Trying to bring change in your children’s ministry (or ‘The ballad of repeatedly banging your head against a wall’)

National adviser for children and youth for the Church of England Mary Hawes faces the same problem many of us do: no matter how inspired, equipped and envisioned she feels, trying to bring about change in her home church is a painful process. Fortunately, she’s got some ideas to help… 

I’m sure this is something many of us have experienced: we’ve attended a conference or training session on children’s ministry and been inspired by what we’ve heard. We’ve come back enthusiastic to try out the new ideas, eager to make changes to what is currently happening in our context and create new opportunities for children to come close to God. We’ve looked at scripture through fresh eyes and are convinced that our current practice isn’t fit for purpose and that we need to explore new ways.

But rather than being met with equal enthusiasm from our co-leaders, eager to hear what we’ve discovered and enthusiastic to make changes, the response is often, ‘Well, it won’t work here’, ‘We’ve always done it this way and it’s fine’ or ‘Maybe in a while...’ Cue slumped shoulders, deep sighs and heavy hearts.

Those of us with a professional interest in children’s ministry, even at a parachurch level, aren’t immune from this scenario either. We might have access to the latest resources, get excited about new models of ministry and hear profound truths about children’s spiritual lives, but that doesn’t automatically mean that the people who share our love and care of the children in our church want to latch on to our latest discovery or revelation. Jesus’ words about prophets in their own country not being honoured (Luke 4:20-24) can find a resonance in our own children’s ministry experience.

I stumbled into children’s ministry through a mixture of youthful arrogance, conviction, confidence and naivety. Brought up in a faithful Roman Catholic family, there was never a time when I didn’t believe in God, but that belief took on a new significance when a young couple moved into my village. David and Claire Leeper had a passion for sharing Jesus with young people. They started a weekly club in their home with Bible stories, prayer, singing and crafts. It was nothing out of the ordinary, but it brought my faith alive in a new way through their challenging questions about my prayer life, their teaching on tithing and their model of how being a Christian needed to make a difference to the way I lived.

When they moved away, my 14-year-old-self decided to inherit their mantle and started a Bible Club in a shed. I’m not sure you’d call it successful. My friends came, but I’m not aware of any lives being changed or commitments made to Jesus. I had no real plan nor any materials to work with. I chose a Bible passage at random for us to talk about and the conversations more often than not veered towards school gossip rather scriptural truths. I made a lot of mistakes, but it was the beginning of a life long journey in children’s ministry.

We might have access to the latest resources, get excited about new models of ministry and hear profound truths about children’s spiritual lives, but that doesn’t mean that the people who share our love and care of the children in our church want to latch on to our latest discovery

From that small, very imperfect venture, my life moved through helping in Sunday groups in whichever church I found myself, being part of beach mission teams, qualifying as a primary school teacher, editing Quest notes for Scripture Union, leading the schools’ work for Rochester Cathedral and becoming a diocesan children’s adviser. For the last few years, I have had the joy of working as the national adviser for children and youth for the Church of England, with the privilege of learning from some incredible people. I have had the opportunities to speak at conferences, gain access to the latest resources and receive much wisdom from children’s ministry experts. But back in my home church, I’m Mary, part of a team with expertise and experience and ideas and methods of their own. My voice is heard alongside others, and sometimes mine isn’t the voice that is heard.

What can we do?

So, what can we do when our excitement and eagerness is met with resistance, disinterest or indifference? How can we live with the tension of having a vision that isn’t always shared by others? As I look back, here are some of the things I’ve discovered:

Stick with it

Just because your particular insights or enthusiasm aren’t being taken up straightaway, it doesn’t mean that they will be rejected forever. Sometimes it’s the timing that isn’t right – but if you storm off, you may well miss the season which is right for change.

Model, don’t impose

Trying to impose a new idea on a resistant group doesn’t work. At best, it results in disgruntled coleaders, at worst it scares people off, depleting the leadership team. Instead, ask yourself: ‘What is it about this resource / insight / methodology that I value and feel would make a difference? How can I model that within our current practice?’ When people see you embodying the things you speak about, they will listen in new ways.

Learn to look for where God is

Again and again God confounds me. I form ideas of what is ‘good children’s ministry’ and  then discover that sometimes God works even through what I might consider ‘bad practice’. I have to cultivate an attitude of not condemning something just because I wouldn’t do it myself. Of course, especially with safeguarding, there are practices which we must all aspire to, but I’m trying to catch glimpses of God in places and practices I wouldn’t expect.

Relationship is the heart

No curriculum, resource, video or ‘good idea’ can replace the vital truth that relationship is the very heart of our ministry with children. Concentrate on building those healthy relationships inside (and outside) of group time with the children so that ministry is not so much that of leader and learner, but of fellow pilgrims exploring the exciting journey of faith together (which goes well beyond created resources).

Consider those who helped to nurture and form your faith

Who were the people that helped you to grow in faith? What was it about them that influenced who you are as a Christian? I’m challenged to ask myself whether by my words and actions, in every aspect of life, I help to nurture a child’s faith or help them see what it means to live a Christian life.

Be open to ideas that aren’t yours

Talking with and listening to others is so important. The ideas that I think are the only way forward get honed, knocked down or put to one side when I actively listen to the possibilities that other people put forward. I have to keep repeating the mantra, ‘This isn’t about me – it’s about God and God’s kingdom’ and there are so many more ideas than mine that will help to bring that kingdom in.

Pray, pray, pray

Pray for openness to God, pray for relationships with your colleagues, pray for the children to whom you are called to minister. Pray for a willingness to let go of ideas and attitudes in order to create space for seeing new ways in which God is working. Pray for your church to catch the vision of children as fellow pilgrims who will learn, lead, live and grow alongside all the generations and in all the church’s life.

I stumbled into children’s ministry with youthful arrogance, confidence, commitment and a naïve belief that I could do anything. I still sometimes feel I’m stumbling as I continue to learn with and from children, with and from the great company of children’s ministers across the country. Now if only I could do something about that arrogance…

Mary Hawes is the national adviser for children and youth for the Church of England


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