An Invitation to Dream With Us

A little more than a year ago, the Synod of the Northeast invited representatives from each of the seven presbyteries in New Jersey to a 24-hour conversation at a conference center in Princeton. Ruth Boling, Lynn Rubier-Capron, and I joined that gathering where the possibility was raised of aligning the presbytery boundaries in New Jersey according to mission.

From that first meeting, and a second day-long follow-up, each presbytery was again asked to identify one or two persons who would intentionally work on what would be called the Missional Structures Task Group. This group was formed in response to an Overture by the Presbytery of Monmouth asking the Synod to –

“…create a working group including representatives from the seven
geographic presbyteries of New Jersey to:

  1. Work with those presbyteries to ascertain their needs and goals,
  2. Examine the present boundaries and structures of those presbyteries,
  3. Consider the possibility of redrawing presbytery boundaries, and
  4. Make recommendations to the Synod.”

Doris Peterson and Laura Phillips have faithfully represented Newark Presbytery on that working group. The result of that working group is the “An Invitation to Dream With Us” document which not only gives the rationale for forming the group, but the group’s process, and an invitation to dream with them.

To that end, reflection questions have been created and listening sessions scheduled in each of the seven presbyteries. Newark’s listening session will be held during our November 10 presbytery meeting at the Presbyterian Church of Upper Montclair.

Let’s dream together!

-Barbara Smith

Focus on Leadership: Joys of Camp

Some of us take the beauty of nature for granted. We have forested backyards or go camping each spring when the weather turns warmer. We go skiing. We grew up spending a week at camp and in nature. It’s not that we don’t appreciate the natural beauty of the world, quite the opposite – we adore it. However, we can take for granted that it is available for us to go to enjoy any time we want.

Not everyone has the opportunity to grow up with trees in their backyard, clean parks with grass to run around in, or hiking trails in their vicinity. This is where camping ministry is so powerful. When we support church camps like our own Johnsonburg, we are able to provide an accessible ministry to both those who already have a love and comfort in nature and those for whom the natural world is an unexplored frontier. Many of us have a story of encountering God in new ways in nature. Simply having a change of scenery can be powerful in helping us let go of everyday worries and encounter the divine.

It is not just a love of nature and creation that we can promote, but many other benefits of church camp. When children and youth participate in camping and retreat ministries, it is one of their first tastes of real independence and autonomy. Yes, there are loving adults who watch out for our campers as cabin counselors, small group leaders, activity leaders, and program staff, but they also make space for children and youth to explore their independence. These adults make space for campers to share their own faith understandings and questions. Campers also have a chance to make some decisions for themselves – even if they are as simple as whether to make one’s bed or to do archery or canoeing at activity time.

Church camps encourage a unique kind of faith exploration. How often do we spend an entire week (or more) in an environment centered around Jesus Christ? We may not be talking about Jesus 24-7, but the ways in which adults and other campers model Christian love and life, and encourage us to do the same, are transformational when we are immersed in them.

At Presbyterian church camps, we find all this and a deep commitment to encouraging curiosity and asking hard questions about God and faith life. We spend time exploring them together, and don’t get scared by doubt or lack of experience with faith. We know that God does the saving, and it is our job to live out that salvation. We don’t get anxious about how many souls come to Jesus each week. Rather, we hope that we can simply immerse ourselves in God’s goodness throughout the camp experience.

So, why are we talking about this in October? Summer camp doesn’t start until June, right?

Start Now

It’s never too early to start thinking about summer camp. The 2019 program and registration will be out later (we’ll let you know when it’s ready), but you can check out the 2018 summer program schedule to have an idea of what will be offered next summer. For families that have not participated in camp ministries before, start talking about camp now, and share your camp stories and memories long before registration opens. This can help set them young people for success. Think about how you discovered camp the first time – it was probably a family member, friend or maybe even a Sunday School teacher or pastor who told you how amazing camp is and encouraged you to go. You can do that for someone else.

Year-round Programming

Did you know camps like Johnsonburg have amazing programs throughout the year? Youth and young adult retreats, adult events and trainings, pastoral sabbath opportunities, all-ages events where people can get to know the camp in fellowship and service, short-term mission opportunities, and more are available for people of all ages to participate in Johnsonburg programming outside of the summer schedule. These activities are great opportunities for you and your members to get a taste of camp, and see if you want more.

