While many things about the churches I visited were amazing, I wouldn't return, and here's why:
1. Closed Door Classrooms (And No Windows)
In one church, I dropped off my three year old at a classroom with a solid door (no window), and a teen volunteer (no other helpers). There was no one to greet me at drop off time or tell me if the classroom was even open and ready to accept kids. I just walked up to a closed door that I couldn't see through. Not only was it not welcoming, but it isn't safe.
There should always be an open door (or a window), a half door, some way for others to see into a room. There should never be a situation or time when a volunteer is alone in a closed room with kids, with no accountability or visibility from the outside. This is not only to protect the kids, but also to protect volunteers against accusations.
Solution: Install dutch doors (leave the top half open); baby gates, station volunteers at the open door, or see-through windows. A camera in every classroom adds another level of security (I've been in a church with multiple situations where we needed to watch video footage of specific incidents that happened during class).
2. One Volunteer Alone (Or No Volunteers)
In another church, I dropped my one year old toddler girl off in a nursery with one man (who wasn't identified as a volunteer in any visible way) and a closed door with no window, and no other helpers or volunteers. Then I dropped my three year old son off in a large room with a few other elementary aged kids, and no children's ministry volunteers. One of the church's parking lot greeters told me he would stay with all the kids until the children's ministry volunteer (who I had never met, as it was my first time visiting the church) arrived. I wasn't given a registration form or asked to give them any information about myself or my kids.
*In most circumstances, a volunteer should not be alone in a room with kids. Some churches I know do allow a volunteer alone in a room if no other helper is available, as long as a door is open, and a hallway volunteer is available if needed for emergencies. While I don't recommend this, and I probably wouldn't feel safe as a parent leaving my kid alone in a room with only one volunteer, there may be circumstances in which churches can make this call. Your church's insurance can also give you details on whether or not they have requirements about volunteers in rooms based on liability. There is never a time when it is ok for a volunteer to be alone in a bathroom with kids. (My next post will dive into how to write a bathroom policy for your children's ministry.)
Solution: A minimum of two un-related volunteers in every classroom. All children's ministry volunteers should be screened, background checked, should be asked to fill out an application, and trained. While serving, they need to be identified in some way as volunteers (name tag, sticker, lanyard, T-shirt, etc.).
3. No Check-in System (Or a Check-in System Not Enforced)
I didn't feel comfortable leaving my kids at a children's ministry with no registration form for first time guests to collect information about the kids, and no check-in system to make sure my kids are picked up by the correct person. One church I visited did have a check-in system, and we were given stickers, but even though it was our first time and the volunteers didn't know me, no one asked to see my pick-up ticket when I went to two classrooms to pick up my kids after the service.
Solution: Even if your church can't afford a computer check-in system, you can use pre-printed stickers with spaces for parents' and kids' names and information, or you could use matching bracelets, lanyards, or tags. If you're looking for a great electronic check-in system, I recommend the Kidmin App.
If you have a check-in system and it's not enforced, it's pointless. Make sure your volunteers are asking to see the pick-up tag from every parent (even those they know), and really looking at the tag to make sure they match.
4. No Way to Get Ahold of Parents
When I'm visiting a church for the first time and drop my kids off in the children's ministry, I want to know the church has a way to get ahold of me if I'm needed during the service or an emergency occurs.
Solution: A great way to do this is by using numbers up on the screen (if your church uses a screen) for each family, since they will be looking up at the screen during the service (hopefully). You can buy LED boards where you can post numbers, or post them through your worship software (ProPresenter has this option). You could also use pagers. Some churches use text message or phone calls, although some parents may not look at their phones during the service.
I understand being on a tight budget and not having many volunteers, but these are things we cannot get wrong as children's ministry leaders. These are four things we need to plan for, prepare for, and train volunteers for every time we have kids (not just with new guests).
If you miss these things, not only is there a great risk for kids and volunteers, but parents who are first time guests (or regulars) may not feel comfortable and may not be able to focus on the service, and may not ever return to your church. In one of the churches I visited, I got up during the worship to go check on my kids in the children's ministry, because I was so uncomfortable and couldn't focus on worship.
