It’s that time of year when leaders have to look ahead at summer and fall and search for material for Bible studies and small groups. I asked three women from different churches and many years of experience to share their insights for choosing curriculum.
Claudia McGuire is on our BOW Ministry Team and was formerly on staff at Chase Oaks Fellowship, a large non-denominational church in the Dallas area. During her time there she held many positions involving small groups and Bible studies.
Sheryl Graves is the Women’s Ministry Director at Coppell Bible Fellowship where she has been on staff for 3 years, after serving 4 years as a volunteer in the area of spiritual and leadership development for women. Sheryl provides insight into choosing curriculum in a smaller church setting.
Kari Stainback graduated from Dallas Theological Seminary with a Masters in Biblical Counseling. She has served in her current role as Director of Women’s Ministries at Park Cities Presbyterian church for 13 years where she oversees seven women’s Bible studies and co-teaches a study reaching young professional women.
What is the most important thing that you look for in women’s curriculum for a Bible study or small group?
- What does the group need? What are we lacking?
- What teaching is going on in the church as a whole?
- What have I observed in previous studies?
- What am I hearing from the women?
- Are there character issues, marriage issues, Biblical truth issues? What do we need to be looking at?
The most important thing I’m looking for is how it invites women into transformation. We want to study the Scriptures from a relational perspective, growing in comprehension of what God is revealing about Himself, us, and His redemptive love story. However, if women are sitting in Bible study year after year, growing in knowledge, but living with a disconnect between that information and how it effects every aspect of their lives, I’m not sure we’ve helped them. How will what we learn in a particular study motivate us to leave behind places of complacency, comfort or control and have the courage to move toward our God, growing to trust Him more, growing to love Him and others more, living out His amazing grace in our lives?
I look for quality exegetical material that accurately states the Gospel because that is the purpose of Bible study.
What things are deal breakers when you find them in a curriculum?
If a curriculum endorses a theological position that’s inconsistent with that of our church leadership, that’s a deal breaker. A few minor inconsistencies may be okay, especially if it’s something we can address quickly in our discussion and/or followup message (if we have one), but if the need to address inconsistencies seems like it will distract from the focus on what we’re learning, it’s not worth it.
Another deal breaker is the tone of the study. Is it written primarily for the acquisition of knowledge or for life transformation? Does it promote performance more than heart change? Are there subtle tones of pride and judgment or humility and acceptance?
Finally, the amount of homework, either too little or too much, can be a deal breaker. One objective in Bible study is to encourage women to develop the habit of getting into God’s Word for themselves on a consistent basis. There needs to be enough homework to do that, but not so much that they’re overwhelmed and give up.
- False teaching that leads to false applications
- Material that is too centered on the author’s opinion or personality
- Material that leaves the women doing the study more focused on themselves than Christ.
- The format often matters too. Depending on the group, it could be a desire for day to day homework or a none-scheduled amount of homework.
- Amount of homework – limited amount of study because of time availability to prepare or for young believers. More “hungry” students in particular studies may want to do more homework.
- “Pop psychology” – I’m thinking here of parenting or marriage books that may tend to become dated over time.
When a study is too demanding; either in daily time required or length of study, then I would think twice before offering it. Time (lack of it or not prioritizing it) is the reality of today’s women. Thankfully, there are plenty of studies available that meet good time requirements. Also, anything that is not Bible-based, of course, is out. Doctrine and alignment of theology is important.
How do you choose curriculum that works across various age groups?
As shallow as this sounds, the LOOK matters , especially to younger woman.
- Older women tend to lean toward the day by day format
- Younger women tend to lean toward smaller quantities of homework
Because the participants at our studies have always been multi-generational, we do look for relevance to the whole group. But we do have a bi-weekly MOMS group, which does a good job of addressing issues to that age group. It also incorporates an older/wiser mentor mom into each group to help with this. We have a Prime Timers group that addresses older audiences. Being a church with small groups, we encourage appropriate studies for men and women in those groups; outside of our in-church Women’s Ministry programs.