Taking it Home

Everything gained through camp ministry doesn’t stay there. Learning how to ask and explore faith questions, learning how to participate fully in community, learning how to lead worship – these are wonderful things that your children, youth and adults participating in camp ministry will bring back into your local faith communities.

Supporting Camp Ministry

We cannot do this wonderful ministry without support. There is never a bad time to encourage your members to support camp and conference ministry through their donationsof money and volunteer time. Camps need our support so they can remain affordable to a wide range of participants, and provide additional financial assistance to those who cannot afford camp at all.

A great way to approach this conversation at your church is have any current participants in one of the many camp and retreat programs tell their camp stories. Why does camp matter to them? How has going to camp helped them grow in their faith? Why do they think other people should go to camp? When you support camp ministry, you are directly supporting the faith journeys of your own fellow church members, from the youngest to the oldest.


It may be October, but it is the perfect time to start talking about camp and all the wonderful joys that come with it, and encouraging your church to dive in!

silhouettes of six children facing a sunset over water with hands raised and birds in the sky above

Focus on Leadership: Let the Children Lead

A common phrase you hear around churches is, “Children are the future of the church,” in reference to the children and/or youth around your church. This often is said as you discuss children’s programming, or hear a youth lead liturgy or pray. You hear it on confirmation Sunday and Children’s or Youth Sunday, those days we set aside for the young people to lead us. But what would it look like if it were not a novelty for children and youth to lead us, but rather their voices and active participation were regular parts of our church life?

We hope to attract young families and we love to see them sitting in our pews, participating in Sunday School, or singing in the children’s choirs. But how much of your worship and general church programming (not specifically aimed at children or young families) is designed for young members of our community?

Instead of assuming what children and youth want and need, let’s ask them directly as a regular part of our worship, education, and fellowship planning. Yes, it can be difficult to elicit helpful conversation and responses from children and youth who are unaccustomed to having those conversations with you. By including our youngest members in those conversations, we are helping them learn how to have those conversations, as once we ourselves learned. The best way to learn how to do something is by doing it. Yes, making missteps and mistakes. Yes, slowing down discussions and decision-making. Those are part and parcel in the Presbyterian process, however. We do not want to rush discussions and decisions without understanding what we do not yet understand.

Instead of making assumptions about what children, youth, young adults and young families need, and asking questions based on our assumptions – Would you like more contemporary music? Do you think we should have a prayground? Is this a good mission project for all-ages? – we need to ask open-ended questions. If we instead asked people of all ages to share what they like about church – in the areas of worship, education, fellowship, service, etc. – and what they want to see added or changed, we will get better answers.

If we start with imagining what church could be, then figure out how to live into it meaningfully, it is better than trying to “fix” what is not working for our youngest members. Just as Jesus lays out examples of what a world looks like where God is at the center and we figure out how to live into that divine imagination, we should start with what we imagine church could or should be for a vibrant, God-centered community, and figure out what we need to do to live into that vision.

You might have younger members name the very real issue of a lack of bodily movement or congregational engagement in worship. If we are just trying to “fix a problem,” we might simply have people move around more during worship or add in more call and response aspects to our liturgy. To begin casting a vision for worship where you hope to include meaningful movement and more integrated congregational participation and leadership will require taking the act of worship seriously.

That is a conversation that understands that God calls us to worship with our whole selves, including our physical bodies. It also acknowledges that each worship participant is part of making our worship happen. This changes the whole conversation of how you might approach worship planning, also taking seriously about how to fully include those whose mobility or other participation is more limited. This is a conversation about the whole body, not just parts of it.

Changing how we have these conversations, and who we include in our regular conversations, as we create church together is important for all we do together. It isn’t about attracting young families or training up children and youth to do church the way we know church for the sake of church growth in numbers or tradition. It is about naming the reality that those who have been baptized into our community at any age are full members and co-creators of church and a Christ-centered world. We are more fully living into God’s call to be the Body of Christ when we do not neglect the needs of parts of that body. And, in fact, we will probably find that we were neglecting some of our own needs as well.

Focus on Leadership: Learning to Listen

As leaders it can become easy to get distracted by the noise in our own heads. We spend a lot of time thinking and praying about the mission and work of our ministries, so we will also have lots of ideas about how to fulfill our mission. One of the key skills that will help us actually do our work well is setting aside our own thoughts and ideas to be able to truly listen to what others are saying.

