I would love this to be one of those articles whose title is a misnomer – an article that claims it is about canceling Vacation Bible School but is really about the amazing new innovative program that a church chose to do in place of Vacation Bible School — but it is not. Maybe next summer I will be able to write the article about the amazing, new, innovative creation we have replaced VBS with, but we are not there yet. This summer is the summer that we really did have to cancel VBS.
After months of watching my friends post beautiful pictures of their churches all decorated for creative play and learning, it was finally our turn — we made flyers and sent out postcards, we lined up volunteers and purchased curriculum, we made calls and crafted decorations. There was just one problem… no one signed up. Yes, that’s right. Fewer than 10 kids signed up to come to our church’s Vacation Bible School.
I know some of you, many of you, live and move and have your being in churches where any children at all would be a blessing. I also know that some of you inhabit churches where only ten at VBS is an outrageous thought! I have worked and worshiped in those sorts of churches too, both large and small. If there is one thing I know it is that there are always dark and dusty corners, even in the most flourishing church, where the possibility of a program failing or dying is very real.
So let’s bring it out of the shadows and talk about how to fail with style.
1) Know when it is time to let go.
I know we are not the first church to face the reality of changing congregational demographics. I know we are not the first church to struggle with how to let go of a program that is no longer working. I think it is fair to say that this was not a sudden death… in retrospect the end has been approaching for several years. Perhaps it could have been avoided if we had taken action years ago — but I dare say we didn’t know what could be done! So, we kept trying to do our best with what we had. The blessing of an all-out, clear-as-day failure is this: We can have no doubt that it is time for a change! Now we have permission to try something crazy. Now we have license to take some risks and see what God can do. Knowing when to let go is half the battle.
We are mortal and so are our churches and church programs. I could pick apart for you everything we could have done differently and we could probably learn some valuable lessons from that case study. I am a pastor, though, and not an MBA student, so that is not my go to strategy. Instead I will do what pastors do when something dies – I will hold a funeral. I will look my volunteers in the eyes and instead of trying to pinpoint blame, I will try to witness to the resurrection. I will acknowledge that their grief is real and valid. I will remember that they have memories of good years past that we should treasure together. I will acknowledge that they even had hopes and excitement for this year that are now lost. I will try to be their pastor and let them grieve. I will also invite them to hope that God might be doing a new thing within us. I will invite them to imagine what new breath the Holy Spirit might be breathing into the dry bones of our Vacation Bible School. I don’t know yet what that will look like, but I do know that I believe that resurrection is just as real as death.
3) Hold your head up high.
I hope I am modeling this right now and not just airing my church’s dirty laundry! Truly, I think if we want to encourage what you might call “entrepreneurial ministry” that has the ability to adapt to a changing culture, we have to allow ourselves to let some things die so that new things might take their place. Any congregation only has a limited amount of resources — the most precious of which is volunteer and staff energy. So if you are going to experiment with new projects and try new things without burning yourself out, you will sometimes have to have the strength to let the old things die. Of course energy is not a zero sum game, sometimes expending energy breeds more energy and allows you to do even more good ministry—but that is not true of the energy that is expended propping up dying programs. That only saps energy and breeds discouragement. So if, or rather, when you experience the death of a program that is no longer working, hold your head up high. You are being given the gift of time and energy for something new — use it to let God do something great.
CAITLIN THOMAS DEYERLE is pastor of Southminster Presbyterian Church in Richmond, Virginia, where she lives with her husband James, their cat Calvin, and a very rebellious puppy named Molly.