If we want effective Sunday schools we must rethink our hit-or-miss approach to preparing teachers.

The day i started teaching first graders I was frightened beyond belief. My college degree and credentials could not stop me from being fingernail-chewing scared. Yet we confidently expect untrained Christians to handle the greater task of teaching children about God.

The truth is that most churches have a problem procuring Sunday school staff. Why? I have asked many teachers, pastors, and Sunday school administrators, as well as laymen who have refused a class. The basic reason, I discovered, is that most people will not teach because they are afraid they can’t handle such a lofty task.

Men and women of God are not too selfish to give of their time and they do want to trust the Lord, to let his perfect love cast out fear. They know something of their gifts, too. But Christian educators, whether pastors or laymen in positions of responsibility, are not preparing people; and God’s people have enough common sense to refuse to get into something for which they are not qualified.

If we want well-staffed, competent Sunday schools, therefore, we need to rethink our basic approach to providing staff. We must look at our philosophy of recruiting and training teachers. To introduce this, let’s look at some dangerous misconceptions about what a Sunday school teacher is supposed to be.

Superhuman Saints

One misconception is to think all Sunday school teachers will automatically know how to teach, present material, and set up a classroom, as if they were superhuman saints. But can they survive any environment—from crowded classrooms to a three-by-five storage room behind the organ loft? Actually, teachers are themselves sheep; they are members of the flock, and they need care and feeding so that they may survive, grow, and be effective.

We also make a mistake when we act as if all a teacher has to do is teach Sunday school. Intellectually, we may agree that there are minor incidentals in their lives, such as homes, families, and jobs; yet we act as if Christian teachers always have time to study devotedly for hours and attend endless, and sometimes meaningless, meetings. We assume they should be forever available at the ring of a phone.

Also, we erroneously envision each teacher as a haloed saint whose entire life is devoted to being a Sunday school teacher, one who never has the urge to miss church on a sunny Sunday. And of course this devoted educator, no matter how severely or unfairly he is criticized, never gets upset or snappy! Should we not rather honor the total person? We may see only the teacher because that is what we’re interested in.

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Due to a final misconception, we consider a teacher someone who never makes a mistake—especially in front of his class—and who will know the answer to every question he is asked.

No wonder the average layperson is afraid to teach and is fearful about meeting the requirements of our unrealistic stereotype! He knows he has many weaknesses; he is torn between various commitments, and he has difficulty maintaining his priorities. He is afraid if he adds another, especially one as demanding as teaching, it will be the proverbial straw that breaks the camel’s back.

Because of such valid hesitations, we frequently resort to recruiting tactics reminiscent of those used by the marines in wartime.

Christian educators need to develop a workable, common sense philosophy about acquiring teachers. The recruiting program has to consist of more than a pulpit announcement designed to dump a guilt trip on the congregation. God loves a cheerful giver when it relates to time, as well as to money.

First and foremost, recruiting should be done continually, not annually, semiannually, quarterly, or when things reach panic proportion. Bulletin announcements should be made frequently, so the needs of the Sunday school are presented to the congregation on an ongoing basis. Leaders must provide opportunities for prospective teachers and workers to go into classrooms to see what a position would involve.

Many people will respond to a request from the pastor more readily than they will from a lay person, so pulpit announcements should be made as often as necessary. If the pastor regularly stresses the value and importance of the Sunday school, the congregation will be more responsive.

Those responsible for building a teaching staff must be willing to function on the premise that competent educators don’t just happen: they need to be trained and developed.

The secular world recognizes this. So must the church. Even if someone has been gifted by the Holy Spirit, he must be trained to use his gifts properly, within the framework of his own local church. Christ shepherded the Twelve: he called them, then devoted himself to teaching and nurturing them so they would be effective when they were sent to serve.

When I accepted the position of children’s director in our church, I had to do some quick evaluating. I reflected back on my teaching experience, both in the secular and Christian arenas, and decided that if I was going to get and maintain an adequate staff, I would have to make it comfortable to become a teacher, make it easy to minister. I determined that, as an administrator, I would try to do for the teachers what I had wanted and needed done for me when I was teaching. The church therefore offered an eight-week training class for all present and prospective teachers. Drawing on that experience and many since, I’d like to suggest what to do practically in recruiting and training teachers.

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Teacher Training

A serious mistake in recruitment involves “patio pulling.” Poor Mrs. Bartel, who has attended church for a few weeks, is standing on the patio after the service. Superintendent Jacobs walks over, greets her, introduces himself, and steers her into a classroom, telling her how she is an answer to prayer for a second grade class of boys.

Exaggerated? Perhaps. But how often in your church are relative newcomers asked to teach? It can happen with a new Christian, too. Often the first comment we hear is, “maybe we could get him to teach a class.”

Patio pulling is looking for a live body to fill a space. In a way it is coercion, trapping someone who doesn’t know how to say “no” to a person in authority and shoving that person into a task he or she cannot do. This approach cannot be justified in light of Paul’s admonition to Timothy that we should not place a novice in a position of authority.

