Thinking about writing your own Sunday school curriculum this year? Read this first.
Lisa Burney didn’t think she’d be able to find a vacation Bible school curriculum that would work for 350 kids. As minister to children and families at Highland Baptist Church in Raleigh, North Carolina, Burney found that her congregation had always written its own curriculum in the past; so she decided to try it herself. And why not? Burney has a master’s degree in curriculum instruction and 10 years’ experience in children’s ministry.
“It was taking a lot of time,” she says about writing the massive program. “We wrote it—I had a few people helping me—but going into that first day of vacation Bible school was nerve-racking as to whether or not it would go over.” Burney says she never had a chance to try it out beforehand.
What would you have done in Lisa’s shoes? If you’re like the 18 percent of churches that write their own curriculum, you probably would’ve done exactly what Burney did. Would it have been the right decision, though?
Not according to Children’s Ministry Magazine.
And, yes, the magazine creators are part of a company that publishes curriculum series for all kinds of church programs and all ages. They have a bias. That’s why they hired me—a freelance writer—to dig into this touchy topic.
Those same folks, though, are also passionate about ministry to children, and that makes them ask these questions: Is writing your own curriculum the best use of your gifts, talents, and time? Is it the most effective way to reach today’s kids?
Take a look at the six big reasons you might not want to write your own curriculum—from people who’ve tried it.
Publishers have checks and balances to spot gaps and problems in curriculum.
Burney says while writing their program, she and her team worried about potential misses.
“You wonder about the content: Did I get those principles into their heads to make a lesson work? Is it age-appropriate? Will the teachers be able to apply it?” she muses. “Is there a good enough balance between the children experiencing the lesson and getting the head knowledge they need? Will they be able to interact with each other and the instructor? In short, who’s giving the litmus test here?”
Kimberley Rowan, director of Elementary Kids Ministry at Cumberland Community Church in Smyrna, Georgia, points out that issues also arise when theory isn’t tested before put into practice. Without field-testing, it’s difficult to know which ideas won’t work.
“We discovered that a lot of the lessons looked great on paper and didn’t work as well in the classroom,” Rowan says. “It took a lot of extra work to get it all fleshed out.”
Publishers employ a variety of knowledgeable writers and childhood experts with years—often decades—of research and experience. They also provide curriculum that can be “tweaked,” says Katie Peterson, children’s ministry leader at Third Reformed Church in Pella, Iowa. And tweaking is a great option.
“We’ve sometimes found it necessary to add some of our own materials because our church does have its unique mission in raising up child disciples that plugs into the overall theme of our church,” says Peterson. “Finding the right mix of curriculum is crucial.”
Another issue is whether what you’ve written applies to your teachers’ teaching styles. Rowan discovered this when her ministry team members found they weren’t happy with the curriculum they were using and decided to write their own.
“I was writing curriculum that went along with my husband’s and my teaching styles and didn’t think about the fact that other teachers weren’t going to be able to adapt this to their own teaching styles,” Rowan says. “I’m a writer and graphic designer and thought this would be simple.” It wasn’t.
Most children’s ministers aren’t trained to write an effective curriculum.
Just because you’ve worked with children for years, or you’re a parent, or you’re a good writer, doesn’t mean you can write a curriculum that’s orderly, systematic, and workable.
Jonathan Fletcher, children’s pastor at Manna Church in Fayetteville, North Carolina, found that out when he worked with a team to write a curriculum for his church’s Sunday school classes.
“I can’t communicate enough that there are teams of professional people trained to write, trained for education, trained to understand learning styles, and who can create something linearly laid-out so that it follows a framework you’re trying to build overall,” says Fletcher. “Otherwise you might get a week of baptism and then a week of Daniel in the lion’s den.”
“I can read the Bible and find something that’ll be applicable for a child,” he says, “but making it systematic, making it work from week to week can be a problem. It was a big mistake for us.”
Think about it: Would you want every history teacher in your schools writing their own textbooks? That’s best left to professionals.
Even people like Burney, with education, experience, and training in curriculum writing, say writing their church’s curriculum was a mistake.
You may enter into copyright issues-even unknowingly and with good intentions.
Rowan says copyright issues also raised their ugly heads during the process. After writing a 12-week series called Faith Olympics, she learned that someone else had already written a curriculum by the same name.
“I was naive and thought this would be easy,” she says. “Then I realized that a lot of what we were doing could violate copyright issues.”
Ministries often employ the method of “beg, borrow, or steal” when it comes to crafts, games, lessons, video clips, and more. Internet searches for topical material may provide a wealth of information, but almost always that information is copyrighted and intended for readers’ personal use, not repackaging in a church’s printed curriculum materials. Some available materials are denoted with permission to reproduce, but this is an area where writers must tread carefully.
It’s not the best use of the time you have as a minister.
