Selecting a curriculum for Vacation Bible School might seem like an innocuous enough task. How could kid-friendly Bible stories and crafts be fraught with controversy?
Or so thought the Rev. Danyelle Ditmer—until she encountered the beauty pageant.
Her church is using the “Kingdom Rock” VBS program this summer, which includes a lesson about Esther. The curriculum suggests that VBS leaders “stage a Beauty Pageant,” by dividing kids up into small groups, and having each choose a girl as an “Esther”—and then spending a minute giving her imaginary “beauty treatments.”
“I was floored,” said Ms. Ditmer, associate pastor of North United Methodist Church in Indianapolis. “I thought, ‘Are we really going to promote beauty pageants?’ Our identity as children of God has nothing to do with how we look on the outside.”
For many kids, VBS is their only exposure to church, Ms. Ditmer adds, and so she holds VBS material to an even higher than usual standard.
“This adds nothing to the lesson, and it has the potential to do harm,” she said.
With a wide-open consumer market, VBS leaders in United Methodist churches can opt from an array of non-UM materials—and many do.
Ms. Ditmer estimates that, among the United Methodist churches she knows, about half chose the Kingdom Rock program from Group, a nondenominational publisher, for this summer’s VBS.
And the trend hasn’t gone unnoticed at the United Methodist Publishing House.
“There’s been an erosion over the last decade in the number of United Methodist churches consistently using United Methodist VBS programs,” said Cathy Robinson, VBS director for the United Methodist Publishing House. “Many churches simply look at the array of offerings each year and make a choice, without ‘publisher’ as a top factor.”
Why? Most VBS curricula are chosen by lay leaders, many of whom may not be attuned to what’s distinctive about United Methodist theology. Many choose curricula based on themes that appeal most, Ms. Robinson said, or because they simply think the kids will enjoy them.
For-profit publishers like Group tend to offer “more bells and whistles, and their music and graphics are better,” said Theresa Plemmons Reiter, director of children’s ministries at First UMC in Lakeland, Fla. Those publishers market their materials more aggressively, too, she said, sponsoring conferences for children’s ministers that promote their VBS products.
Ms. Robinson cited examples, without naming names, of problematic material that some VBS leaders have encountered in non-Methodist materials: exclusive language, patriarchal role models or gender stereotypes—all of which the UM publisher is careful to avoid. Some non-UM materials don’t show much in the way of diversity, she added, and a few focus exclusively on New Testament Bible stories, leaving out Old Testament material. And some simply present lessons that aren’t faithful to United Methodist theology.
The Rev. Lisa Schubert Nowling, pastor of Hillside UMC in Princeton, Ind., saw that when her church used another Group VBS program a few years ago. Children were invited to tack strips of black plastic—representing sins—on a cross, which they carried around the church in a procession.
While it didn’t contradict Wesleyan teachings, Ms. Nowling said she didn’t like the emphasis of the lesson.
“It was a little guilt and fear-ridden,” she said. “It was definitely not a theology that acknowledged prevenient grace. I didn’t feel it was in line with who we are.”
VBS programs are flagship products for some Christian publishers. Each year, Abingdon and Cokesbury each release a new VBS program. Cokesbury’s 2013 curriculum boasts a state fair theme—“Everywhere Fun Fair”—and Abingdon offers “Hip-Hop Hope,” tailored to African-American congregations.
Cokesbury even keeps a running time clock on its website, ticking down to June 14, when the publisher will unveil its VBS program theme for 2014.
Cokesbury.com, the online retailing operation, also sells eight other VBS programs, including Group’s Kingdom Rock curriculum as well as materials from Gospel Light, Standard Publishing, Concordia Publishing and others.
But only materials with the Abingdon and Cokesbury imprints are vetted by the church’s Curriculum Resources Committee, which gets its marching orders from the Book of Discipline, Ms. Robinson said. The programs are field-tested and revised with feedback from churches. Abingdon’s materials are also reviewed by a focus group of Christian educators from a variety of denominations, including pan-Methodist churches like the AME and the AME-Zion.
Ms. Reiter observed that process when she was invited to Nashville in 2010 to help develop Cokesbury’s “Operation Overboard” curriculum.
“I was so thoroughly impressed that I vowed never to go back to any other curriculum,” she said, adding that she’s never received compensation from Cokesbury. “They were so focused on making the program theologically sound.”
Ms. Reiter’s church has used only UMPH-published materials for the past six years, and its VBS program has grown rapidly during that time, now averaging around 540 kids. While likening Lakeland’s VBS to a “Disney experience,” Ms. Reiter attributes that success to the solid, Bible-based curricula offered.
“I think children deserve the soundest theology we can give them,” she said. “I don’t think you can overlook that just because you’re working with children.”
Group stands by its decision to include the “beauty pageant,” according to Jody Brolsma, Group’s VBS senior editor. She said that every aspect of the curriculum was scrutinized carefully, and the activity “was not put in there lightly.”
But while the materials clearly suggest that leaders “stage a beauty pageant,” Ms. Brolsma says that “‘beauty pageant’ is probably not the best word” for the suggested activity.
“I wouldn’t say that we played it up,” she said. “It just gave a nod to the fact that this happened in the Bible.” The book of Esther recounts a story in which young women from around the kingdom were brought before King Ahasuerus so that he could select a new queen.
While Ms. Ditmer says that a Facebook post on the beauty pageant “exploded” with unhappy comments from fellow VBS leaders, Ms. Brolsma says Group got almost no pushback, receiving only one complaint—from Ms. Ditmer—about the suggested activity.
For Ms. Ditmer, the solution was simple: When her church’s Vacation Bible School takes place at the end of this month, there will be no beauty pageant. She eliminated the activity, and via Facebook, encouraged other VBS directors to do the same.
And despite her disappointment over this specific issue, Ms. Ditmer said she’ll use Group’s curricula in the future. She usually makes some minor changes to Group materials anyway—mostly to use more inclusive language. And she’s had good results with other Group programs in previous years.
But for Ms. Nowling, the whole flap confirmed her decision not to use a Group program this year.
“In the Honey Boo-Boo world in which we live, I’m concerned about the messages we send to young girls,” she said.