By / Sep 15

Children’s Ministry is difficult in a lot of ways. It’s not even working with kids that makes it so challenging. Instead, having enough people ready and able to serve is the most difficult part. I have often wondered if this is a unique problem to my local church context, but having talked with dozens of churches — big, small, rural, and urban — I’ve discovered that we all seem to struggle with the same difficulty: finding great volunteers! 

I’ll admit that I haven’t cracked the code, but I wanted to share a few things I’ve learned that not only help us staff our classrooms with able and trusted people but have also allowed our leaders to flourish and enjoy serving in ministry.

Not everyone can do children’s ministry 

It sounds strange to suggest it, but one way to get more volunteers, and the right ones, is to narrow your audience. What I really mean is that when you are talking to leaders or potential leaders, make sure they know you need skilled laborers. Highlighting the specific and unique qualities needed for service will empower volunteers to step into service with the confidence that they are gifted for the role. How would it make you feel if your boss walked into your office and said, “We just need more people doing your job, and literally anyone can do it!”? When we lower the bar by saying, “Anyone can serve in kids ministry,” we can unintentionally belittle the work of our current volunteers, alienate high capacity leaders, and inadvertently welcome the wrong or even unsafe volunteers.

Letting people know that you need specifically-skilled and intentionally-called leaders will allow them to see the beauty and necessity of their commitment to serve. It illuminates their responsibility in ministry and changes children’s ministry from childcare into soul care for kids. 

A lot Is at stake

I believe one of the greatest misconceptions church members have about children’s ministry is that it is primarily a place to drop children off and keep them occupied while the important work of discipleship and ministry happens with adults and youth. The reality is that our children (birth–age 11) are very much in need of hearing the gospel. We show and tell kids about Jesus so that their lives can be moved and shaped by the power of the Holy Spirit. Souls of any age who do not know Jesus are separated from his love. Therefore, kids need to hear the message of the cross (Rom. 10:14), too.  

I’ve discovered that when our people are presented with the reality that our children’s souls are at stake, God’s Spirit moves them to action. The higher the stakes, the greater the need. Children sometimes seem innocent, but apart from Jesus they are lost and in desperate need of the Savior. We need leaders who are willing to step into discipling roles to help kids see and experience Christ’s love, praise him for his goodness, and go on mission for his glory (Matt. 28:19-20). 

Get to know your volunteers

Getting to know your team seems obvious, but I confess that it was something I did poorly when I first started in children’s ministry. Outside of the gospel message itself, our volunteers are our greatest asset. The saints make ministry possible. So as you recruit, equip and serve your team. Serve alongside your volunteers, take time to delight in their service, and share in their lives. Write thank you notes to those who go above and beyond. Send get well cards to team members who call off due to sickness. Prepare a meal for someone who just had surgery and will be out for a few weeks. 

Small and seemingly insignificant acts deeply affect the hearts of our people. Paul says, “Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor” (Rom. 12:10). When we find unique and kind ways to appreciate our people, we get the opportunity to live out that kingdom ethic. 

Knowing your team is especially important for the sake of protecting kids from abuse. An essential part of creating welcoming environments for children is taking safety seriously. After all, the only truly welcoming environment is one that ensures that only trustworthy people are on the team. 

One way to do this is through the Caring Well Challenge. The CWC helps equip churches to be safe for survivors of abuse and safe from abuse. A big part of this initiative is the encouragement to know every member of your team well. In addition to administering background checks, the following are several other steps churches can take to as a part of the screening process: written application, references check, internet check, and an interview. In addition to screening, recruitment should be limited to people who have attended your church for a set amount of time. And each volunteer should be intentionally trained on how to report when abuse or neglect is suspected. To learn more about each of these steps, and to help your church become safe for survivors and safe from abuse, see the free resources provided at CaringWell.com.

