COVID-19 meeting restrictions have left Alabama Baptist churches to face the difficult decision of whether to reschedule, postpone, cancel or restructure their Vacation Bible School programs.
Joel Tucker, minister of students, technology and events at First Baptist Church, Headland, said the decision to cancel their VBS scheduled for May 31–June 4 was based on the uncertainty of what sized groups Alabama would permit by the end of May, the short time remaining to prepare, the health risk posed to volunteers and the financial costs of implementing the program.
“VBS is a hot topic for conversation right now among many children’s pastors and VBS directors,” said Patty Burns, VBS strategist for the Alabama Baptist State Board of Missions. “Anything and everything you can imagine has been mentioned with most agreeing that VBS is worth the effort and they will find a way to make it happen this year.”
According to Burns, churches have a variety of options to consider, including late summer, fall or winter VBS, neighborhood or backyard events, drive-thru Bible school and consecutive Sunday or Wednesday VBS programs.
Churches like Ridgeview Baptist in Talladega are waiting to finalize their VBS plans. Like others, their decisions hinge upon what social distancing measures and limitations on group gatherings are in place at that time, said pastor Tommy Strickland.
In the interim, associational leaders are inspiring VBS volunteers and encouraging churches to be ready.
‘Think outside box’
“We are trying to help our churches by encouraging them to think outside the box,” said John Thomas, Southeast Alabama Baptist Association mission strategist.
Thomas said some of the churches are considering a virtual VBS.
Heritage Baptist Church, Montgomery, plans to host a nontraditional VBS program. Tentative plans include a three-day June event in at least five neighborhoods, a July missions VBS at Forest Park Ministry Center and VBS programs on five Wednesday nights throughout July and August.
“Instead of having hundreds of children on our church campus for one week, we are using a multisite approach with a smaller number of children at each site over a several week period,” said Jennifer Foster, Heritage minister to women and children. “Our plans for this year are different, but our purpose is still the same … reaching kids and families with the gospel in Montgomery and beyond.”
Mount Zion Baptist Church, Huntsville, has rescheduled its traditional VBS program for late June. Beth Henderson, Mount Zion’s preschool minister, said the church has scheduled alternative dates and is considering hosting two half-day programs each day if needed to minimize group size.
Because VBS may strain resources already affected by diminished giving due to social distancing, Sand Mountain Baptist Association VBS director Jenna Hodge has asked churches to consider postponing to the fall or hosting a one-day VBS.
While meeting restrictions have kept associations from holding their usual training events, many VBS directors have hosted virtual trainings with Facebook Live or Zoom to communicate information, offer “how-to” tips and foster enthusiasm.
“We have tried to keep in touch with our churches through our associational VBS Facebook page, emails and postcards,” said Strickland, VBS director for Coosa River Baptist Association.
Many resources also are available for churches as they plan. The SBOM children’s ministry website, kidzlinkal.org/vbs, includes Zoom discussions, free downloadable materials and videos.
LifeWay offers tools and a free ebook, “4 Ways to Do VBS This Summer,” to help churches sort through possible options. The site, tabonline.org/4ways, presents four options for presenting this year’s VBS theme “Concrete & Cranes”: traditional, neighborhood, alternate or “at-home” VBS.
Burns said Facebook groups like SBOM’s “VBS AL: Tips & Training” or “VBS 2020 ‘Concrete and Cranes’” are good sources for videos, articles and links to other resources.
Hodge said social media efforts are reaching people who wouldn’t normally come to church, and she has heard of smaller churches floating plans to host VBS with sister churches this year — indications that VBS will happen in some form.
“My biggest concern for VBS this year is being able to find opportunities to build new relationships,” Burns said. “Follow up is always important, but this year I think we’ll need to work even harder at connecting with guest families.”
‘Saw a need’
Burns remains optimistic that Alabama VBS programs will continue to thrive in spite of this year’s challenges.
“The first VBS back in 1898 was born out of the heart of a woman who loved the Lord and saw a need. She showed up for the first VBS with her Bible and a few kids,” said Burns. “Much has changed since that day and I believe that we’ll come to the other side of this COVID-19 crisis to see some wonderful new and creative ways to do VBS.”