When I married a priest, I cut a deal with him. “No children’s ministry,” I made him swear. “Not now, not ever.”

Perhaps this was an over-reaction. After all, at the time we got married, my husband was serving at a large, wealthy urban parish, whose staff was stacked with priests and lay employees. While I’m sure my presence as a children’s ministry volunteer would have been welcomed, there was no need or expectation of my presence. There was no sense of “first lady” mentality at this church. All of the other clergy spouses were either busy raising their families, pursuing their own careers, or both. The most the congregation would expect of me, as the wife of a junior curate, was to support my husband and enthusiastically participate in a few of the parish’s many service opportunities for the surrounding communities. But the reality of the situation did not dissuade me from guaranteeing this boundary. Several of my friends, married to pastors from other denominations, ended up as unpaid part-time employees, usually in the music ministry or children’s program, so I wanted to lay down a hard boundary early, just in case. (Based on my lack of singing ability, I wasn’t worried about being recruited to a music program.)

“No children’s ministry,” I repeated. And he, confident of our future vocational paths, agreed.

But then, God moved, and we moved — to a small parish in rural Indiana. We knew the situation was bleak at the church when we moved there. However, we didn’t realize how bleak until we walked in on the first Sunday. There were no children … none. As we talked to parishioners after the service, we learned that the only family with children had moved away about three months before. In fact, we were some of the youngest people in the congregation.

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“There’s no way,” we thought. How can you get children to come back to a church that has nothing for them? And would the parish, which seemed to be headed to death, be able to welcome life instead?

Over the next year, the absence of children became a metaphor for the parish’s spiritual health. And we prayed (and our faithful parents, family, and friends prayed along with us). We prayed for children at the same time that we prayed for renewal. And we sought a lot of counsel. What would we do the day children showed up? So, for a year we prepped … and prayed … and waited. And for some reason, I began to feel that it was my job to do most of the preparation. It seemed a lot to ask of other people in the parish: to prepare every week for the children who might never come. And it seemed like a good break from my academic work: spiritually healthy without being too actually demanding.

And then, one Sunday, the amazing happened … a mother showed up with three young kids. She had heard from a parishioner at my husband’s other parish that he was an excellent preacher, and thought she would give it a try. And they came back … and brought cousins. And then some other kids came with their grandparents at Easter. And a man who had been attending by himself brought his stepdaughter because he thought she would enjoy the other kids. And suddenly, the church began to fill up with children. And, despite the promise I had obtained from my husband, I found myself leading a Sunday school of ten children.

Looking back, I have no doubt that that the Holy Spirit was the motivating force behind the parish’s transformation. But I also don’t doubt that the snippets of wisdom we gleaned from others who had walked a similar path, and our own willingness to experiment (as well as vast reservoirs of patience on the part of parents and children alike), made a difference. So, in the interest of sharing our experience and in the spirit of past Covenant pieces, here is a Top Nine list of what worked … and what definitely didn’t work for starting a children’s ministry at a small church.

1. Be prepared.

The first Sunday we had children in the church, I had nothing ready for them. Thomas attempted a children’s sermon, asking the children to come up front, but, understandably, the children had no interest coming up front to sit with a strange man in a strange setting. I wasn’t sure that the family would ever come back, but, just in case, I always had a lesson, snacks, and a craft prepared for every Sunday following their visit. They did come back eventually, and the next time I was ready.

2. Love children because Jesus loves them, not just for church attendance numbers.

Even when we didn’t have any kids actually involved in the church, we began to seek out opportunities to care for children in our immediate community. Since they weren’t coming to church, we brought the bits of the church we could to them. For my husband Thomas, this looked like taking a step up in involvement with the preschool affiliated with the church. He began to work the drop-off and pick up carpool line a few times a week, getting to know the parents and the kids. We encouraged the members of the church to seek ways to welcome the families into the church, even though they were not coming to worship. For example, they began to host a welcome dinner for the pre-school families, serving them and their children dinner, which gave busy parents a night off from cooking and helped them see that the whole church welcomed children, whether they “belonged” to it or not.

