Thursday, May 22, 2014

Vacation Bible School- what to do?

It's that time of year again. School is nearly out and summer lessons, programs, and activities are starting, including Vacation Bible School. This post was inspired after reading about some concerns on a Catholic Moms group FB page. The moms were debating about whether you could/should send your children to VBS at non Catholic parishes so they can attend with their friends. This post will discuss ideal Catholic curricula for VBS as well as what you should do if your child is invited to VBS at a non-Catholic parish.

Sending your child to VBS at a non-Catholic parish can be very risky. I would highly advise against it, but I can appreciate a desire to join in if all your child's friends are attending and/or there isn't a Catholic program in your area. If you are considering sending your child to a program at a non-Catholic parish,  here's what I would advise:

  • Ask your parish priest if this congregation has ever shown negativity or hostility towards Catholics and/or if he has other concerns about your child attending this program. Take his advice seriously! 
  • Call the program director and ask if the program will be negative towards children not of the faith and/or if children will be pressured into following that parish's denomination
  • Ask the name of the curriculum and preview it online to determine if you are comfortable with it and/or if it contains anything you wouldn't want your child hearing.
  • Have a "process" time each day. Ask your child what he/she learned. Add to it what Catholics believe and/or clarify as needed. 
If your reason for considering VBS at a Protestant church is because your parish doesn't have VBS, talk to your pastor and other parents. With ingenuity and some luck, you can get something started so this doesn't become an ongoing issue. But how do you start a Vacation Bible School if your parish has never had it? Isn't this a ridiculous amount of work? Possibly, but it depends how you go about it!

If money is tight and you aren't sure if there is interest, start small. Most catechists and religion teachers didn't get to finish the last 1-3 chapters of their textbooks. Have VBS for 2 hours/day and use that curriculum with the guidance of your DRE/CRE. Be sure to incorporate time for group prayer, songs, crafts, and games. See if the  priest can have Mass with the kids. If not, perhaps you can have a lay-led Communion service (get your pastor's guidance on how this is done). "Google" the lessons of the day and many Catholic parenting and catechist sites will give you great ideas for thematic crafts and games to help teach that concept. If you don't need to buy a program, you can charge a small amount ($5-10/child) to defray costs and supplement your parish's catechesis budget. 

If your parish can afford it, it is a wonderful option to have a Catholic program, but even here you have to be careful. Have you seen the theme being offered by the local Protestant churches? Several major, Catholic publishing companies buy the rights to these programs, "fix" them so they are Catholic, and rebrand them. I've used many of these programs. I don't want to bash their publishers, but you can easily figure out who it is by googling the VBS theme to see if other publishers use it. Chances are if every craft store in town has materials for this "theme", it'a  rebranded product. I have typically found these programs to be light in content with little to no Catholic identity. They aren't bad and the great thing is you can often share sets and props with your Protestant neighbors. However, I find it less than ideal.

There are two Catholic programs I am very fond of. The first is I have seen this program used at my home parish and I also purchased it for use at the parish where I once worked. The kits are easy to follow and have everything you need to offer an excellent VBS experience with a true Catholic identity. My one complaint is that it still uses some of the gimmicky things to teach the faith such as talking animals and songs the kids won't hear again outside of VBS. Those are the only drawbacks  I see and it's an outstanding program in so many ways. Don't let my personal preferences get in the way of an excellent ministry resource! The blogger over at Catholic Icing reviewed Growing With the Saints and other Catholic products. I haven't used the other programs she discusses, but they sound worth checking out too. 

So, I am not a fan of things that use gimmicks, puppets, cartoons, etc. to teach the faith. That doesn't mean there aren't solid materials, like the ones mentioned above but as a catechist in Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, I know we can do better. Children do an excellent job when handed the sacraments and the truth in all their seriousness, beauty, and solemnity. This is why Totus Tuus is my hands-down, favorite, Catholic, summer program. Totus Tuus was started in Wichita and is taking Catholic dioceses by storm! If your parish is in Chicago, Denver, Atlanta, or many other diocese throughout the country, chances are you have access to Totus Tuus. If not, contact the Wichita location and ask how you can get it. Hopefully their national directory of dioceses will be up soon! 

The best thing about Totus Tuus is that the team (4 adults- 3 college students and 1 seminarian) bring all the materials to you. There is no planning or organizing the curriculum. The parish's sole duties are to house and feed 4 individuals (2 men, 2 women) for a week. This is very easy as many people in your parish have guest rooms and/or love to cook. The fee you charge families goes solely to cover the cost of "hiring" the Totus Tuus team for the week. The best part is, you know you are getting a totally, Orthodox program with trained catechists. Sometimes well-meaning individuals sign up to help with VBS but aren't great at teaching or understanding the faith. This saves you that hassle since these individuals are trained for a week before they come to your parish. They know and live their faith inside and out and don't use gimmicks: they use the Mass, Adoration, and Reconciliation to teach your children. Their programming is also for grades 1-12 which is an added bonus.

Starting in 1st grade is the only downfall I've encountered with Totus Tuus. As a result, I have prepared a supplemental curriculum (not with the approval of Totus Tuus, though they freely give me their curriculum outline so I can plan) for grades pre-K and K to use at parishes where I have worked and helped. This take some serious effort, but is worth it to get the whole family there together. The Totus Tuus teams I have worked with have been very responsive to this. If you're interested, contact me through my blog and I can help your parish supplement the Totus Tuus curriculum if you want to include your younger parishioners. 

The final option, and one I have yet to try is simply offering extended atrium times in the summer for Catechesis of the Good Shepherd. If your parish has CGS, you know that an ideal atrium session is 2-3 hours. You also know there are presentations you would like to do every year but don't always get to. The children often yearn for more atrium time. Why not take advantage of the summer months to do this? It's also a great way to have a "beginner" class and expose new families to CGS who may be in doubt. You can charge a small fee or take donations to help repair or make new materials for the coming year. 

I hope these VBS ideas help. I know it's too late to implement many of them for this year but it's never too soon to start looking ahead to next year. God bless and thanks for reading! 

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