Friday, August 24, 2012

Ten Tools for Back to (Sunday) School

The past several weeks have been a time of fevered preparation at church. Almost everything you see pictured to the right has come together in the past three days to be ready when we kick off our Sunday school year as a congregation.
When they are complete, these lovely blue folders will contain a variety of helpful and necessary resources to enable parents and children to have the very best year of religious education and participation in the life of our community. As I was stuffing them yesterday afternoon I realized that almost everything in them is connected to a priority I have identified in my writing over the past year. So I thought I would share briefly how each of these ten items will help to equip and resource our parents over these next nine months of Sunday school.

1. Curriculum Parent Pages
For each unit of our curriculum year we provide an information sheet that equips parents to reinforce the stories and themes that their children are learning about in Sunday school. Traditionally these pages have included cute family activities like crafts and cooking projects. While these are lovely things, our new Parent Pages have gotten a little more intense and intentional.
For any given unit, parents will learn what their children will learn - the basic themes and concepts of each unit. But then we have kicked it up a notch. For each unit they are also given conversation-starters and talking points for some of the more difficult and controversial parts of the Bible lessons, parts that children often want to ask about - slavery, multiple wives, genocide, infanticide, plagues, circumcision and even child sacrifice.
I am a firm believer that parents can learn not to be caught off guard by their children’s questions on the Bible, if they themselves have considered some of these touchier subjects on their own, without the wide eyes of their children begging for answers.
2. Our Church’s Sunday School Discipline Policy
Church can be a place where children “experiment” with different types of behavior. Hopefully it is also a place where we extend a little more grace than the rest of the world is willing to. Church is also a place where parents are teaching and caring for each other’s children every time they volunteer. We have found that a very clear and firm discipline policy, one that strives to set out clear expectations for both children and adults and create open lines of communication, is the best way for parents, volunteers and staff to all stay friends” in this community.
3. Prayer Partners Program
In our efforts to help children form relationships with adults in our church community, we have started a Prayer Partners program that will intentionally match children and willing adults to hold each other in prayer, to check in on one another, and to bridge the generation gaps between their parents and some of the older members of our congregation. So much ofwhat we do as a congregation is separated by age. This is a step towardreversing that culture.
4. What Every Presbyterian Should Know About Communion
Each fall on World Communion Sunday (October 7th) our congregation includes children in our celebration of the Sacrament of Communion. For some of our families this will be the first time children andparents celebrate communion together. This resource, which we purchase every year, helps parents to answer their children’s questions about the Sacrament (and sometimes some of their own questions as well). So many of our parents were raised in churches outside of our Presbyterian tradition; we like to find ways to help them understand the new traditions in which they are raising their own children.
5. Goals for the year that we have set for each class of children
We have started yet another new program this year that hopefully helps parents identify some of the things that are important for children to learn as they grow into their faith. Over several generations Sunday school has moved farther and farther away from a model of rote memorization. And yet, when we struggle with the basics that we seem to haveforgotten to teach our children, there was a value in that kind of education that we failed to recognize.
In this new program we are challenging different age-groups to reclaim some of these traditions by setting goals to memorize the books of the Bible, the names of the 12 disciples, the Apostles’ Creed, and even the 10 plagues of the Exodus, just for fun. The beauty of this program is that it is not necessarily something for children to work on during the 40 minutes they are in Sunday School each week, but rather all the rest of the week when they are with their parents.
6. Fall Reading Challenge
One of the units that our children will study this year is the story of the Exodus (see the 10 plague memorization above), and so we have put together a simple 12 week plan for families to read the entire book of Exodus together just by reading for about 20 minutes once a week. Many of the stories that we teach in Sunday school are really smaller stories in the midst of grand epics. Exodus is a great place to start to teach children about the beauty of the biblical narrative and how powerful these ancient stories can be in their grand scope and high drama.
7. Advent and Christmas Planning Information
One of the best things that church can do is put a halt to the intensity of the Christmas season. By thinking a few months ahead about how their family will celebrate Advent and Christmas, both as a family and as part of a church community, parents can have a little more hope of bringing home some of the more important themes of the Christmas season - peace, generosity, hospitality, and hope.
8. Mission Opportunities for Families
Children learn by doing. No matter how many times we tell them to help others and to be kind, if we never seek out opportunities to act out our faith together with them they will have a hard time making the real world connections to being a person of faith. This year we will be encouraging families to give back to the community, including donating a “food of the month” to our church’s food pantry (or cash donations for older children, who will learn about what it means to buy food from the local Food Bank); signing up to walk in the CROP Walk, a longstanding hunger walk sponsored around the country by Church World Service; and even a reminder to save gently used clothes for our Christmas charity event when we gather with the other local Presbyterian churches to help around 40 families have a joyful Christmas each year.
9. The Fall at a Glance
This handy refrigerator-ready calendar can be hung right next to the school calendar and the soccer schedule, to encourage families to schedule their time around what is happening at church for children and families just as carefully as they schedule around school events and sports practice.
10. A Family Covenant Form

Finally, one of the most important items in our packet: a covenant form that we ask parents to fill out each year for their family. This is more than just a great way to make sure we have up-to-date contact information (especially cell phone numbers and e-mail); it also gives parents an opportunity to commit themselves to being an active participant in their child’s religious education for the upcoming year.
This is the only piece of paper in the entire folder that they return to us. Everything else is a tool that they can use to teach their children, experience the Bible with their children, and invest more of their time and talents into participating in the community of faith together as a family.
I can’t wait to pass them out on Sunday!

What resources have you found as parents and educators to help equip yourselves at the start of this new school year?


  1. Thank you Rebecca! Very helpful as we gear up for the next program year. Would you be willing to share your family covenant form?

    1. Sure! Actually it is a pretty basic form that has spots for all of the pertinent contact information that we need as a congregation...and a space for folks to volunteer to help. But then we have also added this language to help parents understand their comitment to their children:

      As a family we promise to do all that we can to help our children get the most out of their participation in Sunnyside’s children’s programs and to do all that we can to keep them safe while they are at the church. This includes committing to stay in the church building during all Sunday morning children’s programs and giving appropriate contact information to volunteers or staff for other special events.

      The line about staying in the building is somewhat unique to the culture of our congregation...fodder for a later blog post probably.

  2. Thank you for this amazing resource! I am deep in Registration Sunday planning in my first year as a DCE. I had thought about many of these things, but hadn't clearly attached them to priorities of our program. You have a gift for communicating things clearly. This has become my registration Sunday checklist. Keep up the great blog!