Editor's note: This is the first in a two-part series about renewed emphasis on children's ministries in the Florida Conference. Click here to read the second installment, "Kids' ministries boosted by intergenerational interaction."
They’re entrusted with tending the cradle of the church’s youngest disciples, but who looks out for the spiritual health and professional growth of children’s ministry leaders?
Seeing a need for more resources and support for children’s ministries was the impetus for Revs. Melissa Cooper and Katie Pestel to spearhead an effort to revive a Children’s Ministry Committee for the Florida Conference.
Cooper, who is program coordinator for the Life Enrichment Center in Fruitland Park, and Pestel, a family ministry consultant and member of Sanlando UMC, Longwood, contacted Rev. Dr. Sharon Austin shortly after Austin became director of Connectional Ministries in 2013.
“Our lunch with Sharon turned into a four-hour discussion,” Cooper recalled. “It became clear we needed to do something. We can’t let children’s ministers go at it alone.”
She said a lack of networking opportunities makes it difficult for children’s ministers to share resources and offer support for each other, which is something the committee hopes to rectify.
“We hope to meet every couple of months and talk about the state of children,” she added.
Citing figures from the Fuller Youth Institute, Cooper said that 40 percent to 50 percent of youth group graduates are leaving the church and not continuing their spiritual journeys.
“We set the stage for that from birth,” she explained. “They are not leaving because of youth groups. We do not need to take the focus off youth, but we do need to look at what we are doing for children to set up lifelong faith.”
In 2014, about 200 of the Florida Conference’s 670 churches reported some kind of children’s ministry with staff oversight, typically a paid position, according to the conference’s Knowledge & Information Services. A total of nearly 20,000 children were reported to be in some type of spiritual formation, with individual churches reporting as few as five children to as many as 1,900.
Seeking collective wisdom from congregations is the initial goal for the Children’s Ministry Committee, organizers said.
“Resource partnerships and sharing around common goals occur and appear to be the way of the future,” Austin said. “There are plenty of resources available. The task seems to be gathering the right people together in order to have fruitful conversation.”
She emphasized that the committee will not be gathering to review and decide which curricula churches ought to use for their children’s and family ministries.
“The advent of the Internet provides access to more resources then we could ever imagine,” Austin said.
The women all agree that children’s ministries have many challenges, especially concerning money for staff or education for volunteers. In churches where there are few youngsters, children’s ministries usually are not priorities. Many churches simply do not have the budget to hire a children’s minister and often strain to buy needed supplies.
“A lot of children’s ministers are dual career or are volunteers,” Cooper said. “Many churches say, ‘When we get enough kids, we’ll hire someone.’ We must look at how to include those folks.”
Resources of equipment and curricula can be meager as well. “Children who have access to technology in other aspects of their lives may attend a church that can barely afford crayons and papers,” Austin said.
She believes it’s also time to challenge the notion that children’s and family ministries are about providing an affordable childcare option on Sundays for parents who don’t want to be inconvenienced during worship services.
Along those lines, Cooper believes too many churches set up a children’s ministry separate from the rest of the congregation.
“Children need to feel like they are a part of the larger body of Christ,” she said. “It’s too easy to section them off; we forget what we lose by taking children out of the main worship service. That goes back to being connected as an adult.”
Children's ministries are not just activities to keep children occupied and entertained. They are vital to a church's spiritual growth. Faith beliefs and habits are formed in most people by the age of 12, according to the Barna Research Group, a Christian polling firm.
Pestel, who along with Cooper coordinates a Facebook group for children’s and family ministers, sees churches that are reaching young families in powerful, meaningful and life-changing ways. She believes those with thriving children’s ministries share common characteristics.
“The message stays the same; it’s the presentation that changes,” Pestel explained in an email. “Churches with thriving children’s ministries are adamant that priority No. 1 is telling God’s story and are willing to adapt the presentation of the story so that it is engaging to the current generation.”
Healthy children’s ministries also commit resources to provide safe, fun and engaging environments for children. According to Pestel, successful programs also have intentional strategies for discipling the next generation.
“Jesus was very serious about the place of children in the Kingdom, and Moses made clear that the people of Israel were to pass the faith to their children,” Pestel said. “It is not a coincidence that the churches taking seriously the faith formation of children (and their families) are fulfilling the mission to make disciples, transforming individuals, families and communities in the process.”
To share resources, opportunities and get advice, connect with the Florida United Methodist Children’s and Family Ministers Facebook group at www.facebook.com/groups/flkidmin/.
Tomorrow: Fostering intergenerational ministries.
– Mary Ann DeSantis is a freelance writer based in Lady Lake.