Churches, student ministries learn to work with earlier school starts

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Billy Stephens sees it as something the Church needs to get used to.

When Stephens moved to Fitzgerald last summer, it seemed the first week of August was a little early for school. Then, the start date moved to July 27 this year. At that point, he observed parents and students at a loss.

“I think a lot of people don’t necessarily like it,” explains Stevens. “Everyone was kind of in shock, really. They were like, ‘We’re going back to school when?'”

Early school start dates aren’t going to change, says Crossview Baptist Church, Fitzgerald Pastor of Students and Discipleship Billy Stephens, pictured here with his wife Dede on a rafting trip with students in June. BILLY STEPHENS/Facebook

As the pastor of students and discipleship at Crossview Baptist Church, Stephens and other church leadership staffs are having to come to grips with a school year that, over time, has crept earlier into the calendar.

For a long time in Georgia, Labor Day marked the unofficial start of school. That began to end in the 90s. Now, August has all but become the new September, with more than a handful of Georgia school systems trying to make July the new August.

Fitzgerald High School, where most of the students at Crossview attend, sits in the Ben Hill County School System, one of two in Georgia starting Thursday, July 27. Several others – Commerce City, Jefferson City, Lamar County, Newton County, Rome City, and Schley County – begin the next day.

“You almost feel like you’re not getting a full summer,” adds Stephens, whose wife, Dede, teaches elementary school. The couple have three children, one goes to school with Dede at Irwin County Elementary while the other two attend Irwin County High, about ten minutes from Fitzgerald. They’ll get an extra week of summer vacation compared to their friends in Fitzgerald, not filling in a desk until Friday, Aug. 4.

Later start dates do exist

This time of the year, they’re the envy of students wanting just one more day to binge-watch on Netflix or spend another afternoon at the river. Believe it; three Georgia systems won’t begin school until the month number hits 9. One, Stewart County, begins Sept. 1 while two others, Murray County in north Georgia and Webster County in the southern part of the state, won’t start until the day after Labor Day, Sept. 5.

And while there are advantages to a later start time. Student ministers brought up another challenge.

“We pull from several school districts,” pointed out Chris Rainey, Next Generations pastor at Liberty Baptist Church in Dalton. “So, it’s hard to get started [in the school/church calendar] well with families still on vacation or in summer mode.”

Based in Chatsworth, the Murray County system sits just five miles from Dalton. Hence, many churches in the area minister to students whose school years begin a month apart. Dalton City schools commence Aug. 3 while surrounding Whitfield County schools start five days later.

“It’s almost like having a month of transition time between summer and fall because of the vast differences in [when] school starts,” adds Rainey.

More opportunities

In south Georgia, Pastor Robert Orr of Macedonia Baptist in Webster County says the later start date helps the church’s ministry to children. Located in a very rural area, the unincorporated community of Preston serves as home to the Webster County School System, which educates all its K-12 students in the same complex.

“It gives us a little more time to do activities with the children. We had Vacation Bible School just last week and it was one of the largest we’ve had in some time, about 50-60 kids,” Orr comments.

Orr adds that volunteers have been instrumental in providing outings for students, particularly younger children, due to the extended summer break.

“They’re planning on going bowling and will take them out to lunch other days. After lunch, they’ll bring the children back to the church to do some activities. Many of these children are disadvantaged and wouldn’t get to do these things otherwise.”

Keeping plans together

In Chatsworth, Holly Creek Baptist Church Student Pastor Russell Jackson acknowledges the same challenges iterated by Rainey. However, he does admit to some benefits of the later school start.

“In mid to late August the crowds thin out at locations where we’ll have an outing,” he says.

However, there’s the situation of students in your ministry beholden to different calendars.

“The problem is when we’re doing something as a group and some are missing out. We end up not doing a whole lot of trips in August because of that.”

Despite there being a month’s difference at the beginning of the year, most school calendars end at around the same point in late May. This is accomplished through slightly lengthening the standard school day. Students at Dalton High go on a 8:25 a.m.-3:30 p.m. schedule while their friends at Murray County High begin at 7:30 a.m. and are dismissed at 3:11 p.m. Murray County skips right through the fall break taken by other systems, but keeps days off for Columbus Day, Veterans Day, and the entire week of Thanksgiving in addition to a three-day mid-winter break.

“We try to do a back-to-school outing, but wait until the weekend before Labor Day,” says Jackson. “Some have already been in school for three weeks … but, oh well.”

Ray Cochran, family minister at First Baptist Chatsworth, understands.

“We pull students from Whitfield, Murray, and a private school that follows Dalton City’s schedule. The difficult part comes from planning winter retreats or activities that fall on different days,” he adds. “For our weekly youth worship service I generally wait until September to start doing back-to-school themes or sermon series. 

“VBS comes for our church in July. In Murray County a lot of families take vacation in August because most people are at school. The challenge is youth camp, youth mission trips, and VBS all happen in June and July. It makes for a tired youth pastor come August.”

Cramped for calendar space

“Its biggest effect on us is felt in sports and activities that start in the summer,” relays Rob Blodgett, next generation pastor at Mabel White Baptist Church in Macon. “For example, we have one school that does three weeks of marching band camp in July, all day and into the evening. We can’t do any of our mid-week activities during that time.”

“Our ‘end-of-summer’ ice cream party now falls in the exact center of actual summer,” lamented Keith Jones, a retired pastor now serving as a supply preacher, in a Facebook discussion on the topic. Currently, he and his wife, Debbie, are members of First Baptist Blue Ridge, where she’s the pianist.

“[Early school start dates] also intensify the ‘summer slump,’ as families try to get vacations and trips in a short window,” added Jones, a former editor at the North American Mission Board and current freelance writer/editor.

That competition for students’ attention amid a shortened summer isn’t going anywhere, says Stephens. It calls churches to be more resourceful and focused than ever.

“We have to re-think how we plan our strategies to reach students. How do we make better disciples of students involved in sports and other activities on a regular basis?” he asks.

“It’s going to require trial and error. Stay connected with them through social media. Keep your ministry’s activities in front of them through a post or text. Let them know you’re thinking of them.”

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