“For the past several months I have served as minister to children,” wrote associate pastor Dante Ottolini in the newsletter that arrived in my mail yesterday. “I never imagined I would be serving in this capacity! In seminary I had one class pertaining to children’s ministry, but it was life changing.”
Near the end of his seminary career, Dante signed up for that one credit hour children’s ministry seminar to learn more about how to be the best possible father for his twin boys. On the basis of that learning experience, however, when the children’s ministry team in the church he serves needed support and guidance, he stepped forward to provide leadership.
I wonder how many seminarians are like Dante, never thinking about ministry with children, other than their own, yet now in the position of associate pastor and finding themselves responsible for children’s ministry. An increasing number of churches want to employ a pastor for children and families. And what about the smaller church with the solo pastor, who pastors the children there? Are you being adequately prepared to serve the children in your congregation? Does it matter?
How does one prepare for effective ministry with children? A starting point is gaining an understanding and affirmation of the amazing spiritual potential of children.
Ana-Maria Rizzuto believes that children begin to construct their first image of God between 18 months and 3 years of age (cf. Birth of the Living God: A Psychoanalytic Study [University of Chicago Press, 1979] 7, 178). Young children put together their first understanding of God, not from our formal teaching, but from their experiences with parents and other significant adults in their lives, from their interpretation of responses to the questions they ask, and from the comments they hear about God. We construct our image of God so early we do not remember doing so. Yet that primal image lodges in our heart, making it easy for us to believe what we are later taught about a gracious God, or undermining what our minds learn, making it hard for us to accept grace for ourselves.
Children do not just learn about God, they experience God. When asked, “Have you ever felt God close to you?” one little girl responded: “Yah. Umm, it sounds pretty silly, but when I am [lying] in bed, my covers are his arms and my pillow was his chest. I feel like he is around me.” Children report that God speaks to them and gives them guidance in everyday life. They express a desire to be with God, and express awe in realizing that God is with them.
Children also have potential for grasping deep truth about God. As we enjoyed a pizza together I asked 8 year-old-John, “Have you ever felt God close to you?” Quick as a flash he responded, “Yah. When I was thinking about Adam and Eve, when they sinned, how God gave them a second chance. And Jonah, when he ran away, God gave him a second chance.” In the stories of Scripture John had met the God of grace, and felt God close to him.
In addition to recognizing the amazing spiritual potential of children, preparation for ministry with children calls for discovering the contribution children have to make in the faith community.
Jesus tried to teach the disciples about the kingdom of God, but they were not getting it. They continued to debate over who would be the greatest in the kingdom. Jesus shocked them by setting a mere child in the place of honor beside him and announcing, “the least among you is the greatest” (Luke 9:48). In this context, Jesus utilizes the child to represent those who represent the least who are to be considered great, and receive honor and service in the God’s kingdom. Children are a symbol, a reminder, of kingdom values (cf. J.B. Green, The Gospel of Luke [Eerdmans, 1997] 391-92).
Jesus also indicated that children show us how to receive the kingdom of God. In Luke 18:17, Jesus states: “Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.”
In Luke’s gospel, the story of Jesus blessing the children follows Jesus’ parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector praying in the temple (18:9-14). Like the tax collector, children come to God with no list of good works intended to prove they are worthy of salvation (cf. W.E. Strange, Children in the Early Church [Send the Light, 1997] 52). They come to God empty handed, ready to receive God’s gift of grace.
Like the disciples, we still need children in our midst, showing us how to trust our gracious God and causing us to live out kingdom values by welcoming, respecting, and serving “the least” among us who are greatest in the eyes of God, our children.
It is interesting that seminarians learn how to care for adults in times of crises and suffering, but often little instruction is provided for the pastoral care of children. Lack of training, a sense of inadequacy, and fear keep many pastors from seeing the needs of children in crises and giving them the care that could make a difference in the course of their life.
Pastors equipped to minister effectively with children know how to lead a faith community in providing experiences that enhance the spiritual formation of children. What are those experiences? Let me list a few that I consider crucial.
Children need a sense of welcome and true belonging in the congregation. They need to know and be known by persons of different ages. Indeed, fellowship, learning, and nurture in their peer group is important for children. But God also intends for children to be nurtured by the intergenerational family of God.
Children need to know and love God’s story. Knowing Bible facts is important, but only a small part of what children can glean from the Scripture. Those ministering with children need to know how to present the Story in ways that allow children to enter the story, reflect on it, meet God there, and hear what God has to say to them. When children enter the stories of Scripture and reflect on those stories, they both affectively and intuitively make discoveries they would not comprehend if the truth were delivered in theological words, even simple theological words.
Children also need opportunities to experience God in worship. We find that children treasure time and space to be with God. Natasha had attended a church that gave her that kind of worship experience. One evening, a year after the family had moved to another church, she said, “Mommy, I miss being with God.” She enjoyed the fun activities in her new church, her mother told me. But it seems she did not meet God there, and her little heart longed to experience God again.
Much of a child’s spiritual formation occurs in the home. How well equipped are young parents to nurture the faith of their children? Faith communities give children a great gift when they nurture the faith of their parents and support them in their parenting roles and relationships.
Does it matter whether pastors are prepared to minister with children? Of course it does. The God who calls persons into ministry cares deeply about children and desires that the shepherds of the church know how to care for the lambs.
As you prepare for ministry to children, let me suggest some key avenues of study. First, you need to take the kinds of courses in seminary that will help to equip you for ministry with children, such as, Development and Spiritual Formation across the Life Span, Formation in the Family, Children’s Ministry: Methods, Means, and Models, and The Pastoral Care of Children.
In addition to class selection, I urge you to begin to build a library of helpful resources. Good books on the subject include Strange’s Children in the Early Church; C. Stonehouse’s Joining Children on the Spiritual Journey (Baker, 1998); S. Cavalletti’s The Religious Potential of the Child (Liturgy Training, 1993); J.H. Westerhoff’s Will Our Children Have Faith? [rev. ed.; Morehouse, 2000); J.W. Berryman’s Godly Play: A Way to Religious Education (HarperCollins, 1991); G.W. Pritchard’s Offering the Gospel to Children (Cowly, 1992); D.J. Furnish’s Experiencing the Bible with Children (rev. ed.; Abingdon, 1990); D.H. Grossoehme’s The Pastoral Care of Children (Haworth, 1999); S. Stewart and J. Berryman’s Young Children and Worship (Westminster John Knox, 1990); D. Ng, N.G. David, and V. Thomas’s Children in the Worshiping Community (Westminster John Knox, 1981); S.H. Matthaei’s Making Disciples: Faith Formation in the Wesleyan Tradition (Abingdon, 2000).