St. John's United Church of Christ in Egg Harbor City has a small congregation, and its Sunday school is smaller still. Across town, the Moravian Church is in much the same situation. Recognizing this, new St. John's pastor Jeanie Manson decided to join the two churches' summer youth efforts.
The combined Vacation Bible School, which ran July 21-25, proved to be a runaway success.
"It's been really great," Manson said. "I had one family come and say, 'We had to put off vacation.' They were planning to go to their grandmother's up in North Jersey, and the kids were like, 'No, can't we wait until Friday?'"
Manson became the pastor at St. John's in December, quickly noting that her new congregation had many familial and social ties with members of other places of worship in the city, including the Moravian Church.
While combining adult ministries is complicated by rituals and customs, children's ministry is simpler, she reasoned, making it easy to combine groups from different denominations. Manson reached out to Moravian Church head of Christian education Carole Bounds, whom she knew through her book club, to combine the churches' efforts, and she enthusiastically agreed.
Joining worked out better than either could imagine. At its peak, the camp drew more than 40 kids, dwarfing what either church has gotten alone in recent years. Additionally, many campgoers were not regular church attendees, or are members of other congregations, Manson said.
The camp, which was offered to kids 3 years old through sixth grade, split students into groups by age for various activities. These groups rotated through craft, music and dance, games, Bible lessons and snack stations. Following the activities, the groups united in the church for a recap of the day's lessons.
"The noise in the sanctuary (at the end) is deafening," Bounds said. "They're just so excited with what they've learned."
In addition to religious education and fun, the camp also had a charitable component. While attendance was free, each day the children were led in a discussion of a local charity and offered a collection plate. The beneficiaries of this year's camp were Family Promise, the Moravian Church's branch of the Community FoodBank of New Jersey, Sister Jean's Kitchen, Bridge of Faith and Holy Joe's Cafe.
Manson, who worked with the Arc of Atlantic County while in seminary last year, said the charity component was designed to give children a lesson on not just the tenets of Christianity, but on how to lead a Christian life.
"That's what it is to be a Christian," Manson said. "We didn't want it to be just, like, 'Come and learn about being a Christian.' We wanted it to be, 'Come and learn and actually be a Christian.'"
Manson and Bounds say they plan to team up again next year, likely holding the camp at the Moravian Church. There's a possibility of bringing more churches into the fold, they say, as well as a chance of holding more combined youth events before next summer.
Egg Harbor City's religious community is small and tightly knit. and when it comes together for its kids, Manson said, good things happen.
"We all have to think about coming together and using the best talents that we have in different places and overlooking any differences we might have, for the kids," Manson said. "They just want to have a good time."
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