Can’t stop VBS: Churches figure out new ways to hold Bible school during pandemic

By Jessica Brodie

While the pandemic has caused most churches to host virtual vacation Bible schools this summer, some churches have figured out creative ways to do a safe in-person VBS.

One United Methodist church in the Midlands held “VBS Family Nights,” relying on family-oriented small-cluster gatherings in the fellowship hall. Another in the Upstate did a very small in-person VBS spread out over two weeks with rapidly rotating indoor-outdoor stations that kept health risks down. And a third near the coast did a “Drive-Thru VBS” on one evening culminating with a socially distanced outdoor ice cream party.

“It was a win and we needed a win, something safe to do right now,” said the Rev. Kelly Snelgrove, pastor of Aynor UMC, Aynor, which did the “Drive-Thru VBS.”

Each of the churches did their VBS as safely as possible, following public health guidelines set forth by the Centers for Disease Control and other organizations.

They said the chance to have face-to-face time with their church family made a big difference in morale during an isolating time.

A way to ‘make do’ despite pandemic

Beulah UMC, Gilbert, held “VBS Family Nights” July 13, 15 and 17 in their fellowship hall. Families in masks gathered in small groups, each family group separated from each other by at least six feet to comply with social distancing public health guidelines.

The sessions lasted about 45 minutes and featured crafts, music, puppets and storytelling.

Mary Rowell, wife of church pastor the Rev. Tony Rowell, used her own grandchildren to help with the puppetry to minimize person-to-person contact and virus exposure.

Sue Ellen Shealy, Beulah’s children’s ministry director, gathered craft and science experiment options for the families to do, whether in person or virtually, and created video tutorials.

Every family received craft materials and a snack bag at the end of the session, and kids were also given cylinders filled with M&M candies. They were instructed to eat the candies, then fill the cylinder with coins for a ministry the church is supporting. They turned in their filled cylinders at the end of the week. This year, the church is supporting Healing Guatemala, a United Methodist ministry led by a South Carolina pastor that is feeding starving people there impacted by COVID-19.

The in-person VBS brought challenges but was much appreciated, Rowell said.

“The kids seemed to love it, which is all that counts,” Rowell said. “Just like with homeschooling, it’s a lot on the families because you have to sit down and do it all with them.”

But, as Rowell said, it’s better than nothing.

“You just make do,” she said. “It’s better than not doing anything.”

Some families came each night. Some, not comfortable with gathering in-person, came just to pick up materials, then returned home to complete the activities with their kids. Others did the entirety on their own at home following along with videos Beulah provided on Facebook and their website.

Normalcy when so much else is stripped away

The Rev. Brad Gray, pastor of Bethel UMC, Spartanburg, said his church held a very small in-person VBS that was spread out over two weeks: Tuesdays and Thursdays July 14, 16, 21 and 23.

Held in an abbreviated time frame, Gray said, the 20 participants and a few volunteers moved around a lot—inside to outside to another room, then back into the spacious fellowship hall, many wearing masks and trying to distance as much as possible.

Jana Mathis, Bethel’s children’s ministry director, checked temperatures daily.

“We’re doing the best we can in trying to live into all the things the CDC recommends,” said Gray.

Gray said the parents and children’s ministry director wanted to provide something safe that brought the kids together to know Jesus during this difficult time of deep isolation.

“There’s so much turmoil and turnover and chaos, and they wanted to bring some kind of normalcy to their lives,” Gray said. “So much else is stripped away in this time.”

A ‘fabulous’ two hours

Aynor UMC, Aynor, had a drop-in style VBS over two hours Thursday evening, July 16, drawing more than 85 people, plus volunteers.

“We were so blessed—our property takes up the entire city block, so we had four stations with two people directing traffic and places where people could park and wait if there was overflow,” the Rev. Kelly Snelgrove said. “I’ve gotten such positive feedback.”

It was all themed around “Dive In,” on how to dive into God’s word, and there was a kiddie pool at each station and a beach theme throughout.

Cars would drive to one station, where they’d hear a two-minute Bible lesson on how to dive into God’s word, then get a memory lesson. At the end, each person received a coupon for free ice cream, provided onsite via food truck.

Snelgrove said all ages were encouraged to participate.

“We even had our 101-year-old church member, whose caregiver drove him,” Snelgrove said. “It was a fabulous two hours at our church.”

Virtual—but as intimate as possible

Other churches, while sticking to virtual VBS experiences, still did their best to bring an intimate, family-oriented feel to the experience for the kids who are craving contact.

Nova Jones Duncan, Director of Children's Ministries Bethel UMC, Charleston, used a Cokebury curriculum that had been modified for remote use, and she filmed an introduction to the videos dressed in the same style of costumes and filmed in front of a castle door. The church provided packets with crafts, CDs and T-shirts, and each child got a special bag of their own, as did the parents, which they received during a drive-thru packet-pickup kickoff. Almost 50 kids participated.

“The kids were so excited,” Duncan said.

Piedmont UMC, Piedmont, is filming VBS “episodes” to air Aug. 3-5 and creating take home bags to go with them.

“Based on how school openings go, we look to do a VBS that centers around fall or Christmas break,” said pastor the Rev. Matthew Greer.

Journey UMC, Columbia, held a kids’ Virtual VBS one week and a youth Virtual VBS the next via Zoom.

“The teachers did a live welcome but then showed recorded sessions and music,” said Kim Love.

Many other churches also went virtual, including Wesley UMC, Columbia; Good Hope Wesley Chapel, Camden; Mount Horeb and Lexington UMCs, Lexington; Clemson UMC, Clemson; Trinity UMC, Blythewood; and Covenant UMC, Greer.

If your church held some sort of VBS this summer, we welcome your photos or stories. Email [email protected].

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