It was dark when a group of volunteers arrived at Bethlehem Farm, a Catholic community in the hills of West Virginia.
As their minivans pulled into the gravel parking lot outside the farm’s main house earlier this fall, the 10 students from the University of Notre Dame were met by the farm’s full-time caretakers, who extended the customary Bethlehem Farm greeting: a “welcome home” hug.
“Those were the hardest hugs I’ve ever had in my life,” said Matthew Dunne, the only freshman in the group. “My initial reaction was, ‘What have I gotten myself into?’”
Mark Van Kirk, a junior studying computer science, was also startled.
“I felt like I was being treated like a close friend,” he said. “I don’t normally experience that with strangers.”
Eric Fitts, Bethlehem Farm’s director, said that surprising hospitality is exactly why hugs have become such a part of the central Appalachia farm’s culture.
In what ways could you offer “surprising hospitality” to your neighbors? What gesture fits the culture of your organization?
“We do that as a symbol of Christ in each person. What would we do if Jesus showed up on the property today?” he said. “It’s also a way of making ourselves vulnerable. When you open your arms, they’re not stiff out in front of you.”
Located in rural Summers County, Bethlehem Farm describes itself as an intentional Christian community based on “the Gospel cornerstones of service, simplicity, prayer, and community.” A group of caretakers lives and works together year-round, growing a lot of their own food, conserving as much water and electricity as possible, dressing modestly and largely eschewing technology.
‘Simplicity is countercultural’
The farm welcomes hundreds of volunteers each year for weeklong retreats, where visitors work alongside the caretakers and mirror their way of life. Fitts said the farm’s model of hosting volunteers is in part for practical reasons — it brings in more hands to accomplish the work. But it also allows those volunteers to see mindful, intentional living with their own eyes.
“Whether it’s community living or the idea that simplicity is countercultural — it’s not the way, but it’s a possibility,” he said.
The Notre Dame students were on a midterm break, and all were enrolled in the school’s Appalachia Seminar. On their first morning, Fitts gave them a grand tour of the property. The land once belonged to the Kirwan family, who ran a Catholic Worker farm on the site from 1983 until 2004. The Bethlehem Farm organization formed there in 2005, although the land was then owned by the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston.
What would simplicity — or a more simple life — look like in your context?
Fitts, a Wisconsin native, discovered Nazareth Farm in north central West Virginia while in college at Loyola University Chicago. Nazareth Farm is another Catholic community that emphasizes prayer, simplicity, community and service and offers service retreats for groups around the country. He fell in love with the way of life there and continued to organize trips to Nazareth Farm after going to work for Wheeling Jesuit University. During one such trip, the idea for Bethlehem Farm was born.
Fitts and others realized there were far more groups on the waiting list for Nazareth Farm than the organization could host. In addition, they wanted a farm that emphasized sustainable practices, which was not a focus of Nazareth Farm at the time. And they believed West Virginia needed more intentional communities.
“There was a neighbor who kept saying, ‘There needs to be more Nazareth Farms,’” Fitts said.
The diocese turned over the property to Bethlehem Farm in 2019.
The farm covers 91 acres, but only a small part is developed. Just below the house is a large pasture, where five donkeys take care of the grass. There are beehives that Fitts’ wife, Colleen, tends. The farm cemetery sits on a hill just above the pasture.
A little way off is the chicken house with its 45 unusually aggressive hens. There are high tunnels (also known as hoop houses), greenhouses, and garden plots of herbs, sweet potatoes, peppers, tomatoes, onions, and just about everything else that will grow in this climate.
The two residences on the property — one for caretakers, the other for retreat guests — are as eco-friendly as possible. There are solar panels on the roofs. The large, homey cabins are heated by wood-burning stoves, and the plumbing is connected to a rainwater containment system with a capacity of nearly 50,000 gallons. But caretakers still limit themselves to two showers a week, and guests are invited to do the same. There are signs in the bathroom advising guests to flush toilets only when necessary.
