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Last Updated September 30, 2003

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Organization: a system of structured relationships
which puts the church in the best position
for God to use it to accomplish His purpose.

One of the most significant duties of the Sunday School director is to lead the Sunday School Council to recommend and implement an appropriate organization for the Sunday School. The Sunday School organization is simply a structure of classes and departments, along with the faculty and staff who work within that structure, and identification of the ages, grades, or other designations assigned to each class. Each Sunday School will require a different organization, but several guiding principles will apply:

The organization should be comprehensive, providing a place for everyone who is a member or prospect for the Sunday School.  In addition to providing sufficient classes and departments for each age group, consider the opportunities in your church field in the areas of
special education needs
individuals with physical handicaps
homebound ministries
ministry to prospective parents and parents of new-borns (Cradle Roll ministry)
Sunday workers
language ministries

The Sunday School may be able to minister to the spiritual needs of these and other groups.

The organization should provide room for growth.  Especially at the beginning of the Sunday School year, teaching units should have less than the maximum enrollment to allow for reaching new members through the year.
The organization should be easy to interpret so that a new member, visitor, or prospect, along with their children,  can easily be assigned to a specific teaching unit.

The organization must be reviewed before the start of each Sunday School year to identify opportunities to create new teaching units, and evaluated throughout the year to make adjustments as growth takes place. Starting new units is the only way to grow a Sunday School, to reach new people and adequately minister to their needs.  Studies by Andy Anderson have shown that adding one new adult unit to a Sunday School will result in an increase in enrollment of 25 within twelve months, as the new unit reaches new adults and their families and friends.  Starting a new teaching unit is the single best step a Sunday School can take toward growth.

Rules of Thumb

Some basic guidelines for the Sunday School Organization:

Number of teaching units = Sunday School Enrollment / 18
Number of workers = Sunday School Enrollment / 5
(This includes department directors, teachers, outreach leaders, and care group leaders)
Building capacity = overall square footage / 40
Room capacity for adults and youth = square footage / 10
Room capacity for children and preschool = square footage / 25

Basis of Organization

The Sunday School should be organized on the basis of future potential, not current actuality, since one of its important purposes is outreach to all prospects and ministry to all members, not just those in attendance. Thus the enrollment of the Sunday School should be used as the basis for organizing rather than average attendance. Organizing on the basis of attendance will not provide a structure for growth.

Organization starts with a plan for grouping and grading pupils into classes representing similar developmental needs and abilities, life needs, and interests.   The method most widely used is to grade by age or school grade.  This basic approach will serve well to provide a comprehensive structure; as the organization grows, it may be supplemented by units based on marital status, family status, or other specialized focus.   This page will focus on age/school grade grouping.

Space Considerations

The limiting factor in the size of a teaching unit may be the available space.   Adult and youth classes require 10 square feet for each pupil; preschool and children's departments require 25 square feet for each pupil (ideally, preschoolers should have 35 square feet per child, but this is an ideal seldom achievable).  The other factor is the rule that only 80% of capacity is realizable on an ongoing basis; you may be able to achieve greater attendance for short periods, but it will soon return to the 80% level.  Your Sunday School cannot grow beyond its available space. (See

Preschool and Children's Departments

To organize your preschool division, take the following steps:

  1. Determine the capacity of each available room (room size in square feet divided by 25 square feet per pupil times 80%)
  2. Consider the number of pupils enrolled in each age group
  3. Using the organization work sheet, note the number of departments and workers needed

Each children's and preschool department will have a department director (like a lead teacher) responsible for the overall work of the department, as well as one or more teachers who are responsible to the department director for specific teaching, outreach, and ministry activities.

For safety reasons, always plan to have at least two adults in each preschool department.  Younger preschoolers will need to be organized developmentally, with a department for bed babies, another for those beginning to crawl, and another for toddlers.   Twos and threes will ideally have their own department. Fours, fives, and preschool sixes have similar developmental needs.

Youth Departments

The same three basic steps apply for youth organizations as listed above for children and preschoolers.  In this age group, however, a classroom setting is more appropriate for the teaching session.   The department director is responsible for a joint teaching session with all classes meeting together for music, drama, etc., to set the stage for the lesson.   The teachers meet with their assigned classes for the majority of the Sunday session.  The department leadership works as a team for accomplishing outreach, ministry, and fellowship.

