"Teachers who feel connected – to each other, and to church leaders/staff – will be more committed to the faith formation program. Not only will they be more comfortable asking for help, they will build soul-nourishing friendships."
The Importance of Training
As September approaches, churches around the country are preparing to begin a new program year. Whether your church formation program has hundreds of participants, or just a few, well prepared teachers and leaders are essential. Providing training will help your volunteers lead children (and adults) in lived, loving relationships with God, others, and creation.
Note: Don’t forget to check parish and diocesan policies regarding background checks and sexual abuse prevention training to ensure your volunteers fulfill all the necessary requirements.
Thanks to our Experts
We would like to thank the formation leaders who shared their wisdom for this post: Sue Van Oss, Director of Christian Formation at St. Paul’s in Duluth, Minnesota and Boykin Bell, Director of Christian Formation at Chapel of the Cross in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.
10 Tips for Sunday School Teacher Training
As always, adapt this advice to fit your setting. For example, some churches don't use the terms "Sunday school" or "teachers," but instead seek to train "formation leaders" or "faith leaders." Whatever your context, the tips below will help you equip volunteers to nurture children in knowing God and loving Jesus.
1. Be Intentional About the Invitation
Being a faith formation volunteer is an important role, so don’t under sell it. Teachers that value their roles are likely to spend more time preparing, and inviting others to participate. Avoid drawing in volunteers by saying "it's so easy." Instead, focus on the purpose and importance of the ministry you are asking the person to be involved in.
As for the invitation itself, personal contact is always best. Invite volunteers individually; first through an email so they can think about it, and then through a follow-up phone call. Tell them why you think their personal gifts are suited to teaching and leading children.
2. Be Open and Honest about the Commitment Level
People appreciate knowing what to expect. For example, if the curriculum your church uses requires preparation each week, be upfront about the time commitment and explain why that preparation is important. If your ministry would benefit from leaders being present for at least two sessions a month in order to form relationships, set that expectation as part of the invitation. At the training itself, review and discuss these expectations.
3. Consider Written Job Descriptions
As author Mark DeVries explains, "Every volunteer longs for clarity. But too often we give only fuzzy expectations – no job description, no behavioral contract, no accountability structure – and then wonder why our volunteers don't last" (Sustainable Youth Ministry, 154).
Job descriptions are not just for large churches – any sized ministry can benefit from clear expectations. So consider including 'position descriptions' as part of your personal invitations, and then have copies to go over at the training. These documents should outline the purpose of the ministry, the responsibilities of the position, the time commitment, and the resources and/or training you will provide. Check out the following sample: Church School Teacher Position Description.
4. Model Preparation and Organization
Whether you meet with volunteers individually, do a large training session with all leaders, or go on an overnight retreat, your level of organization makes an impact. When you communicate well and demonstrate a high level of preparedness, it sends the message that you value your volunteers and their ministries. Your example will also set an expectation (and encouragement) for the your teachers' preparation in their own classrooms.
Some basic tips: Arrive early to the training to set up and have the space completely ready. Have all the supplies ready to go, and make photocopies well ahead of time. When people arrive, you will be able to focus on greeting and welcoming them.
5. Respect your Volunteers' Time
Have an agenda. This can be written on newsprint, up on a white board, or printed out for all participants. It lets people know what to expect and how long the meeting or training will last.
If you schedule 1.5 hours for the training, do not keep volunteers longer. If you run out of time, you can schedule a follow-up meeting. This could be in person or via video conference; either as a group or individually. Alternatively, you could send additional notes or create a short video to cover material you did not get to.
6. Focus on Relationships
Whether you meet in groups or with volunteers individually, prioritize time for relationship building. Teachers who feel connected – to each other, and to church leaders/staff – will be more committed to the faith formation program. Not only will they be more comfortable asking for help, they will build soul-nourishing friendships.
In the training, make time for volunteers to work together in small groups. This is especially important for teachers/leaders who will be working as part of the same team. The most important thing is for teaching teams to meet and to agree to certain norms, especially if a new person is joining an established team. Make sure that everyone feels respected and valued.
7. Make Time for Prayer
Certainly, you should open the training in prayer. In addition, consider spending intentional time praying for the children and parents that you'll be ministering to. As a leader, you can model this practice by asking your volunteers how you can be praying for them throughout the year.
8. Share a Vision
A clear vision for your ministry will allow your formation teachers and leaders to work toward similar goals. Your team will feel that they are making a meaningful contribution to their church community. You should craft your vision before the training – either on your own, or with a small trusted circle of people.
At the training itself, you can involve your volunteers in some additional visioning. Hang large sheets of paper around the room, then give each volunteer a stack of post-it notes to add comments to each poster. The headings on the large sheets of paper can be the following: A Look Back: What were the previous year highs and lows, what worked, what could be improved? Today: What are needs we see for this year, what do we want to accomplish? Future Dreaming: If money, time and effort were limitless, what would you envision for the faith life of this community?
9. Content Content Content!
Your volunteers will be hungry for advice and practical ideas for teaching and leading children. So provide such content as part of the training. Depending on your curriculum, you may have specific materials to work through. But don't get caught in the weeds.
Consider acting out a 'classroom scene' or a story-telling lesson. Additionally, try an exercise about childhood development, passing out descriptions of how children at different ages learn and socialize. Discuss these 'ages and stages' with your group. (Note: Building Faith will be sharing some age level guides shortly.)
10. Consider the Needs of your Volunteers
As a church leader, one of your tasks is to help your volunteers grow spiritually through their ministry. That can't happen if your volunteers or worried and stressed. So think about their needs, both for the training and beyond. Will any of the leaders need childcare? Will leaders be coming straight from work and need dinner? Do leaders live far away and need to meet on a Sunday as opposed to weeknight? Could you meet at someone’s house, especially for a small group?
Remember that your care and nurture of your volunteers will set the stage for their care and nurture of the children (and all people) in your church. Together, your ministry will bear fruit for years to come.
Sarah Bentley Allred is an MDiv. student at Virginia Theological Seminary. Previously, Sarah served for four years as Director of Children’s and Youth Ministries at St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in High Point, North Carolina. She loves local coffee shops, board games, the beach, and exploring new places with her husband, Richard, and their dog, Grace.