In the kitchen, food scraps get composted into fertilizer. There’s not a disposable plate or cup in sight. When guests arrive, they choose coffee mugs and label them with masking tape — to use for the remainder of their stay. Although breakfasts and dinners are made fresh every day, lunches on the farm are a smorgasbord of leftovers.
“I told my dad these people would probably survive the longest in a zombie apocalypse,” Dunne, the freshman, said. “They would survive and be happy.”
Fitts said it’s all just part of the community’s attempt to live out the Gospels.
“When we say we’re living the gospel, I guess the question is — ‘How?’ I think in our culture right now, the default is you’re going to be living destructively: toward the environment, toward yourself, toward other people,” he said. “We’re looking to live creatively.”
Home repair and evening prayer
During their time on the farm, the students split into three work groups. Each day, two groups would work on construction projects with the farm’s Repairing Homes, Renewing Communities program, which provides free labor for home construction projects and allows clients to pay for materials with no-interest loans. The remaining group would serve as that day’s “home crew,” preparing meals, cleaning the residence and planning evening prayer.
What actions could you or your organization take to “live creatively”?
Two projects were underway when the college students visited. At one site, crews repaired a leaky roof by covering it with a new one made of metal. At the other, they measured, cut and installed new vinyl siding on a home.
Bethlehem Farm has other initiatives that go hand in glove with their home repair program. Its Sustainable Upgrade Fund allows families to use more durable, nontoxic and environmentally friendly materials in home projects for no additional cost. Its weatherization program helps homeowners insulate their homes to save on heating and cooling costs. And its renewable energy program gives low-income families 0% financing on solar panels. Volunteers help with all those projects except the installation of solar panels, which is done by professional contractors.
During groups’ first day at the farm, though, no one heads out to a work site. That day is spent doing some chores around the property and learning about the farm — and, more importantly, learning about Bethlehem Farm’s philosophy of service.
“So that we understand we’re not here to reach down a hand and lift up the ‘lowly poor,’” Fitts said.
While there was a renewed interest in helping poor Appalachians during the War on Poverty of the 1960s and 1970s, that assistance came with exploitation, Fitts said. The people of the region were often portrayed as uneducated, helpless and dirty, in need of outsiders to come and fix their issues. Bethlehem Farm is cautious not to perpetuate those stereotypes.
“We are coming with our poverty — the spiritual neglect in much of our culture, the poverty of ‘I’ve never pushed a wheelbarrow.’ And we come with our wealth, our strength, whatever it is we’re giving,” he said.
He emphasizes to students that the people Bethlehem Farm serves have their own poverty and challenges but also their own wealth — life experience, depth of faith, technical know-how, knowledge of local traditions.
That’s why Bethlehem Farm prefers not to use the term “clients” for the people it helps but rather “homeowners,” “partner families” or, even better, “neighbors.”
“Neighbors help neighbors. That’s a really strong trait of West Virginia,” Fitts said. “We just happen to be the neighbor who has 20 college kids come and visit.”
Are there nonmonetary ways for you to assess your community’s poverty and wealth? Your organization’s?
Maria Vaquero, a junior education major, thought she would enjoy construction projects the most but wound up preferring her day on home crew duty. She packed lunches for the other crews and baked a cake for another student’s birthday.
“I’m a baker. I love to bake,” Vaquero said. “It’s a way of loving people.”
Vaquero still thinks about a quote — often attributed to Dorothy Day — that Bethlehem Farm house manager Molly Sutter lettered above the kitchen cabinets: “Everyone wants a revolution, but no one wants to do the dishes.”
“I think it talks about their simple way of lifestyle,” Vaquero said. “They might get criticism of how much of an impact they’re having — ‘What difference does it make?’ But it’s in the small things.”
That focus on “small things” comes through in Bethlehem Farm’s emphasis on prayer, which begins each day for the group.