There are areas we all fall short in children's ministry, but safety is a non-negotiable. These are some safety policies your church needs to consistently get right:
If you don't have and enforce safety policies, not only is there huge liability (lawsuits) for your church, but more importantly, there is a great risk for kids. You can have the best children's ministry curriculum, the best stage and set decor, and the most fun games and prizes, but if kids aren't safe and parents aren't comfortable, they won't stay at your church. Keeping kids safe lays the foundation for you to minister to entire families.
As a parent, I know how my kids are the most precious thing in the world to me, and when I take them to a church, I'm entrusting that church to protect them and care for them. There are many dangers in this world, and while we can't prevent every possible thing from going wrong, children's ministries have a duty to intentionally be proactive about protecting kids as much as possible.
What other things does your church do to be proactive about keeping kids safe? Is there anything you would add to this list?
I remember standing in the middle of a crowd of kids who had totally gone off track, looking at my one other leader in the room with a look of desperation and dread. I had lost the kids. A few kids were sitting quietly doing their craft, but everyone else was running wild. Popsicle sticks being thrown, crayons dumped everywhere, kids taking each other's crafts and running away with them, while other kids just ran around yelling. The service had gone long, and we stretched craft time a few extra minutes as we waited for parents to arrive. I finally took a deep breath and yelled out over the kids as loud as I could and told them to stop and sit, and wait for their parents in silence. Then I proceeded to lecture them on the importance of listening and following the rules.
I went home after that service feeling worn down and discouraged. This wasn't the first time a service had gone that way. But was it really the kids' fault? Was there something I could improve as a children's ministry leader to get them to listen and behave better, so they could actually get something out of the service, and have fun at the same time?
I learned the answer to that question: YES. There is a lot we can do as children's ministry leaders to stop discipline issues before they ever start.
WHY WE DISCIPLINE
Before talking about discipline, it's important to know the why behind it: we can't teach kids about God if we don't have their attention. We won't have their attention if there are behavior issues with no correction or discipline. God tells us He disciplines us to shape us and make us more like Him. That should be our goal: to model Christlike behavior and help kids become more like Him in everything we do.
Hebrews 12:10-11 says, "God disciplines us for our good, in order that we may share in his holiness. No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it."
Our goal is not to have kids who behave a certain way, but who have a relationship with Christ. Discipline isn't about punishments, rules, and negativity. It's about guidance, correction, diligence, and teaching. It will help kids develop self-control, responsibility, character, and help shape them to become more like Christ. It will enable them to learn about Him and experience Him so they can hav e a relationship with Him. It has to start from love and a desire to disciple kids.
1. WRITE IT DOWN
It's important to have a discipline policy, rather than just winging it. It allows you to have consistency in how you deal with different situations and empowers your teachers and leaders to deal with situations on their own, knowing it will all be consistent. Write a discipline policy, and keep it simple. Put it in your volunteer handbook, post your rules on your walls or on your screens.
If you don't have a discipline policy that is consistent across the board, you also risk having some teachers who can be too strict, and some who can be too lenient. A discipline policy helps get everyone on the same page.
Your discipline policy should be no more than 3-5 points, with clear and concise boundaries and steps to take. In addition to steps for correction, it's helpful to have 3-5 simple rules that kids can remember, and that encompass all the positive behaviors you want to see, but also include the steps for correction in your discipline policy.
An example of rules you could use:
An example of a Discipline Policy:
Give a copy of your discipline policy to your leaders, and talk with them about different scenarios and how to handle them. This would make a great Pre-Service huddle training session that you could do in ten minutes as you're meeting with your team.
You can provide behavior logs for your volunteers to write down instances of behavior issues. This is helpful if you have multiple services or rotating volunteers, so you can keep a log of specific incidents. If you see a pattern with a specific child, you can make a note to talk with the parents.
2. KEEP IT SIMPLE
Keep your rules simple, and your discipline steps simple. You don't need 20 steps for teachers to remember or 10 rules for kids. Repeat your classroom rules often. Make sure they are simple enough for kids to remember and understand.
3. USE A REWARD SYSTEM
You can utilize a reward system (this works great with elementary aged kids). It's especially effective to split the kids into teams and use something they can see, such as clear containers with plastic balls (or just using laundry baskets with balloons). You could do sticker charts, individual "tokens" or "Bucks" they can use at a prize store. Let kids earn rewards for participation, listening, and following rules. It's only effective if you actually do give the rewards consistently. You can take away an item if one of the teams isn't listening. You could give out prizes at the end of the service for the winning team, or you could just let the winning team win, and let them dance around and cheer.
