All posts from "November 2012"November 29, 2012
How one church reshaped a program to serve its community
We were a pastoral-size church (150 or less in attendance on Sundays) seeking to grow and trying a programmatic model to do so. We felt pretty good about our “if we provide it, folks will come” method. Who wouldn’t want to come and check out (and hopefully join) a loving and unassuming group of Christians like us?
Except the programs didn’t do what we hoped they would.
We hired a consultant to come and help us revitalize our congregation and its sense of mission.
As the conclusion of our time with the consultant drew near, we felt overwhelmed. What were we to do? Where would we begin? Would this really work? The consultant encouraged and got us moving with a simple exercise.
“Think about what you already have going for you, because you have great stuff,” he began. “What is there that you might be able to rework, to ‘turn outward’ so that it serves your community in mission and not only the congregation?”
Serving our community in mission? At that point we were mildly active in that capacity. Mostly, we gave money to needy individuals and local organizations that requested it. Translation: our community mission “canvas” was blank and ripe for creative activity.
“What about Simple Supper?” asked a revitalization team member.
“What about it?” the others responded.
Simple Supper was a Wednesday-night dinner that served primarily those who were there for evening activities—choir practice and Kidz Klub (a children's activity/education). The church had been doing it for years. While of course open to anyone who walked in the door, Simple Supper was pretty much a by-us-for-us thing.
The speaker continued. “Well, we’re already doing a weekly meal here,” he said as he pointed to our generous kitchen. “What if we served the community, instead of just us? How about we turn Simple Supper into a soup kitchen?”
Faces around the table lit up. Smiles crossed each face. “Yeah!” people began saying. It sounded like positive-response popcorn popping.
“What do we do next?”
The idea for what would become Caring Community Kitchen (CCK) was planted that spring day in May. It was well-nurtured throughout the summer and “harvested” the following September. Here are the steps we took to bring forth from seedling the wheat that would feed our neighbors in the name of Christ:
• Prayer and discernment—Actually, the entire process of bringing Caring Community Kitchen to reality was bathed in prayer from beginning, in the middle, and to the end. Since everything was and is God’s (the congregation, the community, the mission, the glory), seeking and following God’s design was key.
• Research—We checked with the village about zoning, the fire and health departments about the appropriateness of our kitchen and space, community resource organizations about funding and grants, local grocery stores and restaurants about food donations, local public transportation about bus routes and stops, and social service experts about how to serve (and not enable or patronize) needy people.
• Vision—Since we already had the foundation of a once-weekly meal on Wednesdays, we built upon it. CCK would continue that pattern. We did, though, deem three aspects as specifically defining of CCK from the get-go.
o Hearty, home cooked meals—We replaced the soup and sandwiches that had been Simple Supper’s staple with healthy and substantial meals.
o Radical inclusiveness—Anyone who came through the doors of our church on Wednesday nights would be served, no questions asked. Over time the CCK family was comprised of the working poor, recovering addicts, disabled people, new immigrants, homeless persons and families, people with a range of religious beliefs, and some who weren’t financially lacking at all but were in great need of community.
o Prayer Time—Following the meal each week, we held an informal prayer time to which all were invited. It was a powerful sister ministry to CCK for the faithful few who participated.
• Communication—Throughout the planning process and continuing once CCK opened, the revitalization team and church leadership espoused an open communication policy. Congregants were encouraged to share thoughts, joys, fears, suggestions, networking ideas, etc. Not all conversations were enthusiastic. As a matter of fact, some were deeply concerned how having anyone and everyone from the community in the building would change “their” church. No one who needed to talk was brushed aside. Change is indeed difficult and painful. Being empathetic to this is crucial.
• Marketing—Since we had no idea from whence our guests would come, we were at first stumped as to how to get the word out about CCK. Eventually, we spread our net wide. We printed flyers and placed them on the community boards of the local library and grocery stores, went door-to-door to nearby churches, and were thrilled when local food pantries agreed to place them in each bag of food. Both guests and volunteers spread the word around the area. Media-wise, CCK was featured in articles in the local YMCA newsletter and two community newspapers, and on a page of our church’s website.
• Recruiting—Our church may have been small in comparison to others, but God rose up a strong group of committed volunteers to cook, clean, provide food, and donate money. Our long-term desire was for CCK truly to become a community ministry.
• Faithfulness—There was one, yes, one guest on our first Wednesday night in September 2008, and none came on the following Wednesday. We felt exasperation, but the small-but-faithful core of original volunteers felt a strong sense of God's call for CCK at our church. That second Wednesday was the only day when no one would show.
Caring Community Kitchen changed the congregation for the better forever. It was amazing to watch God work through everyone, even those who only kept up with CCK via our weekly e-newsletter and pleas for volunteers and food donations. It seemed that simply having such a ministry occur in our building was enough for God to touch, change, and soften folks’ hearts.
Four years to-the-month later, Caring Community Kitchen continues strongly. It averages 60 to 80 community guests each week, and community groups and individuals from outside the congregation are participating in the ministry. Most important, God is moving in guests’ lives. Some have changed their status from served to serving, as their hearts are so grateful. Others have begun attending Sunday worship, joined the congregation, and begun serving in additional ways.
