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Never Stop Learning

Gordon West

Children's ministry is challenging. Rarely a week goes by that my job doesn't require of me some knowledge of conflict resolution, staff management, labor laws, state day-care licensing regulations, public relations, family dynamics counseling, child psychology, public speaking, teacher training, Bible exposition, fund raising, budgeting, small group leadership, management of paid and volunteer staff, and human relations. Whew!

At the end of a long day, it's easy to feel spent. Dried up. Poured out. I need someone to fill me up once in a while.

A great way for us children's ministers to dip into refreshing waters is to become a student. As we sit at the feet of others, we'll be renewed and enabled to keep giving to kids for a long time.

"Go back to school!" you screech. "I'm too busy. I know everything I need to know. I don't have the money. I don't know how to start." None of these reasons should keep you from expanding your personal knowledge and expertise in ministering to children. We need to be as good as we can be for our kids...and for our God!

HOW TO KEEP LEARNING

There are a variety of ways to receive further education. Although formal study can be excellent, maybe something else will better fit your needs.

Internships -- For those who can afford an extended period of time with little or no income, internships can't be beat. Or perhaps you're blessed with a church that would offer you a paid sabbatical to pursue an internship. The opportunity to serve under a seasoned veteran in an established program provides exposure to the breadth of skills needed and the demands placed on a children's pastor. There's no better teacher than experience, but some lessons might best be learned secondhand from someone else's scars!

To find internships, ask around. Denominational leaders, publishers, and other children's pastors know what's going on and where. Look for a children's ministry that has a good reputation and that excites you personally. Then be persistent in pursuing the leader of that ministry, even if he or she has no money budgeted for an internship.

Conferences, conventions, workshops -- Many churches that are large enough to hire a professional children's pastor also provide ongoing opportunities for pastors to attend conferences and conventions. Pick these carefully, and balance them from year to year.

In some years, plan to attend a specialized conference for children's leaders. Other years, look for general pastoral or Christian education training to keep abreast of what's happening throughout the Christian education world and to allow you time to brainstorm with other educators. See the "Shall We Confer?" article below for excellent choices.

Don't forget to schedule in networking conferences that allow you to be encouraged and to brainstorm with other practitioners in your field. I find it most helpful to check out who'll be attending these events before I commit to them. If there are two or three people who have years of experience or training that's different from my own, I know it'll be a profitable venture.

Semiformal education -- Watch your newspaper and bulletins put out by the child-care associations and community colleges in your area. There are many free or low-cost classes right in your town. These will be some of the most practical, hands-on experiences led by practitioners. Ask the directors of the better preschools in your town for direction in picking the best topics and teachers for your needs.

Degree programs -- Another option is to pursue that "next" degree. Whatever your situation, going after a formal degree can give you a disciplined approach to furthering your knowledge. Deadlines enforced by others truly help a busy person working toward a goal!

Most formal education is extremely expensive and time-consuming, so take your time researching before you select a school and specific degree program. Personally interview faculty, staff, and current students. Just because a school has a good reputation, it doesn't mean it'll meet your needs and expectations. Professional consultants -- For the novice and the old pro, carefully hired consultants can be money well spent. Find someone who knows how to do what you need done. Then pay for a few days of specific, focused attention. Find consultants by reading articles, visiting other churches, and asking around to discover someone who knows what you need to know. Most consultants will negotiate their price to fit your budget. (See the "Consultant List" for potential consultants who could enrich your program.)

WHY LEARN MORE?

There are several benefits you'll reap from continuing your education.

Encouragement and revitalization -- There's something about stepping onto a college campus, retreat center, or hotel conference ground that emotionally "sweeps" you away from the demands and pressures of ministry. Discussions with ministers stimulate your thinking. Relationships built with "outsiders" who put no demands on your performance rejuvenate your soul and spirit. And new insights and knowledge bring a freshness to the way you look at the problems and programs back home.

Plug holes -- Currently, there's a tremendous shortage of trained, experienced children's pastors. This may be caused by the scarcity of Bible schools and seminaries that are prepared to train children's leaders. Because of this, most of us come to our positions through a less-than-adequate training route. Whether your background is an elementary education degree, a seminary diploma, graduation from a Bible college, or just a lot of experience with kids, all of us have areas of need in our ministries because we've received little or no training. The wise church board understands this and offers opportunities for continued staff development and education.

Model a teachable heart -- One of the most difficult aspects of teacher training is to convince the "old-timers" that they still need to attend! If I let volunteers know about the latest conference I've attended or what I just learned in a class, I'm showing my volunteers that we all need to keep learning and growing. If I'm not setting the example as a learner, I can't expect my volunteers to be teachable either.

Save time -- Careful selection of classes and seminars can provide you with great material to present to your staff or ideas that you'd never have come up with on your own. After all, the teacher or workshop presenter takes a few hours of your schedule to present what often amounts to years of study and experience from his or her life. Through interaction with other participants, you'll also pick up on the latest cultural trends and the hottest books and articles you need to know about but don't have time to discover on your own.

Raise your professionalism -- I speak to many children's leaders around the country who are discouraged that those of us who "just work with kids" aren't given the same respect as church staff peers. I think we need to admit that one reason is that many of us simply don't have the training and education that other pastors or directors have. Continuing your education can be helpful in raising the profile of your ministry and yourself.

Keep up with culture -- In today's complicated world, it's not enough to simply "love" kids. Demands on families, cultural norms, values and morality, and basic religious beliefs are all shifting so quickly in our country that we must keep up with the issues that are impacting children. I know I need to sit under the teaching of professional specialists in these areas to even begin to understand all the trends.

As one children's minister to another, I know you're thirsty. Let God water you as you sit at the feet of someone who'll give to you for a while. As you commit to quench the parched places, I'm convinced that the river of living water will flow through you to your children for many years to come.

Gordon West is President of KidZ At Heart, International in Mesa, Arizona. To contact Gordon, email gwest@kidzatheart.org..


Please keep in mind that phone numbers, addresses, and prices are subject to change.

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