Spend any time in children’s ministry, and you’re bound to come across one of these four ministry nightmares. Here’s how to handle each situation like a pro.
Former president and general Dwight D. Eisenhower is credited with saying, “Plans are worthless, but planning is everything.” Our measured and prayerful plans appear brilliant on paper, but what do you do when they unravel the minute they’re exposed to real life? Read on to discover powerful fixes to four common children’s ministry nightmares.
Ministry Night #1: You Choose the Wrong Curriculum
It’s just weeks into the new quarter and your teachers agree: They abhor the new curriculum. Some of the experienced teachers set the materials aside and are freelancing their lessons. Others threaten to quit. You’re exasperated: You love the curriculum, but it’s frustrating teachers before they even use it with kids.
When teachers develop an allergic reaction to a curriculum, it’s usually due to one of two reasons. Some curriculum problems lie in the mechanics of the lesson plans (there are too many supplies to gather, too few activities per lesson or the activities aren’t reaching the children at their developmental level). The second problem is more serious, though, because then the problem doesn’t reside in the leader guide but in the minds of your team members. When teachers complain that the Bible lessons “don’t go deep enough,” “dumb down the Bible,” or are “too focused on fun,” you have a training issue. Your teachers haven’t fully bought into the large body of research that proves our brains work best stimulated by activity, conversation, and joy.
So ask yourself these two questions:
- Are the complaints about the curriculum mechanical or philosophical?
- What could I have done to increase teacher buy-in when choosing a new curriculum?
In this situation, you need to take swift action, regardless of whether the problem lies with the curriculum or with your teachers. Few things will damage team morale more quickly than the belief that you’re poorly equipping them to teach children.
Use these quick solutions to fix a curriculum’s mechanics.
- Recruit a ministry supply manager to reduce the prep time of your teachers by purchasing and placing the appropriate supplies in each room, each week.
- Purchase collections of Bible skits, games, and crafts your teachers can use to add punch to lesson plans.
There are no quick fixes when you find your teachers at odds with your convictions regarding educational philosophy. Worse, frustration creates guarded and defensive volunteers. Your strongest short-term fix is to affirm the relationships you have with your teachers. Acknowledge their feelings, and concede the team should’ve been more involved in the curriculum selection process.
It’s time to strengthen your team’s buy-in, and the process will be slow. Allow for emotions to subside, and then carefully select a team who’ll help you shop for a new curriculum. Train your team on your educational philosophy before you open a single catalog. Only then, ask the team to give input on your next curriculum decision. You won’t be able to bring everyone along, but the odds are your volunteers will feel respected by the process.
Ministry Night #2. You Put the Wrong Person in the Wrong Role
John seemed like a promising first-grade teacher, but you overhear children complain about having to be in his room. Meanwhile, John leaves with a defeated look each week. And Beth? She was a model nursery volunteer, so you invited her to become your nursery coordinator. But she struggles with the administrative aspects of the job.
You’ve directly addressed each situation and offered coaching, but you’ve come to the conclusion that these volunteers simply aren’t right for their roles.
Your next step is to determine how much time you have to address the situation. If you’re conflict avoidant, know that you’re prone to want to inflate the amount of time you have before taking action. So ask yourself:
- Is child safety at stake?
- Is there a natural time to allow this volunteer to step down on his or her own?
- What’s the end date of the person’s job description, if any?
- Do you have enough volunteer depth to readily replace this volunteer?
Unfortunately, you find yourself at the point where you must have a hard conversation with your volunteer. Remember, you’re having a conversation with someone who’s invested hours and emotions in his or her attempt to serve others. This person deserves to be treated with dignity and kindness. Affirm the volunteer’s frustrations, but remind the person that these frustrations confirm the role isn’t a good fit. Brainstorm alternative placements where the volunteer might thrive. Perhaps John would be more effective at teaching a younger group or serving as an assistant to a lead teacher. Maybe Beth would be better suited in her old role with the additional responsibility of orienting new nursery volunteers. If necessary, brainstorm opportunities outside your ministry.