It turns out that the church had what it needed to follow God’s call in mission in-house all along. All it needed to do was find the hidden gem, polish it up so that it reflected God’s love, and focus its brilliance beyond the walls of the building.
What community mission “diamond” might your congregation have buried in the rubble of self-service?
Search for it, dig it out, and let God’s love and power shine.
Rev. Angie Mabry-Nauta is a writer and an ordained Minister of Word and Sacrament in the Reformed Church in America (RCA). She served in congregational ministry for six years. A member of the Redbud Writer’s Guild, Angie blogs at “Woman, in Progress…” and on the Church Herald Blog of the RCA. Follow her on Facebook and Twitter @Godstuffwriter.
I’m called to oversee the corner of influence God has given me
Nearly 10 years ago I sat in an Atlanta, Georgia, arena packed to the brim with college students. I was attending an annual conference hosted by Passion, and Beth Moore was about to take the stage.
In case you have never experienced Beth Moore’s teaching outside the realm of women’s events and teaching videos, it is an awesome thing to behold. I don’t know if the co-ed environment brings out a different side of her, but she was especially on her game. She was fiery and she was powerful. She gripped each one of us with her prophetic message, and she straight-up preached it.
As a young 20-something, I had never seen a woman teach with such authority and conviction. I had never seen a woman command such a large audience with her anointed words. It was inspiring and it was empowering.
I left that day wanting to be like her.
Since that experience, I have realized that I will probably never be like Beth Moore. Aside from the fact that her combination of gifts is extremely rare—and I do not have those gifts—I am an introvert at heart. I enjoy teaching, but it is scary and draining and hard for me. I prefer to sit behind the safety of my computer screen.
For a time I shifted my aspirations from “successful woman speaker” to “best-selling author.” I may not be made for the stage, but I still wanted to make an impact with my writing. I wanted to make a difference, and I wanted it to be big.
As I have grown older, my expectations have continued to shift away from the goals of my college-age self. My writing ministry has not “exploded,” but instead has been a gradual journey of open doors and new opportunities. I have watched as other writers’ careers have taken off faster than mine, an experience that is humbling but important. Along this path God has refined my motives, skimming away the dross of my desires for self-glory. He has redirected my focus off my own image and onto his.
If my younger self could see me now, she might accuse me of selling out, of compromising my dreams by settling for something much too small. “What happened to the vision?” I might ask myself in disappointment. However, I think God has replaced the old me-centered vision with a new vision, a more God-centered one.
The older I get, the more I realize that it’s about not the size of my voice, but how I steward it. Whether I have an audience of 10 or 10,000, the more pressing question is whether my gifts and passions are being used for the Kingdom of God. How well am I overseeing the corner of influence that God has given me?
This new vision of mine is rooted in a more healthy understanding of the Body of Christ. While the Beth Moores of the world are wonderful gifts to the church, 1 Corinthians 12 reminds us that we can’t all be Beths. We can’t all be Beths any more than the human body can be composed of all ears. Instead, God designed the church with beautiful diversity in which each part is unique and incredibly valuable. Without every single member of the body doing its part, the body is handicapped. It cannot function the way it should.
Now your story probably is different from mine. Perhaps there is another person you aspire to be like, or another area of ministry, workplace, or culture where you want to excel. But perhaps, like me, you have experienced disappointments when you were not as successful as you thought you might be. Perhaps your life hasn’t turned out quite the way you envisioned.
If that is your story, then take heart in remembering your role in the Body. Your story, your gifts, and even your failures have all worked to make you the unique human being you are, and Scripture tells us that your role matters. No matter how visible or how far behind the scenes, you play a vital role in serving the Kingdom of God, and we would be a crippled body without you.
Whatever your gift and whatever your role, let me exhort you to steward them with excellence. Give your role the kind of weight God gives it, not as one who is out for self-glory, but as one who knows that God created you for a purpose. Whatever your role, your voice, or your cause, it matters. We need you!
Sharon Hodde Miller is a blogger, freelance writer, and PhD candidate who lives in the Chicago area. You can find her at her blog, She Worships.
A challenge to partner with God’s power
“My daughter’s in a rough place; can you pray for her?” says one Facebook message this week.
The man with sad eyes at church stops me Sunday with a hand on my elbow. “Our marriage is in trouble. Will you pray for me?”
The requests come in person, in email, on the phone. As leaders, the needs around us can be overwhelming. But there are five people in your life—who probably aren’t asking you to pray—who are worth devoting time to:
1. Pray for two non-believers
I recently connected with an acquaintance at a party. Life in the church came up, and over the course of our conversation, she revealed her own struggles to figure out how to find God in our culturally Christian community. That conversation gave me energy to keep pursuing relevant, real invitations for her to come to our church, and to pray fervently that God will press into her a hunger to know him. When you pray today, quiet your mind and ask God to bring to mind two friendships to pray for. We know God’s heart is “for the nations to seek after God and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him” (Acts 17:27). Pray boldly for those two friends to come into real relationship with Christ.
