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An ESL Ministry Journey: Getting Started

Big Picture Basis

When starting an ESL ministry, it is important to know your goals for the ministry. Do you want to teach English Bible stories? Do you want to provide basic English conversation practice? Do you want to help students study for their green card? Is your ESL ministry a service to the community or an evangelistic outreach?

At first glance, you may feel that the answer is, “We want both – a service to the community and an evangelistic outreach.”  This is a core question to explore when planning an ESL ministry. Most volunteer ESL classes are unable to provide everything for everybody. They need a core focus and goals that reflect that focus.

A service-based ESL ministry provides high-quality English language instruction to students who are non-native English speakers. This could be English conversation classes for adults, homework help for students, green-card and citizenship classes, or writing classes for university students. This ministry focuses on how it can meet the felt needs of the students.

An evangelistic outreach ESL ministry provides English language instruction that is focused on the Bible. Students learn English through simplified Bible stories and conversations about those stories. Evangelistic outreach ESL ministry may also provide some evangelistic tools in a student’s native language.

When narrowing the  focus and goals for your ESL ministry, it may be helpful to ask yourself these questions:

  1. Is my ESL ministry a service to the community, an evangelistic outreach, or a combination of the two?
  2. Is my ESL ministry for adults or children?
  3. What do I want the students in my ESL ministry to learn?

Answering these questions will guide you as you think through the details of your ministry. The following are helpful questions to work through as you plan your ESL ministry.

Down in the Details

Facility, Timing and Advertising

Facility: Thankfully, most churches are willing to lend free space to an ESL ministry, but you will need to think through logistics like:

  • How many rooms will you need?
  • Do you need rooms only for classes or will you need space for a nursery or childcare?
  • Will the church cover insurance, heating, air-conditioning etc. or will your ESL ministry need to be responsible for these?
Sample ESL Class Flyer. Flyer shows class information (who, when, where, cost, etc.) in languages of the people who will want to take the class, in addition to the information in English.

Timing: Your goals will determine when you hold your ESL classes.  You will need to decide timing by balancing the schedules and availability of both the volunteers and the students.  My husband and I were both working when we started our ESL class.  Because of that, it was most important that the class fit into our schedules.  However, we also thought through when the students would be free to come to the class.  Our students were parents of international school students.  We ended our class in time to coincide with school pick-up.  Parents could attend class and then go and pick up their children from school.

Advertising: Who will be coming to your English classes? We created advertisements in the home languages of each group that we thought would be interested in our classes and passed them out at local international schools. You can have non-English language churches help you post advertisements about the classes. You can also visit local ministries that help refugees or new immigrants and ask them about advertising for your classes. Advertisements should always be in the languages of each people group you invite. This will help students feel at ease even before they walk in the door.

Curriculum

ESL curriculum is vital to a volunteer ESL ministry. Volunteer English teachers need to feel equipped for their task and the curriculum doesn’t have to be expensive or burdensome.  Curriculum supplies support for both teachers and students. 

Curriculum:

  • provides structure and a plan
  • decreases preparation time
  • increases the quality of the instruction
  • produces evaluation tools
  • strengthens the confidence of the teachers

There is a lot of ESL curriculum available. I have provided just a few websites below that have curriculums available for teaching ESL.  There are many, many websites and curriculums choose from for your ESL ministry.

ESL for Bible understanding:

Church-Based ESL Programs – TESOL Tools

Bible Based ESL Books and Curriculum (eslbiblebased.com)

ESL for Community Service

Activities for Teaching All Levels (J-B Ed: Survival Guides): 9781119550389: Ferlazzo, Larry, Sypnieski, Katie Hull: Books

English for Everyone: Level 1 Practice Book – Beginner English: ESL Workbook, Interactive English Learning for Adults: DK: 9781465448668: Amazon.com: Books

In our English classes, we used Speak Now  by Jack Richards.  It has several levels and online practice.  We wanted a curriculum for all the reasons above, but we knew that some in our class would not be able to afford to buy the books.  The church was also not able to fund a curriculum.  In order to make books available to everyone, we let people choose to either buy their own book or borrow one of ours for the class period.  Students who borrowed the books were not allowed to take them home, but they were able to participate fully in class without financial hardship.  

Volunteers 

Every ESL ministry needs volunteers who are willing to teach the class.  As I mentioned in my first article, my husband and I were the only teachers in our ESL ministry.  Starting small allowed us to make needed changes as the class grew and changed.

