Monday, June 21, 2010

Hardcore ministerial challenge -- VACATION BIBLE SCHOOL

When you think of "ministerial challenges", you're probably thinking of things like prison, L'Arche, Africa. No, I'm here to introduce you to a ministerial challenge closer to home: Vacation Bible School (otherwise known as "VBS").

Sure you might think it's really fun and easy to shepherd kids around for half a day and help them do some crafts and learn a little lesson. If you think so, then you are clearly not an overeducated introvert.

The biggest problem is: the kids do nothing but play. Just about all day. There is way too much fun at this VBS program. We've got a green theme, so they plant some seeds. Then they are done and play on the playground. Then we hear a Bible story and it was fun; they got to act it out. And then we did have a slight boring bit where one of the craft leader people talked a bit much. But they got to do a craft involving yarn, glue, and little stickers. Then we did a craft where they cut out pieces of paper and glued them on a folder. They finished early and played "Simon Says". Then we had game time. Not that there weren't games before, but this was official game time. Outside. Where they ran around like crazy monkeys. Then we had a snack. Then there was another craft where they made cards. Those who were done early played a game.

Now, don't get me wrong; I like to play. In fact, I've got an autistic kid in my group and he's sort of a bad influence. The last room we were in had a Lego table and he got distracted from the craft (which was too bad, because in my opinion it was the best craft of the day). I knew that I should be redirecting him, but partly I just really wanted to play with the Legos. They had some of the castle pieces in there and I have a deep and abiding weakness for the castle Legos. I mean, I did when I was a kid. I'm almost 30 so I'd never do something like staying up late and dragging out the Legos and building the Mountain fortress with the working drawbridge and glow in the dark ghost while watching Masterpiece Theatre tapes of Jane Eyre. I mean, I'm not a loser like that; I'm really cool. Ask anyone.

And I'm not such a crazy person who thinks kids shouldn't be kids. I know they need to run. I'd rather they ran around for about an hour before they got to VBS, actually. My problem is that the crafts barely relate at all to the Bible lesson. And they don't know the Bible lesson. The gluing things on a folder craft was to make a board game supposedly based on the parable of the sower (there are spaces like "fall on rocky ground; lose a turn" or "birds come; go back two spaces". And they were sort of mellow, so I was quizzing them about the Bible lesson. Here's how it went. These kids are 3rd to 5th grade, by the way.

Jen: "What's a parable?"
Kid: A story about Jesus.
Jen: Remember when we repeated that definition? [we did this three or four times at the bible lesson in unison]
Kid#2: Oh! oh! It's an earth story with a heavenly manner.
Jen: A heavenly what?
Kid #2: Manner.
Jen: I think it was "a heavenly meaning."

Or this:

Jen: So what happened to the seeds when the farmer scattered them?
Kid: They fell.
Jen: Where all did they fall?
Kid: On birds.
Jen: Um... OK. Where else?
Kid#2: Rocks, and weeds and mud.
Jen: OK, so that's the earthly part, right? What's it mean?
Kid #3: It's about Jesus.
Jen: [a leading question]... so Jesus is a bird?
Kid #3: no, Jesus and um... when we listen to him.
Jen: So, if the seed is God's word then what does it mean when the birds get it?
Kid #4: That's when we don't listen.
Jen: [very excited] YES!! And what's it mean if it falls on the rocks?
Kid #4: That's if we listen, but we don't... um....
Jen: Yeah, what do we have to do next?
Kid #4: Um....
Jen: Think about the seed; if it falls on the rocks, what happens? what can't it do in rocks that it needs to do to grow?

This is when they got distracted because they were starting to play "Simon Says". I'm hoping and trusting that since we have three more days and we already got the whole Bible story, that in Bible time we'll go over it. Mostly, it's saddening because I remember learning this parable in Sunday School when I was little. I will admit that I don't remember all the lessons from the VBS sessions I attended as a kid. What I remember most is the crafts. But our crafts were related to the material better.

The most memorable VBS I was at had the theme of the "fruits of the spirit". And so all the groups had a different fruit as our name tag. And the spiritual fruits were each represented by an actual fruit. Of course, there were only five days, so some fruits got short-changed. But I remember the fruits we did: love was a strawberry, joy was watermelon, peace was grapes, patience was a pineapple, self-control was a peach, and goodness was a banana. And I remember the craft that gave me religious neurosis -- we made a doorhanger with a felt glued slice of watermelon at the top. And on three paper plates hanging on a strip of felt down from that we had the letters "J", "O" and "Y". And that represented the order in which you are supposed to love -- Jesus, Others, Yourself. [Have I mentioned that I grew up in a conservative, fundamentalist, and moralistic tradition?] I remembered that so well that I had issues with self-care and saying "no" to people for at least twenty years.

I'm not saying we should warp the kids with tricky theological concepts. I'm not saying we should bring in an Origenist interpretation of the rain falling on soil and pharaoh's heart hardening and tackle questions of election and evangelism with respect to the parable of the sower. Yes, there's a part of me that REALLY wants to. But I'm older now and not so crazy. All I'm saying is that the "B" in VBS is there for a reason. And the "S". We need a bit more Bible, a bit more School, and a bit LESS Vacation.