2. Pray for two future leaders
No matter how young you are, God’s mandate is clear: Proclaim his power to the next generation. As leaders, we often forget to not just respond to the hurting, but also build up those who are gifted for leadership. If you want to be excited about your work as a leader, start seeking out some young women to encourage. They may be working in your church—but look beyond. A woman in business, that diligent Sunday school teacher, or a stay-at-home mom with clear influence—ask God to lead your heart to pray for two future leaders. As you do, you just may find yourself moving into relationship with them. Here’s a challenge: Don’t focus on how to actively pursue them—at least at first. Spend a full month praying for your two identified leaders, then see what God does from there.
3. Pray for one leader above you
Just as the future leaders probably aren’t seeking you out, there are leaders above you who seem to be doing just fine. If you are usually prompted to pray because of crisis or need, you can easily forget those who are serving with diligence above you. Quiet your mind for a moment. What leader just came to mind? Is it your small-group leader, your pastor, a government official? Your leader may be leading well, but he or she also is human and in a very real spiritual battle after answering the call to lead. Pray for the leader’s strength of character, vision, perseverance, and wisdom in decision-making. And as you do, you’ll find your own heart humbled and charged to lead in your own sphere of influence with integrity and faithfulness.
When we pray strategically for our friends who are seeking, leaders to come, and leaders to honor, something happens in our own hearts. We become bolder in our faith, we remember to encourage those behind us, and we honor those before us. And these changes create a spirit of humility and faith within our hearts, a welcome perspective shift for the need-overwhelmed leader.
For the other requests that come my way, I practice the discipline of presence and honesty. If the moment allows, I ask if I can pray for the person right away. Often, people easily ask for prayer but the practice of receiving prayer is a stretch out of their spiritual comfort zone. Take the opportunity to pray immediately for someone if you can. If I can’t pray then, I tell them, “I will pray for your (trouble, daughter, family member) as the Lord leads.” God often brings one of those people to mind that week, but if he doesn’t, I trust that he’s received my offering of presence with them and is upholding them with his strong right hand.
By now, you probably have several names swirling in your mind. As you think about the unbeliever, the future leader, and the leader above you, I hope you target five—and only five—names in your mind. Don’t think about who you “should” pray for, but instead, quiet your spirit and see who God brings into your mind—I found myself surprised when I did this exercise!
Now commit to pray for your five for a specific period of time, perhaps a week or a month. Write yourself reminders. Print their names in your journal and on your heart. Become a proactive prayer partner for hearts God cares deeply about: the lost, the seeking, the young, the servant leader—and expect great things when you partner with God’s power for these five lives.
Nicole Unice is a regular contributor for Today’s Christian Woman. She’s also author of She’s Got Issues (Tyndale). She serves in family and student ministry at Hope Church in Richmond, Virginia.
What I’ve learned from negative examples
We all know those leaders: the bosses we’ve had who’ve made us think, “How did they get to be where they are?”
For more than 18 years, I worked for such leaders at two of Canada’s largest advertising agencies. After my ad-agency career, I pastored for seven years alongside those bosses at one of the oldest Convention Baptist churches in Toronto, Ontario. And as I climbed the ladder during those nonstop ad-agency years and sweated through the sticky years of church pasturing, I wondered if I too would turn into one of those leaders—short on thanks and trust, long on politics and power plays.
Laura (not her real name) directed the agency division at which I last worked. As her associate account director, I ran her group, managing a team of media buyers and planners who worked with million-dollar ad budgets for a stable of retail clients. Laura was scary smart: She knew the ins and outs of Canada’s advertising landscape. Every day she married those smarts with pointed strategic thinking about how to better plan and spend our clients’ budgets. She was almost fearless in her dealings with powerful television and radio executives and equally bold in suggesting out-of-the-box ideas to our clients. For her, the client mattered (at least in public).
On a profound level, Laura cared. Yet on another level, she didn’t. She fought me at every turn. My deadlines were cushy, my reports simplistic, my team meetings long, my dealings with my direct reports soft. I wasted time on the phone with television and radio reps—didn’t I understand they weren’t to be trusted? By mid-morning she’d walk from her corner office into my office, forcefully shut my door, and start our first “intense” conversation of the day.
When I left my ad-agency career to pastor at a church, I looked forward to a future rosy with leaders from whom I could learn, leaders under and beside whom I could flourish. The senior pastor (and the one on whom I’d pegged all my “Please lead me well” hopes) resigned less than six months after I started. Congregants left the church while decades-old relationships cracked, never to be mended. I, with the remaining members of the pastoral team, journeyed on like so much sorry flotsam, floating on the sordid wake the senior pastor trailed behind him. Pat (not her real name) led the team for almost five years…not an easy task, given the sifting that had just taken place.
Like Laura, Pat was scary smart. Some of the most profound encounters I’ve ever experienced with the Living Word happened while she preached and taught on Sunday mornings. She was organized to a fault. She projected a dependable stability the congregation needed. She championed the underdogs and the marginalized in our downtown community.
Like Laura, Pat cared. Yet on another level she didn’t. She fought us, the other members of the pastoral team, when we disagreed with her tactics and plans. She vocalized her contempt when we put the brakes on projects, pleading for time. She bullied. What she didn’t understand she dismissed. I will never forget a deacons meeting when the sucker punch of her comments about a project I had just presented hit my belly with the force of a rubber bullet, the very surprise of them opening a wound of hurt that took too many prayers and years to heal. She had okayed the project prior to the meeting.
