Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Writing Children's Sunday School Curriculum

The blog fell by the wayside as I got caught up in travel and clients, and all my quiet writing time is going to preparing sermons for a month long guest preaching gig and the summer children’s Sunday School curriculum for my husband’s church. And with an active 1 year old who is teething again, quiet writing time is hard to come by.  But anyhoo….

Big (and profitable) companies have convinced churches that to properly teach children they need to buy fancy curriculum packets with lesson plans and posters and workbooks, and then you still have to purchase and organize the craft supplies for the 5 different activities that take place each week, for each age group. It’s expensive and time/energy consuming. It can be intimidating for volunteers. 

But it doesn’t need to be. It’s kid’s Sunday School, not rocket science. Many churches experience erratic attendance and lack of volunteers in the summer, so writing your own program to fit your church situation can help mitigate some of these issues. You might actually enjoy it and continue year round. 

Make it easy on yourself and your volunteers. Pick a theme for each month. Do the same opening and closing craft projects for the entire month so all kids have chance to do them and setting up is easy. Use the same schedule for the summer so volunteers know what to expect. Google is your friend to find projects and templates. 

Our theme for June is Bloom (Bible stories of people who ‘bloomed’ trusting in and loving God).  Esther, the Samaritan woman at the well, Zaccaeus, and David (and Goliath). The opening and closing craft for all weeks is flowers of different types (tissue paper, paper plates, etc) that will be added to the altar rails in the sanctuary each week. Everything is complied in a binder and literally anyone (who is Safe Sanctuaries trained and background checked) can pick it up and lead class on a moments notice.

July is Explore (stories of boats in the Bible) and August is Friends (stories of friends in the Bible). Simple, age appropriate concepts and stories that the adult teachers feel comfortable with. Cheap supplies most churches already have on hand. Don’t make this harder than it needs to be. 

The schedule for each Sunday is: 
  • Opening craft as the kids come in
  • Circle time for welcome and introductions (and a song if you’ve got someone for that) 
  • Tell the scripture story (from a children’s bible or a narrative style story)
  • Related activity (craft/game/project pages/costumes) 
  • Circle time to reflect on the story and ask questions about it
  • Prayer (we are using the 5 finger prayer so the kids can participate as they feel comfortable and the adults aren’t scared. So many adults are scared of leading prayer, but that’s a different post.) 
  • Continue on the opening craft until parents come 

Not. Rocket. Science. 

Don’t let the publishing houses and their fancy mailings scare you into spending too much money in the creation of a fancy Sunday School program. Kids need to know they are loved by God and the adults they are surrounded by. A simple program lets the adults focus on the kids, not on following a complicated lesson plan and making sure that they are holding up poster c while reading section 5 and jumping up and down on their left foot.  Let your kids be the central focus. Church is not an amusement park, it is time with God to learn about love, faith, and the stories of our tradition. You (as a pastor, children's director or volunteer) have the gifts and the heart to create a meaningful program for the kids God has entrusted you with. 

Developing Preaching Skills and the Festival of Homiletics

What a gift it was to be present for the Festival of Homiletics in Atlanta this year. The theme was “Prophetic Preaching in Times of Change” and featured such preachers as Walter Brueggemann, Anna Carter Florence, Grace Imathiu, Alyce McKenzie and many others. If you are new to the Festival, it is a blend of dynamic worship, preaching and lectures on preaching.  As clergy, we rarely have the opportunity to hear others preaching and to consider deeply why and how we share God’s message. To hear a perfectly crafted, entertaining and empowering sermon and then a lecture on the methodology behind it is the type of continuing education most clergy can benefit from. 
Of particular interest to female clergy is Karoline Lewis whose website can be found here:  Karoline is the Associate Professor of Preaching and Marbury Anderson Chair in Biblical Preaching at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota and her most recent book is “She: Five Keys to Unlock the Power of Women in Ministry”.  Teaching on embracing your identity and claiming your unique voice, her work has a great deal to offer for struggling female clergy. 

As beneficial as it is to be present for the Festival, I love the recordings.  One year, we missed the Festival but bought the recordings to listen to on our way to another conference in Tahoe. We could pause and talk about a point or technique, and listen to them at our pace rather than a designated schedule. We’ve been doing it ever since.

Preaching is a difficult skill to develop. Preaching classes in seminary are theoretical for most, as in seminary most students are not actively preaching every week therefor it does not have proper context. Reading books about preaching doesn't have the same impact as listening to other sermons and dissecting them. Find ways to develop your craft and not only will it enhance your worship leadership, but your personal spiritual growth will benefit as well. 

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Pentecost - Acts 2: 1-21 On Fire with the Holy Spirit, or Just on Fire?

I’ve always loved Pentecost. The drama of it all, the new beginning of this thing called church, the presence of the Holy Spirit. As I reflect on the years, my favorite Pentecost was also the most frightening. 

