|When the traveling leadership team arrives to lead day camp in the Oregon-Idaho Conference, "Church rocks!"|
|COURTESY LISA JEAN HOEFNER|
On the Road: Fun and learning come to small churches
By Carrie Madren
Virginia Smith says she came to Christ at a vacation Bible school (VBS). After also directing VBS in Waco, Texas, the Baylor University student knew she felt so strongly about the program that she wanted to continue to help.
"Some of my best childhood memories are of VBS — being loved on by the (usually) elderly women in the church, and the sense of family that you get at VBS," Smith remembers.
Serendipitously, the Texas native discovered the traveling VBS program of the Kansas West Conference's Center for Small-Membership Churches. Being part of the 2011 team "was one of those God moments," Smith says. "It was really a life-changing experience for me."
Now in its third year, the program helps small-membership churches offer Bible school.
"One of the things that I continued to hear as I was traveling to small churches was ‘We just don't have enough leaders to help with vacation Bible school,'" says the Rev. Carl Ellis, who directs the center from an office at Kansas Wesleyan University in Salina, Kan. It is a prime location for recruiting young adults for the team.
Like a traveling circus, four college students take VBS on the road, stopping at small churches in central and western Kansas to run weeklong Bible schools.
Team, church partnership
The students lead opening exercises, singing, recreation, crafts, story time and other activities. The churches take care of registration, enrollment and meals; church youth serve as junior leaders. The college students stay with local families, often spending evenings at local ballgames or the pool, getting to know the community.
|Rudo Dozva (left), a Kansas Wesleyan University student from Zimbabwe, and Bram Stigers (right), student from Arkansas City, Kan., help mascot Ocho make a call home while enroute to one of their vacation Bible school sites.|
|COURTESY CARL ELLIS|
The first team led 11 Bible schools in seven weeks, an exhausting endeavor. This year, they ran six Bible schools in five weeks — including one week with morning and afternoon programs at different churches.
The students set an example for the children. "When you have a 21-year-old male football player leading, the 4th and 5th grade boys decide they can sing and dance, too, because they see somebody cool doing it," Ellis says.
2012 is the second year the team helped Sara Dawson at Florence (Kan.) United Methodist Church offer VBS. Dawson runs the church's after-school program on her own. "It was a blessing," she says. "It took a lot of pressure off of me because, being in a small community, I don't really have a lot of other people that have the time to volunteer. For me to work with the kids year-round and then do VBS for a week, it takes a lot of energy." An older couple fixed the noon meal, Ellis said.
Coldwater (Kan.) United Methodist Church hadn't held VBS in five years when the traveling team came to town in 2011. That week, they averaged 40 children each day. This year they're doing VBS on their own.
Serving on the team also changes the students' lives.
Sensing God's call
Smith plans to work in children's ministry or serve churches in another way after she graduates in December. She has also developed a free national VBS curriculum exchange ministry called VBS 24/7 to help churches that can't afford to buy materials.
Another former team member, Cody Haviland, plans to enter ordained ministry and is serving as an assistant pastor in Kansas before starting seminary.
A Kansas Wesleyan student from Zimbabwe is majoring in pre-pharmaceutical sciences but sensing a call to ordained ministry, reports Ellis.
Each team member receives $1,000 plus room and board and three hours of college credit. The center raises the money during the year. Churches pay $200 toward the team's travel expenses and $200 for supplies and provide food.
A similar traveling team sent out by the Oregon-Idaho Conference's camping ministry sends four young and middle-aged adults to churches to run weeklong day camps and help re-energize children's ministries. Since the program started 10 years ago, seeds have been planted at 30 locations and nurtured by 47 congregations with some working together.
"Of those, all but four continued to do some kind of children's ministry after the fact,"reports the Rev. Lisa Jean Hoefner, executive director of the conference's camp and retreat ministries. She prioritizes requests from churches yearning for a children's ministry.
Helping overcome obstacles
"Maybe they haven't been doing VBS or don't have Sunday school anymore," she says, because of a lack of young churchgoers. "In some cases, it took a year or two to even convince church leaders that that they could have a children's ministry."
|Children from Emmanuel United Methodist Church in Bird City, Kan. gather with the team at the end of this year's "Operation Overboard" Vacation Bible School.
|COURTESY CARL ELLIS
Hoefner's team may suggest that churches partner with a scout troop that already meets in the church. Sometimes churches intimidated by a perceived language barrier are encouraged to learn that most school-age children speak English and that the addition of a bilingual staff member can help the church connect with non-English-speaking families.
The host churches provide one adult volunteer for every six to eight kids in day camp, Minimum participation is 12 children. The camps average 20 to 40 kids, and the largest had 120. Activities include nature discovery, recreation and crafts and incorporate local flavor through berry-picking, swimming or a demonstration visit from the local fire department.
Though the churches served are often small, these experiences can reach individuals in a big way. Smith says, "For some kids or families, it may be their first experience or only encounter with a church."
Carrie Madren is a freelance writer based in Great Falls, Va.