Laura and Pat taught me some bittersweet lessons about leadership. They taught me a lot about me—my gifts and talents—while testing my limits. They taught me that maturity is never a function of age; it’s a byproduct of love.
Here are some of those lessons (in no particular order):
1. See people with God’s eyes: Pray.
After the door-slamming and intense conversations of the day were over and Laura had stormed back to her office, I usually prayed a simple prayer: “Lord, I love you and you love Laura. Help me to love her the way you do.” I genuinely wanted to befriend Laura in the ways that counted—to this day I’m not sure why. Over time, I learned some things about Laura that only the Spirit could have revealed in the context of prayer: her loneliness; her tired cynicism over her weight; her desire to be affirmed, loved, and treasured for who she was. Praying for Laura gave me permission somehow to open up about my spiritual journey with her in the most casual of ways…she knew I prayed, led worship at church, tithed (much to her bemusement). She got to know Baptist culture and quirks through my stories. And she wasn’t surprised when I resigned to pastor—she’d been expecting it.
Most important, praying for Laura forced me to acknowledge my fears before God: fear of confronting her when she attacked me, fear of being fired, fear of being laughed at by the agency’s managing partners if I called Laura out (even though they knew how toxic she could be), fear of naming the injustice and oppression that ruled in the cubicles and offices around me. But praying my fears and leaving them with Jesus set me free: free to speak up, to confront—in love—and to affirm Laura’s strengths while calling out her weaknesses.
2. Search for the positives in the people who surround you: Be relentless.
We are all created in God’s image. Laura and Pat are. Your ministry team members are. So sniff out the positives in the people around you. Pat’s keen humor and courage (she could have the hard conversations we needed to have) helped the team navigate the darkest waters during the church’s time of transition to a new pastoral team leader. Yes, the sludge of neglect, shame, and downright nasty behaviors may have buried your bad boss or toxic teammate’s nuggets of gold. So what? Strap on God’s armor and start digging. Paul’s exhortation in Philippians 2:3-5 demands no less of you and me as leaders.
3. Affirm, affirm, and affirm: Keep it simple.
When you’ve unearthed those nuggets, go one step further. Everyone needs to be affirmed and valued. You do. So does each member of your ministry team. So does your boss. When was the last time you said “thank you” to a team member or asked about her latest after-work project? Have you congratulated your boss on having completed that tedious or groundbreaking or game-changing project she’s been working on for the past year or more? Acknowledgements, of even the little things people do (or say), are simple to offer. Their effects, though, are extraordinary.
Eleven years later, Laura and I still meet for lunch on my birthday. Pat and I connect via Facebook. Who knows how the Spirit is working, even now, through those conversations.
Renee James is the director of communications for Canadian Baptist Women of Ontario and Quebec, and editor of its publication, The Link & Visitor. She is a former administrative pastor and a regular contributor to Today's Christian Woman.
A new approach to impact women for Jesus
During the past decade, the landscape of key leadership positions within churches and non-profits has changed. The number of female senior pastors has doubled and there are more women than men leading non-profits.
Sadly, a strange dichotomy is occurring within the American church. While there are more women in key leadership positions than ever before, women are leaving the church at a startling rate.
As a women’s leader in my local church, this news is alarming and yet not surprising. Just this morning I was talking with an educated professional woman in her early 30s. She was vehemently stating a sentiment I have heard several times during my tenure as a women’s leader: “I hate women’s ministry. I think I will die if I hear the words ‘spa,’ ‘tea,’ or ‘girlfriend’ one more time.”
Earlier in the week I met several influential Christian women who are thoughtful and committed to making a difference in the lives of others. One is an attorney who spends her life advocating for girls trapped in human trafficking, another woman ministers to women suffering with lupus, and another spent the majority of her life establishing churches behind the Iron Curtain. Spas and teas seem frivolous in comparison.
Most women I know work full-time, many are single parents, and many are looking to spend what little free time they have doing something of value, something that will impact and influence others for Christ. The traditional women’s ministry model of group teas and Bible teaching doesn’t meet that need anymore. No matter the size of your church, each congregation includes a diverse background of women: educated, uneducated, rich, poor, single, married with children, married without children, divorced with children, divorced without children, various ethnic and cultural backgrounds, women suffering with addictions, women with debilitating ailments, and the list can go on and on. There is no one-size-fits-all model, but there is a model that affords every woman within your church an opportunity to lead and impact others for Christ: the free-market small group model.
The free-market small group model consists of groups formed out of a felt need within the church. For example, at Bayside Community Church, the 10th-fastest-growing church in America, where I serve in the small group ministry, Heidi had a passion to reach women caught in the sex trade within her community. She developed a small group of women who minister to girls employed at strip clubs. Because they developed life-giving, authentic relationships with the dancers, one club allowed Bayside to stream its services in the dressing rooms. Women who typically would not step into a church are hearing the gospel via the Internet and experiencing the love of Christ through relationships with the women in this small group.