“It wasn’t 30 hours of prayer. It was two minutes. And then it changed your perspective on the work you’re doing,” Vaquero said.
“We were on God’s time — that’s what they would tell us,” Dunne said. “We would start prayer while it was dark, and by the end of prayer, it was light. You could really feel time passing.”
The group prayed again before breakfast. They prayed before leaving the farm to head out to work sites and again when they arrived at the work sites. They prayed before lunch, before dinner and before bed.
For junior Van Kirk, the emphasis on prayer helped him stay focused on the reason they were there.
“It made our work feel like it wasn’t just work. It felt like it was very purposeful,” he said.
The farm has another way of fostering connection among volunteers — by asking them to fast from technology during their stay. Cell service isn’t great on the property anyway, but the students said they initially found the lack of screens a little difficult.
“I remember, at the beginning of the week, every time I would stand up from a couch I would pat myself and check if I had my phone,” Vaquero said.
But as the week went on, she noticed that the lack of phones changed how she and her peers interacted.
“It forced us to be with one another,” she said. “I’ve realized after the trip, in group settings where there’s nothing to do, people look at their phones and scroll mindlessly. But [at the farm] there was no moment of silence unless it was prayer time. Someone would find something to talk about.”
What “small things” matter in your organization?
Since returning to campus, Dunne has been thinking about how limiting screen time can make him more present with those around him — the way the people at Bethlehem Farm are, he said.
“They’re teaching us what it feels like to be part of a community,” Dunne said. “I could re-create that in my life.”
Gathered in a circle
Every Tuesday night, Bethlehem Farm hosts a community dinner. It’s open to anyone who wants to attend, but caretakers have a list of people they call each week to invite: neighbors they’ve helped in the past, members of the church they attend, other people from the community.
On the week that the Notre Dame students were there, about 40 people showed up. They filled every seat at the multiple dining tables, leaving a few guests to take a seat on couches and coffee tables.
The home crew worked on dinner all day, preparing sausage lasagna, butternut squash, garlic knots, gluten-free cheese rolls, Brussels sprouts, salad greens. One of the guests brought a Little Caesars Hot-N-Ready pizza, which the kids in attendance quickly devoured.
Would you consider fasting from cellphone use as a spiritual practice? What might be the obstacles and benefits?
But before dinner was served, everyone gathered in a circle in the center of the room. One by one, they introduced themselves and talked about their connection with the farm.
Among those in the circle were Catherine Wheeler and her mother, Bobbie. They had been introduced to the farm through its home repair program — crews had fixed the gutters, porch steps and shower at Bobbie’s house. She now comes to the dinners almost every week and enjoys the opportunity to socialize with people from her community. Bobbie suffers from COPD and Alzheimer’s disease, and Wheeler, as her mother’s full-time caretaker, doesn’t get many opportunities to interact with other people. She said Bobbie enjoys the meals too.
“I can mention we’re going to dinner at the farm, and she’s ready to go,” Wheeler said.
Near the end of the circle stood Maury Johnson of Summers County Residents Against the Pipeline — SCRAP, for short. He was making his first visit to the community dinner, but SCRAP has been working with Bethlehem Farm for months to protest the Mountain Valley Pipeline project. The natural gas pipeline, which will span more than 300 miles from northwestern West Virginia to southern Virginia, doesn’t directly affect Bethlehem Farm but will run through neighboring properties. And the project’s largest stream crossing is just down the road.
“Bethlehem Farm has been protectors of this river for a long time,” Johnson said. “They’re not boastful. They don’t say, ‘Look at me.’ They just do it.
“The world needs more Bethlehem Farm,” he said.
Around the circle, heads nodded in agreement. Then all present bowed their heads and prayed.
Questions to consider
- In what ways could you offer “surprising hospitality” to your neighbors? What gesture fits the culture of your organization?
- What would simplicity — or a more simple life — look like in your context?
