Elevating the Bar for Service with Kids The Alternate

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As a professor and ministerial coach, pastors and search committees often ask me: "How much education is really necessary for a pastor or director of the Children's Ministry?" On the surface, this can be a simple question that can be answered with a few questions: Is the position full-time or part-time? What are the responsibilities? Does this position require the individual to administer the sacraments (such as baptism), which may require ordination? The question can also be complicated, because behind it there is a valuable attitude towards ministry with children.

A few months ago, Ed Stetzer tweeted a question about whether church leaders should do a PhD. A colleague of mine at Wheaton College, Dan Trier, wrote an eloquent response about the importance and joy of further biblical and theological study. But let's face it – it rarely happens that people ask this question in relation to the heads of the Children's Ministry.

In every discussion I have had, the churches affirm that service with children is important and valued. Otherwise, why should the Church hire someone to lead the ministry? But often leadership in child ministry is not seen in the same way as leadership in other ministries. The heads of the Children's Ministry are hired based on their administrative skills: organizing the Ministry, hiring volunteers, curriculum and ordering supplies.

These needs are real, but as I pointed out recently in an article in a magazine examining child labor trends over the past 40 years, we have given children and their spiritual development in the Church a back seat status. While the churches say they reaffirm ministry with children, they tend to be ambivalent and indifferent about what children really need for faith formation. As long as children are having fun and volunteers and parents are happy, the local church rarely checks that the methods they are using are actually the best for a child's faith formation.

Within the local church, a ministerial leader is an envoy, representing the pastoral leadership with children. During each week, this envoy makes decisions – some large, mostly small – that greatly affect the spiritual lives of children and families. Because these choices profoundly affect the efforts of a ministry, ministry that deepens a child's faith and relationship with God requires more than administrative skills. A deeper understanding of theology, pedagogy, and leadership is crucial.

Theology in the Ministry of Children

Pastors are often well equipped to preach in theology, but this is rarely a requirement for a child ministry leader. However, theology affects all of our ministry practices with children. For example, theology affects kindergarten. Do we believe that God interacts with everyone regardless of their age? In this case, the kindergarten becomes a place of training and not just childcare. Theology also affects our message with children. What is the first and most important Bible story a child should hear? Do we start with stories that tell children that they are loved (the story of the Good Shepherd) or that they are sinful (the case in Genesis 3)?

The curriculum that a church chooses or writes is also influenced by theology. Let me be honest: there is a good curriculum for child ministry, but there is also a very bad curriculum. Is your children's ministerial director able to tell the difference? Is your decision based on what's easiest to use or a recommendation from a friend? How is your children's ministerial director able to identify moralistic therapeutic deism and its insidious effects in the Sunday School curriculum?

Theology affects the ministry of children in many ways. It is important that a director of the Children's Ministry is able to understand how theology affects the practice and methodology in your ministry.

How children are formed in faith

Beyond our theological understanding, it is important that child labor leaders are familiar with how people grow in faith. This includes an understanding of belief formation and human development and the way we learn. Often times, the heads of the Children's Ministry focus on the explicit, deliberate instruction conveyed through a curriculum. Scripture and Bible story teaching, biblical skills, and the application of these teachings are important and certainly have their place in a strong children's ministry. But belief-building is more than the accumulation of information. Belief formation is about transformation.

Does the head of your children's ministry study the myriad of ways a child makes sense of their faith? Is anyone paying attention to the implicit ways children learn in your church? The importance of enculturation, in which faith is not only taught but grasped through the interaction of a cross-generational community, is important for the leaders of the Children's Ministry to understand. This bypasses programming on a Sunday morning and deals with relational learning, where our beliefs are molded by rubbing our shoulders with what John Westerhoff calls other "believing selves".

Deepening the founding of the Ministry of Children

At Wheaton College in the Christian Education Department and Ministry where I teach, every student is required to take a Philosophy of Service course. Like a parent with a child grumbling about the relevance of a math class in high school, I often smile when students grumble about why they need to take a philosophy class, and will ever relate to the practical aspects of the ministry. I share with the students that I, too, grumbled about this course in graduate school. However, I found that it became the foundation for ministering within the local church and was one of the most powerful tools I have ever received from my training.

During my PhD, I started my career in the local church. I have only gone through the academic rigor and pain to graduate from grappling with questions that I didn't think the Church asked, let alone answered. Like many who work in the child service, I had no training at the beginning.

When someone is trained either formally in an academic institution or through other professional development and training, they receive a great deal of information and knowledge. However, in order to put this knowledge into practice in a church, it is necessary to understand the purpose and context, as well as theological beliefs and educational philosophies. Continuing education is important not only for a child ministry leader, but also for establishing a solid foundation of ministry with children.

However, there is one thing that continuing education cannot do: You cannot nurture a love for children.

While there is much that a good college or graduate school can do to teach and train one for ministry, love for God and God's children cannot be taught. It is a gift and a passion from God and the foundation of all ministry with children. If you already have such a person in your church, provide that person with as much additional training as possible. There are many ways a Children's Ministry director can be trained, including college or graduate school programs, conferences, seminars, and workshops. We need ministry leaders who not only love children, but understand how uniquely God created children and how they learn and are formed in the faith.

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