Every so often, we encounter people whose lives leave us forever
changed. It is those rare people, who like Enoch, have walked with
God. They brush up against us and we drink from the living waters
that Jesus promised would flow from his disciples.
Recently, I encountered such a person. I invited myself to New
Hope Community Church in Portland, Oregon, to see why their
children’s ministry has grown by almost 1,500 children in eight
years. Children’s minister Clara Olson has developed a vibrant,
need-meeting, child-loving ministry that’s effectively reaching
children at New Hope. I went armed with my journalistic tools,
eager to dig up Clara’s secrets to success.
As I walked with Clara through a typical Sunday morning at her
church, I discovered the revolutionary secret to her success. It’s
not a program. It’s not a package. It’s not even a curriculum. It’s
a relationship. Because of Clara’s quiet trust in God, her ministry
embodies the same peacefulness. There is no frantic search to fill
slots here. If the slots aren’t filled, the ministry doesn’t
The truth is: Clara does things backward. She waits on God before
she leaps, sometimes waiting as long as two years for God to raise
up the leadership for a ministry she’s dreamed about.
Come along with me on this walk…and be changed.
Clara has a distinguished presence in the church foyer on Sunday
mornings. She is statuesque with her slender frame and perfectly
coifed hair. People flock around her as she stands beside the
children’s ministry table and answers questions. Children of all
ages run up to greet her and give her a big hug. She knows each
child by name.
There are pictures of children throughout the education building.
Close-ups of children having fun at actual events plaster the
walls. Clara’s the official photographer.
How children learn and whether they have fun at church is a
serious matter for Clara. One of her main goals is to give children
positive church-related memories. She says, “I want the Bible to be
taught, but I want it to be a delightful experience for the
As we walk through the classrooms, we’re stopped by a teacher. He
has questions about the Boy Scouts troop he leads during the week.
New Hope’s philosophy is that children’s ministry doesn’t happen
just on Sunday mornings; it goes from Sunday morning to Saturday
night. They have 22 ministries.
After Clara answers the teacher’s questions, she points out a
going-away gift for an assistant teacher. It’s a watch with heart
hands to let the teacher know she’ll always be in their hearts. In
another classroom, I spy a huge bouquet of roses on the table with
a thank-you card from Clara to a volunteer who helped with vacation
The first-hour classes begin and Clara rushes off to teach a
Parent Education Class. “I teach parenting classes all the time,”
Clara says. “I talk about what we’re doing in the children’s
ministry. I try to get [parents]excited about what’s happening.
We’re trying to come alongside them so that makes them want to come
After the class, Clara’s back at the children’s ministry table and
then moves in and out of the second-hour classrooms to observe
teachers. “That’s my monitoring system,” Clara says. ” ‘Cause I can
really tell what’s happening…I can tell if teachers are using the
curriculum very well.”
The self-designed curriculum for New Hope’s Sunday school is set
up with learning centers in each classroom. Clara senses that
children are bored with the curriculum. “I’ve been doing a personal
study for about two months now. I call all the visitors
myself…Every new kid who comes in loves our curriculum…but kids
who have it all the time [are bored with it]. That’s why we need to
Next session, they’ll use Group’s Hands-On Bible Curriculum to
study heroes. Clara chose this topic because of the summer’s focus
on O.J. Simpson as a fallen hero.
Clara pops in every now and then at the second-hour children’s
church. She’s there during a dramatization of Jesus healing a
leper. Although she’s seen this many times, she still wipes away
the tears as the healed leper rejoices in what the Lord has done