Here are some things to think through as your recruit volunteers:

  • How many volunteers do you need and what roles will the volunteers fill?  
  • Do you need teachers, childcare workers, snack providers, greeters, and/or ministers? I use the word “minister” loosely here.  Everyone involved in the ESL ministry is a minister, but I am specifically referring to those volunteers who are willing to lend their time outside of ESL class to follow-up on the felt needs of the students in the class.
  • Do some students want regular discipleship? 
  • Do some students need food?  There will be needs that arise as your ESL ministry grows and it will be important to think through how and if your church can meet some of those needs. 
  • Will you equip the volunteers?  Will you provide teacher training? What kinds of resources are available in your area or denomination to help teachers feel confident in their teaching ability?
  • How will you encourage the volunteers?
Children

Will you teach children as a part of your ESL ministry?   Will you provide child-care for those adults who need it?  You will be asked these questions when you start an ESL ministry.  Instead of feeling guilty if you cannot offer these things, go back to your goals and remind yourself why you are providing an ESL ministry through your church.

Bible-time

Once you have your goals, you can better think through how you will incorporate your Christian faith into your classes.  If you have chosen a Bible-based ESL curriculum, you may have some natural engagement points for talking about who Jesus is.  If your focus is community service, you may need to spend more time thinking through how to intergrate Jesus into your classroom.  I have spent time teaching ESL in both secular and Christian classrooms.  As Christians, we give God glory in all things.  We know that God is at work all around us, we just need to look for where he is working.  This is my advice to you as you go into your ESL classroom, whether Bible or community service based: look for where God is working and be expectant and ready for him to work.  I will address this more in-depth in a later post.  

Laurel Bohrer is an ESOL teacher and adult second language learner who enjoys seeing her students gain confidence in their ability to use English.  In her free time, she loves to spend time with her husband and 2 daughters. 

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This article is the second in a series. Click below to read other articles in the series.

Compass on a map

An ESL Ministry Journey

Starting an ESL ministry at your church can be both an exciting and daunting task.  Several years ago, my husband and I looked around our international church and realized that there were quite a few people who would really appreciate a place to learn more English.  

It all started with a woman I’ll call Ann.  Church members who knew Ann’s daughter invited them to come to church.  Her daughter spoke English fluently and was able to immediately get involved with the youth group.  Ann came to church with her daughter, but she struggled with her English.  For some reason, Ann started inviting more friends with children who spoke English, but whose parents had limited English.  Suddenly, we had about 10 families coming to church, none of whom were Christians, and the parents all had limited English.  

In a perfect world, there would be a church in their own language that we could partner with in this task, but that was not an option for these families.  So, we started to think about how we could offer these adults English classes that would help them become part of the community where they lived, while also providing the opportunity to share the Gospel.  

Over the course of several blogs, I want to share some of the things that we needed to think through as we started planning for our ESL ministry.  The most important thing that I learned is – start simple, know your goals, and don’t be afraid to say no. 

My husband and I were the only volunteers at first.  This limited both size of the class and the time that we could spend on the ministry.  At first, I thought that we needed to recruit other volunteers right away, but as I look back, I think it was important that we started simply.  With only two teachers, we had the opportunity to change course quickly and keep things manageable.  

Almost as soon as we started advertising for our class, people asked if we would also have classes for children.  However, we felt led to have an English class for parents who had English-speaking children and did not understand enough English to fit into an English-speaking community.  Our goal was basic English for adults with a Biblical component as part of the lesson time. It was difficult to say “no” to requests to teach children, but it didn’t fit in with our goals for the class and it was good to stick with our goals.

We purchased a basic English curriculum ourselves and allowed the students to either borrow the books during class for free or purchase their own if they wanted to write in it.  This allowed the class to be sustainable monetarily, both for us and for the students.  

The class grew each week.  We had about 10 regular members of the class and others who would come whenever they were free.  We started getting to know the students and hearing their stories.  We realized that there were several students who were already Christians, several who were interested in knowing more about Christ and some who were just there for the free English lessons.  

We began offering a short half-hour time after the “official” English class where we would talk about the Bible passage for next week’s sermon.  We had the advantage of being able to speak the home language of our students so we would use that language to explain the passage and then introduce the English words that they would hear in church the next Sunday.  Students also used this time to ask any questions they had about God.And so, our ESL ministry was off and running, but there were many things to come that took us by surprise as we continued in this journey.

Published 9/27/2022 – This article is the first in a series, read other articles in this series below.

Laurel Bohrer is an ESOL teacher and adult second language learner who enjoys seeing her students gain confidence in their ability to use English.  In her free time, she loves to spend time with her husband and 2 daughters. 

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