So I'm thinking of a new theme for tomorrow -- SBS! -- SOVIET BIBLE SCHOOL! I will wear black leather boots and bring a riding crop. And they will learn some stuff about "discipleship". And there will be no game time, no snack time, no bathroom time until they have learned what the heck a parable is! And then we will do a "special Jen craft" where we make a picture of the sower and label the rocks with birds with things we do instead of listening. And we will label the rocks with things that make us lose interest and motivation, things that make us superficial. And we will label thorns with things of the world that we start caring about more than God. And then we will put labels in the soil on good things that support us to experience God's love and which help us to keep trusting, the instruments of grace. And OK, they can be things like flowers and sunshine, and the rigorous discipline of Soviet Bible School and their fearless whip-wielding leader... er... I seem to see a slight flaw in my brilliant plan here....

So I suppose that the real ministerial lesson here is for me: I've got some gifts and it would be nice if there were quieter crafts so I could review the lesson with the kids a bit, try to relate to them in smaller sub-groups of the main group, and try to help them internalize what they're learning and integrate the disparate parts of this program. BUT -- kids are kids. And whether or not they get the stated lesson, they're absorbing all the other information that we're all putting out there. They're learning something from me, whether it's what I intend to teach or not. Am I caring about them? Do I seem happy to be there? Happy to be talking about what we're doing? Am I willing to accept their attention span to some extent, their desire for diversion? Or am I pushing some sort of agenda of learning which says that they aren't OK unless they get the lesson to my satisfaction? Am I celebrating who they are, even if I have to do so without the leisure to get to know them individually? Am I noticing them, who's asking what sorts of questions, what their body language says?

I've always been "observant" -- which is a nice way of saying "critical". But I am finding lately that I notice things I think others are doing wrong and don't just say to myself, "Ha! Look how they did that wrong!" More and more recently I notice things others are doing and realize the extent to which I am inclined to do the same things and so I use my negative reaction to make me understand why I do NOT want to do that. Today, one of the craft leaders starting just talking and talking to set up the craft. And it was miserably boring. My ADD frustration threshold was reached and exceeded. When the autistic kid started interrupting and making smart aleck comments.... well, I sort of did, too. Now, that was wrong. However -- there were some problems here. She says, "I bet most of you were baptized when you were babies, weren't you?" And my autistic boy says, "I wasn't." And she gave him this glare, as if he were trying to make trouble. And I got a bit miffed, so I said, "I wasn't either."

After all, there's a missional component to VBS. A lot of people aren't in a church at all, let alone this church. Do they even know what baptism is? So suddenly you've said this one thing that makes a bunch of children feel like outsiders. And why? This is drawing on construction paper, for crying out loud, not the Eucharist!!! So now there are the "baptized kids" and the "unbaptized kids". And who are the kids you really need to reach and make feel loved and accepted, make them think church is a nice safe place? -- Right! Probably NOT the baptized kids who were baptized in this church and know who you're talking about when you refer to the pastors by their first names. And she went on to start talking about sponsors and god-parents. Let me just say, I had Catholic friends when I was little in Maryland and nothing makes you feel more left out than people talking about god-parents and god-siblings when you don't have any and have hardly any idea what that even means and wonder why you don't have extra adults that love you. Does it mean God likes you less? Or that your parents aren't quite so holy? Or what? Not really something to go into at VBS during the stinking craft session when they don't even know the Bible story properly.

So, I feel a little bit bad about getting feisty. I can just hope that she didn't notice I have grey hair and thinks that I'm one of the youth helpers. If she doesn't like me, then she can have a good time trying to find my parents to complain. I feel worse about being bored and failing to contain a couple yawns than about the baptism comment.

But I'm thinking that my bad reaction to all this is a warning about what could happen if I started to let my own talking and my own agenda become too important. And it's a definite tempation. It's easy to justify the impulse -- who would argue that the lesson isn't important? It's easy for me to say, "Oh, I'd know how to do it well." But I probably wouldn't. Because the second you start thinking about what you think needs to happen, you stop thinking about what others need and you stop being as open to seeing them as they are; rather, you begin to see students or other people in terms of how they are supporting or resisting your plan. Sometimes, it's a really bad idea to try to make people get with the program -- because, ultimately, your plan and program aren't the ones that matter. It's a good ministerial lesson. And, for people like me, it's an especially difficult one to learn and trust when you have kids running around knocking over the scenery, smearing glue on their hands, forgetting what a parable is, and playing with Legos during craft time.


  1. This post has me thinking....If I compare refreshment time with coffee hour, game time with all of those quirky (or downright annoying) congregational fellowship "opportunities", craft time with buildings and grounds projects and Bible story time as the liturgy, I start thinking of the ways in which adults never quite grow up, and the ways in which, as Christian ministers, we ourselves are formed by the context in which we serve. VBS isn't for the faint of heart...but then neither is parish ministry. I am, however thinking about making a case for the installation of several strategically placed Lego tables! Thanks for making me think about the gritty glory of ministry on the front lines -- whether in a committee meeting or around a craft table.

  2. Gary is not blogstalking you, by the way. I did send him a link to the post because I thought it was good. It IS good. Best of luck for Day 2.