Clara Olson is a children’s ministry leader who says every day: Speak, Lord! Your servant listens!
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.
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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 exist.
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 kids.”
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 Bible school.
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 alongside us.”
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 change.”
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 for him.