Whose needs is your Back-to-School Sunday really meeting?
By Meghan Hatcher, Innovation Lab Director
When I began a new ministry role as Community Engagement Pastor midway through the summer, my first major project was to plan and lead Back-to-School Sunday. Like many churches, the congregation I was now serving had a tradition of providing school supplies to local teachers. For years, one church member painstakingly coordinated an effort to collect supplies in the weeks leading up to the mid-August Sunday celebration.
Each year, members of the congregation adorned the altar with overflowing baskets of donated paper, pencils, crayons, scissors, Kleenex, and other supplies. Church members presented these gifts and prayed a special blessing over students, teachers, school administrators, and staff in our community. It was beautiful and no doubt a blessing to many who participated. But questions gnawed at me as I heard about how Back-to-School was always done: Who was this effort serving? Who in our community was asking for this? Whose needs was it actually meeting?
As the child of a public school teacher, I’d witnessed firsthand the hundreds of dollars my mother spent on supplies for her classroom each year. I knew the supplies she needed weren’t always the same from year to year. What she needed most often revealed itself as the school-year progressed and she understood the needs of her particular students.
With this in mind, I suggested to a few church members that we consider buying gift cards for teachers instead of supplies so they could buy exactly what they needed when they needed it throughout the year. My idea was met with comments about the value of tradition and how much fun it was for church members to buy actual school supplies and create the altar display. “Who wants to just buy a gift card and miss out on the fun?,” they said.
To be perfectly honest, commemorating Back-to-School Sunday like this was more about the congregation’s needs than the teachers. It met church members’ needs to carry on a tradition and get involved serving local teachers in a way that made members feel good. Of course, teachers were happy to receive any supplies at all, but I felt the Holy Spirit nudging us to engage differently that year.
I was able to convince the volunteers and senior pastor to test the gift card idea. If it failed, we’d go back to providing supplies the next year. We created a sign-up for individuals and families to sponsor the purchase of a gift card through their donations. As a team, we wrote a prayer for teachers and put it and a gift card inside a handwritten note filled with encouragement and a promise to pray for them throughout the school year. Then we invited local teachers and school staff to our Back-to-School Sunday, passed out the cards during the worship service, and prayed a special liturgy together. To avoid pressuring teachers to attend our service simply in exchange for a gift card, we also mailed cards to teachers suggested to us by the school’s guidance counselor.
We gave away thousands of dollars in gift cards that year (and a few school supplies that mysteriously still made their way onto the altar). The response from teachers in our community was overwhelming. Many shared that a gift card could help them strategically buy supplies throughout the year as needs arose. Others told us that a gift card helped them buy an unconventional item for their classroom that we wouldn’t have thought to include in an altar display.
It was an incredibly simple, but powerful, adjustment to how we’d always celebrated Back-to-School Sunday. We met teachers’ needs in a new way that honored and enhanced our tradition because it centered the teachers, not the church. The church innovated how we’d always done something and it was more meaningful for us all — most importantly, for the teachers.