Adult Departments

(See also article I Believe in Adult Departments by Lucien Coleman, plus How to Start New Adult Sunday School Classes by Ron Pratt)

The adult organization is the most difficult to administer, due to the reluctance of many adults to go beyond their comfort zone to support a structure which is ideal for outreach and ministry. The willingness of adults to try new classes is a direct measure of their Great Commission mindset--their commitment to putting the needs of unreached persons ahead of their own desires.  See Adult Sunday School Promotion for a discussion of one approach to this problem, and How to Start New Adult Sunday School Classes for an excellent description of an effective process for starting new units.

It is true that adults can learn and worship in large groups. However, for the best outreach, ministry, fellowship, accountability, and assimilation to occur, small groups are essential. The maximum size for an adult class is an enrollment of 25 pupils. This will result in an average attendance of around 12, an ideal size from a group dynamics perspective.

The other dynamic is that new units grow faster. A new class is at the formative stage of leadership roles and relationships, and is much easier to accommodate new members. In addition, the class has no history, which has many positive aspects in avoiding old resentments, preconceptions, and prejudices among the members.

Most churches are finding that coeducational classes are doing the best job of reaching people. [Note that it is generally best to avoid the title "couples' class", which seems to place some stigma on one member of a married couple whose partner does not attend the class for some reason.) There is still a place for single-sex classes for those individuals who feel more comfortable in that setting.

It is relatively simple to design an ideal adult organization. The technique is simply to list all adults in the Sunday School in age order, then to start at age 18, count 25 names, and draw a line to indicate a class, and proceed until all are assigned to a class. Some adjustments will be necessary: a married couple must be assigned to the same class (typically that appropriate for the younger spouse), and a class should not break across a single age group (so the dividing line should be drawn at the nearest age break). Actually, a Sunday School organization which expects growth should start the year with an enrollment target of 18 in each adult class to allow space for growth during the year.

The difficult task is to implement the organization. I have come to the conclusion that adults will not promote to the next age group, so it is best to reorganize the entire organization each year--especially in a growing congregation. This will be quite difficult the first two or three times it is carried out, but will soon become a tradition (albeit an unpopular one). It is well worth the effort, though, as it will result in a supple and vigorous Sunday School poised in an ideal growth situation, and will help focus the members on outreach, evangelism, and assimilation of new members, helping to avoid inwardly focused, ineffective classes.

Consider these steps in implementing a new adult organization:

  1. Lay a foundation of prayer and seek the Lord's guidance. Involve others of your leadership team and your personal support group in the spiritual foundation.
  2. Develop the ideal organization with prayerful consideration of your pupils' and prospects' best interests.
  3. Ask your pastor to consider preaching on the importance of outreach and evangelism through the Sunday School. The visible support of your pastor throughout this process is essential.
  4. Consider a Bible study or other course of study on the principles of outreach and the purpose of the Sunday School for your Sunday School leadership, or the entire church.
  5. Interpret the new organization in the light of your vision for your Sunday School to the Sunday School leadership team and key church leaders.
  6. Send a letter to each family enrolled in Sunday School explaining the reasons for the new organization and requesting their prayerful support. Emphasize the priority for outreach--for

Sunday School Council

Whether you realize it or not, you have a Sunday School council.  This is simply a group of Sunday School leaders who provide strategic leadership for the organization, forming a mutual support network to discuss, evaluate, plan, and carry out the work of the Sunday School.  In the very smallest situation, the pastor and Sunday School Director can form the Sunday School Council.  In a somewhat larger church, the Sunday School director and other general officers are joined by the Sunday School teachers.  As the church grows, the department directors or age division directors (the top of the Sunday School organization) form the Sunday School council.  In any case, the Sunday School director needs a group to serve as a sounding board, representing diversity in viewpoint and approach, to provide the most effective leadership.  Try to enlist individuals these leadership positions who have mature spiritual character, a real vision of God's plan for the church and Sunday School, and a real heart for Sunday School work.

Glossary

Class a teaching unit led by a single teacher.   The basic structure recommended for youth and adult age divisions.
Department a teaching unit lead by a director and one or more additional teachers.  In the youth and adult age divisions, the department consists of multiple classes, and provides a larger administrative structure for fellowship, ministry, outreach, and communication.  In the preschool and children's age divisions, the department is the basic teaching unit, with a director and teachers who share the teaching and ministry responsibilities.
Director the administrative head of a department; typically the director will be responsible for one or more teachers who serve in the department.
Teacher an individual directly responsible for teaching, ministry, and outreach to an assigned group of pupils.  This may be a class (youth or adult age divisions) or a group of children or preschoolers within a department.
Teaching Unit any organizational unit responsible for Bible study.  These include departments, classes, and other special units such as Cradle Roll or Homebound ministries.
 

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Updated: Tuesday, September 30, 2003