Listening well matters because we are not the only stakeholders in our ministry work. Those we are serving and serving with care about the outcomes of our work as much as we do. And they may have ideas that work with or are even better than our own. But when we are passionate about something, we can be so eager to put our own ideas out into the world that we don’t make space in our conversations and in our minds for other possibilities. We may miss something amazing as we get caught up in our own passion for the work.

Imagine entering conversations without foregone conclusions about the outcomes, without the need to spend more time talking than listening, and with the idea that every person in the conversation is necessary to make it all work.

With no preconceived outcomes we can dream as big as we need. As ideas pop into your own mind, you don’t need to shout them out, but you can take down some quick notes so you can keep focusing on what others are saying. Encourage others to do the same. Share when it is your turn. If you are the head of a team or project, think carefully about who is invited to the conversations we are having. If you approach a conversation with the intention of valuing each voice, you are more likely to listen carefully to what they are saying. All of these things will not only make us better listeners, but do more collaborative and creative work. And that kind of work perfectly fits our Presbyterian ordination vows, which guides our leadership.

When we think about good listeners, we have no better example that Jesus himself. Jesus was so connected with the people he met that he not only answered their spoken needs, but their unspoken ones. We may not be as good at this as Jesus, but with practice we can improve our empathy, our care for community that guides us to listen to the people we need to be listening to, and the ability to together craft our words and our work to best answer the needs that have been expressed. And it will allow us to ask better questions when we need to understand better or more fully what someone is saying rather than assuming we totally get it.

Listening makes us better leaders not only because we will do what we are called to do in better ways, but also because it shows we care about those we are serving. And when we show we care, people are more likely to follow.

two Black women in foreground high-living and smiling at a table, with a white woman in glasses and smiling also at the table in the background

Doing the Work: Meeting Well

We Presbyterians both joke and are teased about the number of meetings we have. We like to be organized and talk through decisions – what’s wrong with that? Nothing is wrong with that. At least on the face of it. But even before our lives got filled up with other options for how to spend our time, it has never been necessary to have an unnecessary meeting.

In our polity, it is indeed important to gather together and discuss how and what we want to do our work to best fulfill our mission of spreading the Good News. But wasting time and energy in meetings that are all talk, and no mission are not fulfilling our call. So, how do we meet well and faithfully to do what we need to do without falling into the boring meeting pattern?

Your meetings should have: a purpose, an agenda, time limits and takeaways.


What is your meeting about? Are you just getting the worship committee together each month because that’s how they’ve always done it or do you actually have enough work to do each month? What if you scheduled longer meetings quarterly? You might save time by diving deeply into planning and preparation for the upcoming seasons, rather than piecemealing it out over shorter meetings that occur more often. If there are clear, stated purpose(s) and goal(s) of the meeting, participants and potential participants are more likely to attend, and find themselves truly getting something out of meetings.

If you don’t know what your purpose is, or what you have been doing isn’t working anymore, consider some time to study, discuss and decide on what centers your group, and make sure it remains at the center every time you meet. If you find there isn’t one,


Related to the purpose(s) of the meeting, having a set and written agenda that everyone agrees on helps keep you on task. Of course, unless you stick to the agenda, there is still a danger of talking about topics not on the agenda, or out of order, which can also derail or unnecessarily lengthen a meeting. If someone wants to speak on a topic earlier in the meeting or add a topic of discussion, that should be brought up at the beginning of the meeting and agreed upon, not in the middle of the meeting or in the middle of the discussion of another topic. Finish speaking about one topic before you talk about another, and if they are related, put a pin in that other topic until its turn.

Time Limits

A time limit is a promise that you will end a meeting no later than a specific time, which tells people that you respect the time they are offering. If you are meeting during the day, such as over a lunch hour, your members likely only have a limited amount of time. If you are meeting at night, you run into dinner and bedtime schedules.

You can apply time limits to the whole meeting and even each topic. Along with the agenda, this keeps the group on track and respects the time of those who are in attendance.

If you set time limits for each topic, and you run up against the time, you can agree as a group whether to table the topic or add additional time. This sets expectations that a conversation on a topic won’t go on forever and that you need to use your time well. People will learn to say what they need to say with less words, to not repeat points that have already been made, and to discern which topics may need more conversation, and which ones about which you can simply make decisions.

Similarly, if you reach the scheduled end of a meeting and have remaining issues on the agenda, you can decide as a group whether you need a set amount of additional time, or whether you can table any remaining issues to the next meeting.


