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Raising the Bar for Ministry with Children

As both a professor and ministry coach, pastors and search committees often ask me, “How much education is really necessary for a children’s ministry pastor or director?” On the surface, that can be an easy query to answer by asking a few questions: Is the position full-time or part-time? What are the responsibilities? Does this position require the person to administer the sacraments, (such as baptism), which might require ordination? But the question can also be a complicated one, because behind it is an attitude of value toward ministry with children.

A few months ago, Ed Stetzer tweeted a question asking if church leaders should pursue a PhD. A colleague of mine at Wheaton College, Dan Trier, wrote an eloquent response regarding the importance and joy of further biblical and theological studies. But let’s be honest—it’s rare that people ask that question in reference to children’s ministry leaders.

In every discussion I have had, churches affirm that ministry with children is important and valued. Why else would the church pursue hiring someone to lead the ministry? But often, leadership in children’s ministry isn’t viewed the same way as leadership in other ministries. Children’s ministry leaders are hired for their administrative skills: ministry organization, volunteer recruitment, curriculum and supply ordering.

These needs are real, but, as I pointed out in a recent journal article that surveyed the past 40 years of trends in children’s ministry, we’ve assigned “backseat” status to children and their spiritual development in the church. While churches say they affirm ministry with children, they are more likely to be ambivalent about and indifferent to what children truly need for faith formation. As long as children are having fun and volunteers and parents are happy, the local church rarely examines whether the methods they use are actually the best for a child’s faith formation.

Within the local church, a children’s ministry leader is an emissary, the representative of pastoral leadership with children. Throughout each week, this emissary makes decisions—some big, most often small—that greatly affect the spiritual lives of children and families. Because these decisions profoundly impact a church’s ministry endeavors, 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 Matters in Children’s Ministry

Pastors are often well equipped in theology for their preaching, but rarely is this a requirement for a children’s ministry leader. Yet theology impacts all our ministry practices with children. For instance, theology impacts the nursery ministry. Do we believe that God is interacting with each person regardless of their age? If so, the nursery becomes a place of formation and not just childcare. Theology also impacts our message with children. What Bible story is the first and most important that 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 Fall in Genesis 3)?

The curriculum a church chooses or writes is also impacted by theology. Let me be honest: there is good children’s ministry curriculum available, but there is also very bad curriculum out there. Is your children’s ministry leader equipped to know the difference? Is their decision based on what might be easiest to use, or a recommendation from a friend? How is your children’s ministry leader equipped to recognize moralistic therapeutic deism and its insidious effects in Sunday school curriculum?

Theology impacts children’s ministry in a multitude of ways. It is essential that a children’s ministry leader be equipped to understand the way theology influences the practice and methods within your ministry.

How Children Are Formed in the Faith

Beyond our theological understandings, it is essential that children’s ministry leaders are familiar with how people grow in faith. This includes an understanding of faith formation and of human development and the ways we learn. Often, children’s ministry leaders focus on the explicit, intentional teaching that is provided through a curriculum. The instruction of Scripture and Bible stories, biblical skills, and how to apply these teachings is important and certainly has its place in a strong children’s ministry. But faith formation is more than the accumulation of information. Faith formation is about transformation.

Does your children’s ministry leader address the multitude of ways a child makes meaning of their faith? Is anyone paying attention to the implicit ways children learn in your church? The importance of enculturation, where faith is not just taught but caught through the interactions of an intergenerational community, is important for children’s ministry leaders to understand. This pushes past the programming on a Sunday morning and looks at relational learning where our faith is shaped by rubbing shoulders with what John Westerhoff calls other “faithing selves.”

Deepening the Foundation of Children’s Ministry

At Wheaton College, in the Christian Formation & Ministry department where I teach, each student must take a philosophy of ministry course. Like a parent does with a child who is grumbling over the relevancy of a high school math class, I often smile as students grumble about why they have to take a philosophy course, and will it ever relate to the practicalities of ministry. I share with the students that I too grumbled over this course in graduate school. Yet I found that it became the foundation for ministry leadership within the local church and was one of the most powerful tools I ever received from my education.

While I hold a PhD, my career started in the local church. I only went through the academic rigor and pain to achieve this degree because I was wrestling with questions that I did not think the church was asking, let alone answering. Like many who lead in children’s ministry, I did not have any training or education when I began.

When someone is educated either formally at an academic institution or through other professional development and training, they receive a lot of information and knowledge. But putting that knowledge into practice in a church requires an understanding of purpose and context, as well as theological convictions and educational philosophies. Further training is not just important for a children’s ministry leader, it is essential for a strong foundation of ministry with children.

There is, however, one thing that further education and training cannot do: they can not cultivate a love for children.

While there is much a good college or graduate school can do to teach and train someone for ministry, a love for God and God’s children cannot be taught. It is a gift and a passion given by God and is the foundation for any ministry with children. If you already have such a person in your church, then equip that person with as much additional training as you can. There are many ways a children’s ministry leader can be educated, including college or graduate school programs, conferences, seminars, and workshops. We need ministry leaders who not only love children but have been equipped to understand how uniquely God has created children and the ways they learn and are formed in the faith.

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