lagging sales lead to suspension of further development of Covenant People

That doesn’t necessarily represent a decision to pull back permanently or fully from producing the Covenant People curriculum. Despite disappointing sales, “there’s still a strong feeling that the church wants something from the denomination” — that many Presbyterian congregations do want a Sunday school curriculum specifically written for Presbyterians, said Lynn Shurley Jr., a Kentucky pastor who’s chair of the General Assembly Council’s Congregational Ministries Division Committee.

So curriculum development leaders are reluctant simply to pull the plug on Covenant People — in which about $6 million has already been invested, and which is the first denominationally-based curriculum the Presbyterian church has produced in 30 years. But they also recognize that without improved sales, this curriculum — now five years in the making — cannot succeed. Sandra Moak Sorem, publisher of Congregational Ministries Publishing, is preparing recommendations regarding the long-term future of Covenant People to present to the General Assembly Council when it meets in Tempe, Arizona Sept. 25 to 30 — partly because her division had been instructed by the council two years ago to give an update at this meeting — and Shurley said he expects “lively” discussion.

In an interview, Sorem said that when she presented financial projections for Covenant People to the council last February, she was convinced that production costs could be cut — and they have been — and that sales of the curriculum would improve. In fact, sales of Covenant People are still behind projections — only about 10 percent of the PC(USA)’s 11,300 congregations have bought any of the Covenant People materials. But two other curriculum lines the PC(USA) is offering — Bible Quest and Present Word, both ecumenically produced — are doing well, exceeding both budgeted projections and year-to-date sales from last year.

For now, here’s a quick view of where things stand.

The PC(USA) has suspended development of the third year of Covenant People — a decision that’s expected to save about $150,000 a month. The decision to halt development of Covenant People means that the third year of the curriculum won’t be ready for use in the fall of 2002, so churches that want to use Covenant People then would have to recycle material from the first two years.

Last February, the General Assembly Council decided it wasn’t reasonable for curriculum publishing to be expected to be financially self-sufficient — to support itself based solely upon sales of curriculum, a goal that hasn’t been achieved for at least the past decade. The council voted to start putting funding for curriculum development into the denomination’s budget beginning in 2003, and to provide $5,721 from this year’s budget and $246,348 next year to cover curriculum publishing’s shortfalls.

Sorem told the General Assembly Council last winter that curriculum publishing expected to run a shortfall of about $850,000 in 2000 and that projections were for expenses to exceed income by $216,454 in 2001 and $246,348 in 2002. Shurley acknowledged that he’s frustrated — in part by churches that say they want a Presbyterian-produced curriculum, but then don’t buy it. If only 10 percent of PC(USA) churches are buying Covenant People, “that’s a lot of money for a limited audience,” he said.

Why aren’t more Presbyterian congregations using the curriculum? There’s no one answer. In interviews at the Association of Presbyterian Church Educators meeting last January in Alabama, some educators said they loved the new curriculum; others said their churches weren’t buying. Some educators said Covenant People was so complex — offering so many options for how it could be used — that churches weren’t sure what to order, or were using just a few pieces rather than the whole line.

Based on extensive research — including focus groups, surveys, stacks of anecdotal feedback and followup interviews with congregations that started using Covenant People and then quit — “we think we know a lot about why churches are not using it,” Sorem said. In short: denominational leaders sense that some congregations or Sunday school teachers view Covenant People as too complex or intimidating to be easily used.

Covenant People is designed to give congregations flexibility, so they can choose from a range of materials what would suit their church best. But that means choices have to be made — a church can’t just place a quick standing order and be done with it. That flexibility seemed to work well for congregations with Christian educators on staff who could help decide what was needed, Sorem said. But “that was a problem for some people who didn’t have (Christian) educators to help them through that.”

Once the materials arrived, some people found them confusing, Sorem said — especially if they were accustomed to getting one book that contained everything in a straightforward sequence. The Covenant People materials don’t come in a booklet, she said — and “because it didn’t look like a traditional curriculum, there were some people who had a hard time figuring out how to use it.”

Some also complained that the Covenant People curriculum took too much preparation time — and that didn’t work for churches using volunteer Sunday school teachers who were busy with their own lives and jobs and sometimes had to be begged to take the class in the first place. “A lot of Sunday school teachers just don’t have time” to prepare for the lessons, Sorem said. She’s learned that maybe “people are more traditional than we think they are, and they want a more traditional-looking curriculum” that’s easy to order and easy to use.

As a result of the poor sales and those understandings, the PC(USA) stopped development of the next phase of Covenant People. “The changes that need to be made I think are substantial enough that you really can’t do it in process,” Sorem said. “You have to stop and rethink it.”

And what’s likely to emerge, she said, is “going back to a more traditional approach to curriculum” in units that are sequential and offer less flexibility for individual congregations.

Another factor, Sorem said, is that curriculum publishing is a highly competitive market. Sales didn’t increase this year “even though we have gone to Herculean efforts” to promote Covenant People,” she said. “We have done a massive amount of marketing.

Maybe there’s a “consumerist attitude,” even in churches, Shurley said. “When we decide we want to use something, we want to be sure it’s there.” But Presbyterian churches clearly feel no obligation to purchase a curriculum just because it’s developed by their own denomination.

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