It’s entirely possible your volunteer won’t agree with your assessment, despite your previous interventions, and believes he is capable of performing his duties. This makes things more difficult, but gently restate your decision and offer support.
Volunteer mismatches are impossible to eliminate. However, there are steps you can take to reduce their frequency.
- When possible, add a one-month volunteer-shadowing period to allow your prospective volunteer to get an accurate picture of the position.
- Many churches offer classes that help members discover their spiritual gifts. Make it a point to use these spiritual gifts inventories as part of your volunteer screening process.
- Remain accessible to your volunteer so you can become aware of problems before they start.
- Evaluate your training systems. Are you giving volunteers all the support they need to be successful?
Ministry Nightmare #3. Parents Are Complaining
Grumbling is in the air. You hear from colleagues and volunteers that there’s unrest about your children’s ministry. You know no ministry is perfect, but the level of discontent about the kids’ ministry has you feeling insecure.
The first step toward health is joining that conversation, no matter how uncomfortable you feel. Set a meeting with concerned parents and volunteers. Avoid being defensive. Instead, listen to parents’ concerns—and look for areas where you agree. Once you sense parents feel heard, invite them to join the solution side of the problem. Solicit their advice, and ask them to partner with you so you can fix the problem together.
The most effective way to avoid being the subject of others’ criticism is to routinely evaluate the health of your ministry before there’s unrest. Create a process where you conduct a S.W.O.T. analysis of your ministry one department at a time at set intervals. Invite parents and volunteers to identify the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats to the health of that area. Prioritize your action steps, make the improvements, and then tackle the next area or department. Once you’ve worked your way through your entire children’s ministry, start the process all over again. Over time, you’ll have built a culture of excellence—something any parent can appreciate.
Ministry Nightmare #4. The Check-In System Isn’t Working
You don’t need to be told that your hospitality/check-in system makes the first impression of your ministry each Sunday. But that impression is frustrating you. Check-in nightmares come in myriad shapes and sizes. Perhaps families fidget in long lines. Or volunteers are slack in enforcing the procedures. Or technical glitches mean the system is unreliable.
Ask yourself whether your check-in nightmare is caused by one of these issues:
- Being short-staffed or not having enough check-in stations,
- A lack of volunteer buy-in,
- Technology issues.
If your nightmare is the result of a volunteer shortage, it’s time to get on the phone. Being part of the check-in team is a great volunteer opportunity for someone intimidated by the prospect of working with kids. Consider talking to your wider church team to see whether you can borrow temporary volunteers to help while you recruit new team members.
When volunteer buy-in is the issue, you need to quickly elevate the value of the check-in system, no matter how simple or sophisticated it is. Use email, direct conversations, and five-minute team huddles to remind the volunteers how the check-in system protects children and volunteers while allowing families to worship distraction-free.
If technology is the culprit, whether it’s a spotty Internet connection or slow computers, create a backup system. Keep a stack of security wristbands and paper attendance sheets at the desk in case technology fails you.
You can increase volunteer buy-in by regularly training on your security procedures and why they’re in place. Collect stories of how the priority your church places on keeping kids safe attracts visiting parents. Encourage your team leaders to politely but firmly confront volunteers who become lax.
If your issues are technological, chances are you don’t have the money in your budget to upgrade your computers and Internet connection between now and next Sunday. Explain the situation to your church’s financial officers to see what they can offer now. Then build the necessary upgrades into next year’s budget.
You can do this. Face down your ministry nightmares with bravery. When you’re wide awake and ready to tackle unexpected problems, you’ll find yourself and your ministry in a stronger place.
Larry Shallenberger is a frequent contributor to Children’s Ministry Magazine and the author of Lead the Way God Made You: Discovering Your Leadership Style in Children’s Ministry.