- Bethlehem Farm takes a specific approach to living out the Gospels. What other actions could you or your organization take to “live creatively”?
- Are there nonmonetary ways for you to assess your community’s poverty and wealth? Your organization’s?
- What “small things” matter in your organization?
- Would you consider fasting from cellphone use as a spiritual practice? What might be the obstacles and benefits of such a practice?
As a sociologist, Jennifer M. McClure Haraway knows that relationships are good for people — many studies show this. In her new book, she makes a related argument: that relationships are good for congregations.
“Congregations need that kind of support just as much as we as humans do, because congregations are living organizations,” she said.
In her new book, “No Congregation Is an Island: How Faith Communities Navigate Opportunities and Challenges Together,” McClure Haraway identifies the types of relationships between congregations and the ways in which those relationships can benefit them. She also offers advice on developing congregational connections.
McClure Haraway, an associate professor of religion and sociology at Samford University, studied congregations in an eight-county area of central Alabama that included the cities of Birmingham and Tuscaloosa. She collected data through a survey of 438 (mostly Christian) congregations and conducted interviews with 50 ministers and leaders from 19 denominations and traditions. She explored the ways that relationships helped congregations and asked leaders to share stories about those relationships.
She talked about the findings of her research and shared her advice for pastors and churches seeking to establish and maintain congregational relationships with Faith & Leadership’s Sally Hicks. The following is an edited transcript.
Faith & Leadership: Why is it important for congregations to have relationships with other congregations?
Jennifer M. McClure Haraway: When we as humans are going through a difficult time or we have an exciting opportunity, it’s helpful to reach out to others for moral support, for advice, for practical help. And I think that applies to congregations as well.
F&L: What kinds of support can congregations offer each other?
JMMH: In the book, I talk about three main types. The first one is emotional support. And that’s, “I care about you. I love you. I’m here for you. I’m happy to listen; I’ll let you vent.” Of the three kinds of support, that is the most important kind — to help us know that someone’s there for us, that someone’s rooting for us.
The second kind is informational support. Sometimes we need more than just emotional support; we need practical advice or information or resources on how to do something that we need to do.
The third kind is instrumental support, and that’s where we help someone do something. In the U.S., many congregations are small — under 100 people on a given weekend — and many congregations do not have the resources to do all the things in ministry that they would like to do. It can be very helpful for congregations to collaborate and pool resources.
F&L: What would be your, let’s say, three top pieces of advice for clergy or congregations who realize they could use more connection in their communities?
JMMH: The first thing is to do what you can. Many ministers and congregational leaders have too much to do and not enough time to do it. I don’t want this book to become one more thing that they don’t have time to do. If all a congregation can do is the very most convenient and easy-to-develop idea, that’s better than nothing. The first thing is to do what you can.
The second thing is to nurture close relationships. It’s very important to have close relationships where there’s a lot of trust and where there’s a lot of interaction, frequent interaction, and there’s mutual support. So I’m going to be there for you and you’re going to be there for me, no matter what.
We really need those kinds of relationships. And those kinds of relationships can weaken if they’re neglected. They’re very important to invest in.
But my third piece of advice is not to forget about acquaintanceships. They may not seem as meaningful; they may not give us the same rich support as friendships. But because they can typically give us access to a wider range of information and ideas and resources and opportunities to collaborate, it’s important to keep them in mind.
F&L: You did your research in central Alabama. Are your findings particular to that context, or do you think they can be more broadly applicable?
JMMH: I think they can be more broadly applicable. There are thousands of research articles on social support and on those three kinds of social support, which happen across numerous settings. It’s not just something that happens among individuals in central Alabama. It’s not just something that happens among congregations in central Alabama. It happens everywhere in lots of different kinds of relationships.
The other reason I think it’s more broadly applicable is the other main concept that informs the book — “homophily”— which can be described in the phrase “birds of a feather flock together.”
