Fixing the Problem of Sunday School
My engineer son has a mantra: “Fix the problem.” As mantras go, it’s a pretty good one. Simple, memorable, intuitive, and to the point.
The mantra refers to our tendency to go about addressing problems by doing a lot of things none of which will actually “fix the problem.” It’s an amazing phenomenon, all the more so for how common it is. Since my son’s brain is wired in the logical-pragmatic mode of the engineer he often is amused at the non-logical ways people try to solve problems.
In the faculty and staff lounge of a school someone had the ability to “solve the problem.” The problem was with the coffee pot. Despite years of reminder memos, signs, and complaints, inevitable the “last person” to use the coffee pot or leave the lounge would leave the coffee pot on. (First logical problem: how do you know you’re the “last person” to leave a room?). This resulted in the roasting of the dregs in the glass coffee pot with its attending burnt-coffee smell and potential fire hazard. One staff member finally fixed the problem. Rather than try to change people’s behavior, trying to make them more responsible, sending out another memo, sending another e-mail reminder to the entire distribution, or putting up another sign, he got a wall outlet timer, set it to shut off automatically at the end of the day, and plugged in the coffee pot. Problem solved.
It’s an age-old phenomenon
I recently came across this way of making, the need to “fix the problem.” You may have seen it: Reportedly, the Tribal wisdom of the North American Indian, passed on from generation to generation, says that, “When you discover that you are riding a dead horse, the best strategy is to dismount.”
However, in the world of church and organizational life more advanced strategies are often employed, such as:
- Buying a stronger whip.
- Changing riders.
- Appointing a committee to study the horse.
- Arranging to visit other churches to see how other congregations and denominations ride horses.
- Lowering the standards so that dead horses can be included.
- Reclassifying the dead horse as living-impaired.
- Outsourcing the issue to dead horses overseas.
- Hiring outside denominational consultants to ride the dead horse.
- Harnessing several dead horses together to increase speed.
- Providing additional funding and/or training to increase dead horse’s performance.
- Conducting a survey to see if lighter riders would improve the dead horse’s performance.
- Declaring that as the dead horse does not have to be fed, it is less costly, carries lower overhead and therefore contributes substantially more to the bottom line of the mission and budget than do some other horses.
- Rewriting the expected performance requirements for all horses.
- Promoting the dead horse to a supervisory position.
Broken Sunday School?
If your Sunday School is broken, fix the problem. When it comes to Sunday School there are four aspects on which we typically overfocus:
- The problem likely isn’t with the hour. 9:45 a.m. is a perfectly fine timeslot that’s been around for ages. But the problem may be that you only allow for 40 minutes of formal Christian education for most of your church members. Perhaps the problem is the length of the learning experience. And if 9:45 is the only time you offer formal Christian education, then that’s a real problem.
- The problem isn’t that you have non-professional “lay” teachers. The problem is probably that your church provides little to no regularly scheduled, on-going, formal training to help them be effective, knowledgeable skilled teachers.
- The problem isn’t with the curricular resource material you use (they’re all basically the same). The problem is probably that an instructional approach is just not effective when it comes to helping people grow in faith. When it comes to educating people in faith, they need a different way than what the limitations of instruction can provide.
- The problem isn’t that “only” one-fourth of your active church membership shows up for Sunday School. The problem is probably that you’re offering the wrong opportunities. Getting more people to come to Sunday School tends to make us miss the needs of those persons and groups for whom Sunday School, as a program and way of learning, cannot satisfy. First, adding more people to a broken program doesn’t fix the problem. Second, the fact is that if Sunday School is the only, or primary, educational enterprise your church offers, then you’re not meeting the needs of some of the members of your church who need different ways to help them grow in faith.
Israel Galindo is Associate Dean for Lifelong Learning at the Columbia Theological Seminary. He directs the Pastoral Excellence Program at Columbia seminary. He is the author of the bestseller, The Hidden Lives of Congregations (Alban), Perspectives on Congregational Leadership (Educational Consultants), and A Family Genogram Workbook (Educational Consultants), with Elaine Boomer & Don Reagan, and Leadership in Ministry: Bowen Theory in the Congregational Context.
His books on education include Mastering the Art of Instruction,The Craft of Christian Teaching (Judson), How to be the Best Christian Study Group Leader (Judson), and Planning for Christian Education Formation (Chalice Press).