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Think Strategically

Lois Lindberg

Six years ago, I was waiting to begin my second interview to become the director of children's ministries for a growing suburban church near Minneapolis, when I thought, "I don't want this job!" At the moment, I was looking at a wall of large binders, which held the registrations for 850 children. And I must admit, I felt a bit overwhelmed.

The interview went well, and that job must've been in God's plans. Today, I'm still at this church, and we now have 1,200 children in our programs. It has been an exciting learning experience, to say the least.

A critical thing I've learned is the importance of planning. Whether you're leading a children's ministry program of 12, 120, or 1,200 children, the need for planning is the same. The same basic approach to planning can work for programs of any size and at any stage -- whether the program is growing, leveling off, or declining. And effective planning can be the jump-start your program needs to leap over any hurdles to growth.

The five-year planning approach I've outlined in this article is one that has worked well for our program. It has helped us address immediate needs and define long-term goals to stay on track.

Step A: Prepare To Plan

Before you start putting a plan on paper, there are a number of questions you first need to ask that'll help you lay the groundwork for your plan. This is perhaps the most crucial step because if you gloss over it, you're creating a plan out of thin air -- a plan that's an educated guess at best. Addressing the following key issues will help you know what needs to be done, who'll do it, and how long it'll take.

Know your goals in relation to God's. The goal of all Christian education is to help people develop a relationship with our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, and to facilitate growth in that relationship. What do you believe the Bible reveals as God's will for your children's ministry? What special leading or calling -- if any -- has your church experienced in children's ministry? What do you believe God is calling your children's ministry to do and be?

Know your congregation. In God's sovereignty, you are in a certain kind of church. Whether it's denominational or nondenominational, your church has its own special flavor in theology and practices. Where is your congregation in its spiritual growth? Is prayer an integral part? What particular denominational values do you need to keep in mind for your children's ministry?

Know yourself. Where do you fit into the program? What are your strengths, weaknesses, and passions? Are you a great organizer, motivator, storyteller, or song leader? Do you have a passion for world missions, prayer, or some other aspect of Christian education? God has put these things in you for a reason. And don't discount your weaknesses. Perhaps you're shy, disorganized, or in over your head -- at times I've been all three. Jesus told Paul, "My power is made perfect in weakness" (2 Corinthians 12:9). Tell God your weaknesses, and he will provide an answer in other people, in your personal growth, or in some way that only God knows.

Know your staff. I work with a wonderful, servant-hearted ministry staff, but I've heard of churches where there's a lot of stress because servanthood is not a focus among the paid staff. You need to know how much help you'll receive from your pastor or other staff members. Is your pastor overloaded or available? What are the strengths and weaknesses of the staff around you, including support staff and custodians? What spiritual gifts do staff members have? How busy are they? Are there personality conflicts? Are they servant-hearted people, or do you need to encourage them to be servants? What are staff complaints about the program or working conditions?

When I started my job, one of the first things my boss told me was, "Oh, and by the way, I think the two people you'll be working with are burned out." I knew immediately that I needed to take care of their needs first.

Know the parents and volunteers. What are the parents and volunteers like? How involved are they? What are their needs? What are their complaints? Knowing what to expect from parents and volunteers and what they need will be crucial in putting together an effective plan.

Know the children. What are the children like? Are they reserved, bold, or, as in most cases, a combination of both? Where are they in their spiritual growth? Have they been taught the basics -- prayer, Scripture, praise, forgiveness, joy, outreach? What do they need to learn?

Know your program. List your program's strengths and weaknesses. If you're new to a program, take several of your most active volunteers out for lunch one at a time to get a realistic view. Are there curriculum problems, discipline issues, or space concerns? What are the areas of frustration? What are the strengths? What have people always dreamed of doing in the children's ministry?

Step B: Pray For The Plan

When you've answered these and any other questions God brings to mind, pray. Relying on your skills alone to create a plan isn't the best way to go about it. This is a big responsibility and an important undertaking, and your attitude in prayer will make all the difference. First, pray for yourself. I often find myself praying, "Lord, I've got this problem, and I thank you for the answer that I know you'll provide." Pray that you'll stay connected to God's plan and that God will help you prioritize. Pray that you'll focus on solutions, not on problems. Second, pray for your family. God doesn't intend for your job to interfere with what you must do for your family. Third, pray for the children. Pray that God will work through you to help children and their families grow in their faith. God wants children to learn even more than we want them to, so it's easy and important to trust that good things will happen.

Step C: Work The Plan

You're now ready to begin your five-year plan for your children's ministry. Every church's situation is different, with varied challenges and strengths. You may address only a few needs or solve only a few problems in the first year and then carry over the rest to the next year. After all, you can solve only so many problems at a time. Or you may move quickly through the first two years and start tackling your long-term goals. Typically, though, you'll follow this year-by-year progression.

First Two Years -- In the first two years, focus on addressing needs or challenges that arose in your answers to questions in Step A. You may have great ideas for new activities, but solve problems first. It may be difficult to address some areas, but God can make a way where there seems to be no way. I've faced challenges that've had me at my wits' end, and it's just about that time that I find a solution or help I'd never considered.