We tend to prefer relationships with people who are similar to us in at least some way. In the book, I look at relationships within the same religious group, those that bridge across religious groups, those within the same racial group, and those that bridge across racial groups.
Homophily is also something that shows up in numerous studies in lots of different settings — friendships, marriages, work relationships, choosing what congregation to attend, which colleagues you become friends with at work. It shows up in so, so, so many settings. It’s something that is widely seen around the world as well.
F&L: You’ve studied all kinds of relationships. Do you find one type to be better than the others, or are they all pertinent in different ways?
JMMH: I think they’re pertinent in different ways, and they have different benefits and drawbacks. So when we think about relationships with congregations that are similar to us, those are the most convenient to develop. It’s sort of like the low-hanging fruit. If they have to go to denominational meetings anyway, then it’s a really easy way to build relationships with other ministers at other congregations. And so they’re very convenient, and they tend to be more trusting.
When there’s a shared theology and a shared approach to doing ministry and a shared governance structure, that trust makes it easier to share ideas and resources and to trust the ideas and resources that we get. It makes it much easier to collaborate. It’s much more convenient, because that trust is already there.
But one of the downsides is that you don’t get as wide a range of information. If you’re swimming in the same pool or breathing the same air, you may not get as wide a range of information.
So there’s a pastor of a megachurch, who’s part of a large church planting network, who talked about how when he goes to those network meetings, he absolutely loves all the information that he gets. And it’s all very pertinent to his church. But he also would love to sit down with his mom’s Methodist pastor, because he would get more ideas and resources there that he wouldn’t get through the network that he’s part of.
I think it applies to race as well, because there are barriers that hinder relationships between racial groups. A preference to build relationships within one’s denomination is sometimes by default a preference to build relationships within one’s racial group, because so many denominations are mostly racially homogeneous.
Or a preference to build relationships with other local nearby congregations is often by default a preference to build relationships with racially similar congregations, because of racial segregation. And then there are theological differences or political differences that can become barriers as well.
In my study, I found that most congregations by default are building relationships within their own racial groups, because they’re much more convenient. But there are benefits to bridging to different organizations.
Now, I would say the big downside of those relationships is that they’re not as close. I had a Muslim leader who said, “Well, we’re happy to work with other congregations toward social justice and making the community better, but when there’s a difference on a moral view, we’ll just go our own way.”
So they tend not to be as close, but congregations [willing to bridge] typically get a wider range of information and resources and a wider range of opportunities to collaborate.
Congregations that want to serve in the community who bridge across different religious groups or across different racial groups often hear about more opportunities. Our social circles where everyone knows each other and is really tightknit tend to be people like us.
When we have acquaintances, our acquaintances are less likely to be like us, and they’re more likely to be in other social groups. But those acquaintances can help us get a wider access to things.
F&L: So the advantage of people near you is that the relationship may be closer, but it may not offer you as much exposure to new things as a relationship across difference, which may be less close but offer you more in terms of new ideas or information or resources.
F&L: So when you describe relationships, are you mostly talking about relationships between clergy?
JMMH: I look at four different kinds of relationships, and they’re not the only kinds of relationships that can exist between congregations. I look at friendships between the ministers, joint events between the congregations, ministers being involved in ministerial associations or clergy peer groups together, and then pulpit exchanges, where a minister is preaching or teaching or speaking at another’s congregation.
Even if the tie between some congregations is a friendship between their ministers, it still has a bigger impact than just those individuals. One minister might be able to share something — say, a resource that some lay leaders put together on faith formation for youth — with a minister at another congregation, who then shares that with their church’s youth ministry.
And there’s research that shows that for clergy who are involved in a ministerial association or clergy peer group, their well-being tends to be better, and they tend to get helpful resources in that group that they can then share to lead and minister more effectively in their congregations.
One of the examples I give in the book is two ministers talking, and one says, “Hey, this is really hard. I want to quit.” And the other one says, “Me too. Let’s go get lunch.” And then at the end of the day, neither of them quits. It’s good for both of their congregations that they were there to support each other.
