Editor’s note: Todd Buegler, an ELCA pastor and the executive director of the ELCA Youth Ministry Network, offers suggestions for congregations as they consider Vacation Bible School curricula.
Last month, anger and angst erupted over racially insensitive material found in “Roar! Life is Wild, God Is Good,” a Vacation Bible School curriculum from Group Publishing. The curriculum “starts with an interactive retelling of the Exodus story and the plight of Hebrews who were held in slavery in Egypt,” reports United Methodist Insight. “[It] not only misses the opportunity to draw child-appropriate parallels about enslaved people throughout history but also diminishes the harsh realities of slavery and the agency of the people held captive by their oppressors.”
The anger and angst are justified. I don’t believe that Group Publishing placed this inappropriate and hurtful content in the curriculum maliciously. Nevertheless, resource creators are responsible for what they publish and how it affects their audience.
As we reflect on this issue, I want to acknowledge two things:
1. The content of the curriculum was racially insensitive and hurtful, and though Group updated the curriculum, it handled the controversy poorly.
2. ELCA congregations also bear responsibility in this situation.
What responsibility do our congregations bear?
“Roar!” began shipping to congregations in December 2018. However, stories about the offensive material didn’t appear until five months later. Either we failed to notice the offensive material, we noticed but ignored it, we corrected the material but failed to share this information with others, or we didn’t review the curriculum until right before we used it. All of these are problematic.
While we as congregations need to hold Group accountable for racism, we also need to examine our own complicity. And we need to acknowledge that we let down our young people and their families, especially people of color. We need to ensure this doesn’t happen again.
Wherever congregations get VBS curriculum, they need to be thorough in vetting the material so that it aligns with our values and God’s mission. How do we do that?
1. Start early. It’s not too early to begin working on summer 2020. Some denominational publishers (e.g., Cokesbury) still produce materials. ELCA World Hunger produces annual VBS curriculum that is free. You might adapt the Lutheran Outdoor Ministry curriculum for VBS. (Bonus: Many of our outdoor ministry sites send small groups of their staffers out to congregations to run weeklong “day camp” programs. I’ve seen it work. It’s amazing! Connect with your local site to learn more.)
2. Select well. Recognize that every curriculum will take time and energy to adapt to your ministry context. Nothing should just be used “out of the box” without editing. While Group may have the highest “production value” (e.g., videos and music) and is the easiest to use out of the box, remember that ease is not our goal. Group sells to a variety of denominations, so its products are written for the broadest possible audience. You’ll need to consider whether those production elements are worth the additional time required to adapt the content to your setting.
Pray for guidance and wisdom, and then examine your intentions. Why are you doing VBS? What are your goals? How do you hope God’s Holy Spirit works through your VBS? Answering these questions well will help you select a curriculum.
3. Use the community God has given us. You are not in this alone. Decisions about Vacation Bible School are best made when there is broad investment. There’s an entire community of people in the ELCA who work on faith formation whose experience you can draw upon. Join the ELCA Youth Ministry Network’s Facebook Group and ask questions. Compare notes. Ask how different congregations are adapting educational materials. A lively conversation is happening there now.
4. Edit ruthlessly. As you go through whatever curriculum or materials you use, you will need to edit each for the particulars of your congregation. Pay special attention to cultural references. Make certain that they’re appropriate and that they’ll be heard and understood in a way that welcomes and includes people and aligns the congregation with God’s mission in your community. Begin this process in January or February, to make sure you have time in the spring to prepare.
5. Ask others to review. This last step is critical: Show the curriculum to others. Do you have a VBS or Christian- education committee? Ask the members for feedback. Share sections with colleagues and ask for input. It’s always a good idea to show the material to someone who looks at the world through a different cultural lens. Ask him or her to review the material for references or cultural biases you may not see. Will all of God’s people hear the messages of this curriculum in a way that builds up the body of Christ? This can be a humbling process, but if we don’t ask, we cannot grow. If we don’t ask, we repeat our mistakes.
Vacation Bible School can be a powerful ministry, helping to form faith in the lives of children and their families. It builds community and provides an avenue for outreach, and it can teach God’s truth. We are the stewards of this ministry—ublishers are in business to sell books. We can look to them for resources, but it is our responsibility to make sure what we put in front of our children reflects God’s vision for our world.
The “Roar!” controversy can serve as a teachable moment and a wake-up call. We all need to do better. We can do much better. God has promised to be present, and all of God’s people deserve our best efforts in passing along the faith.