Every year it seems to get harder to find adult volunteers for a full week of VBS. Very early on in my ministry, I decided that we would run VBS with the minimum number of adults required for safety, and then rely on teens and tweens to fill out the body of volunteers. It was the best VBS decision I ever made.
Start ‘em Young
In children’s ministry, it is easy to fall into the habit of focusing on programs for the very young. Yet it’s the older elementary kids – the “tweens”– who are most at risk of drifting away from church. These are the children for whom sports and other activities require increasing amounts of time.
Developmentally, they begin to exhibit a sense of independence and a desire to spend free time with friends. If church programming seems too childish, they will stop participating. Our solution is to invite them to be VBS helpers at a very young age and empower them to be leaders in this ministry.
How young is too young? How old is old enough? Honestly, there are no hard and fast rules. Often at their request, we have fourth graders who help with snacks, and fifth graders who still wish to be campers. Each child decides (in advance) how they would like to participate.
Regardless of whether they attend as a helper or as a camper, they benefit spiritually from participation. Both teen and tween helpers learn the VBS lessons. Better yet, they teach those lessons to younger children. There is nothing better than a big kid as a buddy or a teacher.
Teen Volunteer Logistics and Details
For safety reasons, any minor helper – tween or teen – must still register for VBS in order to provide emergency contact information. Any registration fees are waived, but families are asked to make a small donation to cover the cost of providing snacks for helpers.
Before VBS begins, all helpers, no matter how young, are required to attend a training session where youth protection policies and safety practices are reviewed. A special permission form is signed by helpers’ parents, to let them know that their child is receiving training and is expected to act in accordance with the guidelines. Youth who are middle school and older are required to fill out a standard church volunteer application.
Our VBS program runs every afternoon for a week. Helpers gather daily to eat lunch. I take advantage of that time to work with them. I explain how we are interpreting the theme of the day in our activities, and I emphasize the scriptural connections. This is a rather stealthy way of doing formation and Bible study with the teen and tween helpers.
Coaching and Training my Teen Volunteers
In addition to safety procedures they learned earlier, they are given directions about managing young children. I repeat these guidelines every single day. We also practice the songs children will be learning and block the daily skit.
After children arrive, older teens shepherd groups of campers from station to station. Tweens with adult supervision run craft activities, help with games, and prepare and serve snacks. For safety, an adult is always in charge of outside games, an activity where injuries are most likely to occur. There is also an adult who is the designated first aid responder. The VBS director oversees dropoffs and pickups to ensure the safety of our campers. Other adults in the building – clergy, for example – are on call in event of an emergency.
By designing VBS to rely on teen and tween helpers (with adults present primarily for safety and oversight), we created a wonderful multi-age program that fosters a sense of ownership and connection. By using the gifts of our young people, our VBS program is more vibrant and fun. Through leadership roles, our youth encounter God and the stories of our faith in new and exciting ways.
This article first appeared in Episcopal Teacher:
Spring 2018, Focus Issue – VBS, page 8