Elevate the moment

God is the best at celebrating. The Bible is full of feasting and celebrations for God’s work in and through the Israelites. There are harvest festivals, milestones, weddings, and more (Ex.12:14; 23:16; Deut.16:1,13; Pss. 20:5, 95:2). When new volunteers go through training, that’s a milestone. Celebrate it! When someone serves in a classroom for the first time, that’s a big moment. Celebrate with them. When someone shares the gospel with a child and they respond, that’s a miraculous thing that deserves celebration. When a leader has served for five years, that’s worth even a Baptist dancing about! 

It’s easy to get caught up in the business of doing ministry. I can easily forget to recognize incredible moments, transitions, milestones, and most importantly, God’s work through his people. Let’s not miss out on the opportunity to celebrate. Children’s ministry isn’t easy, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be incredibly fun and full of celebration. 

You hit where you aim

Why do we often miss the mark on what we are trying to accomplish? Systems, processes, training, and goals are very much a part of thriving in any arena. When recruiting children’s ministry volunteers, adopting some organizational rhythms will help to keep you on track and ensure that the people you’re recruiting don’t fall through the cracks. 

Set recruiting goals, and let your team know what you’re aiming for. It’s important to be able to articulate exactly how many people you need, what age groups, service times, or events that have the greatest need, and why it is so important for people to join in the work. Setting recruiting goals will give you two gifts:

  1. Direction. You’ll know better how to align your daily work with your ministry’s needs (and God’s desires for it).
  2. Accountability. You’ll know when you are hitting the mark and when you’re not. You’ll know when you’ve reached your goal so that you can celebrate! 

A ministry that is healthy will often attract healthy and vital leaders. The more you are able to show your congregation the skills needed to serve, the urgency of children’s discipleship, and the reality that they’ll be cared for and celebrated when they volunteer, the more they’ll be willing to jump in and serve. Then, once someone commits, celebrate the moment with them and say, “Welcome to the team! Let’s invest in the next generation.”

By / May 27

A few weeks ago, a pastor friend who supervises children’s ministry staff at his church reached out to me and asked, “If you were coaching a children’s ministry leader on event planning and communication, what tips would you give them?” My friend’s question is a great one. After all, children’s ministers have a lot of people with whom they need to communicate. 

When planning for events or ministry initiatives, it’s important to be on the same page with other church staff. On at least a weekly basis, it’s necessary to have regular communication about the service schedule and weekly teaching plan with your volunteers. And speaking of volunteers, it’s essential to have a clearly communicated assimilation process — application, background check, interview, and training — for those who desire to begin serving in the ministry for the first time. Oh, and I haven’t begun to talk about the need to communicate with parents, to promote events through regular announcements, and to think intentionally about how your ministry might use social media as an equipping resource.

Many children’s ministers stepped into their ministry roles with backgrounds in education — even Christian education — but fewer of us had training in event planning and administration when we began. We might know how to interpret the Bible and teach the next generation, but we have a lot to learn about managing a ministry. 

With these realities in mind, I forwarded my friend’s question to several organized ministry leaders that I know. Here are their encouragements:

First, begin your communication about events or ministry initiatives as early as possible. 

Sandra Peoples, who is a disability consultant for the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention and a women’s and disability ministry leader at Heights Baptist in Alvin, Texas, told me, “At our church, anything that’s going on the calendar needs to be requested at least two months in advance. It gets discussed and approved at staff meetings. Then, we begin the planning process.” 

I love Sandra’s idea of a two-month planning minimum, but for larger, church-wide events like vacation Bible school or a community harvest festival — or with any communication of events in a very large church — the communication will need to start even earlier. In his article, “Leadership and Church Size Dynamics: How Strategy Changes with Growth,” Dr. Timothy Keller makes clear that an increasing redundancy of communication is even more necessary as a church grows. Keller writes, “Without multiple forms and repeated messages, people will feel left out and complain, ‘I wasn’t told about it.’ You know you’ve crossed into a higher size category when . . . informal communication networks (pulpit announcements, newsletter notices, and word of mouth) are insufficient to reach everyone.” Once that is the case more lead time is necessary to communicate effectively; fluency is the goal. As Heather Thompson, communications director at Paradox Church in Ft. Worth, Texas, told me, “When you are tired of saying it, that may be just the beginning of people starting to get it.”

