Pastoral ministry to children and their families in the Western world has changed dramatically in the last thirty years. Resources, opportunities to network and receive training, and platforms for sharing ideas have leveled the playing field and heightened cross-pollination of ideas among colleagues, even among those like myself who are relatively unknown.
My aim in this post and in a few soon-to-follow is to call our attention back again to what it means to be children’s pastors in our contexts. Although I am no longer a children’s pastor as of late 2010, I have retained a desire to see pastoral ministry to the youngest done well. But what does that mean? What does it look like to do pastoral children’s ministry well in your context?
Large volunteer base? It surely helps, but it is not nearly as much as a high commitment volunteer base who themselves exhibit pastoral care toward the children and parents they influence.
Killer physical ministry environments? They can have their place, to be sure. But in my view they are not nearly as important as leaders who capture the imaginations of the children, turning their hearts toward the Lord God, and their families, especially their parents.
Creativity? We are all creative in our own right, given the imago dei. It seems those with particular creative preferences, such as puppets, video and pyrotechnics, humor, set design, drama and music tend to get the most attention.
Family ministry engagement? Family ministry has taken the children’s ministry world by storm in recent years, for good reason. However, it has also inadvertently left in its wake many unintended consequences in specific local churches. Not least, we add one more thing for the children’s pastor to do, often requiring her to ditch one initiative (such as outreach to the local neighborhood) in favor of focusing on parent training and mentoring while still attempting to maintain high caliber children’s ministry programming within the walls of the church building during scheduled services.
None of these things are intrinsically bad. Including others in volunteer ministry leadership is great! Awesome environments are fun and important in capturing the imaginations of kids! Creativity? We need it! Family ministry engagement is necessary! Ditching mission to focus on internal pastoral care…well, that is a tragic false-dichotomy based on myopic ecclesiology.
Three general principles may help us navigate these issues.
First, ministry is local. Whether your church is rural, suburban, or urban, it is local. Whether it is a recent plant, a house church, meets under an urban bridge, a historic landmark, a large multi-service contemporary situation, or a multi-site iteration of church, it is still local. Local refers to the specific church people and their neighbors who don’t follow Jesus, geography, climate, and culture, to name a few characteristics.
Second, you are a pastor, not merely an activities director. Whether or not you are ordained, licensed, paid or volunteer, have a different title such as director, or none at all, you got into children’s ministry because you love kids and their parents and you want to see them love God with all their heart, mind, soul, and strength, and their neighbors as themselves. That’s why you write special notes to encourage parents and kids. It’s why you visit the sick child in the hospital. It’s why you endure unfair verbal abuse from an angry parent who is lashing out at you because of something another child said to their child. Your steady, calm temperament has its source in the peace God gives you to love the abusive person even when their wrath is directed toward you. It’s why you have the hard conversation in the pouring down rain with the addict who knows his life needs to change, for his own sake and that of his wife and children.
Third, you joyfully invite others to make this journey with you. You know you cannot do it alone. The needs are too many. To touch the lives of each parent, each child, each family, not only in your church family, but also in the local neighborhood, is a task which exceeds the capacity of any single individual. No matter how creative, how energetic, how talented, how persuasive. You need others to help you. But not just helpers. You need visionaries who are unselfish laborers, people who have God-given dreams of their own. People who are willing and even desire to labor in obscurity so that one more child, one more parent, one more family will come to faith in Jesus Christ, choosing a life of discipleship.
There is more to come soon as I dive more deeply into these three principles, thinking through their practical impact on how and why we do what we do as children’s pastors. I invite you to join me and to invite your friends as well into the conversation.