Friday, June 25, 2021

How Writing is Like VBS

by Pam Hillman

This week I took my grandchildren to Vacation Bible School (VBS). It probably goes without saying, but for those of you who have worked in VBS, you know how hectic it can be. Herding cats has nothing on herding a hundred or more kids from 0 to 12. And all I had to do was get my grands there. I was “herding” a four-month-old so didn’t volunteer, but stuck around because it’s a 30 minute drive back home. No need in wasting that full hour or more every day.

I woke up Wednesday morning at 5 am thinking about my blog post and how I’d get it done this week while burning the candle at both ends. As I lay there, I thought about how organized the VBS team is at Salem Baptist Church in Lake, MS. Salem Baptist has a beautiful sanctuary, with the old church and fellowship hall turned into Sunday school rooms, plus a new fellowship hall appropriately christened The Lighthouse. Since I had a couple of hours free during VBS while my DIL took the 4 month-old for his well-baby check, I set to work on my blog comparing a well-run VBS to the life of a writer.

ORGANIZATION IS JOB #1. Many years ago when I was a child, and even when my children were small, VBS classes were split up by age groups, much like classes are divided by age up until the 5th grade or so in most of the US. One (or two) teachers had their class for the entire 3-4 hour period that VBS was in session and had to somehow fit in songs, snack time, crafts, the all-important Bible story time, plus play time outside. In a nutshell, it was a bit of a madhouse for small churches with a small budget and even smaller group of volunteers. But Salem's VBS Director is amazing. Everything worked like the well-oiled cogs on a choo-choo train. Sure, there were a few glitches behind the scenes, but you wouldn't know it from her ready smile and cheerful attitude toward the children.

But sometime back in the 80s or 90s, some VBS coordinator had the brilliant idea of letting the staff work where their strengths lie. VBS coordinators started setting up each classroom/area and the volunteer stayed put, but the groups of kids rotated from station to station. One teacher is in charge of teaching the lesson, one in charge of crafts, snack time, play time sometimes falls to a bunch of energetic teenagers (praise the Lord!), etc, etc. Then there are one or two volunteers who actually stay with the children all week leading them from area to area. The groups rotate on a strict schedule designed to let every group visit every station throughout the day, and consequently, the week. It’s a beautiful system.

How does this apply to writers? Sure, as writers, we don’t have to herd hundreds of kids, but we should be aware of our strengths and weaknesses. Should we write in the mornings or do marketing? Should we plan all our phone calls on one day only or allot time in the afternoons? Do we need to carve out one day a week for errands and doctor’s appointments? However we organize our day, week, month, year, having a loose plan is better than no plan at all. Can you imagine VBS with NO PLAN at all? Yikes!

PLAN TO YOUR AUDIENCE. Salem Baptist is so spot on in planning everything around the kids. From eye-level posters and props all over the classrooms, the sanctuary and even outside, to using hand-sanitizer wipes for “tickets” to get into the Lighthouse for snack time, to cupcakes made to look like railroad crossings.

Writers should do the same. Our book covers, memes, advertising, and marketing should stick to our genre and the readers that are going to pick up our books. Tune in to your audience and plan everything around catching—and keeping—their attention.

MAKE IT MEMORABLE. Just as our books should be memorable to our readers, even if it’s just that one tear-jerker of a scene that pulls at one reader’s heartstrings, or that closing scene that causes another to close the book on a sigh, something (or more than one something) should be wildly memorable. At VBS this week, my 5 yo granddaughter said her favorite part of VBS was the singing. The 2 1/2 yo loved, loved, LOVED the train, hands down. (The theme this week was “Rocky Railway: Jesus’ Power Pulls Us Through”)

WORK YOUR BUDGET/MARKETING. Small church, big church. Newbie writer, seasoned hand. Salem goes out of their way to make VBS a big production for the children in their community. They don’t skimp on crafts, flyers, posters, a filling meal for all the children and workers. Many times an author’s budget is small, but even a small budget can do wonders. If you’re indie published, don’t skimp on a great cover and an editor. 

VOLUNTEERS/YOUR TRIBE. Salem had an army of volunteers. I didn’t get final numbers, but it was close to 50 adults from what I heard. 50 Godly men and women taking time out of their busy week to teach a bunch of kids about Jesus. Some taught classes, some grilled burgers, some glued crafts together, while others took out the trash. Your tribe has strengths and weaknesses just as you do. One might be better at social media while another tells her bookclub all about her favorite new author.