There are three major benefits to the free-market small group model:
1. The groups are passion-driven, springing forth out of felt needs among the women themselves. Therefore, the variety of groups is endless. We’ve had gourmet cooking groups, MOPS groups, financial-planning groups, marriage groups, in-depth Bible studies, mentoring groups, softball groups, weight-loss groups, divorce-recovery groups, 12-Step groups, and groups for singles. We encourage them to meet in homes and other venues around the city. Because the groups are passion-driven, the leaders are committed to their success and tend to lead multiple groups and/or lead during every small-group cycle.
2 . Groups spawn new leaders. This model inherently encourages new leaders. For example, Millie led a small group for mothers with young children. Each mom took a turn hosting the group in her home. The women in the group developed significant life-giving relationships that attracted more women to the group. The original group spawned another group, which required a leader. Leaders receive small-group training and are encouraged to identify other potential leaders within their groups.
3. Groups provide leadership opportunities for women. The free-market small group model encourages every woman to lead a small group. Potential group leaders attend a leaders’ orientation, receive training, and get the support of a coach. A coach is a woman who comes alongside the small-group leader to support, encourage, and pray for her and for her group members. Each coach has a lead coach who is charged with identifying women leaders, providing leadership development, praying, and encouraging her coaches.
Groups provide life-giving atmospheres where women can connect with one another and with God. Ultimately, life change happens within the context of relationships, and the free-market small group model provides the opportunity for every woman to connect with other women in authentic relationships and grow in her relationship with Christ.
The free-market small group model has transformed the way women experience church at Bayside. Through our coaching structure, women are empowered to use their passion to create small groups so women can impact our community with the gospel. Along with the plethora of small groups that are running this year, we have our first small group for military wives as well as one for wives whose husbands work protecting our community: policemen, firemen, and EMTs.
We are moving forward with the following initiatives: establishing online small groups to meet the needs of women who have childcare issues or atypical work schedules; strategically placing small groups around the city so working women can meet on their lunch breaks; establishing year-round groups so women coming through the doors of Bayside for the first time don’t have to wait until the next semester to get connected but can plug into a group right away. Connecting women with other women and helping them grow in Christ is one of the best gigs on the planet!
Julia Mateer serves as the director of women’s small groups at Bayside Community Church. A writer, speaker, and professional Christian counselor, she lives in Florida with her husband, Mark.
What really matters in reaching kids
In my last post, I wrote about a few hang-ups I have with children’s ministries. As a parent, I honestly care less about the trappings of any ministry and much more about how it helps my kids see Jesus. There are a few key things I like to see in a kids’ ministry, but I hope my thoughts will spur other ideas also.
Let There Be Extras!
Kids don’t need expensive decorations, loud music, or intricate crafts. They need adults who love them and want to be there. They need hugs and laughter and acceptance, quirks and all. These essentials can come in different packaging, but they should be the starting point for any real ministry to children.
At the moment, the church we attend meets in a bar. (Er, excuse me, “concert venue.”) The children’s ministry is happily ensconced in some old offices on the second floor, and yes, we decorated up there. With simple materials like scrapbook paper, tissue paper, and string, the space has been transformed into a colorful, fun place.
The children’s space is a great place to get design-oriented people involved. In these days of Pinterest and DIY, it’s not hard to find inexpensive ideas for making the space fun and inviting. We shouldn’t have to spend a fortune here.
Jesus Loves You
In my last post, I emphasized that churches don’t need to teach children how to behave like Christians. Parents spend all day, every day correcting behavior and trying to convince their children of the right way to act. In the stress of the everyday, sometimes we forget to say, “Darling, Jesus loves you, and so do I.” This is the place for churches to lovingly pick up the slack. Tell the kids, “Jesus loves you. Just as you are. No matter what.” Tell them over and over and over again, in as many compelling ways as you can imagine. It doesn’t have to be fancy, just consistent.
The resource that works best in our church and home is The Jesus Storybook Bible by Sally Lloyd-Jones. There’s a copy in every kids’ classroom, and you can often see parents and pastors with one tucked under their arm. This book is beautiful because every single story ends with at least one paragraph pointing back to Jesus. The stories do not portray biblical heroes as people to be emulated, but as broken sinners used by God to bring him glory. It’s the antithesis of moralism.
“Jesus loves you” is the central message our children need to hear, but we don’t have to simplify or ignore theology in our kids’ ministries. My four-year-old twins can recite the Apostle’s Creed and sing many hymns rich in truth. One of them regularly discusses “the new earf” and the truth of sin with us. They’re not prodigies; they’ve simply been fed a steady diet of truth, in our home and in our churches. If we can talk about truth now, when they’re willing listeners, the truth will never be far from them.
Children’s ministries should be a primer on how to worship God, on what a meeting of believers looks like. Reading from God’s Word, music, and prayer should be included in kids’ time at church. After all, those are the same things parents are doing in the adult service.
Relationship Trumps Curriculum
“It takes a village,” of course, and I don’t mean to imply that only parents have the right to correct or guide their children in proper behavior. The church does have the responsibility and privilege of molding the little ones in its midst. It just doesn’t belong in a curriculum.
Every Sunday, on the way to church, my three boys chatter excitedly about seeing their friends. They name a few children, but the list of adults they look forward to seeing is at least twice as long. There are a handful of men who always greet my children with a smile and a high-five. Many of them bend down, look my boys in the eye, and listen to whatever wonderful nonsense the kids are talking about that day. I see these men do this with almost every child in the church.
