I am preparing to share in a couple of children's ministry classes this week at my Alma Mater, Indiana Wesleyan University. I LOVED my time there, and wouldn't trade my 4 years there for anything. The time I spent there was crucial to making me into the children's pastor I am today, but nothing could have prepared me for the great learning and growth I've experienced firsthand in ministry. As I pondered what I would share with the class of children's ministry students, a few things came to mind.
I've been working as a children's pastor for 9 years now, and have served at 4 churches total (3 of them in a paid position), and after 9 years working in children's ministry, the one thing I know is that I don't know much! I have made many mistakes, have learned things the hard way, and still have a LOT to learn and a lot of areas of growth.
I am called to children's ministry, and I am committed to serving God for the rest of my life. It's not easy, and if I'm honest, there are times I've wanted to quit. But you don't stay in ministry for the long haul because it's easy; you stay because you commit to not giving up, even when it is hard. I'm in it for the long haul.
Here are a few things I would share with students who are preparing for children's ministry...
9. Always keep learning.
I will admit that there were times in ministry I felt like I knew everything, and times I felt like I knew NOTHING. It's important to be a constant learner. I want to always look for people to learn from and help myself grow as a leader. I've joined Jim Wideman's mentoring group, Infuse, which has been, by far, my biggest source of growth and learning (other than my college experience). I've had leadership mentors and children's ministry mentors. I love to read books and attend conferences, and learn via social networking (twitter, blogs, etc) and networking with others in my field. I have been a part of local children's ministry networking groups, and since moving to Atlanta, have enjoyed visiting several churches, always with paper and pen in hand, and a list of questions. I want to never stop growing and learning and developing. I am hungry to learn, and I want to stay that way, no matter how long I'm in ministry.
8. Get Good at People Skills and Problem Solving.
I originally got into children's ministry because I LOVED working with kids...and was surprised to learn that the number one thing you deal with in children's ministry is ADULTS, not kids. If you're doing it right, most of your leadership will revolve around leading parents, volunteers, staff, etc. If your people skills are weak, this will be a huge challenge. I have had to make myself grow in people skills and problem solving, and am STILL growing and learn every day. I've learned a lot the hard way through my own mistakes, and I've learned a lot from the mentorship of GOOD leaders. Work to develop yourself as a leader, and learn to get good at solving problems and conflict management. There are no perfect people, so you will always have plenty of opportunities to practice good conflict management. Get good at taking criticism. Get good at having hard conversations and confrontations. Get good at speaking truth and love, and learn to be a problem SOLVER instead of wallowing in problems.
7. Get good at volunteers.
I learned pretty quickly that if I wanted to do successful children's ministry, I couldn't do it by myself. Research shows that leading volunteers is the most difficult group of people to lead. I would say volunteers are the most rewarding group to lead if you do it well. I can honestly tell you right now that I have a truly AMAZING group of faithful, passionate, dedicated volunteers. They inspire me. They go above and beyond to give their all to the children's ministry, and we have more and more people join our team every week. Many of my volunteers have become my best friends. In some areas, I've had waiting lists for volunteers before. Because when you can lead volunteers WELL, they will line up to serve and join the team. Learn to recruit, lead, train, and develop volunteers well. Learn to appreciate them, respect their time, value them, and pour into them. If you can't get good in this area, your children's ministry will only grow as far as you can do by yourself, but when you raise up and release leaders, God can multiply the ministry and affect more lives than you ever imagined!
6. Be disciplined about your work, but also about your rest.
Work hard. When you're on the clock, get good at managing your time, and being productive (get rid of time wasters). There will always be the temptation to take shortcuts and be lazy, but don't give in. Do your job with excellence, even in the tiny details. Work ahead, instead of waiting until the last minute. Learn to become organized, even if it doesn't come naturally to you. Be disciplined about your work. But also be disciplined about your rest. There will be seasons of working overtime and giving up days off, but you need to make sure you take time to refresh and refuel, and no one else is going to make sure you do this. It's up to you. You won't be able to keep going for the long haul if you don't learn to balance your time and make time for your family and friends and rest. Also- many pastors don't have close friendships. It's important to have encouraging, refreshing, authentic friendships and support systems. In college, I was completely surrounded by wonderful godly friends, fun, community and accountability that close friendships bring. But then I moved to another state that was 600 miles away from all my family and friends, where I didn't know anyone. The first year or two were lonely...and it would have been hard to continue living and doing ministry at that lonely place. But thank the LORD I found great friends and God brought me an amazing, supportive husband, and since moving to my new church, I have been overwhelmingly blessed with godly, supportive, loving friends. Be disciplined enough to make sure you get community, fellowship, and accountability in your off time.