Second, as you plan the event, use a checklist. 

If you’ve purchased a vacation Bible school director’s guide or any sort of event planning kit from a Christian publisher, you’ve likely discovered that those kits contain planning timelines or checklists that begin up to a year in advance. Peoples told me that an event planning checklist her church uses includes details like “room setup, registration, graphic design, turning on the AC, and getting keys to whoever needs them.” But the checklists also cover matters of communication. 

In fact, director’s guides and resource kits may even include sample email communication for volunteers and parents or promotional materials such as videos, posters, mailers, and graphics for the church bulletin or social media. One of the great things about these kits is that they not only give you these resources for communication, they also tell you exactly when in the planning process to use them.

When planning an event without any sort of pre-set guide or kit, I’ve often taken a planning checklist that I’ve used before (for an event like child dedication, for example), and then I’ve adapted it as a template for the new event. I just make any necessary adjustments (e.g., enough recruiting lead time for events that require more volunteers) and then follow the checklist step-by-step.

Third, be consistent with your regular communication. 

Consistency with the channels you use to communicate will help the parents in your church and the volunteers who serve in your ministry know where to find the information they need. If, for instance, you’re consistent with sending out the children’s ministry schedule and curriculum via email each Tuesday morning, teachers will learn to look for it on that day in their Inbox. It can be possible to use too many communication platforms, narrowing your communication to one landing page on your website and the most used social media platforms can make your communication more clear.

Jared Crabtree serves as pastor of Families at Redeemer Fellowship Midtown in Kansas City, Missouri. He told me that his team works to have a presence on Facebook and Instagram that follows a regular schedule — ”typically a video with one of our staff or leaders teaching hand motions for the lesson memory verse on Mondays and something like an activity or resource for families on Wednesday or Thursday as well as regular volunteer highlights.” 

I love that the Redeemer team is intentional about celebrating volunteers, because, as Thompson told me, “Regular communication should not just revolve around announcements, promotions, or policies. Great communication is an ‘encouragement channel’ that celebrates what you value; it’s consistently communicating your vision and values for your team and the people you serve.”

Sandra Peoples highlighted another reason for a consistent communications schedule or planning checklist. It minimizes decision-making. “You don’t have to think of everything every time,” she said. “Make one decision that you can apply over and over when possible. I do this in dozens of ways. I have assigned days for posts on social media and a schedule for what I want to share; I also wear the same shirt every Monday, and we always have the same meals on the weekends.” 

I get it. We have Taco Tuesdays and Tuscan Thursdays (pizza or spaghetti) every week at the Kennedy house! As Peoples told me, “It may feel restricting for creative types at first, but then they realize how much brain space they have for the things that really matter when they put the rest on auto-pilot.” Planning in advance when you’re going to post on social media gives you the opportunity to be more deliberate about what you say and the tone with which you say it. It also gives you the time to have a well-rounded plan that addresses each of your target audiences — parents, children, and team members. Planning ahead gives you the opportunity to be prayerful, deliberate, and intentional.

Finally, make event planning and communication a team project. 

Rachel Mills and Alix Carruth, who serve with Crabtree at Redeemer Fellowship, run one of the best children’s ministry Instagram accounts I’ve seen. To help with consistency, they’ve put together a shared spreadsheet that maps their regular social media posts, and they use Slack, a team communication app, to share ideas for headlines. Carruth told me, “We alternate days of posting on Facebook and Instagram, but we meet every two weeks to plan for two weeks in advance so that we can be two weeks ahead.” 

Working together makes Mills and Carruth’s work lighter. Teamwork makes the dream work! It provides built-in accountability, too. Whether you’re leading a children’s ministry as a volunteer, serving as the only staff member, or part of a larger team, it’s important that you find others in your church who can help you bear the communication load.