The only way to eliminate this panic approach is to have a systematic, ongoing means of training teachers. No matter how large or small your church, if you want good teachers, and enough of them, you must offer to train them for the job. You must set standards, lay down requirements for service, and be selective about who is to be allowed to hold the influential position of teacher.

But how can you challenge people to attend training sessions? Most important, it should be a stringent requirement that anyone who is going to teach must complete the church’s training course. Too often we are willing to compromise important standards just to get volunteers. I have observed that churches with the fewest staffing problems have the most demanding training courses: classes of 8–12 sessions that include written homework assignments and classroom observation and allow absences only for illness.

Also, leaders would be wise to choose a time for the course that will encourage attendance. Since most volunteers are regular churchgoers, they will be more apt to attend if training sessions are on Sunday mornings or Wednesday evenings as part of the regular schedule.

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Several small churches have ongoing programs where the pastor disciples individual members who are going to teach. Sometimes the Sunday school superintendent spends several weeks in a one-on-one basis with trainees before they go into classrooms. In some cases, teachers train their own replacements before leaving. It should be a hard and fast rule never to put people into classrooms until they are properly trained.


We commit a second error if we offer no secondary support systems to teachers. Once they have started to teach we ignore them. But the basic training they have received is not sufficient; they need additional classes to help them develop expertise and to stimulate their creativity.

Periodically churches should offer courses on a variety of topics, as needs are noted. Teachers need practical suggestions on how to improve: constructing bulletin boards, preparing lessons, developing lecturing and questioning techniques, disciplining the unruly child, preparing interest centers; and “how-to” courses: how to teach a song, make interesting arts and crafts, conduct group discussions, or use the overhead projector.

A good in-service program will eliminate the weaknesses and undergird the strengths of the teaching staff. It will make for happy, secure teachers who enjoy what they are doing because they know how to do it.

One problem with in-service programs concerns the question of who should teach such classes. Often we can find men and women gifted in these areas within the permanent teaching staff or the congregation—a public school teacher, for instance, who can explain methods. And major curriculum publishers have materials for in-service programs.

Feeding the Feeders

Another mistake we make is to shut teachers off from the chance to be students themselves in a Bible class. In most churches, all classes occur at the same time, so this seems impossible. But we might, for example, offer an adult class on a week night for Sunday school teachers only. Or we might find ways to give each teacher a tape of the class of his choice. Nursery workers and children’s church workers who must miss the worship service could receive a copy of the pastor’s sermon.

But even beyond this, a teacher needs to be refueled; he or she should have a time for rest and recuperation. The easiest way to assure that teachers get some relief is to establish a quarterly rotation system whereby a person can take off one quarter out of every four. This means he will teach nine months and then take a “mini-sabbatical” for three. This is accomplished by developing a full staff, regardless of the size of the church.

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A Sunday school that has one teacher and no one as back-up or resource has an insufficient staff. The Sunday school can run more efficiently and with fewer panics or emergencies if we are willing to offer opportunities for members to serve as other than permanent, weekly teachers, and to serve for shorter periods of time.

Staff Categories

Use of supplemental teaching positions will allow for flexibility, and several staff categories might be established. The first is the full-time teacher, who will teach for three quarters and then take off one quarter (not necessarily the summer). The timing will depend on the needs of the Sunday school and the teacher’s schedule. He could use these free weeks for personal study and spiritual refreshment; the time does not include the teacher’s annual vacation from his weekday employment.

The second category is part-time teacher. This person will teach only one or two quarters a year, filling in for full-time teachers.

Category three is the back-up teacher. He is being discipled by the regular teacher, and sits in the class of his chosen grade level as often as possible. He may be called on by the full-time teacher to substitute or to do team teaching. He should always be prepared with the week’s lesson, even if he is not planning to attend the class. Every grade level should have one back-up teacher.

The fourth category is substitute. Such a person will teach on an “on call” basis and serves when the back-up teacher is not available to fill in. Those in junior high through career-age brackets make good substitute teachers.

The last category is aide, who does not teach or prepare lessons, but assists with the physical manipulations in the room. People with special talents—such as pianists and secretaries—are in this category. Aides can supervise nonteaching children’s activities, such as storytelling and arts and crafts. Many young persons who start in this capacity end up as full-time teachers.

Usually, when someone accepts a teaching position we lock him into it; he cannot take off a Sunday unless there is a death or disaster in the family. Accepting a teaching position is considered to be a lifetime commitment. But while some people teach the same age group or class for years, the Lord may call others for a relatively brief period of time.

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As recruiting proceeds, candidates will be more receptive if they are assured they can give teaching a try, and then decide later if it is God’s will for them. Of course, if a teacher knows he will have a back-up/support system, he will more readily accept a position. He needs the freedom to miss a Sunday or to go out of town without feeling guilty or thinking he is deserting the cause of Christ.