Some of these men are fathers, and some are not. All of them are fighting hard to live like Christ in a very broken city. I would be proud for my boys to grow up to be like any of them. These men may not realize how important the weekly greetings are, but one day the things my boys say will no longer be wonderful or nonsense. The foundation of trust and respect is being set right now, so when my boys are unable to talk to me or their dad, any of these men can step in to be a guide for them.
This is how the church functions in teaching our kids how to act: through the hard and rewarding road of relationship. In this way, kids know they belong, which will encourage belief, and eventually we can address the behavior.
It’s possible to teach our children the tenets of the Christian faith without putting undue burden on their young shoulders. If we can resist moralizing, their hearts may be more drawn to the Jesus who fulfilled all behavior requirements for all eternity. When the Spirit guides them, and only then, they begin to truly seek the glory of Christ. And, of course, that is the ultimate goal of the church.
Why my kids may not visit your church
On a recent visit to a new church, my oldest son brought home one of those sheets with Bible verses and talking points. I looked it over as we drove and read aloud the big, bold print.
“You can be trusted when you choose the right words.”
“What does that even mean?” my husband asked, risking a puzzled look away from the road.
I laughed, and we more or less dismissed the whole thing.
Only not really—because this is what my child learned at church. It’s not that the message was untrue, exactly, only that we failed to see what it had to do with Christ.
As my children move from nursery to grade school kids’ ministry, my husband and I grow increasingly wary of what they learn at church. This is prime time for impressing upon them the love of Christ, yet many of the messages they hear are, at best, unclear and, at worst, moralistic, legalistic warnings about displeasing Jesus.
I spent two summers as a children’s ministry intern, before I had kids. After those experiences, I understand what a difficult job the directors of children’s ministries often have. It’s a feat to balance volunteer needs, curriculum choices, often unexpected numbers, and large events like Vacation Bible School. However, now, as a parent, I also understand how much impact these ministries can have on our kids. An incorrect or incomplete theology may be more damaging than encounters with blatant sin, confusing our children about who God is and what he’s done.
There are two facets of kids’ ministry that I especially question. Are we doing these things in ways that give glory to Christ and teach our children about his true nature?
Recently I took this same son to a Vacation Bible School at a nearby church. Walking in for the first time, we were overwhelmed by the enormous balloons shaped into hot-air balloons, a cardboard airplane as large as our living room, and clouds swinging from the ceiling. Add in the pounding music from the sanctuary, and my three children went into immediate sensory overload.
I’m not against decorations. I’ve twisted my share of craft paper vines, and there’s nothing more magical for kids (or adults) than a mundane space transformed into another world. However, as we maneuvered around the large sanctuary, I wondered what kind of message it all sent to my kids. How exactly did all this portray Jesus to the children in the room? Does Jesus equal bright colors, thousands of dollars in consumable goods, and a pounding bass beat? Do kids now believe they are entitled to this display of wealth?
Vacation Bible School, at least here in the South, is also one of a church’s biggest outreaches. As I herded my boys around, I imagined a struggling mother dropping off her own children. What does it say about our faith and our God when our decorations cost as much as six months of groceries?
The decoration budget is not the biggest stumbling block in children’s ministries, though. I wish it were.
The aforementioned take-home sheet turned out to be part of a series the kids were doing about being trustworthy. They talked each week about a character trait that causes us to be trusted, making sure to toss in a little Bible verse to make it legit.
However, it’s not the church’s job to teach my—or any—children how to act. That responsibility falls to the parents.
I get it; when we love Jesus, we obey him, and in church we need to learn what obedience entails. I’m not arguing that point, but I do have this very important question to ask: How do we know these children love Jesus?
If we can reasonably assume—through personal relationship and conversation—that each child is not only old enough to understand the gospel, but is actively seeking Christ, then by all means, teach away. This is called discipleship, and when employed properly, it’s not a list of rules. While we can teach what obedience looks like, true discipleship of our kids will always point them back to the one who knew no sin.
But let’s be reasonable. This situation is just not the norm for most churches. When we preach proper behavior, all but divorced from the indwelling of Holy Spirit, we aren’t discipling. Rather, we’re placing a heavy yoke on the young shoulders of soon-to-be rebels.
I can already hear the outrage of my sweet grandmother: “But a lot of these kids don’t get proper home training!”
True enough, but as the daughter of non-churchgoers, I can assure you of this: the fastest way to guarantee that a child will not come back to church is to send that child home with the message that their parents are doing it wrong.
Our kids—and the kids we encounter in our churches—deserve better than this. In answer to the debate about who would be greatest in heaven, Jesus called to himself a little child. He exhorted his disciples to humble themselves like children and to accept the humble in their midst. Then he said, “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea” (Matthew 18:6, ESV)
Children’s ministry is too important for leaders to be flippant or rash in their decisions. These hearts are precious to Jesus, and they deserve true calls to repentance and faith, followed by true discipleship.