F&L: You mentioned cross-racial relationships. How common were they in the congregations you studied?
JMMH: Only 30% [of the relationships] were between congregations with different racial compositions. And half of the congregations did not have any relationships with a congregation that had a different racial composition.
I think there are important benefits of bridging across racial groups, especially (and this is not unique to central Alabama) in a setting where there is a long legacy of racial injustice and where there’s still significant inequality and segregation by race. And so I think they’re important for helping to heal those divides.
But the difficult thing is that if a congregation doesn’t go about building them carefully, they can undermine what they’re trying to support. It can be easy for predominantly white congregations to unintentionally undermine congregations of color by assuming that [a white congregation] needs to come in and have all the answers and fix things. Or by not understanding the histories and dynamics that have gotten things to where they are and not working in mutually reciprocal ways with congregations of color.
That’s the chapter of the book where I give the most nuanced advice on how to build those relationships, because when they’re not built well, they don’t help to bridge the divides. They can make them worse.
F&L: In your experience, is it primarily white congregations reaching out to congregations of color, or does it go the other way as well?
JMMH: I didn’t have a way to quantify that, but in my interviews for the book, I was seeing it going from both directions. And there was often some kind of mediating organization, like a nonprofit a predominantly white congregation would work with that had connections to predominantly Black congregations. Or a racial reconciliation program that would bring together congregations and match congregations with different racial compositions to worship together and have meals together and serve together and have events together.
But there were also just ministers who did a good job reaching out across those divides and being bridges across those divides, though some of them faced pushback for doing so.
F&L: When you look at the research, what do you think is the most important finding?
JMMH: The most important thing that I want people reading the book to take away is that they’re not alone. And that regardless of what opportunities or challenges they’re experiencing or what support they do or do not have in their local context or in their religious group, I want them to know that that support is out there and give them practical ways to build relationships to access that.
If all a congregation can do is the very most convenient and easy-to-develop idea, that’s better than nothing. The first thing is to do what you can.
Years ago, Ken faced a struggle in the downtown church where he was serving as a young associate pastor. On a return visit to Duke Divinity School, he described the dilemma to Robert Wilson, an approachable and curious member of the faculty.
Wilson listened, paused and then began to talk about a book he had co-written in 1974 called “What’s Ahead for Old First Church.” It draws on a three-year study of more than 300 downtown congregations in more than 100 cities.
“You know, that book has sold and sold and sold!” he said with a smile.
The question at the heart of the book, published almost 50 years ago, remains: What is the future for “First Churches” — those anchor institutions in our cities? Ken returned to the book amid the pandemic and was struck by how much in it still resonates today.
How do you know whether your congregation is a First Church? (Keep in mind that a First Church might be called Central or Trinity or be named for one of the saints.)
These institutions are often described with three words: quality, prestige and leadership. The book notes several signs of an Old First Church:
- Is an easily recognized urban landmark.
- Is a symbol of its denomination.
- Is a symbol of the role that religion plays in a city.
- Is instrumental in giving birth to new churches.
- Is known for excellence in worship and music.
- Counts among its membership persons of affluence.
There are also some less research-based signs: Does your church have a wall dedicated to 8-by-10 photos of pastors past? Do you have a ceramics room, complete with kiln and ceramic figurines? Do you find yourself talking about a nostalgic past, when the congregation carried more influence? If so, you might be a First Church.
For those of us who regard the downtown big-steeple church of 50 years ago as the height of the mainline, it’s important to note that the book also points to these traits of an Old First Church:
- Is in decline.
- Is surrounded by change.
- Has deferred maintenance.
- Has more money than people (although that may be in question).
- Has leadership in denial about the trends.
- Yearns for a pastor who can recapture the glory of former times.
