Dale Hudson & Patty Smith are leaders focused on innovation who are reinventing the future of children’s ministry. Listen in on their conversation.
Children’s Ministry Magazine asked two of children’s ministry’s most respected leaders, KidMin Conference keynote speakers Dale Hudson and Patty Smith, to sit down for a real ministry talk. Don’t miss this fascinating conversation!
Dale Hudson is the founder and president of Relevant Children’s Ministry, which helps churches developand grow thriving children’s ministries. He’s the author or co-author of several books, including If Disney Ran Your Children’s Ministry. He’s also the author of the relevantchildrensministry.com blog.
Patty Smith is a sought-after speaker for national and international training events including Children’s Pastors Conference, Group’s training events, the Imagine Conference, and other denominational programs. Patty is director of children and family ministries in the Tennessee Conference of the United Methodist Church where she equips kidmins in more than 400 churches.
What are some challenges you see leaders struggling with now in the midst of cultural change?
Patty: We tend to approach new challenges with existing solutions. Ideas that solved the problems of yesteryear rarely address the problems ministries face today. Though the gospel remains the same, culture shifts at a more rapid pace. Too often we think that incremental changes can accommodate these shifts. We spend too much time doing what we already do better instead of creating something we’ve never done before. To create something that doesn’t yet exist requires different skill sets that many leaders don’t have, such as creative problem-solving techniques, innovation mapping to locate gaps in organizational innovation, and strategic planning. Most often these skill sets and innovation systems aren’t taught in seminary or college.
Dale: I would agree with you. All of us face changes or challenges that we can’t navigate alone. That’s why it’s so important to take a team approach to leading. I often say, “The smartest person in the room is the room.” It’s important to surround yourself with leaders who can help you navigate changes and challenges well. This includes having older, wiser leaders in your life whom you can call for advice.
At the same time, it’s also important to have young leaders who can help you stay in touch with current culture. And if you’ve hit a wall, it might mean having someone from the outside come in and help you with problem-solving and strategic planning. Trainings like the upcoming Children’s Ministry Local Training are also a great place to gather fresh insight and ideas from other people to help you navigate change well. The good news is that none of us has to lead alone.
What will children’s ministries need to do to remain viable in a culture that’s shifting at a more rapid pace?
Patty: To remain viable, children’s ministries must overcome the fear of change. Doing what we’ve always done will be the death knell of the church. Change is inevitable if we want to remain relevant, but superficial change never works. To change, children’s ministers will need a systematic approach to discover God’s next faithful step for their ministries. An examination of their church’s identity and internal and external context will produce necessary information that’s needed to make new critical and creative changes (that may still include the traditions that worked for the church in the past). This method of traditioned innovation will uphold the sacred underpinnings of the ministry while creating viable pathways for the future.
Dale: What you said is so true. The words “traditioned innovation” really resonate with me. This reminds me that we should be anchored to the truth but geared for the times. Be thankful for the past… honor the past…learn from the past…but don’t let it dictate the future. Remember the last three letters of trend are “e-n-d.” Ministries bent solely on preserving the past will struggle; ministries committed to moving forward to reach the next generation will succeed.
Speaking of changing, how has your leadership evolved and changed over the years?
Patty: When I first began in ministry, I focused heavily on developing programs. Each year we tried to do something new and fresh. Though that process produced successful ministry engagement, it put a huge strain on our ministry teams and volunteers. Today I spend most of my time developing people. We develop goals and objectives, personal improvement plans, and practice new skills. Through this time together, leaders become more effective and proficient. By investing in them, they have an increased capacity to lead well and disciple other leaders.
Dale: For me personally, the biggest shift has been realizing that leadership is all about relationships. Early on, in my passion to “conquer the world for Christ,” I didn’t always put people first. I should’ve spent more time collaborating and less time “conquering.” I had to learn that people don’t follow a title; they follow someone they know loves and cares about them. It’s helped me realize my heart must be about using the ministry to build people, rather than using people to build the ministry.