To avoid the meeting simply to meet, you need to create goals and tasks to either fulfill or take home to accomplish by the next meeting. Each member of the team should have something to bring to the next meeting, even if it is as simple as considering and answering a question like, “How is this team fulfilling the mission statement of the ministry?” or completing a small task like inviting one person to the event you are hosting. These do not need to be Herculean tasks like planning a whole Sunday School Rally Day or the next mission trip by oneself.

By assuring each member has at least one takeaway or task from the meeting, and confirming what each person is doing, you can assure that each member of a team is being used effectively. You can also see if any one member of the team is taking on or being given an disproportionately large amount of the tasks for the team and help re-think how your work is being shared.


Not every meeting needs to take place in person. Though it is always nice to be in the same room, technology has advanced past the dreaded conference call (those have their own best practices, but they are best to avoid) to video conferencing where it can really feel like you are in the same room, even if you are miles away. This can facilitate meetings at times where people need to be at home with children, members who are not as mobile (especially after dark) and limitations on free time. Zoom is a great video conferencing service that offers free subscriptions with shorter meeting times, and unlimited meetings for a low annual fee. There are other great video conferencing options, too.


Pay attention at the meetings you are attending. Pay attention to how you feel at the end of each meeting. Do you feel exhausted and unexcited about the next meeting of the same group? Or are you exhilarated, and can’t wait to get together again and get more done? What works in your meetings and what doesn’t?

If you are not implementing the above guidelines, consider adding them. If you are implementing these guidelines, and the meetings still don’t seem to be productive or effective, take some time to think about how well each guideline is being used and where you might want to improve. It could be that meetings are not long enough or too long, that you meet too often or not often enough. You could have the wrong facilitator or purpose.

And don’t ever be afraid to fold a group that is meeting just to meet. If you are getting together to talk because you like to get together with that group, be honest about the purpose and change the gathering to an actual social hour rather than a committee meeting.

Share Successes

Have you turned unproductive meetings into well-planned and well-appreciated gatherings that have purpose and give life to your ministry? We’d love to hear how you did that.

What if you are having amazing meetings that don’t follow these guidelines at all? We want to hear about what makes those gatherings work, too. Not every group needs these guidelines to be awesome.

Because we are Presbyterian, we like to gather, discuss and make decisions in teams. But just because we are Presbyterian doesn’t mean that we have to have boring meetings that don’t fit our ministry and mission. In fact, those gatherings will hamper our ability to actively follow Christ as they drain our energy and will and blur our direction. Be honest, be respectful of the valuable time of your staff and volunteers, and create something that is truly life-giving.

soybean seedlings growing out of gardening soil

Doing the Work: Seeds of the Kingdom

A lot of the work we do following Jesus makes us question whether we are even doing anything. We do not always see the full results of what we do, or any results at all.

Throughout his ministry, Jesus uses agricultural metaphors in his parables. This is apt for a people who probably had a lot more farmers than web designers, but it also well describes the work of a disciple. Sometimes we are like the vineyard owners, tending carefully to our vines, and hiring more workers as the day goes on. Now that’s a great feeling in ministry!

More often than not, however, we resemble the farmer who throws seed about – some of it landing in fertile soil, some on rocky ground, some on the path and some in the thorns. This seed-sower seems to keep moving, relying on the natural soil, sun and water to do their work. The seeds grow, wither, choke or get eaten, but the parable does not mention that the sower is there to view the results.

Likewise, we see the apostles in Acts sowing seeds of faith, and then moving on to other individuals, towns and communities. Phillip gets swept up by the Holy Spirit from one grand journey to the next. We see letters from Paul to places he has planted churches, and is clearly hearing back from them as well, but even Paul does not get to see the real results of his ministry, being executed before the church really takes off.

Most of our work is like that. Even when we get to see some of the seeds we planted take root and begin to bloom, we rarely get to see the ways God multiplies those seeds long after we have planted them.

But think about all the people who helped grow you into who you are today. How many of them are still around and/or know what you are up to or the beautiful plant you became because of their seed-planting and nurture? It doesn’t make that loving work any less valuable for not always seeing the results. Trust and know that when you answer God’s call, and plant the seeds of God’s love in the world, there will be much fruit.