I was serving a two point charge on an emergency basis after the pastor of a nearby church resigned unexpectedly a week before Christmas. The churches were about three miles apart, and I would start at the new church and then rush to my home church each Sunday. At the time, I had two of the greatest pastoral interns ever: J & M. M was preaching at both churches that day. My (now) husband had the Sunday off from his church for reasons I can’t exactly remember. He was driving, M was in the front seat and I was in the back. 

About three blocks from the church, J texted: Something in the basement is on fire. Firemen are here. 

We got stopped at the next stop light, and we could see the firetrucks descending on the church. I grabbed my bag, jumped out of the car, and ran towards the church in the red, faux snake-skin 4” stilettos that I always wear for Pentecost. Apparently my husband looked at M and said, “Um, you should probably go too” and she came running after me. 

Church about 1915
J met me on the corner. Everyone was safe. She told me what had happened.  I took a breath and took in the scene. Thick, black smoke was billowing out the side door, firemen were climbing ladders to inspect the roof of the 115 year old building, police cars were blocking off the streets. Would the fire spread and damage the original stained glass windows, which had just been restored the year before? Would the historic bibles be damaged? Would we lose the church entirely? Who do I call first? What about insurance?  

We had an industrial gas stove with pilot lights in the kitchen where we cooked breakfast for about 150 homeless every Sunday. Someone had accidentally left a plastic jug on top of the stove and over the course of an hour, it had melted, caught fire and spread. The visiting volunteers had gone back to their home church and the church volunteers had gone up to the sanctuary to prepare for worship. The fire alarm had gone off downstairs, but it was not loud enough to be heard over the musicians warming up. Thankfully, we had a system linked to the fire department so they were pulling up as J opened a door to basement, only to be overcome by the thick, black smoke. Like the Boss she is, J evacuated the building and directed the first responders. 

Yes, we set the church on fire on Pentecost. 

It was now about 15 minutes before worship and church members were parking around the block and walking to the building. J & M were directing people to our parking lot while my husband gave building information to the firemen. We had to worship, but the building was off limits. Our lay leader had grabbed the bulletins as everyone was evacuating, but we had no hymnals or instruments. 

The fire chief gave us permission to worship in the parking lot, surrounded by firetrucks and firemen doing their work. By this time, they were wrapping up and the fire was out. We could celebrate that the fire was not worse and everyone was safe. We prayed, we laughed at the irony as I explained what Pentecost is, we recited our fire-themed Pentecost call to worship, our musicians guided us acapella in the first few verses of Amazing Grace. And while we sang, I leaned over to M, who was preaching, and said “You need to cut 10 minutes from your sermon. We can’t stand out here all fucking day.” She laughed, and did a fantastic job of tailoring her sermon to the events that had just transpired, sharing the fear of that first Pentecost and all the transformative work of God that came as a result and the cleansing power of fire. 

We do tend to treat Pentecost as a joyful event, but read the scripture from the perspective of those who lived through it.  The Jews had gathered for the festival of Shavuot, a festival celebrating the early harvest, found five times in the Torah. It was a pilgrim festival, so Jewish men would come to Jerusalem from far and wide to celebrate the goodness of God and the wheat harvest. And by celebrate, I mean c e l e b r a t e.  

So imagine the apostles, hanging out at the Holy Spirit Hostel, recovering from a night of partying, sipping their coffee and talking about how much Jesus would have loved to have been here, when suddenly there is a noise… a train or a tornado…and fire like fingers grabs each person, and they begin speaking in languages they couldn't possibly know…..What was happening, when would it stop…..imagine the panic…imagine the fear…. 

It was not a joyful event. It was a terrifying event. 

And when it was over, I impinge they took some time to reflect, probably in shock, before realizing that what it meant was that God was present in the world in a new way, no longer confined to the Temple, calling the people to go out, speaking all languages, spreading the word of God to all cultures. 

The church fire was a terrifying event. After the congregation thanked the firemen and went home, my (now) husband and I were given a tour by the firemen. The fire was confined to the kitchen, but the thick, black smoke had filled the building and left residue on about everything. I talked with the fire chief and the arson investigator (standard), filed out paperwork, made calls. I went home, and for the first time that day, cried. And cried, and cried. Shock that it happened, relief no one was hurt and that we had not lost the church, exhaustion at having kept it together all day, overwhelmed at all that was now in front of our little church to recover. 

It was a terrifying event. And we took some time to reflect, in shock. And we prayed, and we knew that while this was a terrible accident, the Holy Spirit was present and we were living in a new reality. We came back stronger, more clear in our mission, and with a great restoration of our Fellowship Hall and kitchen thanks to the insurance company. 

Pentecost was a new beginning for the life of the Universal Church, and it was a new beginning for our little church. Has your church had a “Pentecost moment”? A moment when reality changes, when the presence of God if felt, and it might not have been a positive moment. As you prepare your Pentecost sermon, consider a Pentecost moment of your congregation. It might be from last year or 50 years ago. Is there a moment when the Holy Spirit touched your congregation in a way that profoundly changed them and the way they saw the presence of God in their community? 

Pentecost is not the happy little birthday of the church, complete with a cake and candles. Pentecost is a powerful, frightening, transformative event that changed the path of world history. Honor it as such.      
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