Wilson and his co-author, Ezra Earl Jones, are clear about the problem: “A large number of Old First Churches are rapidly approaching a crisis point.” We were surprised to see this — 50 years ago, these churches were in crisis?
This runs against the grain of a common narrative, which sees a generation ago as the era of glory and success. Many of the artifacts displayed in First Churches reinforce such a perception; they hold up the past by honoring an influential pastor or lay leader, a very large Sunday School class or youth group, and evidence of their former position of prominence in the community.
We can only imagine that the book sold so much because it identifies the paralyzing tension that many First Churches find themselves facing — then and now. They must honor and maintain the church of the past for longtime members while also creating a new church with new people to continue the gospel message of Jesus.
So what’s next for Old First Church? We would suggest that First Churches practice a more truthful remembrance of the past in order to move more faithfully into the future. This process includes observation, interpretation and intervention. The authors of “What’s Ahead for Old First Church” engaged in this kind of exercise, and our own congregations merit the same intentional process.
First Churches often have long histories and complex narratives. At the same time, they might have a propensity to oversimplify what is going on — whether within their buildings, among their people or in their surroundings.
A more nuanced observation helps us understand the multilayered context in which these churches are located. Cities are contested spaces; denominations are themselves a changing landscape; workforces are departing from commercial centers and in different ways returning to them; and the nature of work, gathering and spirituality are being revised by digital access and experience.
Observation leads to interpretation. A deep practice of interpretation involves multiple conversation partners — often drawn from fields as diverse as urban planning, economic development and community organizing.
Ken often asks leaders of these churches, “Whom are you learning from?” A church in Miami can learn from a church in San Antonio, and the same church in Miami can facilitate learning with a church in Los Angeles.
After that groundwork, intervention is crucial. The absence of an intervention can be a kind of work avoidance or even a failure of nerve.
First UMC in Miami is one example of a church that was willing to live through a necessary change. Audrey led a multiyear reinvention of the church and has lived the book’s question.
What resulted flowed from the iterative process of observation (what was going on within and around First UMC Miami), interpretation (what was needed in the next generations among the dynamic mission field surrounding the church), and intervention (the destruction of what had been, the migration of worship to a new setting for over three years, and the design and creation of a new structure with expanded purposes and partnerships).
First UMC Miami wrestled with the question, “What’s ahead?” and came up with an answer. Other First Churches need to do the same for themselves. The answer to the question is unique to each geographical context, each collection of leaders and each congregational history.
What’s ahead for Old First Church? Our conversations with lay and clergy leaders convince us that this remains a crucial question. Yet we believe in those institutions. They can thrive — if they have the courage to embrace and honor the past while building a pathway toward the future that God dreams about for vital churches in living communities.
So what’s next for Old First Church? We would suggest that First Churches practice a more truthful remembrance of the past in order to move more faithfully into the future. This process includes observation, interpretation and intervention.
For decades, vacation Bible school has been among the most effective church tools for reinforcing biblical lessons among youth and engaging in community outreach and evangelism. But over the past few years of extraordinary challenges, as some churches have stopped offering VBS altogether, others have begun exploring new ways to deliver the content.
The traditional VBS model for educating youth, typically during the summers, was founded on a concept that dates back at least to 1898. But VBS may be undergoing significant changes that were accelerated by the pandemic, according to a multifaceted five-year study, Exploring the Pandemic Impact on Congregations: Innovation Amidst and Beyond COVID-19 (EPIC).
As recently as 2019, 36% of churches offered VBS and/or church day camps during the summer, according to EPIC findings. By 2020, that number had dropped to 17% of congregations. Although the number of churches offering VBS climbed back to 36% in 2021, that level of participation did not appear to be sustainable. Only 31% of the 615 church respondents said they planned to offer VBS in 2022, the last year for which the EPIC study had available numbers.
These trends with VBS seem to be directly tied to declining rates of volunteerism in churches. As of March 2022, about 20% of church members overall were volunteering — down from 40% in early 2020, the EPIC report revealed.