3. Love parents because Jesus loved them, not because they produce kids or help rebalance your demographics.

This should be self-explanatory, but its amazing how easy it is to fall into a trap of seeing parents as auxiliary to the children they produce. I learned quickly that parents wanted to have a relationship with me, cared about what I was teaching in class, and wanted to hear from me and from their kids about what was going on. Although they appreciated the chance to listen to the sermon and the fact that their children were also being taught by somebody else, they cared deeply about their children’s catechetical formation and wanted to be involved. The more I saw how my ministry to children impacted their parents and the more I sought to bring the parents on board and minister to them as well, the bigger my vision grew and the more the ministry flourished.

4. Don’t be boring.

I found that I succeeded best when I aimed over what I believed to be the children’s intellectual level, not under. One of the most successful lessons I was able to lead was one I didn’t teach at all, but when I invited a Bible scholar from our congregation to come and teach the children about the idea of Bible translation. The children loved learning something new and were so excited to learn how to write a Hebrew word. On the same token, classes on theological doctrines actually tended to go much better than I had ever imagined, because I think explaining the doctrines not only gave the children something new to think about, but helped connect lessons they had learned in other classes.

However, focusing time on doctrine did not mean that we neglected training in engagement with the narrative of Scripture. Plays, outdoor activities, and games were always important for helping the children to see themselves in the narrative, rather than outside. My goal was that children would leave Sunday school having learned that the gospel as the most exciting and engaging story in the world.

Working for this type of engagement requires a willingness to look extensively for curriculum, and to ditch parts of the curriculum if they don’t seem engaging or right for the students. I rarely found that curriculums over-shot children’s ability, but far too often they underestimated it, making for a bored teacher and bored students.

5. Don’t feel the need to be perfect.

There are a lots of things I could have done better with children’s ministry: better preparation, better crafts, maintaining a more organized classroom setting. However, it was far less important that I was perfect than that I was willing to try, to love the kids, and that I was excited about the lesson and the ministry in general. Making the program more elaborate may surely make it better, but can never replace any of those key components.

6. Make church a safe place to ask questions, not a scary one.

In some ways, this question is a sub-set of number 4. If children aren’t free to ask questions, they will be bored. We always strove to maintain a classroom where any question, even ones from the two- years-olds, was seriously considered on the table. I found that the best way to model this was being willing to ask questions myself. There were several times that student questions went beyond my own biblical literacy. Rather than trying to cover up my ignorance, I let them know that I was planning on asking questions of people who knew more than I did, and then I reported back on the question process and the answer the following week.

7. Give other people in the congregation the chance to get involved.

At first, I made the mistake of assuming that because there were no children in the parish, people didn’t really care about whether children were engaged or not. I quickly learned my mistake when I realized one of the older women in the parish was coming up and cleaning the Sunday School room on Mondays because she wanted to be involved. Although not all of the parishioners who wanted to serve wanted to teach, I was consistently amazed by how many of them brought simply a servant’s heart and earnestly desired to serve little ones, if I would just give them the chance.

8. The goal is to get children more involved in worship, not less.

As wonderful as I believe a children’s Sunday School program to be, it is important never to lose sight of the fact that it does not exist as an end in itself. Rather, I found that the more the Sunday School explained what was going on the worship service and the more opportunities children had to be involved in the service as well as Sunday School, the more engaged they were in both settings. This was brought home to me when I realized that one of the three-year-olds had memorized the sung, Rite I eucharistic liturgy and was using snippets of the liturgy to answer questions in Sunday School.

9. Be prepared to change and grow yourself.

Helping to start a children’s Sunday School changed the way I pray, the way I teach, and the way I parent. Despite my heel dragging, promise extracting, and complaining, God used the process and the children to change me in ways that I never expected and would never surrender.

About The Author

Elisabeth is assistant professor of moral theology at the Aquinas Institute of Theology. She received her PhD in Theology from the University of Notre Dame, where her dissertation focused on reclaiming the theological jurisprudence of the 16th-century Spanish theologian and legal scholar, Francisco Suárez.

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