Third Year -- In your third year, go back to Steps A and B to re-evaluate and pray. Things change, and it's always good to question and pray again.

This year take a good look at your team -- paid staff and volunteers. Observe how people are doing with their jobs. Do you have enough help, or are people getting burned out? If your church is growing, rejoice! However, prepare to meet the challenges that growth brings.

Our church was growing at a predictable rate, so I could project new staff needs five years out. I presented a hiring plan to our senior pastor that could be implemented incrementally over the five-year period. I've gotten to the point where I can tell which activities require a paid staff member, but I had to learn that the hard way -- through a series of burned-out volunteers. If you have qualified people in your church, consider contracting with them for paid part-time help during fall start-up or vacation Bible school. A part-time staff member can also help with short-term projects such as writing a Thanksgiving lesson or speaking at a workshop.

If volunteers must always be used because you can't afford staff, you may still be burning them out. Consider restructuring an activity and the volunteer's job with job sharing or team teaching. Keep volunteer jobs reasonable. There may be times when God says no in certain situations for the sake of the volunteers.

Fourth Year -- Go back to Steps A and B to re-evaluate and pray. Once you have basic challenges solved and staff and volunteer situations stabilized, you can set specific goals for expansion of your programs. Consider things such as tutoring programs, after-school programs, and social activities. We expanded our children's program into two age-specific groups: KidVenture for first- and second-graders and K.I.C.K. (Kids In Christ's Kingdom) for third- through fifth-graders. Of course, we hired new staff for this expansion. We started a Good News Bearers program that brings third- through fifth-graders together to act out Bible stories in a fun way. And our year ends with a huge Bible trivia game that shows how much children learn when they act out the stories. Our parents were amazed! We also started a Read the Good Book program using charts of Bible storybooks to encourage children to read. There are so many great ideas for helping children to learn about God. Check out more than 10 years' worth of ideas online at www.cmmag.com.

Fifth Year -- Return to Steps A and B to re-evaluate and pray. When you have a well-developed program, it's time to place greater emphasis on encouraging parents to share their faith with their children. Parents are children's main teachers, and most of them need to be helped. While adult education classes are great for helping parents grow in their faith, sometimes they alone don't give parents the necessary tools to share faith with their children. We've developed a program called Not 2 Young for 2-year-olds and their parents to help get parents started in the basics of praying, reading Bible stories, and talking about God with their children. We also added a Home Faith Connection position on our church staff to better help parents become aware of ideas and resources.

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Of course what you do with your five years depends on what has already been done and what is yet to be done. So pray about your plan. Pray for a good attitude and an open heart. Be flexible for God's sake so he can use you. Be inflexible about the message of the gospel -- it doesn't change. And be thankful! God wants your program to be the best -- even more than you want it to be. You can trust that God will be there for you.

Facing Challenges

Here are common challenges and suggested solutions, but don't forget that God is your greatest resource for help.

Creating Positive Attitudes -- If your staff or volunteers aren't servant-hearted people, then lead by example. It's so important that the attitude of servanthood is pervasive. Be willing to help volunteers with the little things. If a teacher can't find extra pencils and has been told three times where they are, cheerfully show the teacher again if she asks. Are parents registering late? God wants their kids there, and if God is flexible, we can be too. Leading by example may take awhile, but the joy of being a servant is contagious.

Attracting Volunteers -- The key to getting volunteers is to make volunteering as easy as you can. We need over 225 teachers each year; that's no small challenge. However, it has gotten easier to get volunteers as word has spread that we make volunteering easy.

How do we make it easy? We have resource people who get everything ready for a lesson for each grade level. If a teacher needs 10 red hearts for a lesson, we call on a group of volunteers who don't want to teach but are willing to prepare lesson materials, making less work for the teachers. The teachers know we'll prepare whatever materials they need. We put their materials in a specific place so teachers can quickly pick them up when they get to church. It's a lot of work for our staff, but it's worth it.

We also give teachers a break once in a while. We have a Prayer Day in the fall that teachers don't have to prepare for; they just have to be with their classes. We prepare large-group activities and then provide a few simple activities and discussion questions for teachers to lead in their classrooms. On the first Sunday after Christmas break, we have a half-hour video for the younger children and a Christian, moral-based video for the older children. Again, our staff prepares activities and discussion questions. We also have a Soul Olympics Day in February. Our staff prepares five Bible games for teachers and children to play. I've received many notes of appreciation from teachers who say they like the breaks.

Addressing a Space Crunch -- There are two ways to handle this. You can find more space or find creative ways to use what you have. When I started at the church in Minneapolis, we had 11 small classrooms and 850 kids. We had seven ministry sessions every week -- three on Wednesday night, one on Saturday night, and three on Sunday morning. On Wednesday evening we used the sanctuary, moving chairs around to make eight small group spaces, and divided the fellowship hall with room dividers to make eight more spaces. We've since added new children's ministry space, but with our continued growth we still need seven hours to make it work. If you're crunched for space, put your creativity muscles to work.

In all the challenges you face, be thankful. Thank God for any needs you've met or problems you've solved -- and for having laid a foundation for the future.


Lois Lindberg is a director of children's ministry in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Please keep in mind that phone numbers, addresses, and prices are subject to change.

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