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Summit evaluates Gather ‘Round curriculum


Participants from the Gather ’Round summit worked in small groups to generate ideas for the curriculum’s fifth year to start in the fall of 2010.

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December 19, 2008
-Mennonite Publishing Network Staff Release

ELGIN, Illinois — As the Gather ’Round curriculum moves into its third year of use (and fifth year of writing), staff and denominational representatives met in Elgin to evaluate the materials and make plans for the future. A key resource for a November “summit” was data collected through a major curriculum survey conducted in Mennonite Church USA, Mennonite Church Canada and Church of the Brethren congregations across North America. (See related sidebar.)

“We dealt practically with challenging issues such as declining denominational identification and tightening budgets by coming up with improvements in our products and creatively developing new ways to reach congregations and members,” said project director Anna Speicher.

Participants affirmed the importance of faith formation and Christian education in the life of the church, and grappled with the difficulty today in training and equipping teachers. Teachers tend to serve for shorter periods of time and are less available for training events. Though the curriculum from the outset was developed with a special emphasis on “embedding” teacher training into the teacher’s guides, the group recognized a need to build even more teaching assistance into the curriculum.

The group learned how sessions in the teacher’s guides are being redesigned to streamline the flow and make it easier to follow. Editors are also giving extra attention to age-appropriateness, particularly at the Preschool level. In addition, more teacher assistance is being provided through the quarterly “Roundabout” newsletter, an expanded “Roundabout Online” e-newsletter, and recent upgrades to the Gather ’Round website,

In a wide-ranging conversation about Christian education in a post-modern era, participants reflected on the trend toward small group gatherings outside the traditional Sunday school setting. The Gather ’Round team brainstormed ways the curriculum can be adapted for midweek use, church retreats, and other alternate settings.

The team was heartened by survey data that showed a high percentage of congregations using denominational curricula. When choosing resources, congregations reported placing a higher priority on theological orientation and denominational values than on price. Among both Mennonite and Brethren congregations, Gather ’Round was the dominant choice for children’s Sunday school programs. Distant second and third choices were materials by David C. Cook and Group.

A significant number of congregations reported having few or no children. These demographics are a challenge for denominational publishers. The Gather ’Round project is small compared with other available Sunday school materials, as most small denominations have found it impossible to continue this sort of publishing. Not lost on the meeting attendees were the realities of the current economic climate as it pertains to church budgets.

The group spent considerable time analyzing ways to ensure that each Gather ’Round component is financially viable—particularly the signature Talkabout take-home item and Connect, a resource for parents and caregivers. Recognizing that some congregations are already using Connect as a general adult Bible study, the Gather ’Round team is planning to broaden the writing so that the books can be used easily by all adults. There will still be content aimed at parents and caregivers.

The group also explored ways to keep broadening the base for Gather ’Round. This unique curriculum already appeals to other denominations, and orders on the website have increased significantly.

The meeting brought together Gather ’Round staff, other publishing house staff assigned to the project, and representatives from each of the publishing denominations—Elsie Rempel from Mennonite Church Canada, and Gwen Gustafson-Zook from Mennonite Church USA, and Carol Mason from the Church of the Brethren. Mennonite Publishing Network staff on the Gather ’Round Steering Committee include Ron Rempel, executive director and Eleanor Snyder, director of Faith & Life Resources.

“The summit exceeded all my expectations,” reflected Speicher. “The Spirit of God moved in this gathering, inspiring us anew with the shared sense of purpose and the encouragement needed to accomplish our goals.”

Gather ’Round is a cooperative publishing project of Brethren Press and Mennonite Publishing Network, the publishing ministry of Mennonite Church Canada and Mennonite Church USA. Users come from a wide range of other denominations, including congregations from several cooperative users—United Church of Christ, United Church of Canada, Moravian Church, and Mennonite Brethren.

Gather ’Round plans for the future

Selected curriculum survey findings

  • 23.5% response rate (272 in total) from surveys sent to 1,156 congregations in Mennonite Church USA and Mennonite Church Canada
  • 58 survey responses came from Canada
  • 54% of churches have worship attendance between 26 and 125; 54% of churches have Sunday school attendance between 26 and 100.
  • 91% of churches surveyed have children’s Sunday school; 82% have junior and/or senior youth Sunday school; 94% have adult Sunday school.
  • In 22% of the churches, the Sunday school attendance is declining. Some churches are exploring mid-week Christian formation options.
  • 91% of churches indicated that Sunday school is “crucial” or “very important” in growing faith; 53% of the churches provide no training for their Sunday school teachers.
  • 84% of respondents purchase resources from Mennonite Publishing Network
  • 52% of Mennonite Church Canada churches use Gather’ Round materials
  • 37% of Mennonite Church USA churches use Gather’ Round materials
  • 75% of 226 respondents use Gather ’Round curriculum in children’s Sunday school
  • 65% of 152 respondents use Call, the Gather ’Round junior youth material; 35% use Search, the Gather ’Round youth material available as a downloadable resource or a CD
  • 73% of 237 respondents use Adult Bible Study, and 6% use Connect, the Gather ’Round adult material.