First, it matters. In fact, the opportunity Sunday School provides for Christian community, faith discussions, exploring the wonder of a young faith and the many questions of a mature faith, matters as much as anything a congregation does.
Second, it matters too much to be left to chance or last-minute hustling. A congregation’s leaders should put more energy into recruiting, training, and supporting the best possible Sunday School teachers than into those who will manage money and property. Faith matters more than budget.
Third, the most important element — second place isn’t even close — is the teacher. It is possible to devote considerable time to selecting a curriculum from among the 600-plus on the market, and to spend much money on providing high-quality space and equipment. But the fact is, a skilled and motivated teacher can sit on the floor in a basement hallway without any curriculum at all and make magic happen. By the same token, an unskilled and unmotivated teacher can turn an excellent curriculum and ideal space into a drab experience that no one wants to attend.
Fourth, put your energy into finding the right people to teach. Forget team teaching and rotated teaching assignments. The best class has the same teacher week in and week out, often year in and year out.
Fifth, how do you recognize the right people? You want someone who engages the students, draws them into discussions, listens, laughs, loves, and allows room for exploration and ambiguity. Faith isn’t a matter of simple formulas and memorized answers. Faith is about stories, journeys, small glimpses of grace, warming of the heart, and an awareness of God’s presence. Like love among persons, such a faith must be allowed to happen, not compelled.
Sixth, Sunday School is for children and for adults, in age groupings that facilitate discussion.
Seventh, Sunday School needn’t happen on Sunday. Many churches find that classes work better on weekdays, such as Wednesday evenings. You will want to experiment.
Finally, give your teachers enough time to teach and the students enough time to get involved. A 35-minute slot on a crowded Sunday schedule is absurd. Aim for an hour. A skilled teacher will fill that to the brim and leave students wanting more.
Tom Ehrich is a writer, church consultant, and Episcopal priest based in New York. He is publisher of On a Journey, and founder of the Church Wellness Project.