How are things going at your church with your children and their families?
What did you do over the last year and a half to stay connected and provide teaching and faith formation for your youngest members? What worked well? What fell flat? What slipped through the cracks? What are you most concerned about going forward? What can you let go of that no one will miss? And, how will your approach to ministry with children and their families be transformed in light of any new learnings and discoveries that you’ve made while responding to changed circumstances?
Taking time to reflect now with your children, parents, and leaders is a crucial first step if your church wants to move forward in new ways in the months ahead; ways that will serve your entire church community well while providing the best opportunities for children and their families to grow in faith together.
While it is important that we all take time to ask the people of our own congregations, ‘how has it been going?’ we can also benefit from the research of others who have begun this process of interviewing children, parents, and congregational leaders and denominational influencers.
Last week I posted a summary of a qualitative research project undertaken by Dr. Dana Kennamer at her home church in Texas with 13 children who were active participants in worship and Sunday school before and throughout the first year of the pandemic. Dr. Kennamer opened a window for us to see what children missed the most during their church building’s closure and provided a helpful focus for how our own churches might meaningfully include children in worship and worship planning in the future. If you missed this article you can read it here.
This week we will hear from the parents and church leaders who participated in an extensive qualitative research project conducted by Dr. Sarah Holmes from Nurturing Young Faith and The School of Education at Liverpool Hope University in the United Kingdom (UK). Holmes’ research is outlined in the paper ‘The Changing Nature of UK Children’s and Family Ministry During the Covid-19 Pandemic’, and is the result of Zoom interviews she held with 55 parents, grandparents, children’s leaders, resource providers and regional advisors over the course of the first nine months of the pandemic. In her study Holmes asked each of the interviewees about their experiences, frustrations, ongoing challenges, ideas and strategies during these days with the hope of being able to provide local churches and national organizations with fresh agendas and strategies for the years ahead. In these interviews Holmes found “clear themes and distinct observations which… suggested emerging patterns that are important to be aware of” moving forward.
A revised article, published in the April edition of the Society of Professors in Christian Education Journal, fleshes out her project further to include greater consideration of her findings as well as additional information gathered by other research projects from around the globe. This subsequent article can be found here.
What did Dr. Holmes discover?
She begins by acknowledging the huge shift that church leaders made when the pandemic caused our church buildings to close with no notice. Holmes celebrates the huge impact UK churches have had on their communities as they responded quickly and with innovation to people’s immediate needs. She also celebrates how churches were light on their feet in adapting their pre-Covid curricula for online platforms and in their development of more appropriate activities for their children to participate in while being socially distanced.
All of this is good reason for churches to give thanks for and to their staff and volunteers who responded so quickly and imaginatively to such unforeseen circumstances.
Church leaders stated that children’s and youth ministry has been their greatest challenge
However, church leaders also stated that children’s and youth ministry has been their greatest challenge over the course of this pandemic. In many cases it was set aside in the early days of the pandemic and was not the church’s priority until months down the road. In the UK this may have been exacerbated by the furloughing of many salaried children’s workers.
Here in the Presbyterian Church in Canada (PCC) very few of our churches have dedicated children’s and youth workers on staff. However, for some of those that do, temporarily laying off their educational staff person became a means to balance their reduced budget. Such layoffs then resulted in volunteers being sought to cover for the absentee staff member. This often resulted in reduced opportunities for children, youth and their families to engage with their church family.
During the second UK lockdown, Holmes notes that more churches moved to develop hybrid approaches to their ministry with children through virtual platforms than did in the first lockdown. This aligns with my experience of PCC congregations placing the first priority on the shift to online worship in March of 2020, believing that their Sunday schools would be back in place in our buildings by Easter Sunday. It was only after Easter that most PCC congregations began to consider how they might provide faith formation for the children of their church given the continuing lockdown. At this point in time some of our connections with children and their families had already been lost.
Holmes summarized children’s ministry during the pandemic as becoming more ‘task-focused than spirituality-focused’ with leaders feeling pressure to provide ‘entertainment and fun activities’ over ‘meaningful spiritual encounters’. Leaders found themselves attempting to contextualize everything, with pre-Covid resources causing frustration. 75% of those interviewed found themselves devising their own activities as a result.
Parents felt ill-equipped for the task
Additionally, many churches asked their parents to step in and be more proactive in carrying on faith formation activities at home. With Sunday schools cancelled, parents were expected to become home schoolers. Churches would provide the curriculum; parents would to provide the leadership. Many parents found this request to be overwhelming in light of all the other additional expectations placed upon than by their work situations, extended family responsibilities, and their children’s online schooling. Parents also felt ill-equipped for the task. Given the church’s prior emphasis on providing faith formation for children on the behalf of their families through Sunday schools and mid-week programming, parents felt bombarded and overwhelmed by the wide range of materials that were sent their way by their church. Lesson plans came with little explanation for carrying them out and little background on why this was something worthy of their attention.
Similarly, in the PCC, parents were not positive about being placed the in the position of becoming their children’s Sunday school teacher when the church invited them to step into this role. Churches soon shifted to seeking out ways of editing and developing hybrid curricula for Zoom and Google classroom platforms to step in once again with the delivery of Sunday school classes. In most cases churches lost some of their volunteer teaching staff who felt uncomfortable teaching over a Zoom platform and fewer teachers bore the load of keeping up regular classes. In some cases paid staff found themselves teaching in lieu of available volunteers and many volunteers taught more classes over the course of the year than they would have in a regular rotation year.
