Sunday Schools Build Back After COVID Challenges

Sunday School at Calvary-St. George's Church in New York City | Calvary-St. George's photo

By Bonnie N. Scott

Episcopal Sunday schools across the country have long struggled to make do with very little. For some churches, that has meant a lack of funding, resources, teachers, or even children.

Melina Smith is children’s program director at Calvary-St. George Church in New York City and executive director of StoryMakers NYC, which designs Christian resources for children. “In terms of church attendance, many children, even before COVID, were attending Sunday school six to eight times a semester, meaning that churches are charged with spiritually forming children in only 12 to 16 hours within a given year, which can seem like an impossible task,” she said.

“Even before the pandemic, it was really important for us to reconsider how we were engaging in formation with kids, because attendance was already dropping,” Smith said. “This has pushed us forward into a place where we have to reconsider how we engage and make it meaningful.”

Sunday school took a major hit during the COVID-19 pandemic. Nearly half of churches surveyed in a Hartford Institute for Religious Research study reported major disruptions in their religious education programs in the last two years.

Sunday School at Calvary Episcopal, Summit, New Jersey | Calvary photo
Sunday School at Calvary Episcopal, Summit, New Jersey | Calvary photo

The long-term effects are uneven among congregations. Evangelical churches have reported fewer educational disruptions. Churches with 100 or more congregants had an easier time retaining programming for children and youth, compared with churches of fewer than 50 average Sunday worshipers. With differing COVID restrictions across the country, location has also played a large factor in whether Sunday schools have returned to normal.

For the Episcopal Church, questions about Sunday school involve the future of the church. With pandemic disruptions fueling an already steady decline in attendance, some worry whether new generations will remain active in churches.

Children’s ministry and Sunday school directors struggled with the same pandemic challenges experienced by teachers all over America. Materials designed for classrooms had to be adapted for online classes. Children were forced to adapt to computer resources that some had never used before, and that were not well-suited for the youngest children. This was an especially difficult transition for Sunday school programs that previously stressed engaging with physical space.

Calvary Episcopal Church in Summit, New Jersey, uses the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, which is based on Montessori methods. Pre-pandemic, its children’s ministry had anywhere from 18 to 40 children each Sunday. They gathered in a space called “the atrium,” a room with soaring ceilings meant to evoke a sense of awe and reverence, even for the youngest child. In this space, children prayed, sang, and read Bible stories before the pandemic.

When the COVID-19 pandemic forced worship and Sunday school online, children struggled with the transition. “Kids were definitely not able to engage with the material in the same way over Zoom,” said Sadie Bennett, children’s coordinator at Calvary. “As difficult as it was for me to try to watch a church service and create a worship environment in my living room, I think they had the same struggles, if not more, trying to create that atrium feeling at home.”

In the spring of 2020, many children’s programs tried to offer take-home projects or materials that did not require screen time, especially for younger children, for whom using Zoom was virtually impossible. The success of these materials, however, largely depended on already overburdened parents’ abilities to become Sunday school teachers. This was an especially overwhelming task for parents with many children of different ages, with all the distractions of a home environment.

“The parents really had to become the catechists, and so much of the children’s spiritual development depended on how much prayer language and spiritual formation they were able to get at home,” Bennett said. “With the lack of Sunday school reinforcement, it really does get trickier for parents, especially during those early pandemic times, when they were focusing on just getting through the day. Inserting faith into discussions is sometimes the most families can do. Sometimes parents feel uncertain how to express their faith with their children, so they rely on Sunday school for that spiritual formation.”

While many children’s programs struggled with online programming, especially as the pandemic lingered into the fall and winter of 2020 and outdoor options dwindled, the effects of the lockdowns and indoor restrictions on children varied from state to state. Just as school districts opted for online learning or reverted to in-person classes, Episcopal Sunday schools faced scattershot approaches.

“Even though we went virtual and stayed that way for almost two years, we stayed engaged throughout the whole process,” said Smith of Calvary-St. George’s, which has between 30 and 40 children in its program on a given Sunday. “That consistent engagement has meant our numbers, pre- and post-pandemic, have remained the same.”

Through the fall and winter of 2020 in Tulsa, Oklahoma, the warm weather made it possible to continue outdoor worship and Sunday school for Christ Church Episcopal until nearly December. Once the weather turned, all activities moved indoors with masking.

Christ Church’s numbers, both for adults and children, have grown significantly in 2022. Sara Plummer, director of children’s ministry at Christ Church, attributed that growth both to strong church leadership and sustained programming throughout the pandemic.

While worship moved exclusively online for a short time in the spring of 2020, by the first warmth of summer, outdoor worship and Sunday school resumed.

“Christ Church offered worship in person during 2020 when so many churches, even in the area, weren’t,” Plummer said. “Being able to take your kids somewhere, even if it was outside, and being able to have Communion really seemed to impact people and kept them engaging with the church. The result was that our community really grew. Having families absolutely begets more families.”

Nearly 30 percent of Christ Church’s congregation consists of children, Plummer said, and this growth shows no sign of diminishing.

For churches like Calvary — which remained closed to in-person Sunday school until recently, hosted fewer coffee hours, and offered less adult formation — new families have not been quick to join. Some children have experienced noticeable changes in their spiritual development.

“We missed out on a huge developmental window for them,” Bennett said. “But I trust in the process, and I trust in the Spirit. Some of the concepts that most of them get in Level 1 of our programming come into Level 2 not having as much of a grasp of those concepts, but that’s OK, and we just go back over them again. Ultimately, though, I’m not too worried about the children. It will happen at their own pace. All we can do is make the material available when they’re ready for it.”

Bennett says that at Calvary, “the children are even more engaged, focused, and calmed in the atrium space than they were before the pandemic. With all of the Zoom, it’s been so refreshing to physically be in a space that feels special and spiritual. I think the kids, just like us adults, are subconsciously thankful to be with others again.”

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