4. TALK TO PARENTS
Whenever you see a pattern of behavior issues, or a child acts in a violent way, it's important to talk with parents right away. Make sure your conversation is filled with gentleness, grace, kindness, and lots of encouragement. It's important to let the parents know you care about their child and you want to help them get the most out of the service. Ask them for ideas about how to help their child. You may ask them to sit in the service and observe or help if their child needs extra help. Show them your rules and your discipline policy, and give them specifics about how their child behaved.
*A tip: make sure you're not ONLY talking to parents when there are behavior issues: look for any opportunity you can to tell them how amazing their kid is or something great their kid did during a service.
5. BE PROACTIVE
Don't give up on the kids who need extra help. I've seen kids go from the worst behaved kid in the entire children's ministry to the best behaved, and most helpful leader, with the right encouragement and an adult who believes in them.
There are no bad kids. Sometimes the kids who are disruptive are going through issues we don't know about, and are acting out and need extra love and grace. Every time you discipline a child, it's an opportunity to point them to God and remind them of His love and forgiveness for us. Let this be your driving force in your children's ministry discipline.
The one thing we always need more of in children's ministry is volunteers. But would you know what to do with 20 new volunteers if they indicated an interest in serving next week? Would you have a place and a plan for them? Would you know how to train train them and find the sweet spot for them in your ministry? One of the biggest mistakes we make in children's ministry (and I'm raising my own hand too) is neglecting to follow up with and have a plan for interested volunteers. We let high quality people slip through our fingers because we aren't prepared ahead of time and don't have a plan in place. Here's a simple six step plan for on-boarding new volunteers.
The whole on-boarding process should take between 4-8 weeks (including a 4 week training period) for people to go from interested to completely assimilated on the team.
1. Get prepared for them. Write job simple, but detailed descriptions and job titles for every role you need in your children's ministry. Even roles you aren't even close to filling. Make a simple chart or list of every possible volunteer you wish to have on your team. Leave blank spaces where there are no people currently serving. Write down your plan for on-boarding and assimilating them.
2. Follow up within 24 hours. This is an easy one, and yet, the one we miss too often. Any time you talk with someone about serving, or they indicate an interest in serving, follow up right away with a quick email or call inviting them to talk more (the interview). Give them information about the volunteer roles that are available. Clear communication is key in moving volunteers to the next step.
3. Interview them and get to know them. The interview can be a 15 minute chat before or after church or a coffee meeting during the week. It doesn't need to be serious or intense -- just get to know them! Ask about their personal lives and hobbies, their church involvement, and their spiritual life. It's a time to get to know them and their interests, gifts, passions, and experience. You should be able to determine the right fit for them after getting to know them, but if not, you can give them a few options and try them to see which would be the best fit. Be careful not to place them in a spot that isn't the right fit just because you have a need there.
4. Get a background check and application. Have them fill out an application and background check form. Once they're cleared to serve, move them immediately to step 5.
5. Train them. Give them a handbook and details about the ministry and job expectations. Hands-on training with your best leaders is more effective than any other type of training.
I recommend four weeks of hands-on training with a specific trainer (an experienced team member who will consistently show up for four weeks in a row to demonstrate and model the ministry role). The first week: let them only observe experienced volunteers (choose your best for this!). The second week, give them the information about policies, procedures, expectations, schedules, curriculum, and all the information they need to serve in the role. Let them observe again without any responsibility. The third week, have them lead a small part of the service alongside experienced volunteers, with encouragement and feedback. The fourth week: allow them to lead with the assistance and observation of their trainer. Give them feedback, tips, and lots of positive encouragement. Some volunteers will feel comfortable leading and jumping in at four weeks, and others will need more time before they're ready to lead on their own.
6. Evaluate and check back in. After a new volunteer starts serving, don't forget about them forever! Check back in within 90 days of their start date and ask how they're feeling about it. Ask if they want to try any other roles. Give them positive feedback and ask for their feedback about the ministry role they're serving in. They may be ready for more responsibility in the ministry.
Children are a Gift
kidmin leader, mother, and servant of the Lord.
These are the views of Lynne Howard, and are not necessarily the views and opinions of any church.