5. Your relationship with your lead pastor (or direct report) is make or break.
When you're looking for churches, don't try to look for the perfect church; it doesn't exist. There will be conflicts or issues of some type wherever you go, but the most important thing is this: you can deal with any issue, problem, or conflict that arises, if your lead pastor has your back, and you have his/hers. If you have mutual respect and a healthy relationship, you can face anything that happens. You need to work for a pastor you can submit to, respect, and be authentic and real with. You should have your pastor's back no matter what, and they should have yours.
Leading into my next thing I've learned...
4. There will be problems or issues wherever you go; don't play into church politics.
It's true. One thing I've learned from visiting other churches and talking to other children's pastors, even children's pastors of mega churches with thriving children's ministries... they all face difficulties in some form. I recently met with an intelligent, highly qualified and passionate leader of an awesome ministry, and she told me stories of severe behavior issues with kids, parents yelling at her and going to her pastor to complain about her behind her back, church members accusing her of things she didn't do, and even more. But that was only part of the conversation. The rest was about how much she LOVED her job and her church and the kids and people. You WILL face trials. You won't please everyone all the time. I have many stories I could share, but the important thing is that I've learned from every difficulty and conflict, and I've learned not to play into gossip and church politics. No matter how great and healthy your church is, there will be people involved, and people aren't perfect. Don't play games and don't gossip.
3. Don't neglect your own relationship with God.
Fruitful ministry only happens out of the overflow of an intimate relationship with God. The best thing you can give your ministry is your relationship with God, because people don't need more of YOU- they need more of HIM. John 15:4 says a branch cannot produce fruit if severed from the vine; you are the branch and Jesus is the true vine. Apart from Him, you can do nothing. This one can be hard for children's ministry leaders, because we can DO ministry and keep ourselves so busy, that we may not even notice right away that we're not connected the Lord... until we start to burn out and grow weary, and our well runs dry and our fruit withers. When you're connected to God, He produces ministry and life change and fruit. It's not something you can make or fake or do on your own. But often times, we can get so busy, that our own relationship with God can easily become the last thing on our minds. Make yourself put Him first; do whatever you have to do to keep this number one. You can't do it without Him.
2. Remember the purpose of WHY you do what you do ...to bring children to Jesus.
I'll be honest, it can be easy to get caught up in the details of events and recruiting, and remodeling, and planning, and curriculum, and object lessons, and all the day-to-day details of leading a ministry. It can be easy to turn on auto-pilot and forget the true purpose and calling of leading kids to relationship with the Lord. But you MUST make yourself remember, and you must constantly cast that vision to your team. There is no more valuable investment than investing in the life of a child, and helping bring them to Jesus. Children are important to God, and helping them experience Him is our number one goal. It's not just making sure the check-in system works and the motions to the songs are right, and the snacks are stocked in the preschool room, and all the prizes are ready... those things are important, and I am ALL ABOUT excellence in every tiny detail, but the number one most important detail is bringing kids to a relationship with Him! He changes lives! Don't let yourself forget this.
1. 1 Cor. 16:13 "Be on your guard; stand firm in the faith; be courageous; be strong."
You're in a battle. The church doesn't need wimps; it needs warriors. You are on the front lines, and Satan is ready to steal, kill and destroy. You are fighting, and you need God's armor and strength. There will be times when you will need courage- seek God. There will be times you will need wisdom - seek God. There will be times you will be weak, and need His strength- seek God. There will be times you will need faith- seek God. He will equip you to carry out the calling HE has given you. He will give you wisdom and strength. You're in a battle, but God has already given you victory. This is one I have to remind myself of daily, and I'm STILL LEARNING to depend fully on Him day by day.
I know I"m still a baby in this world of leadership, and I hope I can say I've continued learning and growing and serving faithfully every day of my life. 9 years down, and, Lord willing, many more to go. I'm thankful for my wonderful church, pastors, volunteers, kids and families, and husband, and I'm thankful that I get to wake up every day and serve in children's ministry. Even when it's challenging, there's nothing I would rather do.