More to come next week…
The joys and challenges of being executive pastor: an interview with Karen Miller
Because Gifted for Leadership serves women in all kinds of church leadership roles, we have a great opportunity to learn from each other. I thought it would be helpful to occasionally highlight a leadership role and learn more about what it involves—plus receive some leadership lessons from a gifted woman.
Enjoy this interview with Executive Pastor Karen Miller.
What does your role as executive pastor look like?
As executive pastor, my first role is to be second chair to the senior pastor, to be sure he is freed to focus on his greatest gifts—leadership, vision, prayer, and preaching. I make sure that he has the ability to focus. And at times I serve as a brainstorming partner for him. So we partner in ministry.
My other major role is to oversee and manage all the staff. I may not be the direct supervisor for everyone, but I hire and fire and do all the personnel tasks as well as give weekly supervision. I help with the growth of the staff and the growth of the church. My goal is really to make sure the staff is healthy.
The other role is to oversee, because those pastors and staff people oversee ministries, so I’m ultimately over the ministries if a problem arises. So I tell people I problem-solve all day with my staff and the problems get to my desk.
What are some of your most memorable experiences in this role?
I love to lead leaders, so a day when I come home really energized is when I’ve sat with my senior leaders. I just love pouring into their growth and stretching them. A couple of weeks ago, we had a pastoral staff retreat, and the first day I had all the people who have pastoral roles with us. I just loved getting them to connect, feeding into them, and having the senior pastor connect with them. The next day we had six senior pastoral staff, and in the morning we started to worship together and then the Holy Spirit just came—and I threw the agenda away. I love to work with the Holy Spirit. I have my agenda. I have my direction set, but I’m always prepared to put it aside.
I enjoy partnering with my senior pastor. He’s a great leader. Our gifts complement one another, so I love doing that. I also love continuing to learn how to be a good second chair. Being a second chair leader is a unique role that a lot of people don’t understand, so I’ve found a lot of help. Mike Bonem and Roger Patterson’s book Leading from the Second Chair has been really helpful.
What are some of the main challenges you regularly face as executive pastor?
One is the amount of information I carry that can’t be shared other places because it’s highly confidential. I used to hate the saying that leadership can be lonely. I always wanted to prove it wrong, but my life is proving it right. I struggle with that because I am relational and I love friendships. But it’s really difficult to be friends with people in the church. When you work, sometimes your frustration is with your boss, and that’s what you talk about when you get together with girlfriends. So I’ve made a commitment to my senior pastor that there are only two people I talk about him with, if I’m frustrated: my husband and my spiritual director. Sometimes people are like, “Wow, you seem really upset.” Well, I could be working through a major struggle with my pastor, I can’t share that. So the loneliness is hard, figuring out how to navigate friendships.
The other piece is feeling a squeeze when I’m always trying to represent my senior pastor, as his second chair leader, but then I have all the people reporting to me. I feel like a shock absorber sometimes, just trying to navigate how all of that works.
How has this role challenged you to grow as a professional?
As a professional it’s caused me to really dig in and say yes, I do have the gift of leadership. To take that seriously, to read and learn and educate myself. My professional goal is to be what Jim Collins describes as a Level 5 leader. A Level 5 leader is one who has incredible professional will and incredible humility. When something comes along and wants to crush me, I want to have a will that won’t give into that or just say, “Well, I’ll just give up and quit.” And I want to always be humble before the Lord.
Coming from a broken family, and my own history of brokenness, there are days where I just laugh because when I first got married I was so insecure and had so much self-hatred that I couldn’t decide whether to make peas or beans for dinner, so I would call my husband and ask him. He’d be like, “You’re a very smart woman. You can make that decision.” There were nights when we didn’t have either because I told him I wasn’t going to decide. And he’d be like, “Fine, just have no vegetables for dinner.”
Growing up in my family, I felt like I didn’t have a mind of my own, I couldn’t make a decision. Fortunately because my husband was healthy enough to say, “I’m not going to make that decision for you,” I began to grow to the point where now every day I’m making decisions that impact people’s lives—their spiritual lives, their families, the staff. And some days I remember it’s only by God’s healing and grace that I finish the day with all that decision making, when 30 years ago I couldn’t decide whether to make peas or beans. So it’s quite a path that the Lord has brought me down.
The reason I share that is because I’ve had to grow in that, because my role in the alcoholic system was the lost child, the middle child. When everything starts to blow up or get hard, the lost child disappears. I would go play with my Barbies on my bed. Get out of there. I’ve since learned I can’t just escape conflict. In my role, that’s all I deal with every day : conflicts in relationships or between staff or between the senior pastor and somebody else. The Lord has really gifted me in helping me through that process where I learned good conflict-resolution skills and good relational skills. That’s the professional piece I’m always pressing into.
How has this role caused you to grow in your faith?
It causes me to depend even more on the Lord, because I take very seriously my call as a pastor and I am shepherding God’s flock. I don’t take that lightly. I know that if I am not connected to the Lord, as in John 15, I could get really off track and lead people astray. So I keep myself in accountability in my own life in the Lord. I have regular prayer days and prayer retreats. I meet with a spiritual director once a month. I have a friend I’m accountable to as well as my husband. I just really need to keep my spiritual life healthy.
