FRUITLAND PARK -- When classes at Fruitland Park Elementary School let out early each Wednesday, volunteers from nearby Community UMC, Fruitland Park, are waiting at the school to walk about 100 students to “Wonderful Wednesdays,” an after-school program at the church that began 15 years ago.
The program is part of the congregation’s children’s ministry but also a good example of an intergenerational connection at a church that has a predominantly senior congregation. Most of the volunteers are retirees who come to share their hobbies and skills with the children who attend the school.
“We’ve been really blessed because The Villages retirement community is near us,” says Faye Umble, Community’s children and education minister.
“The majority of our volunteers are retirees. … They are a generation with hobbies and life skills that today’s children aren’t taught as much.”
Those hobbies include crocheting, knitting, painting, woodworking and even duct-tape art. The kids choose from 13 classes that also include yoga, cooking and chorus. Community UMC is currently undergoing renovations and had to limit the size of Wonderful Wednesdays for this academic year because construction is restricting the space available.
“You wouldn’t think the kids would care about things like crocheting or knitting, but they get addicted to it and even want to make hats for baby sisters,” Umble says. “Many of the volunteers live far away from their own grandkids, so they enjoy it, too.”
Research shows that, developmentally, children need five unrelated adults to be a part of their lives, according to Rev. Melissa Cooper, an ordained deacon and the program coordinator for the Life Enrichment Center (LEC) in Fruitland Park. She is also director of LECFamily, an intergenerational ministry that includes intergenerational retreats and camps, resources for families and churches.
“Intergenerational relationships are vital,” Cooper says. “Some churches are doing an amazing job because they use church members as volunteers in their youth and children’s programs.”
Just as important, she adds, is sharing a smile at coffee hour and asking a child how he or she is doing in school. That small gesture has a positive effect on how a child feels about church and counts as a developmental relationship as well.
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Because of her work in intergenerational and family ministries at the LEC, Cooper has been invited to present a preconference workshop at the upcoming United Methodist Discipleship Ministries “Rock On” Children’s Ministry Forum in November. She will speak about foundations and fundamentals of intergenerational ministries and how churches can evaluate their current intergenerational programs.
“There is not a one-size-fits-all for churches trying to develop intergenerational programs. It looks different in every church,” Cooper says. “It’s a culture you have to develop, and it takes time.”
Rev. Katie Pestel, who is working with Cooper to revitalize the Florida Conference Children’s Ministry Committee, agrees that churches with successful children’s ministries have created intentional and meaningful experiences for the generations to form relationships with one another.
“Those are the kinds of relationships that build lifelong faith,” says Pestel, a family ministry consultant and wife of Pastor Michael Pestel at Sanlando UMC, Longwood. “It’s not just the children’s ministers who affect and influence children. It’s every church member.”
Cooper adds, “We are all responsible for the discipleship of our children, not just children’s ministry.”
The women believe that churches with strong hospitality cultures have thriving family and intergenerational ministries. It’s important that children, as well as all ages, feel connected and have a sense of belonging in order for their faith to grow stronger.
“If we are interacting only with people our own age, we are missing out on opportunities to grow spiritually,” Cooper says.
Umble says Wonderful Wednesdays at Community UMC is an example of a welcoming culture that has brought more young families into the church.
Parents are invited to stay for the Wednesday night supper when they pick up their children from the after-school program.
“We’ve had several young families start coming to church after attending a Wednesday night supper,” Umble says. “It’s another way of figuring out how the church can help families today.”
Umble observes that parents once gave children over to the church for biblical teachings, but she believes the pendulum is swinging back and parents are becoming more involved.
“Family ministry is a balance,” she says. “It’s not only ministering to the kids but to the family unit as well.”
– Mary Ann DeSantis is a freelance writer based in Lady Lake.
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