All leaders communicate, and as Proverbs 25:11 (NKJV) says, “A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in settings of silver.” If you are a children’s ministry leader, you have a unique communication burden due to the numerous communication channels you have to manage — with fellow church staff, volunteers, parents, and the congregation as a whole. It’s one that can be carried with God’s help. By prayerfully planning ahead, using a checklist, being consistent, and working with a team, you can communicate in a way that’s gentle, intentional, and effective. 

By / Apr 8

A year ago, as we headed into weeks and months of pandemic lockdown, children’s ministry leaders were in survival mode, scrambling for ideas on how to equip their teams to minister to children from a distance. As we saw the end of pandemic restrictions on the horizon, many lifted their gaze and began to explore reopening plans. Now those same ministry leaders are in the midst of implementing those plans, teaching volunteers new sanitizing protocols and welcoming families back into teaching environments with new social distancing requirements.

COVID-19 has changed a lot of things about children’s ministry, but one thing that hasn’t changed is the fact that most children’s ministers spend more time each week thinking about getting ready for Sunday than they do thinking about the philosophy and methodology that has shaped the way they do ministry. Children’s ministers work in the ministry but on a week-to-week basis, most don’t give as much thought to what it would look like to work on the ministry

Children’s ministry as an academic discipline

That’s where a book like Bridging Theory and Practice in Children’s Spirituality: New Directions for Education, Ministry, and Discipleship (Zondervan, 2020) can be a big help. The book is edited by Mimi L. Larson, children’s ministry catalyzer for Faith Formation Ministries in the Christian Reformed Church-North America, and Robert J. Keeley, professor of education at Calvin College. It grew out of presentations made at the 2018 Children’s Spirituality Summit, an ecumenical gathering of children’s ministry scholars and practitioners hosted by the Society for Children’s Spirituality at Lipscomb University in Nashville, Tennessee.

The book includes chapters from a diverse range of thinkers and practitioners that includes Erik Carter, professor of Special Education at Vanderbilt University, Kevin E. Lawson, professor of Educational Studies at Biola University, Adam Harwood, professor of Theology at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, Karen F. Williams, a book publishing and education consultant based in Nashville, and Henry Zonio, a Ph.D. candidate in Sociology at the University of Kentucky, and others. These authors and more explore children’s ministry as an academic discipline. While the book is aimed at ministry practitioners, it invites them into deeper reflection on what might be described in an academic seminar as the issues and theory that shapes our practice of children’s discipleship.

Children’s Spirituality begins with foundational matters, exploring the philosophical emphases, theological assumptions, and cultural history that shape contemporary children’s ministry curriculum and programming (chapters 1–4). Next, the book explores the environments that shape a child’s faith—church culture and programming, the changing shape of today’s families, and the experience of trauma and grief (chapters 5–8). The book’s final sections explore various methods for children’s ministry. An emphasis is placed on telling Bible stories (chapters 9–11) but the book also addresses the shape of contemporary curriculum (chapters 12–13), spiritual direction with children (chapter 14), and the importance of play (chapter 15).

Among the book’s highlights were Lawson and Harwood’s chapter that outlined the similarities and differences in Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Lutheran, Reformed, and Baptist theologies of children (chapter 2); Karen Williams’s very practical chapter on cultivating children’s ministry environments that foster racial diversity (chapter 3); Erik Carter’s taxonomy of approaches that churches take to welcoming children with special needs (chapter 4); and Zonio’s sociological study of racial representation in the images and language used in published children’s ministry curriculum (chapter 13). If you are a family pastor or children’s minister, each of these chapters is worth your time and careful consideration.

Ministry to, for, and with children

The contributors to Children’s Spirituality represent a diversity of perspectives from a broad range of Christian traditions. As I read, my desire was to engage the book with openness and thoughtfulness about the assumptions I bring to children’s ministry as a committed Baptist.

