sizable building program, and added a contemporary service to its schedule of worship on Sunday morning.

The element of church life that was floundering was education. An active Sunday School for children and younger youth functioned fairly well. But education for adults was very minimal. Two small groups, one of senior adults and another with middle aged persons, met from September through May. Occasional studies and classes drew modestly sized crowds. But none of that was close to fulfilling the mission of the church.

This is a congregation that places a high value on education. One survey in the 1990s showed that more than 80% of the members had done at least some amount of graduate study beyond a bachelor's degree. Numerous attempts had been made, by persons of deep dedication and strong faith, to establish an effective adult education program. Those efforts had variously been launched by clergy, by lay staff, and by volunteers. None had developed any traction.

Several factors contributed to the failures. The few persons who participated in on-going adult classes resisted any new initiatives that appeared to threaten their status. Space limitations during the extensive building program had displaced many program activities and postponed new projects until the construction was complete. Mid-week educational endeavors tended to yield meager results, in part because Washingtonians tend to work extremely long hours and do an extensive amount of professional travel. Persons in government service, in the non-governmental public sector, and in private businesses or professions face an enormously demanding workload. Besides that, a “metropolitan” area church tends to draw from many sections of the city and from the surrounding suburbs. Those who commute to work are not inclined to commute home after a long working hours, and then commute to the church—even if it is for their spiritual welfare.

Many in the congregation had concluded that adult education could simply never thrive at Metropolitan. But, as the construction project neared completion, some leaders of the congregation began to take another look.

The Sunday morning schedule had been fashioned to allow for two services—a contemporary one at 9:30 and a traditional one at 11:00. During the earlier service, there was a children's message, after which young worshipers were invited to leave and attend Sunday School. After the service, adults went to a coffee hour where they mingled with others arriving for the 11:00 service, and around 10:40 the children emerged from their classes.

A small group began conversing with various constituencies in the congregation, asking whether there was enough commitment to the possibility of adult education that folks would be willing to compromise the morning schedule and establish a “study hour” for adults.


Initial responses gave all the reasons why it could not work.

  1. Those who were committed to the 9:30 contemporary service opposed a study hour in the schedule if it involved a change in their worship time.

  2. Those who were committed to the 11:00 traditional service opposed a study hour if it involved a change in their worship time.

  3. Those who were committed to both services wondered what would happen to the coffee hour, which was the only time that the two “congregations” mingled.

  4. Those who sang in the 11:00 choir would oppose a new study hour if it conflicted with their pre-service choir rehearsal.

  5. Those who sang in the 9:30 choir would oppose a new study hour if it meant that their children would have to be in worship during the service rather than in Sunday School.

  6. Those who taught in the children's Sunday School opposed a new study hour if it meant that the adult study time coincided with their teaching commitments in the children's classes.

  7. Those who had none of the above opinions opposed a new study hour because the congregation had tried other approaches to adult education before, and none of them had ever worked.

Compromises and Commitments

Weaker saints could have been immediately discouraged by the negativity. But the church leaders chose not to yield to the negative perspectives. Instead, they chose to create some means for helping people find compromises that could accommodate their commitments. They developed a plan.

Begin the contemporary service at 9:00, one half hour earlier.

Begin the traditional service at 11:15, fifteen minutes later.

Use the period between the two services for multiple educational and service opportunities

  1. Offering Sunday School classes for children,

  2. Continuing the two existing classes for adults,

  3. Creating a new educational venture in the newly constructed “Great Hall,”

  4. Providing coffee and tea in the foyer for those who wanted fellowship but not study, and

  5. Allowing choir members freedom to depart for rehearsal from any activity in which they were engaged.

The plan had every imaginable disadvantage.

First, it offered no constituent group exactly what it wanted, thereby guaranteeing that every group would be at least a little bit unhappy.

Second, it forced every constituent group to make some kind of change, thereby guaranteeing that every group would have even more reason to be unhappy. (One church member objected that she had been attending worship at 11:00 for decades and had then been going to lunch at the same location with a standing reservation at 12:30. She said she could not imagine having to charge her reservation to 12:45, for that would make her lunch too late.)

Third, it would consume every available space in the new and remodeled facilities, thereby guaranteeing that a debate about the costs and benefits of the construction project would continue.

Fourth, the church leaders proposed that the plan go into effect during the summer (when Washingtonians are typically vacationing or enjoying their mountain retreats or relaxing at their beach condos), thereby guaranteeing that it would be a poor test of whether the plan could actually succeed.

Nevertheless, despite all of these negative considerations and concerns, the church council met and approved the plan—as a summer experiment.

The “Great Hall” Series

Grumbling continued. But the church leaders turned to creating some content to fill the new study hour. Sunday School teachers, it seems, were more committed to the children than they were unhappy about the compromise regarding the schedule. Choir members found a way to remain committed to their worship music while making modest compromises in their Sunday morning routines. Continuing adult classes decided they would remain committed to their groups, as long as some meeting space was available, and that they would be willing to compromise their regular routines if a very interesting option might be available in the new “Great Hall” series. In short, commitment overtook concerns about having to make compromises.

Then the church leaders announced their plans for the first “Great Hall” series. It would begin on the first Sunday in July. The series would focus on “great theologians of the church,” with one theologian being discussed each Sunday. A layperson, or one of the pastors, or a guest lecturer from the theological school would deliver a lecture and lead a discussion on one theologian each week. The first session would be held on Fourth of July weekend and would focus on St. Augustine. Subsequent weeks would involve presentations about Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, Wesley, and others until September.

Everything seemed counter-intuitive and wrong about the plan. Start on a Sunday when the holiday and the Washington heat virtually assured low attendance? Begin with an ancient figure with little apparent connection to a United Methodist Church in the United States? Bore people with lectures?

Except that it worked.

With each successive week, attendance in the Great Hall series grew. Attendees who arrived late had to go to storage closet and find additional chairs. Sunday School for children and youth continued to flourish. The changes in time for worship had little, if any, negative impact on attendance.

The experiment that began in the summer has never stopped. Five years later, the newest array of adult education offerings has been announced. The list includes three sessions on artistic creativity and spirituality, one session with a nationally known guest lecturer on homosexuality and the church, four sessions on different Protestant traditions and denominations, a session on science and faith, a session on world religions, and a discussion on a popular film with religious themes.

The experience at Metropolitan Memorial proved at least one thing. It is possible to lead a congregation toward building a vital Sunday School. It requires coping with all sorts of negativity. Nevertheless, courageous leaders can discover how to honor their commitments by finding capacity for compromise.

And that can create some things besides a vital Sunday School. It might help us learn how to accomplish even more.

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