Common Sense Service

Most churches discourage prospective teachers because they overwork the ones they have. Word gets around—once a teacher, always a teacher.

Leaders and educators have to be more empathic about the service they expect and more selective about whom they allow to teach. If they truly want a quality Sunday school they must be more concerned with proper placement than merely with having “teachers” in the classrooms.

Hudson Taylor said, “God’s work done in God’s way never lacks God’s supply.” Those who are responsible for staff must accept and act in the belief that ultimately it is God’s job to fill the teaching positions. He will send his supply. To put the wrong person in the wrong position just because he’s there at a time of a vacancy can cripple the working of the whole body.

Pastors, Christian education directors, and administrators must rely on the leading of the Spirit in the hearts of people rather than on their own begging or coercion. They must commit themselves to the premise that they would rather not have a teacher in a class than to have someone with an unwilling spirit.

Trusting God will make us flexible. Once a husband-wife team who were doing a creative job as superintendents of a fifth grade Sunday school department came fearfully and apologetically to tell me they felt God was leading them to be sponsors of a new project in the high school department. Many of us had been praying for God to raise up the sponsors—but my first inclination was to say, “Oh, no, Lord! You can’t take my good people!” Yet they were obviously the ideal ones to do it, and I was happy for them and for those to whom they would minister. When they saw that I was pleased for them, both looked relieved and confessed that they had been scared to tell me. They were sure I would be mad because they were leaving their superintendency on such short notice.

I wish I could tell you I wasn’t human enough to be concerned about finding a replacement; I wish I could say the Lord immediately sent another superintendent, but he didn’t. That grade, with over 80 children and six teachers, functioned for months without one. But the teachers rotated the duty and had fun doing it, and grew spiritually and professionally. The children thrived, and in his time God sent another leader.

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Another erroneous concept is that women, not men, should teach children. Have you ever noticed how we feminize the children’s division in the church? In most churches a huge majority of teachers in grades six and below are women. In some congregations, all are. Why? Certainly not because of any biblical injunction. Probably not because it is written or required policy. I am afraid basically it is for that old excuse, “We’ve always done it this way.”

If we accept this premise and exclude the possibility of having the men in the congregation teach children, we cut our resources for recruiting almost in half. This “women teach the kids” policy is a loss to the entire body. Children, even very young ones, need a father figure. Many little ones in our churches come from broken homes and desperately need a masculine touch—a representative of God the Father.

A man in the classroom can help control behavior, improving the overall quality of instruction. By including men we also open the possibility of having husband-wife teams.

Let me tell you about Norm, a big man who looks like he could have played professional football. As I watched him with his sons one Sunday after church, I thought how great it would be if he would teach in the children’s division. I was elated when he signed up for the teacher training course. He would have been a natural to place in the higher grades, but the only opening we had at the time was with four-year-olds. When I asked him if he would teach there, he said yes.

Norm’s work with those preschoolers was phenomenal. He was later superintendent of that department, then of the entire preschool division; at present he is the elder who oversees the children’s division, nursery through sixth grade. I know personally of other men who followed his lead.

Encouraging the Sheep

Along with reevaluating educational philosophy and the approach to recruiting and training staff, Christian educators also need to encourage teachers by being available to them, being supportive of them, and by providing the services and materials needed to make their jobs easier. Teachers need positive encouragement from within the system because they are frequently criticized from outside it. They need empathy, love, and prayer support from their superiors.

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There are some concrete ways leaders can edify and help their teachers. Primarily, they must provide both initial and ongoing training. They should offer opportunities for study, and be willing to cover expenses to send staff members to appropriate seminars, retreats, and conventions. Training both motivates and develops expertise.

Also, supplies and materials should be easy to obtain. Teachers should not have to grovel to get the tools of their trade, whether crayons, workbooks, duplicated outlines, or slide projectors. Even small churches should see that teaching materials are a high priority in the budget. Both children and adults are accustomed to sophisticated methods and materials—the world goes all out to attract us—and unless the church strives for quality, we will lose the interest of our students.

Further, we must make it convenient, even easy, for teachers to shift or resign their positions. We must respect them as people, graciously taking no for an answer without expecting or demanding explanations. We must not cling to someone who is being led away from a position by the Holy Spirit.

God frequently will not fill a spot until it is first vacated. It isn’t always wise to ask someone to stay until we find a replacement. Lame ducks don’t do well. In most cases it is better to release a teacher, look for a replacement, and use a substitute (or double up classes) until someone else is recruited and trained.

A Sunday school whose leaders are not willing to revamp their philosophical approach and training methods will always have staff problems. When pastors and others in charge are willing to challenge and train laypeople into ministries rather than pressure or force them, they will have the workers they need, and those who are on the receiving end of the instruction will be fed. The quality, not quantity, of a staff must be the priority.

Carl F. H. Henry, first editor of Christianity Today, is lecturer at large for World Vision International. An author of many books, he lives in Arlington, Virginia.

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