Daniel Migliore’s great book on Presbyterian theology, Faith Seeking Understanding, takes its title from Anselm’s famous phrase about the act of faith in Christian life. As leaders, we often seek understanding and answers, so we love when we see results of our work. However, we do not ever reach perfect understanding of God, and we will not always see the results of our faithful action. Leadership in the Christian tradition requires us to let that go, and trust.

We act because of faith, and we act with faith. The rest is up to God. So, let’s plant and watch God’s garden grow!

Doing the Work: Service to the Wider Church

When we are ordained to ministry as Deacons, Ruling Elders and Ministers of Word and Sacrament, we answer nine questions, and with our answers vow to fulfill the unique calls of these ordered ministries. Eight of the questions are the same for all of the offices of ordination, with one question unique to each office. Within the unique questions, Ruling Elders and Ministers of Word and Sacrament are both asked if they will be share in government and discipline and to serve in the councils of the church.

For many of us, that will mean serving on the Session and committees of our local churches. But there are many ways to serve the wider church, and in a connectional community such as the PC(USA), it is vital that we seek to do so. Without the voices of a broad representation of leaders, the work we do with and on behalf of one another can get stale or stuck. Just as in your local churches, without an energetic pool of leaders stepping up to the challenges of the wider church, the same people get asked or volunteer time and again, which leads to burnout or that stuck thinking.

Each of us who has been ordained to the office of Ruling Elder or Minister of Word and Sacrament has vowed to participate in this work, and the good news is that there are so many ways to do so. You may think that simply sitting on another committee is the extent of that work, but there is plenty of work in the wider church that does not involve committee meetings, or committees that do not work as you typically think of it.

Work at the presbytery, synod or national level often involves thinking together about the direction of the PC(USA) and its members, and how to equip churches and individuals to grow as followers of Jesus Christ. Sometimes that might mean thinking about strategic planning, but it could mean creating curriculum or resources out of our experience and expertise that can help others learn what we’ve learned.

There are nominating committees for each level of governance, from your local congregation to presbytery to synod to General Assembly. And there is no doubt that each of them are looking for leaders to help do the work that supports all of our mission.

Each General Assembly, we elect members of various General Assembly and Presbytery Mission Agency committees, commissions and task forces – some of these are standing committees that have on-going work, and some are created for specific terms with deadlines for their work. You can see many of the standing committees here. After General Assembly, some new teams will be created, and some that are on-going will have their membership filled through application and appointment by the moderator or co-moderators elected by the assembly. Right now there are several standing and shorter-term teams looking for members. Many of the deadlines are August 20, 2018. If you do not have one already, you will need to create an account to apply for these teams, but we encourage you to do so! Register, log in, and look at committees and descriptions here. The teams created, or extended, by the 223rd General Assembly are listed there and and below:

You can also serve the wider church with more hands-on work, like volunteering regularly at your local food bank, in ministries of other churches in the presbytery, or through ecumenical partnerships. Every time you step outside of your own congregation’s ministries, and help others do their work, you are helping create connections that strengthen the Body of Christ, within the PC(USA), and with others in the Body.

Did you know that camp and conference centers love volunteers? They might have opportunities in the summer to serve as volunteer counselors for a week, or to lead one of their programs, or to serve as a nurse or a chaplain. If working directly with children and youth isn’t your thing, many camps and conference centers rely on volunteers to greet visitors, answer phones, put together mailings, and maintain the camp grounds and facilities. They may have opportunities that last a week or a season, so ask them!

These opportunities for service to the wider church are abundant, but so is our leadership. It is important to consider these opportunities alongside the other work you are called to. There may be seasons in your life, or your church life specifically, when you are already serving to your fullest capacity, while other times you may find yourself looking for new ways to serve. There may be opportunities you see that are interesting and truly feel like a calling, but it may not be the right time. It may be the right time for someone else to fill that role, and in a healthy connectional community, service is shared and passed on.

With this abundance of leaders we gain the valuable insight from as wide a representation of our church as possible. We also keep our leaders refreshed and renewed for their long-term growth as disciples.

Disciples keep on learning and growing, and service to the wider church can be an excellent challenge to take on. So, think about where God might be calling you to push yourself and lend a hand.

books a red delicious apple and pencil on a plain wooden table with a plain background

Doing the Work: Educating the Educators

Christian formation is our business. Through preaching, teaching, hands-on mission and service, and fellowship, with a current of accountable community running throughout, we learn how to follow Jesus Christ well. And to do all this we rely not only on our pastors, but on paid and volunteer educators. These are people within our communities with the experience, skills and passion to both teach what they know, but who also act as living examples of discipleship.