Everyone who’s done it agrees: Writing a curriculum takes a great deal of your ministry time. Professional curriculum publishers spend up to 30 hours per lesson—that’s almost 400 hours per quarter. A team of editors does the nitpicky work of verifying that every item for a lesson is listed, every reference checked, every fact verified, every activity tested, and more. Such critical scrutiny ensures that volunteers have a satisfying teaching experience and children grow spiritually.
Burney found the more she worked on her curriculum, the more work it took. She began writing a modified rotation curriculum where children would study the same topic for five weeks and participate in large and small groups.
“Even doing a lot of cutting and pasting — I was probably spending 20 hours a week writing,” she says. “I was also writing the Wednesday night curriculum. I basically thought the church should’ve hired a part-time curriculum writer instead of a children’s minister.”
Fletcher had much the same experience. “If I spend all my time writing and don’t spend my time teaching the teachers how to teach, it won’t reach the kids, and then it won’t reach their families,” he says. Fletcher says that while writing the curriculum, his team members quickly realized they were squandering their precious time.
Spending too much time writing curriculum can derail your true job description, adds Burney.
“If children’s ministers start doing too much writing,” says Burney, “they aren’t doing what I think they’re called to do—disciple and mentor a team of laypersons to teach. You can thereby multiply your ability to reach children. When I’m locked up in the office writing, I’ve shrunk my little area of influence down.”
If you’re holed up in an office writing curriculum, who’s taking a balloon bouquet to children in hospitals? Who’s spending time with team members to encourage and train them? Who’s equipping families to impact their children? Who’s counseling children whose lives are falling apart? Who’s doing the stuff that only you can do? Where’s the best use of your time?
If you write your own, there’s a constant tension between ministering to kids and preparing the curriculum, says Peterson. “There is such a plethora of great curriculums available, and publishers employ a wide variety of talented writers,” she says. “This makes much of today’s curriculum relevant for the daily lives of children.”
Your role may become confused.
You can be a talented writer and you can be an outstanding children’s minister, but even if you’re gifted in both areas, rarely will you have the time and energy to do both.
“I found myself in full-time children’s ministry and I was basically becoming a part-time curriculum writer,” Burney says. “But I needed to be more involved in pouring myself into my Sunday school teachers and my VBS team.”
If you love writing curriculum, it’s legitimate to ask if that’s in fact where your true passion lies. Ministry is a people-oriented position; writing is solitude-oriented. If you look forward to holing up for hours on end in front of the computer, it’s time to reexamine your role.
Your church’s focus may shift to becoming “the next big thing.”
You might not sit down to write a curriculum thinking down the road it might be sold to a huge publisher, but those who’ve been there say that’s often in the back of writers’ minds.
Fletcher admits the thought crossed his mind. “I’m sitting there writing, thinking, ‘Hey, this is something we could package,'” he says. “You’re thinking this could be a secondary benefit that would put your church on the map.”
And the number of times a church’s write-your-own curriculum is grabbed up by a big publisher, in all honesty? Less than 1 percent of the time. That’s just not a worthy goal when there are better things to do with your ministry time.
Occasionally, an entire congregation’s ego gets in the way, says Burney. “Sometimes there’s this perception that there isn’t a curriculum out there good enough for us, so we’d better write our own,” she says.
Fletcher agrees. “Sometimes we can use a curriculum straight up, but other times we tweak it just because of the size of our church or a timeline we want to be on,” he says, adding that Manna Church ministers to 700 children on Sunday mornings. “So we adjust it to geography and time and space, but that’s a lot better than adjusting it for content, which takes up the bulk of your time.”
In the end, all Christian publishers have something of value to offer to congregations. Those who’ve walked down the path of writing their own curriculum say they’ve learned that no curriculum will ever be perfect.
“It’s better to train teachers who can take an okay lesson plan and turn it into an excellent lesson plan than to strive for an excellent lesson plan right from the start,” Burney says. “It doesn’t have to be perfect-it’s better to let the Holy Spirit come through it.”
Customize curriculum to fit your ministry’s needs with these tips.
• Contextualize to setting. What’s in the news in your area? What are kids experiencing that makes the Bible relevant to their lives? If your high school football team is in the championships, rename a unit on “The Life of Christ” to “Jesus Is #1.” Then decorate your education area like you’re going to the big game.
• Contemporize to culture. Curriculum companies create resources one to three years out. They can’t tap into the latest movies or music. Keep things interesting by doing so yourself. If the movie, Transformers, just came out, you can tie that to life transformation in relation to Jesus.
• Adapt to specific needs. Nobody knows your kids better than you. If a curriculum is craft-heavy and you’ve got a room of glitter-challenged boys, go online to childrensministry.com and search for games to use instead of crafts. If you’ve got kids who struggle to read, cut reading and simply tell what happened in the Bible.
For more great tips and information about Sunday school curriculum, subscribe to Children’s Ministry Magazine.
Valerie Van Kooten is a freelance writer from Pella, Iowa. She writes on education and church issues.