In many cases PCC churches shifted their Sunday school classes to a different time slot from worship. This happened because the church Zoom contract would only allow one meeting at a time, or because teachers and their families wanted to attend worship together. Many PCC churches have since said they are considering keeping the educational hour separate from the worship hour even when the return to the building because they enjoyed the benefits of being in worship weekly with their children.
Many UK churches reported a reduced engagement with their families
Churches in both the UK and here in the PCC also strove to support and connect with families through phone calls, doorstep visits and acts of kindness, but found it hard to do this effectively. This came easier for congregations when their families lived within a smaller geographical area. Churches found it most difficult to support families who were less connected with the church prior to the pandemic.
Many UK churches reported a reduced engagement with their families as the pandemic continued and church workers were concerned for children that did not access any of the activities provided by the church over the nine-month period of the study. Church leaders could not assume that children had faith resources at home such as bibles and bible storybooks, and many expressed concern for the long-term consequences of children’s disengagement with church.
Holmes’ research reveals that some families experienced life together during lockdown positively while others have found it deeply challenging. While some families spoke about increased quality time together others have struggled, primarily as a result of their loss of support networks. These challenges were experienced most deeply in families with children with special needs.
Dr. Holmes pays particular attention in her study to the diverse degrees of engagement and forms of faith formation children and their families participated in over the many months of their church building’s closure. She encourages all churches to discover through conversation what each of their families have experienced. Some will have experienced faith formation during Covid primarily through family conversations and activities, others will have engaged primarily through their church’s programming; some will have engaged in all areas, while others will have had little or no engagement in any area. This means that there will be a wide range of pandemic engagement experiences to take into account when our children return to church activities. Dr. Holmes wonders whether placing children and their families in small groups based on their pandemic experience might help all re-engage more smoothly and easily.
What did church leadership have to say?
Children’s leaders were also asked about their personal experiences of work during the pandemic. The majority of children’s leaders expressed feelings of despondency, disillusionment, and exhaustion. Their role has become vastly different from pre-Covid days with most spending the bulk of their time recording and editing videos rather than carrying out face-to-face pastoral and discipleship activities. 91% also reported a significant loss of volunteers and believe this will not resolve itself post-pandemic. The combination of absent families and bare bones leadership causes them anxiety about what the future will hold for children’s ministry down the road.
With the lengthy duration of lockdown many recounted stories of children no longer recognizing their leaders from pre-pandemic days. For this reason children’s workers have already begun to shift their emphasis from activity provision to building relationships over the remaining course of the pandemic and beyond.
Implications for Churches
Churches must prioritize child-focused ministries moving forward for the long-term wellbeing of the church
Dr. Holmes lifts up a number of implications for the church coming out of her study.
She stresses that churches must prioritize child-focused ministries moving forward for the long-term wellbeing of the church. Shifting the church’s focus towards child-serving ministry will also demand that churches will need to inspire and support adults in their support for this focus and expand their volunteer base.
Churches and families need to work together holding a joint responsibility for nurturing children’s faith
Holmes also encourages churches to shift their focus away from dividing families into narrow age groupings and instead move to serve family units as a whole so their needs are most effectively met. Churches have been faced with the reality that their parents were implicitly told over the last decades that their church will provide faith formation for their children on the parents behalf. This cut parents our out of their calling to teach and live out their faith with their children. This was dramatically revealed when parents declined to take on this role when handed it by their church not because they were unwilling, but because they were ill-equipped to do so. Churches and families need to work together holding a joint responsibility for nurturing children’s faith.
Children wish to feel and experience themselves as valued, full participants in the life of their church
Churches must take time to listen to the voices of children more attentively moving forward. Children wish to feel and experience themselves as valued, full participants in the life of their church. In this, an intergenerational approach offers greater opportunities for meaningful spiritual encounters and wholesome faith formation. In a similar way churches may need to shift their desire away from large scale entertaining events to very small scale relational opportunities.
Churches will need to continue to strengthen children’s relationships with both church leaders and others in the church community. It is through these relationships that faith grows and churches stay aware of each child’s individual faith journey.
Denominations and congregations also discovered that the curricula they depended on needed to be tailored uniquely for the individual circumstances of each church. While this was evident prior to the shift to online platforms, it has become even more obvious now. Churches will need to continue to edit and create materials and activities suitable for their own setting; denominational publishers will also need to revise materials for greater flexibility and include helpful directions for leaders to do this well for their church context.
Take time now to carefully listen to the unique stories your children, parents and leaders
Holmes summarizes her report with the invitation to churches to take time now to carefully listen to the unique stories your children, parents and leaders have to share and then to consider new strategies to “provide some stability and effective support” as a result of all you hear. Listening to families regarding their spiritual needs is imperative for churches if they wish to address their families’ and volunteers’ feelings of separation and reduced engagement with their church as a outcome of the pandemic. Holmes finishes by stating that churches must communicate persuasively that ‘children are genuinely valued, affirmed and supported within their faith community’
There is so much to learn from this wonderful research project. Much of what it reveals is equally true to our PCC context. As we wonder what our ministry with children will look like should our churches reopen this fall, we need to embrace the opportunity now to do some deep listening and consideration of what that will look like Likewise, whether we reopen in September or in a number of months down the road, our listening, learning and adapting can begin to be put in place right away. Connecting with our families and volunteers, asking direct questions about their needs and experiences, building personal relationships, evaluating our existing approaches, and placing a priority on building effective supportive ministries that are needed and welcomed by our families will help us rebuild our faith community for generations to come.