The book’s first chapter, written by Scottie May, professor emerita of Christian Formation and Ministry at Wheaton College, helped me to put my theological and cultural assumptions into a historical perspective. May sees American children’s ministry as developing in three phases (24–35):

The conservative evangelical movement in America began with a theologically sound emphasis on the Bible as the authority for discipleship (2 Tim. 3:16–17). May points out that as a result of our confidence in the Bible, many evangelical churches from 1940–1965 gravitated toward content-focused discipleship strategies and viewed children as sponges or empty vessels into which the teacher—the authority in the classroom—was responsible to impart knowledge. She calls this ministry to children.

With the advent of children’s television and the widespread acceptance of developmental theory, children’s ministries from 1965–1990 become more student-centered. The attractional children’s ministry models of this era saw children as participants, explorers, or even consumers, and the teachers were given the role of engaging children in active learning. “Sometimes the learning was so active,” May lamented, “that the teacher would feel it was a three-ring circus” (27). She calls this ministry for children.

The newest models of children’s ministry—and the ones that are most prominently highlighted in Children’s Spirituality—are process-centered and emphasize spiritual formation as a journey (Gal. 4:19). The new models are rooted in the contemplative theological stream and highlight new findings in neurobiology that have challenged many people’s developmental assumptions about when learning begins (26). May calls this ministry with children.

Some benefits of a process-centered approach

May’s three-phase overview demonstrates how children’s ministry scholarship as a whole has swung from what I might describe as a Classical education model across the bow to something that looks more and more like a Montessori-style model of Christian education—one that emphasizes imagination and wonder, asking open-ended questions about Bible stories, allowing kids to discover their own readings or interpretations of the text, giving children more choices, and learning through play. 

We now know that learning happens before birth and that all children have a sense of awe from a very early age; they are aware of spiritual things. With this knowledge, many children’s ministry scholars (and a growing number of practitioners) have begun to view teachers as co-learners with children; they’re embracing a reciprocal learning relationship with children and even finding ways to empower children to lead. “This rather revolutionary thought recognizes that children can indeed teach adults something, including and perhaps especially spiritual insights, if the adults only have ears to hear and eyes to see” (27–28). 

The contributors to Children’s Spirituality have helped me to see at least three helpful correctives that a process-centered approach offers:

  1. A process-centered approach finds freedom to engage the Bible’s more difficult stories without having all the answers. Often evangelical children’s ministries have used Bible stories merely as a way to teach moral lessons to children. With this approach, Bible people are seen either as heroes or villains, and it’s no wonder that many stories (like the story of David and Bathsheba in 2 Samuel 11 and 12) or details in stories (like Noah’s drunken nakedness after the flood) are left out of children’s ministry curriculum.

    Even with a more God- or gospel-centered approach that emphasizes God’s actions for his people in history, our desire to find one main teaching point can keep us from sitting in the mystery of why a story’s events unfolded as they did. Why did God choose a man like Samson as a judge (Judges 13–16) or give us that awful story of the Levite and his concubine (Judges 19–20)? In his chapter on sharing hard stories with children, Robert J. Keeley writes, “Much of the Bible is mysterious. . .  I don’t know the answers to any of these questions. I have some guesses and some ideas about how to start thinking about these things, but I have no answers. It is good to let children know that. Mystery is an important part of our faith. A God we can fully grasp is a God who is too small” (172).
  2. A process-centered approach doesn’t merely tell children what to think; it cultivates their affections and higher-level thinking skills. At the beginning of her chapter, Mimi L. Larson wrote, “I believe the church desires children to learn and be spiritually formed as a result of instruction, but are we engaging in methods that will actually increase their learning in formation?” (187). Behind this question was a research project where Larson used Bloom’s taxonomy for evaluating educational learning objectives to study 39 randomly selected lessons in five popular, evangelical, mostly nondenominational children’s curricula.

    Larson came away from this study with a conviction that children’s ministry leaders, Sunday School teachers, and curriculum writers may be good at telling children what they should believe and how to apply God’s Word—teaching lessons with clear main points and incentivizing the memorization of Bible verses and doctrinal truths. But they are less skilled at cultivating a child’s affections or in training kids to think at a higher level—about how to analyze and study God’s Word for instance, or to think through ethical situations from a biblical frame, or to produce a creative and affective faith response.