Dale, here’s a question for you. If you could go back to visit yourself in your first year of ministry, what advice would you give your younger self?
Dale: “Get out while you are still sane.” Just kidding. You have to keep your sense of humor, right? Actually, that would be it. Don’t get so caught up in the journey that you don’t take time to enjoy the journey. Slow down a little. Take more time to rejoice in what God’s doing. Laugh more and stress out less. God’s got this; it’s his ministry.
What advice would you give Patty the Rookie?
Patty: I’d allow myself the freedom to fail and forgo the attempts at perfection. In my early years, I was so afraid to make a mistake. I felt like everything I did had to be perfect. In my desire for perfection, I neglected to see the effect this obsession had on others. Some people felt like their contributions weren’t good enough. I missed out on several family events. I was exhausted. In trying to be perfect, I failed. After that first year, my mentor Dick Wills reminded me that only Jesus is perfect. To this day, I hear his wise words: “Offer God your best, and he’ll do the rest.” It sounds cliché, but I continue to live by it.
What are some of the biggest mistakes you see leaders making?
Patty: Many leaders lack significant leadership development plans. To be a good leader is to be a growing leader. Leaders need to be lifelong learners who constantly develop their craft. Often they spend too much time developing their ministries and neglect themselves. Leaders should designate at least four hours each week for personal and professional development. Reading books (including some outside children’s ministry), taking classes, and participating in leadership groups are worthwhile and effective ways to grow new skills and increase leadership capacity. When children’s leaders increase their leadership skills, they grow themselves and their teams.
Dale: Amen on that. It reminds me of the oft-repeated saying: “If I had six hours to chop down a tree, I’d spend the first four hours sharpening my ax.” If we focus first on growing us, I believe the natural overflow will be the ministry growing. Patty, you and I both spend time with children’s ministry leaders around the country.
What are some positive things you are seeing in the kidmin world?
Patty: One of the great things I’m seeing is more intentional collaboration. In the past, an unintended environment of competition among children’s ministries existed. Leaders felt pressured to outdo the ministries of the churches in their neighborhood. Large attendance numbers, elaborate ministry settings, and over-the-top programming drove ministry goals. Some leaders also felt like underdogs who didn’t have as many resources or volunteers as the big churches. Today I see more leaders focusing on ministry collaboration as they strive to introduce children and families to Jesus. They’re learning from one another and supporting one another. Resources, ideas, and programming are designed and utilized for the benefit of the neighborhood, not solely one church.
Dale: One of the great things I’m seeing is children’s ministry leaders giving kids the opportunity to be the church now instead of waiting until they’re in youth ministry or even adulthood. Churches are being very intentional about providing serving opportunities for kids, which we know is a key part of discipleship. I’m seeing churches do fewer “fun, all-about-me” activities and more serving and giving activities. This helps accelerate kids’ spiritual growth where in the past it was delayed.
What final words of advice would you give those reading this?
Patty: Spend lots of time in prayer. As children’s ministry leaders, we tend to do for God instead of be with God. Listen to the Holy Spirit. Be attentive to the nudges you feel. And make sure you attend worship every week. Missing worship because you don’t have volunteers isn’t okay. Work with your pastor or volunteers to ensure you worship. You cannot give to others what you don’t have.
Dale: The advice I would add to that is to keep a humble spirit. The longer you’re in ministry, the easier it is to “wing it” and not depend on God. If you’re not careful, you can begin to rely on your own strength, abilities, knowledge, and experience. I was talking with a new children’s leader just today and he told me he was nervous about the position he’s preparing to step into. He wondered if he could do it. I shared with him that his nervousness is a good thing. It means he’ll have to depend on God rather than himself. I encouraged him to always keep that nervousness. That doesn’t mean you’re not confident, but it does mean that your confidence must be in God. I guess you could call it “Godfidence.” Walk in “Godfidence” and he can use you to reach the next generation for him.