Since mid-March, churches have been grappling with how to connect when in-person meetings are no longer possible. This year, as spring turned to summer, children’s and youth ministry programs that would typically provide camps, gatherings and other activities faced the same predicament: how to adapt an in-person ministry to an online format?
Several Anglican organizations have released youth-centred resources online during the pandemic. The World Council of Churches (of which the Anglican Church of Canada is a member) put out a toolkit for congregations wanting to engage with youth mental health. The Primate’s World Relief and Development Fund (PWRDF) released a day camp program developed using stories from PWRDF partners around the world. The Anglican Foundation of Canada shared online Dear God: Prayers for Young Children in book form and as a set of videos.
For local ministries, summer 2020 was a time for getting creative.
Yvonne Kern, who serves as children’s pastor at St. James Anglican Church in Calgary, is in her 12th year of running children’s ministry, and her 12th vacation Bible school (VBS). This year, it looked a little different: from Aug. 10-14, Kern ran a “virtual VBS.”
“We’re using material [from a] company that I’ve been using for years,” says Kern. The program, called “Rocky Railway”, fit nicely with the context of the church, situated an hour’s drive from the Rocky Mountains. “The theme this year is ‘Jesus’s power pulls us through,’ which of course is so appropriate for this pandemic time,” she says.
The in-person VBS program is typically made up of daily three-hour sessions. In its virtual format, Kern has adapted the content into one-hour, pre-recorded sessions that include instructions for kids to pause the program to complete certain tasks. “So it would take a family about an hour and a quarter, hour and a half to go through it. But they can pause, go do something else, go play a game or have a snack—we set it up that way.”
The company that created the program sent out some information on how to change up the program at the beginning of the pandemic, says Kern, but “we still had to modify it from there to make it fit our context.”
One of the challenges in translating the program to video is finding ways to make it interactive. “You’ve got to keep [kids] moving,” says Kern. During the different sections of the video, kids are instructed to press pause and complete a task—find something from in their house, for instance, or discuss a question with their parents. “The biggest challenge is how to make it [so that] it’s not just sit and watch a show for thirty minutes, an hour. We want them to get up and move and do things and try things out and play things and dance to the music.”
The decision to run a virtual VBS came out of a brainstorm group Kern pulled together that met over the Zoom videoconferencing platform. They surveyed the parents in the church and found about half the families wanted to participate in the idea—the other half felt “Zoomed out,” Kern says, after months of distance learning. “We forged ahead, and what’s really interesting to me is we typically average around 70 kids at our VBS in the summertime … and we have 80 children participating in our virtual VBS this year.”
Pre-pandemic, St. James averaged around 30-35 kids every Sunday, with 60-65 on her register, Kern says.
The virtual format has allowed some families in other provinces—even other countries—to participate, and the VBS videos remained on the St. James website until the end of September. For families who registered to participate, Kern and her team put together supply kits with everything kids need to engage in the VBS activities.
Kern says she usually has about 40 volunteers during VBS week, but this year, she’s mostly had the help of her family—her daughter leads music segments in the videos, her son-in-law leads the Bible section, and her husband has done all the video editing. “I’ve been blessed with a great family who have really helped pull it together.”
In addition to the VBS, Kern has been recording a 10-15 minute video lesson to release every Sunday and a video bedtime story every week. While the diocese is beginning to look at re-opening plans for churches, she says she expects she’ll keep making the videos into the fall, as some families might not feel ready to come back to in-person services yet.
“I’m a former teacher, and I’m a mother and grandmother, so I just love reading stories…. So I just kind of raided my shelf. I read one or two stories, and then we post it to the church website and families can watch it whenever.”
Talking to a camera rather than a group of kids, and releasing videos onto a website, can feel like sending things out into the void, Kern says. But she has heard from parents and grandparents who say their kids ask to watch a bedtime story from “Mrs. Yvonne” before bed.
She’s had positive feedback about the virtual VBS, too. “I’ve been getting some wonderful little texts and emails and pictures,” says Kern. “Somebody said, ‘This camp has shook us out of our pandemic fatigue.’”
Last year around 150 kids attended Camp Brookwood, an Anglican camp in the diocese of Fredericton, over the course of the summer, camp director Ally Green says.
For Green, however, this year has been a little quieter: she and a groundskeeper are the only two staff members at the camp for the summer of 2020.
It became apparent at the end of May, Green says, that the camp wouldn’t be able to open for the summer; even as Green continued to plan the summer, she says, the board was debating whether to close. In the end, she says, “we figured, OK, this isn’t going to work…. The average age of a person who works here is 17. That’s a lot of responsibility for a 17-year-old, to manage a cabin of three to seven kids and to keep them all socially distanced during the day and at night—it would be exhausting for the staff members.”