It’s a challenge amidst all the craziness, which is why I require myself and my staff to take one paid prayer day a month. We each take a whole day to go off and pray for our work and our families, and hear the Lord.
How do those prayer days affect your team dynamics and decision making?
Usually I end up talking with them after the prayer day, and the Lord has shown them something they’re dealing with themselves and need his help to press through. Or because they’ve been quiet, the Lord has shown them where they need to go in the next step with their leadership ministry. There are times when I’m struggling with stuff, and when I sit and get quiet and I’m praying—there it is. I hear the same feedback from them that it makes a difference.
What do you like best about your role as an executive pastor?
I love to lead leaders, to maximize all of who God has created them to be and to mobilize them to be a force for the kingdom. That’s my passion. And I’m in a position to do that. I can encourage them.
At a pastoral retreat, staff members were talking about where they are influenced, where they keep growing. One guy said, “I feel like I have a transformation conversation every week in supervision with Karen.” A young woman I just hired a few months ago said, “I just grow every time I meet with Karen.” That’s what I want to do.
What kinds of gifts are required for an effective executive pastor?
You have to really understand and have insight into your own leadership. You have to be able to lead leaders and also give leadership away so others can grow. You need to be able to be administrative and build systems. And you need to be able to see what needs to be done. It’s the gift of administration, organization.
You also need high people skills. You need the pastoral ability to be able to work with all kinds of people. And you need to be willing to deal with conflict. If you don’t want to deal with conflict, you probably don’t want to be an executive pastor.
The other thing is you always have to be willing to do what is best for the whole. This is really hard in a church. You have to have the professional will to do the things that are best for everyone and not necessarily best for you.
Karen Miller is executive pastor at Church of the Resurrection in Wheaton, Illinois.
Start by addressing stereotypes
I am currently a student pursing a PhD in educational studies. I have a great passion for women in our churches, and I hope my research will one day serve them, so I love to share what I’m learning from time to time. Especially when I think it can help church leaders.
In recent months I have studied a phenomenon called stereotype threat. This term refers to the pressure individuals feel in the classroom or workplace due to perceived stereotypes about themselves. For instance, women are sometimes stereotyped as being less capable at math, which can influence the way young girls perform in their math classes. If they believe they are worse at math, they are likely to perform worse regardless of natural ability.
Numerous studies have shown that the simple presence of a stereotype can inhibit academic performance, but it creates an additional obstacle. If a student or employee anticipates being stereotyped, some will actively try to undermine the stereotype. For example, a businesswoman may fear being perceived as overly emotional by her male colleagues, so she intentionally minimizes her emotions and conducts herself stoically. Unfortunately, the cognitive energy she puts into combating the stereotype also inhibits her performance. Likewise, students who find themselves resisting a stereotype in a classroom setting are less able to learn and engage the subject matter.
It is remarkable and troubling that a stereotype can be so powerful. Fortunately, researchers have also looked into the best methods for breaking the power of stereotype threat, and they have discovered two primary options:
1. An authority figure publicly debunks the stereotype. In a study at Stanford University, a group of men and women were administered a math test and their performances were recorded (Spencer and Steele, 1999). Then the same math test was administered to a different group of men and women, but with one small change. This time, before the students began, the test administrator told the group that there was no previous gender discrepancy in performance on this test. This simple statement debunking the stereotype about women and math made all the difference. The women in the second group tested better.
2. In-group role models. It is also helpful for victims of stereotype threat to see individuals from their own group (i.e. women or minorities) functioning competently outside the stereotype (McIntyre, Paulson, Taylor, Morin and Lord, 2011). Having a talented female math teacher, for instance, can help dispel the myth that women are not good at math.
This research is fascinating, and it has led me to wonder about its application to women in the church. Many stereotypes about women are both sociological and psychological, so the cycle can be tough to break. If women believe they are not capable of thinking theologically, or leading and teaching in the church effectively, that stereotype perpetuates an unfortunate cycle in which women are hesitant to even try.
That said, there are two applications that churches can take from the above research. The first applies to men. In the same way that authority figures have the power to break stereotypes with a simple word, men in the church have that power as well. That is not to say that women should not also speak out against unbiblical stereotypes, but research seems to indicate that the power group—the group that is stereotyped as being naturally gifted or authoritative in a certain area—has particular influence in this regard. If men were to tell their wives, daughters, mothers, and sisters that women can think theologically, that women should be important voices in the church, and that the church needs the contributions of these women, that message would have a tremendous, positive impact.
I should add that this influence is evident in my own life. I have a strong and brilliant dad who has always been unconditionally supportive. Although both my parents believe in me (sometimes more than they should!) my dad would seriously fight anyone who tried to stand in my way. I am no doubt the woman I am today because my dad wanted a strong daughter.
In short, men, we need you! Challenge your wives and raise strong daughters!
The second application from the above research concerns us ladies. If we want to see younger generations of women pushing themselves and using their gifts for the Kingdom of God, then we need to be doing that ourselves. Change can be slow and discouraging at times, but the more women who are out there studying, growing, and leading, the more we can expect younger women to follow our example. Change begins with us.
Sharon Hodde Miller is a blogger, freelance writer, and PhD candidate who lives in the Chicago area. You can find her at her blog, She Worships.