Children are visual, tactile, and auditory learners, who have the capacity to absorb and understand on so many different levels. When you have a room of 10, 15, or 50 children, you must engage them, no matter their learning styles, and that takes preparation and planning. Children also need a learning environment that will motivate them to seek Christ. It is so important for them to understand that the Bible they hold in their hands is God’s story, and we are there to help them discover a new idea from God’s Word. In many churches, everyone—from child to adult—is working together with the same theme and the same idea that is very powerful for everyone.
G&P: Share about communication challenges children’s workers face.
Ervin: Relating to parents is critical. Many come from a variety of life and faith experiences. Some have life-long experiences with the church, others are recent convents, and some have no religious training whatsoever. The children’s pastor must be able to relate to all three, as well as single parents and parents of blended families. More than before, many parents are overwhelmed, confused, or hurting. They may be reluctant or unaware of their responsibility in nurturing their children’s spiritual needs. They may leave that responsibility to the children’s pastor or worker. It is important to help parents understand their pivotal role in bringing their child to Christ and building a foundation of biblical knowledge to discover God in a powerful way—that is the kind of communication that needs to happen. Parents who learn to understand their role often become your best leaders, volunteers, and advocates.
G&P: What about communication challenges with pastoral leadership?
Ervin: What I’ve discovered is that you have to learn how to speak in bullet points. Pastors are busy and have a lot of things vying for their attention. Find the right time and the right place to sit down with them and say, “Here’s what’s on my heart, here’s the vision that God has given me.” When you use specific, concise language, it is easier to connect with your leader.
It takes time to develop the kind of trust that builds openness and honesty with your senior pastor. It may take them longer to see the needs in your area. You must give them time to get to know you and your heart, before you can earn the right to speak your mind.
G&P: How do you advise people about educational curriculum? What things should they look for?
Ervin: Curriculum is a tool, and like any other tool, you must know how to use it properly or it’s not going to work. The first question to ask is, “What are these materials trying to help me do?” If the answer matches the church focus/theme, then you have chosen the right materials. In other words, it is not the curriculum driving the ministry; instead, the leaders are driving the ministry. Choose the best tools that will help you achieve your goals and direction.
Believers come in all ages, shapes, and sizes. It is our job as leaders to look at every age, every classroom, every group as a place for transformation. Look for materials/ curriculum that focus on leading children to Christ. A good curriculum/resource is continually pointing children to Christ.
G&P: How does a children’s pastor develop good teamwork skills?
Ervin: Good teamwork requires understanding other people: how people are shaped, and how they are wired. The first sign of an unhealthy church is when you see one person trying to do it all. Learn to open up and share what’s needed. In other words, invite someone to come cut pizza with the third graders, or come and help with a craft, or ask someone to come help design a set for a large group experience. Learn what interests your volunteers. We assembled a group of people who loved to go to yard sales. These people were wonderful at finding props, set pieces, and costumes at incredible deals. By allowing people to connect at the point of their passions and interests, we were able to build a ministry team. When you do that, you are not only building a team, you are investing in other people, who now see their interests with kingdom eyes. It is here where you often draw future leaders. Teamwork not only builds your ministry, it also builds the kingdom.
G&P: We often don’t think about outreach when it comes to children, but this is a great opportunity, isn’t it?
Ervin: There has been a misconception in many of our churches that children’s ministry can only happen on Sunday morning, in a little classroom down the hall, right across from the nursery. Children’s ministry, if it is missional ministry, is connecting with the community. For example, at Christmastime, we invited our community to come to our church to meet Santa—but by meeting Santa, they also got introduced to Jesus. Sports ministries, like Upward, can also be a great fit for your church. Instead of having parents take their kids to the YMCA to learn basketball (or some other sport), which can be cost prohibitive for some, options can be developed at any local church.
G&P: Sometimes we compartmentalize ministries and don’t think holistically. How do we avoid that with children’s ministry?
Ervin: I would encourage any pastor, leader, or team to answer this question: What is your philosophy about family? When families walk in the door of your church, is your ministry separating them and creating division, or is your ministry bringing people together so that they can learn how to function, how to grow their relationships, how to be a better mom/dad/brother/sister? What in your ministry is fostering that kind of development? If you have something that says we feel that the family is important, then that philosophy needs to speak to your calendar, your schedule, what you do on Sunday mornings.
G&P: Can you give an example of holistic ministry that reflects a family approach?
Ervin: When I was in Fredericksburg, Virginia, every Sunday morning during the school year we had a family theater. It was a separate, 45-minute experience where families came together. Drama and skits were the signature pieces. We presented some kind of conflict that helped families use God’s Word or the teachings of Jesus to solve a problem. The whole family experienced this together and learned lessons that helped them live out their faith that week.