Because teaching and leading a disciple’s life are seen as inherent, rather than learned, skills, too often we neglect to encourage and teach them. You will hear many people say, “Oh, I’m not a teacher,” when asked to teach Sunday School, or see paid Christian Education staff trying to scrape together money and time to attend a conference because they do not have a continuing education budget. We understand the need to call and educate pastors, but not other leaders in our congregations. If pastors are not born ready to be pastors, and can always keep growing, why would we not expect the same for other disciples in the church?

This is not an issue with a simple solution that involves throwing money at it. Which is good news. Not every church has a lot of money to spare. However, we can do a better job of calling and teaching teachers. Here are some steps to consider:

  • If your community can afford it, create a continuing education budget line for your educators, paid or volunteer. And if you have a paid professional educator on staff, even if only part time, and you cannot afford to give them a continuing education budget, can you really afford that position? It might be better to use that money to educate your volunteers.
  • Offer a comprehensive teacher and volunteer orientation and training at least once a year, and invite people who are not teachers to join you. Have a facilitator to talk about teaching best practices and offer time to spend going through the curriculum and lessons. If anyone has ever told you, “I would love to, but I’m not a teacher,” this is the time to help acclimate them.
  • Create teaching teams. This is a good practice for the safety of children and volunteers. It also helps new volunteers learn from experienced ones, for different people to combine their different gifts, and support for each other’s leadership.
    If you have someone who is good at crafts, but hates leading discussions paired up with a gifted storyteller, or an enthusiastic game leader paired with someone who loves small groups (or all of the above together), it can make Sunday School, Wednesday night, or whenever you are doing Christian formation, breeze by and prevent burnout.
  • Invite new volunteers to come in just once a month, or to be substitutes, so the time commitment is less intimidating, and they can learn by doing without jumping into the deep end.
  • Consider using a curriculum like the United Methodist Disciple curriculum, which aims to both educate congregation members as well as prepare them to teach others.

If you invest in continuing education for your Christian formation staff and volunteers, there are many great opportunities. You can pay to bring someone in to lead workshops and training. You can send staff and/or volunteers to classes offered by the Association of Presbyterian Christian Educators (APCE), which are offered at their annual event as well as throughout the year through presbyteries and seminaries.

There are other events for educators and leaders of children’s, youth and adult ministries through Presbyterian and non-Presbyterian camps and conferences and seminaries designed for ordained and non-ordained participants: Princeton’s Continuing EducationColumbia Seminary’s Lifelong Learning, NEXTChurch, Montreat, Ghost RanchMo-Ranch, Zephyr Point, Stony Point, Camp Johnsonburg, Ministry Architects, and Presbyterian Youth Worker Association are just some of the places to look for a variety of interesting opportunities to enrich yourselves and your volunteers.

Investing in your paid and un-paid educators with the resources you have encourages growth in faith and leadership, support for pastoral leaders through increased leadership, and creates an environment where curiosity and learning are nurtured. What will it look like in your ministry?

work boots, a pointed shovel and work gloves alongside a tree trunk and stone rubble

Doing the Work: Mission Trips

There is legitimate debate about the effectiveness of short-term mission trips – questions of healthy impact and autonomy of those being visited and served, long-term results and repercussions, and whether they are adequate opportunities for spiritual development for participants. These are all important considerations as we seek to live out God’s call in our lives to mission in the world.

There is no doubt that longer-term mission work can be more meaningful and impactful, and that it takes time to do it right. Partnerships with other communities, having time to develop real relationship with others, and the ability to create those partnerships and relationships with the perspective of serving “with” not serving “to” others all take a significant investment of time, energy and commitment.

However, time and again participants in short-term mission trips describe the experience and the work as “life-changing.” It can change perspectives on economic and social justice, not only in the places we serve away from home, but our own neighborhoods. Participants often find themselves seeking new ways to serve at home. Or they might look for longer-term opportunities in other places to see life and faith and the world in new ways, build real and lasting relationships beyond our known neighborhoods and cultures, and to stand alongside others as they work for justice and peace for their families and communities.

How we do mission matters. Yes, short-term mission trips can be devastating if they are approached as a vacation, or a poverty tour, or if we don’t talk about how we live our lives impacts other communities. We need to see these life-changing opportunities not as nice things to do for someone else, but as part of a larger faith story.