Instead, Green began posting on Facebook. Once per day, she uploads a post to the Camp Brookwood page, following daily themes: Monday is “Music Monday,” featuring a song the kids would have sung in chapel; on Tuesdays, a craft that would align with one of the camp’s themed weeks; on Wednesday, a nature activity; Thursday alternates between crafts and activities, sometimes centred around Bible stories; and finally “Food Friday”—“little snacks that are important to the camp diet.”
Green says Music Monday posts, in which she posts a video of herself singing and playing a camp song, are usually the most popular. But her posts have ranged from recipes for burgers and chocolate chip cookies, to instructions for making and racing paper boats, to scavenger hunts and a Camp Brookwood-themed Jeopardy! quiz.
Like Kern, Green says posting to Facebook can sometimes feel like talking to no one. “The first week of posts was kind of disheartening, because there weren’t many comments and it didn’t seem like it was making that much of a difference. But there have been people who contacted me outside of Facebook to say, ‘These posts are great, thank you for doing them.’” She laughs and adds, “It just takes one person to validate my feelings.”
This is Green’s eighth year on staff at the camp—and her third and final summer as camp director. Green, who recently graduated from St. Thomas University, is moving and won’t be able to return to the camp next year.
“It is sad,” she says.
“It’s fun to watch [the campers] grow up, because some of the kids during my first year that would have been five years old, they’re in the teen camps now. I’ve been watching them get a little older, a little funnier, their personalities developing, every single year—I just get to see a little week of their lives every single year, and it’s fun to be able to watch them grow up like that.”
CLAY goes online
In March, the planning team for the biennial Canadian Lutheran Anglican Youth Gathering (CLAY) was ready to go. “We were at the stage of the planning where the national planning committee had had their last in-person meeting,” says Sheilagh McGlynn, General Synod’s animator for youth ministries, faith, worship and ministry. Everything was ready for the gathering to take place in Calgary in August 2020.
Then came the pandemic. “It became pretty evident pretty soon that we needed to cancel or postpone.” The team decided to push the gathering back to 2021—then, in August, they announced that the 2021 event would be virtual.
It was a hard decision, and disappointing that the event couldn’t simply go on as planned. “Young people are dealing with disappointments everywhere, like not being able to go to their graduations, not being able to go to summer camp … or summer jobs, or vacations or whatever it is. It was such a hard decision to make, but I know that it was the right decision to make, because we couldn’t do it this summer.”
The team will now spend the year “sort of pivoting and figuring out how to do everything we have online,” she says.
In the meantime, CLAY held an online event August 22, a way to connect the youth that would have been worshipping and learning together in Calgary this summer.
“We just wanted to give a little bit of something for young people to look forward to, to have, to be able to watch,” she says. Youth groups in provinces that are relaxing social distancing measures may be able to watch it together; in other areas, she hopes youth groups will watch individually and have a Zoom conversation about it afterwards.
“We picked a theme based on our original theme,” McGlynn says. “Our original theme was ‘En Route’: It’s our journey, where does God lead us on our path?” Organizers went with the theme “Journey Interrupted” for the August 22 event, McGlynn says, with a new set of questions in mind: “What happens when our journeys aren’t going quite as planned? And where is God in that?”
The video event featured an address from General Synod Reconciliation Animator Melanie Delva—who was booked as the keynote speaker for the gathering—songs from the CLAY band and a recorded drama skit from the last CLAY event.
Turning a large-scale youth event into a livestream requires some creative thinking, but McGlynn says the CLAY volunteers are “absolutely the right people to be doing this kind of work.
“They get youth ministry. They get that what you plan and what happens may not be exactly the same thing. In some ways, I think youth leaders are in a position—probably way better than the church in general—to adapt to what we need to do.”
Connecting online is important for youth right now, says McGlynn. “I do think that doing things [online] is still providing young people something they need right now. They need to not feel so disconnected, and this is one way that they can be connected. Even if they have their camera off, they can still be part of something that is bigger and meaningful for them.”
Tips for connecting with kids and youth online
Use photos and videos. On Facebook, posts with a visual component get a lot more traction, says Green. “They pop out more on people’s newsfeeds.”
Go where the kids are. Most of the teens that attend Camp Brookwood see Facebook as a social media platform for older people, Green says. “If [a] youth ministry program has a bunch of teens in it, I would branch out away from Facebook, maybe start an Instagram page or do Snapchat stories.”
Be patient. Things might not work right away, or there might be a learning curve on different technologies. “Be patient with yourself,” Kern says.
Don’t try to copy someone else. “Figure out what works in your context,” says Kern. The size of a church, how many staff it has, how big the children’s ministry is—all of these things make a difference.
Relationships are key. It’s harder to build up relationships online than in a face-to-face setting, says McGlynn. Get creative—get in touch by text, through a socially-distanced visit, or even by mail. “Whatever you can do to keep those young people knowing that they are cared about and loved by you, loved by God, that’s what you can do.”