G&P: Safety is an important issue for churches. What do clergy leaders need to be mindful of when it comes to child safety?
Ervin: We must accept the hard reality that child abuse can happen anywhere. Leaders must take responsibility for creating a safe environment for love, acceptance, and forgiveness to happen. There are people in our world who see churches as easy prey. One way to reduce risk is by creating a safety plan with policies and procedures in place that allow churches to respond thoughtfully and properly if something unfortunate happens. Churches should perform background checks for workers and volunteers. It is important to think through locks and doors, hallways, access, as well as train our people to be aware and respond to an incident, before it becomes hurtful or destructive.
G&P: You have a chapter in your book called “celebrating rites of passage.” What do you mean by this, and why is it so important?
Ervin: We often get busy and forget the opportunity to celebrate pivotal moments in the lives of our children regarding their journey of faith. Some of these important rites are dedication or baptism. Celebrating when a child accepts Christ is something that should be front and center, where everyone can be a part of the celebration. It is important to recognize when children are ready to enter another level of ministry. It is important to prepare children for these rites of passage and to recognize them in the life of the church. This is a time for the whole church to celebrate our children’s growth and spiritual development. In the book, I provide suggestions for how churches can maximize these moments in the lives of our children and their families, so they will be part of the kingdom and fully engage in the mission and purposes of God.
G&P: What are ways to determine a person’s fitness for children’s ministry?
Ervin: The first question I ask is, “Why do you want to do this?” An answer can’t simply be, “I love kids.” I think a sense of call is important. Does the interested person have a personal walk with Christ? Does their vision for children connect with the overarching vision of the church? Is that person ready to be honest and open? When you lead in a local church, especially in children’s ministry, you have got to be willing to lead from the heart. Children will hear what you are saying, but they will also see who you are. There is no way you can fake or hide it.
G&P: How does an aging congregation retool to appeal to younger families?
Ervin: Take an inventory of the nursery, children’s classrooms, and the front door and lobby of the church. Sometimes, change can be as simple as painting the walls to improve appearance. Families come to a place when it looks attractive, fun, and safe. Ask what can be done differently to make things more inviting, more welcoming, and more appealing. If you’re a first grader coming on Sunday morning, what is the number one thing you are thinking of? Food! Make sure your nursery smells good and put a couple boxes of bagels at the front door, and you might just get a new family next Sunday.
In addition, build on your strengths and be prepared. A single mother came to a church I was consulting and shared that this was the fifth church they had visited in the last few months. Her daughter had special needs: she was autistic, and she was a preschooler. The mother was very apprehensive about letting her child go, but one of the children’s leaders happened to have a lot of experience with special needs. They were prepared and made this parent and child feel so loved and accepted that it only took one Sunday for that parent to say, “I found the right church.”
G&P: What are things a children’s pastor needs to think about when transitioning from a smaller to a larger church?
Ervin: You have to become less of a hands-on leader and more of a team leader. If you try to do everything yourself, you’ll soon grow exhausted. Find ways to communicate your vision and build relationships with people who can help you. Stating your needs in the church bulletin and expecting everybody to get it will not cut it.
Find a group of seven to eight key leaders and really pour yourself into them. Encourage those leaders to invest in other people, who can help your ministry. If you don’t multiply leaders, it’s hard to meet needs and be successful.
Parents and volunteers tend to be attracted to transformational ministry. Help them see how children are transformed through your ministry. Help people see how their time and energy is well-served by leading kids to Christ.
G&P: Children’s ministry is demanding. How do you keep yourself nurtured spiritually to stay fit for ministry?
Ervin: Children’s ministry leaders are giving continuously. What they have to do is find a personal Sabbath. They have to find another day, another time, another venue, where they can just simply receive and allow their sponges to be soaked up again by the Holy Spirit and by the Word and by worship. Finding a small group where they will accept you as “Susie Believer/Joe Christian” instead of “the children’s leader” is really important. Another way to recharge is by connecting with other children’s ministry leaders in your community or through denominational networks. Sharing your heart and ideas in a lunch or by email (or other social media) is huge. You can find camaraderie, common bonds, and a kind of Sabbath experience that can keep nourishing your spiritual DNA. Another way to recharge is by going back to school and taking a class or attending a ministry conference.
Editor’s note: A new ministry initiative called Nazarene Safe™ was introduced by Children’s Ministries International at the recent M11 Conference to help churches keep children and youth safe. More can be found online at www.nazarenesafe.org.