Instead of dropping into the lives of another community, then going away again with no further contact, we should think about who we might partner with, and what they might teach us as we seek to serve alongside them. Each of us needs a helping hand at least some of the time, and when we need help, do we turn to friends or strangers? How can we create friendships with people perhaps very different than ourselves, so that when we go to help, we can actually be helpful? We can listen as friends listen, we can respect our friends’ wishes for what kind of help they need. We can keep in touch whether we are face to face, or far apart.

True friendship, true partnership – these take time and work. They are not something that happens in an instant. One short-term mission trip probably won’t create those types of bonds. But, every friendship starts somewhere, so we might begin with that one short-term trip, and see how we might make it grow.

paper stars with glitter tossed over them

Doing the Work: Vacation Bible School

Vacation Bible School (VBS) takes a lot of work. It takes a lot of organization, time, preparation, volunteers, snacks, space, glue sticks and energy. It will be one of the most exhausting weeks of your life. And…it is worth every bit of it. The relationships built between the children, between your adult volunteers, between the children and volunteers and, definitely not least, the relationship between the children and Christ, are powerful and lasting.

But not every church has the resources to do a full-on VBS every summer. Or, you’ve done VBS for years and love it, but you need a new leader or new format. How can you dive into this ministry and still love Jesus at the end? We have some suggestions.

If you are a pastor– Be there. You don’t have to be there the whole time, you don’t have to lead the crafts or make the snacks, but show up. Be there every day at the opening or closing sessions, or both. If you do have the time and passion for a particular part of the rotation, join in! Teach the story, interact with the puppets, head up the games, or shepherd a group around. Whatever time you can put in shows that the ministry and the children and volunteers participating in that ministry are important to you and the church. Just showing your face each day and singing a silly song before you go do sermon prep or home visitations will make all the difference.

If you are on session– Show up. Like your pastor(s), it’s great if you can volunteer during the week of VBS. But maybe you work during the day, or have physical limitations or are involved in so many other ministries you really can’t and shouldn’t take on one more. You may not be able to volunteer for craft duty, but you may be able to help set up for the crafts ahead of time. Or decorate the hallways, or make snacks to keep the volunteers going throughout the week. Maybe you can show up at the closing worship at the end of the week to cheer on the participants as they share the songs and stories they learned. If you show up in one of these ways, you will help make VBS happen.

If you are a small church with some kids, but not enough human capital– Join with another church or several other churches. Get together with neighboring PC(USA) or churches of other denominations in your town. Plan and staff VBS together. Maybe make a rotating schedule so different churches get a chance to host each year, with all of the churches coming together to make it happen. VBS is a lot of work, but it is really true that many hands make light work. Also, when we partner with others, it can be fresh and exciting to do that hard work.

If you are a church with plenty of resources, but few children– Invite the neighbors! Advertise your VBS in the local newspaper and local parenting groups and with banners on the streets (what gets the word out best in your context?). Basically, make sure people know you’re throwing an awesome Jesus party and people will come. You might even have a few bored teenagers wander in, so think about how to engage them in leadership or their own program. (Trust us, the Holy Spirit will send people – we’ve seen it time and again.)

If you have done VBS forever and need to shake things up– Try changing the schedule or the structure. If you have dwindling numbers for a week-long, daytime VBS, maybe shorten it, or do it in the evening when you can tap into a different pool of volunteers, or do a summer-long VBS on Sunday afternoons or Wednesday evenings. Any of the suggestions above might bring some new energy to an old VBS, too. Get new partners, invite your neighbors, make sure your leadership is fully engaged.


And, it’s ok to simply say you don’t need to do a VBS if the leadership and energy simply isn’t there. The Bible speaks not only of Sabbath days, but of sabbatical seasons. A break or an end of a ministry can bring about creative energy for a future attempt or other mission areas of the church. The Bible does not command us to have Vacation Bible School, and the Holy Spirit will lead us where we are going next as we rest and listen for God’s call.

But if you have a Vacation Bible School scheduled for this summer in any form, we know Jesus will show up in major ways. Blessings on the work and the volunteers and the love that you are pouring into the program and into the children and youth who will be there.

Let us know about your VBS, your bright ideas, innovations, and anything else you’d like to share about VBS. And, show ‘em Jesus!