Photos: VBS at Marcus led by the Sturgis UMC team. Photos courtesy of Ashley Alsup.
Vacation Bible School (VBS) offers fun and creative methods of teaching Christian values and relationship-building skills. It is an excellent outreach tool into the community—a way to invite those who do not usually attend church to get involved and build relationships with others and Jesus Christ. But how do you make that happen in a small, rural church with an aging congregation?
Connection and creativity are the answer! Ashley Alsup and a team of volunteers have worked with VBS at the United Methodist Church in Sturgis, South Dakota, for several years. They decided to take their experience and resources on the road.
"I have been involved with VBS in Sturgis for at least 15 years. Several other VBS opportunities exist for families here in town [Sturgis] and many other family activities. We saw our attendance go down," said Ashley.
Ashley connected with Pastor Connie Eichinger, who serves at Marcus PC (USA) and Faith UMC, at the Dakotas Annual Conference in 2022. She offered to bring a VBS team to the Northwest South Dakota rural towns of Marcus and Faith for VBS.
"We were just sharing ideas. Connie mentioned that getting VBS going in the churches she serves is hard. You know, we have a very faithful group of 20-25 volunteers. We have the VBS ideas and materials. Let's go bless these communities," said Ashley.
Resources, materials, and ideas are shared throughout the Black Hills region among those that work with children's ministry. A team of children's and youth ministry leaders gathers throughout the year to learn and support each other.
"We have not had VBS for two years. The last time we did, it was just me. It's kind of tough to do VBS as a one-person show. When Ashley mentioned they were considering starting this kind of ministry, I said, 'Put me on the list.' We only reconnected about six months ago. She called me and asked if we were still interested. I said yes," said Pastor Connie.
Ashley gathered a team. The team got the materials and decorations ready and selected dates. Pastor Connie asked for volunteers to serve lunch and snacks.
Photos: VBS at Faith UMC.
The one-day VBS was held one week at Marcus and then the following week at Faith. The team met at the church to drive the three hour, 160-mile round trip.
Ashley described the traveling VBS experience. "We all just carpooled there. We brought a fabric backdrop so we could throw that in the back with some decorations. I asked Pastor Connie, 'What do we have to work with?' Is there a TV, or projector and screen? Or do I need to bring a sheet, safety pins, painter's tape, and a projector? I had never been to either of those churches before. We gave ourselves about an hour to set things up. We ran VBS from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m."
Pastor Connie shared that it was well received. "We fed them and had some people there, but they had their own leaders. The team brought decorations; they came early and set up everything. They had crafts, music, lessons, and games. They even cleaned up afterward, and it was just great. It was much more than these churches have had for Vacation Bible Schools in years."
The theme was Hero Hotline, a VBS curriculum from Cokesbury. In the one-day VBS experience, participants experienced three of the five sessions—one, two, and five.
"We planned Hero Hotline together with others in the Black Hills area," said Ashley. "We did three of the Bible story lessons from that curriculum. We did session one and then lunch. The moms from Faith and Marcus provided the lunch and the snacks, which was super. And then, after lunch, we did session two. We had snack time and ended up with session five."
There were 11 participants at Marcus, aged four through eight. There were six participants in Faith. "We ran into a rodeo at Faith. It's a big deal there," Ashley said. "We switched the date but missed some families."
Pastor Connie promoted the VBS experience in Faith and Marcus as an event on Facebook. Ashley also provided some posters to hang up and postcards to pass out.
"Hopefully, it will be bigger next year. They know what it is like and that we will be coming back," Ashley said. "One little boy in Faith asked, 'Are you guys coming back tomorrow or next week?' I told him no, but we hope to be back next year."
Pastor Connie said, "I just can't thank them enough. It was just great!"
Ashley and the team of volunteers have had other requests. "Pastor Cheryl at Murdo and White River asked if we would be willing to go there maybe," said Ashley. "It is an opportunity to bless these communities and do something we love. I also invited the middle school kids and older at Marcus and Faith to be helpers. I told them they could join us at Dakotas Conference youth events like DakYouth and Winter Connection. I'm like, 'Hey if you ever want to ride the bus with us or you can't get a chaperone to take you, come with us!'"