This is a real challenge, but the development of intergenerational relationships around God Word is invaluable in encouraging a culture where discipleship develops naturally. The added benefit of what can develop relationally beyond the formal bible study makes the added challenge of choosing one curriculum for various ages worth it.
Generally, it can be a little bit more difficult to use older curriculum because the illustrations and applications are less relevant to younger women. On the other hand, curriculum written by younger women can seem random and disorganized to some of the older women. Still, we tend to try to find curriculum that appeals to a broader age range. When that isn’t possible, we try to alternate between studies geared toward younger and older women. That becomes an opportunity to occasionally address generational differences and foster greater understanding and appreciation across the ages. It’s really up to the bible study leader or small group leader to make this work, and supply the additional information needed to apply to all ages.
Is there a study length that you find works best? Does it matter what time of year it is?
Yes; we plan studies to fit into a semester. These are typically 6-9 weeks in length. We take a break in the summer and do not have studies when we are doing a church-wide program of study in small groups.
We generally offer Bible studies by the semester in the fall and spring and take a break over the summer. I gravitate toward studies that are 8-12 weeks long because they fit so well into a semester. It seems that most 4-6 week studies either skim the material or try to do too much and have a heavy homework load. We tend to do a slightly shorter study in the fall due to holidays and try to wrap up the spring in late April or early May. We try to have some continuity for all the studies in a ministry year, usually alternating between New Testament studies one year and Old Testament studies the next. We have also occasionally done studies that cover both semesters, but typically break it into parts.
Working women and young moms can handle well about 10-15 questions/week. Non-working women can handle more (these are generalities). Time of year doesn’t seem to matter.
Do you fit your curriculum to the women already attending, or do you look for things that will attract those who aren’t involved—particularly if an entire age group is missing?
We take into account both the women who are attending and any age groups that are missing. A few years ago, we discovered that the 20-somethings were not attending, so began to look at why not. While curriculum is a factor to consider in addressing how to engage that age group, it wasn’t the primary factor. Personal connection and dynamic group discussion seemed to be more important than the actual curriculum, although we want to listen well to our young women about what they’re eager to learn.
If an entire age/life stage group is missing, we consider why and offer short term studies that may help us attract that particular type of women. A 6-week class perhaps in the summer, early fall, or in the spring often works well.
Our Women’s Group Director works to be inclusive of all ages. Because of this, she tends to stay with topics that apply to most women, studies regarding character development and studies that help us follow Christ more fully in our daily lives (prayer, serving, etc.).
What is your final advice for someone choosing curriculum?
Ask women whose theology and wisdom you trust what materials they have found helpful. And I look for certain authors or publishers I have already found to be fruitful in our ministry.
- Know your women or audience and their struggles. Know what is happening in the world and the world of those attending the study and the church in general.
- Pray about it with your women’s team.
- Make sure you go through the study yourself or entrust it to someone else who will go through it prior to offering it. This way you can look for any difficult weeks of study, issues that might arise, or lack of correct teaching. Don’t introduce something just on someone else’s suggestion.
- Make sure it is challenging to your women AND doable. It is hard enough to keep women committed to a two or three month study, but if they feel defeated because the time required to do the study is too demanding, many will bail out.
- Don’t buy into the current popularity of a study unless you feel it is right for your women.
I have two final thoughts, both related to the interaction between curriculum and group leaders. First, whenever possible, it’s important to select the curriculum for the following year before the spring study ends. That gives the leaders time to work through the next year’s studies personally before they begin to lead others through it. This helps them lead with the big picture of where we’re going in the study as they lead each week. This gives them confidence and helps them lead more effectively.
Second, keep in mind that the curriculum can only do so much. Someone once told me, “An excellent curriculum in the hands of a ill prepared leader is less effective than a mediocre curriculum in the hands of a well equipped leader.” In addition to selecting your curriculum, what are you doing to equip your leaders to minister with it?
Thank you for sharing your wisdom with us Kari, Sheryl, and Claudia.
What comments or ideas can you add?