New Life in the Summer: Summer Church School
By Nadine Eskoff
In June, as the public school year and the regularly scheduled church school program draw to a close, pastors and church leaders are rightfully concerned with the drop in church attendance and church interest in general. But why wait until the Fall rolls around to see any life or conscious growth in the parish? Put a real ring and enlightened zeal into your parish with a summer church school program. True, most people are looking forward to a little rest and relaxation, summer trips, summer camping; but as the summer goes on, there tends to develop an undercurrent of anxiety, a yearning for something to do, something that can capture that reserve energy and organize it into something positive.
A summer church school of one or two weeks duration is not really as overwhelming as one might think; five basic elements are necessary:
- love for children, church, and education
- hard work
- pooling of the many, often untapped, resources in the parish and in the community.
Summer church school affords a marvelous opportunity for the priest to work more closely with the children of the parish, unfortunately not always possible with hectic Sunday schedules.
The thoughts and ideas about summer church school in this article grow out of my experience in coordinating such programs over seven summers. The particular parish is located in the suburbs of a large metropolitan area on the East coast. The parish membership averages about 100 families with some 50 children enrolled in the Sunday church school program. The parish is not within walking distance for most people, nor is the church accessible by public transportation. Therefore in applying the following suggestions to your parish, keep this situation in mind and adjust accordingly.
To start, the church school director, or choir director, or parish council education coordinator, or interested parent, together with the priest should meet to figure out a basic theme and set the date for the summer program. In trying out various times to conduct a summer program, we found that middle or late August worked the best. Most people are back from vacation and camp, and the children are looking for some new excitement in their lives. Summer church school does not have to be as formal as regular school, and the program can include normal summertime activities, keeping the idea of the vacation joyous.
A basic theme should be decided upon early in the summer so that your program can be well publicized through the parish news, and mechanics, like car pools, can be arranged. Generally, the theme should be one not covered in great depth during the regular school year, due to lack of time. The following might be considered:
The Old Testament Prophets (Choose a different prophet for each day and coordinate all activities around him.)
Saints (Choose a different saint for each day. The American mints would bring the subject close to home.)
The Sacraments (Zero in on one and not more than two sacraments per day.)
The Theotokos (Discuss and elaborate on one of her major feasts per day.)
The Summer Feasts (Discuss the theme of one feast per day; if the timing works out, you may end the church school with the celebration of one of these feasts. )
Stewardship (Impress and plant the seeds of young stewards, and the harvest will glorify God in the future.)
Men and Women in the Church (Expand the vast potential of the work. Responsibility and joy of the laity in the church. Use the Resource Handbook as source material.)
Missions (What is a missionary? Who are today's missionaries in the Orthodox Church? How and where have Orthodox missions grown in America.
Church Growth (Discuss how the church grows; the necessary ingredients for meaningful church growth.)
Evangelization (Discuss the meaning of the term. Who is supposed to be the evangelizer? How?)
The above themes have been used in an intense one-week program, and could easily be expanded for a two-week program.
Generally the program calls for a similar schedule on four of the five days and then on the fifth day, there is a Liturgy followed by a field trip and picnic. We run a three-hour intense program in the morning. This does not put an undue burden on the staff and allows children a half day for play and the opportunity to run off excess energy. Don't let small (or low) attendance discourage you. Our first summer program was attended by 7 to 10 children. With the adjustment to a better time in the summer, the excitement created by the children themselves, and the addition of children from a neighboring Orthodox parish, we began to average as many as 35 children each day.
We added an adult education program to run concurrently with the children's program. (Many parents waited for their children. Some parents even took some of their vacation time specifically to attend this program.) Entire families became involved in an activity of summer educational growth in the church
Some activities may be planned for the group as a whole; others may be arranged for different age levels. Again this depends on the local situation. The following is a typical schedule:
- 9.00 Morning prayer and Gospel reading
Elaboration on the Gospel theme or the topic of the day.
Choir rehearsal for everyone.
- 9:45 Class time (Break into various groups, elaborating on the theme of the day.)
- 10:30 Snacks Filmstrip, videotape, movie or other audiovisual presentation.
- 1:00 Crafts (Coordinate with the topic of the day, and also a week-long project.)
Besides working on a week-long project, we encourage a daily item. This way, if a child must miss a day, he or she does not feel left out. This is a great time to make and design all those posters, murals, puppets, and banners or produce that play or skit that we seldom have time for during the year. If well planned, such activities can greatly enhance the content of the program.
- 11:30 Sports
This is usually done all together, though often the very young must have their own separate games.
Clergy may be particularly enthusiastic about a summer church school program. First of all, it gives the priest an opportunity for interaction with the children, allowing them to grow in their love and friendship for him through the activities and the closeness of the situation. With the flexibility of the schedule, the priest is able to prepare the children in more detail for the celebration of the Liturgy. In our program, on the day before the Liturgy the older children prepare the 'Prosphora' for the offering of the children. On the day itself, the 'Proskomedia' (the Liturgy of Preparation) is done outside the altar (as in the early church), with each child presenting his or her prosphora with the names of the loved ones to pray for during the Liturgy. The responses during the Liturgy are sung by the children, a role which they have been rehearsing all week.
Make use of the various materials and audiovisual aids, including this Resource Handbook, available from the various departments of the Orthodox Church in America Use the study papers from past All-American Councils. Dig out old copies of Young Life, Upbeat and OCEC manuals and church magazines.
Often available free of charge from some of the Protestant and Roman Catholic neighbors who are often encouraging and pleased to lend them. Their deaneries and diocesan centers may have lists and sources for these materials.
Draw on the talents of individuals in your parish or the surrounding area. Be aware special summer visitors may also enhance your program.
Program enhances summer parish life
At the end of the session a display of the children's materials can be placed in the Church hall or foyer; perhaps a short presentation can be made on the following day for the whole parish to enjoy.
The summer church school program provides a wonderful opportunity for church growth. Instead of a void or period of stagnation in the summer months, a new excitement is generated to enhance the regular liturgical life of the parish. This is an excellent chance to invite the children in the neighborhood to come and see. Encourage church school children to bring their friends. The children also inspire their parents to want to come and participate.
One can accomplish as much in a concentrated one-week program as in an entire school semester. Do not be concerned with the numbers of children who take part. Quality is important, not quantity. When setting up your program, keep in mind variety and an active program bring life to the topic and theme.
Undertake this glorious challenge, prayerfully with wisdom, guidance and preparation. In the end, you will be thoroughly exhausted and drained, but filled with a special joy, excitement and fulfillment that is second only to the joy, excitement and fulfillment experienced on Pascha night, the new day.
Nadine Eskoff is a member of the Executive Committee of the OCA Department of Lay ministries. She is a high school music teacher and presently attends St. Andrew's Parish. Hills. N.Y.
Taken from the OCA Resource Handbook for Lay Ministries