Last, as Christian writers, our work has an inspirational thread woven throughout and we’re spreading the seeds of the gospel with every word we write. Kind of like VBS, I guess.

I’ve just touched on a few of the things that jumped out at me while at VBS this week. I imagine those of you who’ve been part of VBS either as a volunteer, parent, or even as a child can think of more ways that VBS is a lot like writing.

PS... One of the theme songs at VBS this week is "This Train is Bound for Glory", so I'll be bound for VBS today and won't be around to comment much at all. And of course there is VBS graduation tonight. But I'll get back to the blog to read and reply to comments as soon as possible.

CBA Bestselling author PAM HILLMAN was born and raised on a dairy farm in Mississippi and spent her teenage years perched on the seat of a tractor raking hay. In those days, her daddy couldn't afford two cab tractors with air conditioning and a radio, so Pam drove an Allis Chalmers 110. Even when her daddy asked her if she wanted to bale hay, she told him she didn't mind raking. Raking hay doesn't take much thought so Pam spent her time working on her tan and making up stories in her head. Now, that's the kind of life every girl should dream of.


  1. VBS is the best! I've been on all sides of going, volunteering, organizing, and everything in between. It's a great analogy for writing. And those sweet kiddos, who can resist?

  2. Great post, Pam, and so true. We need to be intentional about our writing life. I've done VBS and nobody, but nobody, shows up on Monday morning or Monday evening and says, "Hey gang, what are we going to teach the kids this week? Anyone know any songs?" VBS of all things takes months of prep. And a theme.
    VBS is a wonderful tool to engage kids with the lord. I don't miss the Kool-Aid, though.
    You don't have to answer my comment, I just wanted to check in. Have a great day.
    Kathy Bailey
    Your Kaybee
    Remembering VBS of yore

  3. Fun post, Pam. Our church is doing the same VBS theme. When my son was in elementary school, I spent those years involved in planning and working VBS, so I am very familiar with how it works. I will have to think about that when I am writing.

  4. Great fun, Pam!

    I've been part of VBS for a long time, but a few years ago (at my urging) our small church opted to forego organizing our own VBS. Our volunteer staff had shrunk to a minimum, meaning that if we were to put on a VBS week, our small staff had to do a LOT of work.

    Instead, those who are interested take part in other VBS programs in their neighborhoods, and we have shifted our VBS budget and energy into a lively summer Sunday School. This year we're studying the Pilgrim's Progress - one of my favorite curricula for our summer program. We don't need many volunteers, and the children love the crafts and story time.

    I can see a parallel with writing, even in our amended VBS. When we decided to stop organizing our own VBS, it was because we took stock of our resources and made an informed and realistic decision. I do that in my writing and marketing all the time! I adjust my work and my expectations to my strengths, my schedule, and my priorities, and constantly work to stretch myself into doing things that are at the edge of my reach.

    It looks like your grandbabies had a great time at VBS!

    1. By the way - times do change. We may have our own VBS program again once our current crop of babies grows into preschool age and beyond. In VBS as in writing, the key is to remain flexible and to follow God's promptings all along the way. :-)

  5. Hi Pam:

    What a wonderful post! How did kids get so cute? When I was a kid, other kids were not cute at all.

    Loved the train motif: it shows the church really cares about the children. If you show people you really care about them, you've won them over -- and this works in all walks of life at all ages.

    I went to VBS for one week as a kid and it was very memorable. I got hit in the head with a horseshoe and it made the very local newspaper! I made the news at six or seven years old. It wasn't even how it read in the paper. I got too close to someone next to me and got hit in the forehead with the other kid's back swing. The horseshoe never flew through the air. Those reporters will sensationalize anything!

    After all these Seekerville years I'm beginning to believe that everything we do is like writing! Beekeeping, spelunking, skydiving, you name it, it's like writing.

    Writing may be life on report. :}

  6. Good morning Seekerville! Well, I survived VBS and crashed (in bed... not in a car!!! lol) last night. The children had a great time and the graduation program last night was pretty awesome. All those kids on stage, plus 200-300 parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles there to see them.


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