    Larson calls for greater intentionality in both our curriculum development and in the way we cultivate reflective classroom environments: “By encouraging children to think and discover biblical understandings under the guidance of a skilled teacher and mature believer, the child is learning how to think biblically and not just specifically what to think” (197).
  3. A process-centered approach encourages active engagement with children while they play. Shirley K. Morgenthaler is distinguished professor of Curriculum, Language, and Literacy at Concordia University, Chicago. In her chapter on sacred play, she writes, “Within Christian education, we feel a tension to ground a child in the gospel, to explain and teach the foundations of faith from a young age. We also know that play impacts both the life of the mind and the life of the body . . . Can play also be a form of spiritual development?” (228).

    Morgenthaler encourages children’s ministers to create spaces where children can act out Bible stories and rhythms of worship—perhaps a little church with pews and a pulpit in the corner of a classroom, or a nativity scene with Bible costumes during Advent and Christmas. She sees these environments as centers for self-discovery but highlights the need for wise teachers to provide guidance.

    If play is a part of a child’s spiritual formation, it must be more than a time-filler or recreational activity. “This is not the time to be holding a cup of coffee and ‘watching the children,’” she writes (238). Rather the teacher must be fully engaged and discerning about when to allow kids the opportunity to exercise their creativity and when to step in and ask guiding questions.

Embracing a process without losing the gospel

If there’s a danger in a process-oriented approach, it’s that in focusing on the process, ministers might begin to deemphasize the importance of the gospel message. As Baptists, we might worry that when teachers pursue a role as co-learners with children, they may be attempted to also abandon their own authority as the teacher—or forsake the reality that the Christian faith has a defined content that must be passed along from generation to generation (Psa. 78:5–8; 2 Tim. 1:5; 2:2; Jude 1:3). 

Conservative evangelicals will want to emphasize that while it can be helpful for children to make their own choices and struggle to discover the meaning of Bible passages, kids are also both sinful and immature. One role of a Christian teacher is to bring correction when a child strays onto the wrong path—not only in behavior but also in thinking. We must be gentle with children but also unafraid to confront them with the reality of their brokenness. As Charles Spurgeon once warned: 

Do not flatter the child with delusive rubbish about his nature being good and needing to be developed. Tell him he must be born again. Don’t bolster him up with the fancy of his own innocence, but show him his sin. Mention the childish sins to which he is prone, and pray the Holy Spirit to work conviction in his heart and conscience.1Charles Spurgeon, Come Ye Children (London: Passmore and Alabaster, 1897), chapter 9, accessed online at https://archive.spurgeon.org/misc/cyc09.php.

Spurgeon makes clear that an essential way of cultivating affection in children for the gospel is to show them their need for it. At times as I was reading, I wished that perspective was more front and center in Children’s Spirituality

But with our love of the truth, we also must demonstrate to the next generation that we have the heart to walk alongside them—and even learn from them—as they discover the beauty and goodness of the Bible’s message. To that end, I found this book to be a great help.

One prayer I have for the churches and leaders who are welcoming children again after COVID-19 is that they’ll take time in this season to slow down and think deeply about the theology and methodology that drives their ministry—that they won’t just work in but work on their children’s ministry. Maybe Children’s Spirituality will help you to that end. As with the children we’re leading, growth for us as ministers isn’t always cultivated in the activity but in the process of both doing the work and taking the time to reflect and wonder. 

Jared Kennedy and the team of leaders at Gospel-Centered Family offer both one-on-one and cohort coaching opportunities for children’s and family ministry leaders. Find out more at gospelcenteredfamily.com/coaching 

  • 1
    Charles Spurgeon, Come Ye Children (London: Passmore and Alabaster, 1897), chapter 9, accessed online at https://archive.spurgeon.org/misc/cyc09.php.