And 57% of churches in the 2022 survey reported volunteer challenges in their education programs during the previous two years. Since volunteers are primarily responsible for children’s education in nearly 60% of churches, those programs, including VBS, have been significantly affected.
“Traditional models of Vacation Bible School and Sunday School may no longer be feasible in many congregations either because of the lack of volunteers or the lack of participants,” the study’s April 2022 report on religious education said.
Interested in more research relevant to Christian leaders?
Exploring new ways of hosting VBS
Many church leaders currently are grappling with how to continue offering VBS programs that can accommodate limitations like declining volunteerism, according to Melita Thomas, team leader of training and events at Lifeway Christian Resources. Each year, Lifeway supports VBS training for more than 60,000 participants across the country.
“People are getting creative about how VBS looks. They’re breathing fresh life into it by doing it in nontraditional ways and in nontraditional settings,” Thomas said. “The pandemic helped, because it broke the mold of VBS for a certain number of hours of the day during a specific number of days in a week at the church. And the idea that you need to have crafts, music and recreational activities went out the door with COVID.”
However, the process of switching to new formats isn’t always easy.
Thomas said many church leaders have expressed reluctance about moving away from the more traditional model of VBS, in which churches host daylong activities as part of a summer camp experience.
“VBS doesn’t have to be what it used to be,” Thomas said. “Leaders must be realistic about what they can offer. VBS can consist of what you’re able to do now. That means you may not be able to do it in the same way as before, but it’s still worth doing.”
Church educational programs like VBS, no matter the format, can provide critical support for youth — especially during challenging times like those caused by the pandemic, Thomas said.
“We’re seeing epidemic levels of anxiety, disconnectedness and loneliness among a generation that’s more connected to technology than ever before,” she said. “VBS becomes a very practical solution to that. Children can unplug from their devices and plug in with caring adults who build relationships with them and show them Christ in all they do.”
Equipping your VBS team for success
Church education leaders preparing to move forward in these new times with a successful VBS model must look at three essential areas — adjusting capacity, instilling a sense of mission and equipping the VBS team through training, Thomas said.
Leaders can start by determining the bare minimum of what they can offer. For instance, if a church has three to six key volunteers, they can assess the team’s overall strengths. It might be that one person can supervise crafts but no one has volunteered to lead music. If that’s the case, the program can be built to focus on crafts and lessons but eliminate music as a component, Thomas said.
“Church leaders need to acknowledge their restrictions, limitations and budgets, and take into account what works best for the children they serve,” she said, noting that they can use VBS resources to craft their own programs.
For example, church leaders have experimented with short VBS sessions in the evenings, after more volunteers are available to support the program, Thomas said.
Second, it is important to instill a sense of mission for everyone participating in VBS, whether it is passing out snacks or overseeing activities. “It shouldn’t be this thing that we feel obligated to do because we’ve always done it,” she said. “It’s important that people grasp the ‘why’ behind VBS. And it needs to be communicated in a way that it becomes a revolutionary force in the church.
“So even if you’re the snack lady, you should have a sense that your purpose is to reflect the light of Christ, watch for gospel opportunities and build relationships with the children,” she said. “They need to see that what they’re doing is much bigger than the task they were assigned.”
With that sense of purpose, volunteers are more inclined to participate, Thomas said.
Last, training and support provided on the front end — before VBS starts — increases the likelihood of VBS teams being successful and being willing to return for future programs.
Thomas also encourages church leaders to be mentally prepared to make shifts with different types of educational church programs.
“It may be hard to let go of what you did in the past,” she said. “There’s always a bit of grief adapting to the reality of what you’ve lost. But if you can turn your attention to what you can do and what it can be, embrace the success in that.”
Thomas said that these changes with VBS may be temporary. “It doesn’t mean that what we had pre-pandemic will never return again,” she said. “We just have to take a couple of steps back and rebuild based on what’s available to us.”