We asked six children’s ministers to share what they wish they would’ve known in their first year of ministry. Their answers may surprise you. However, their honest responses will hopefully revive your spirit.
First-Year Advice: Grow Up
by Gerri Baker
At the age of 22, I became the Christian education director for a mid-sized church. I was a woman in an all-male environment, I was young, and I had no idea what I was doing. It quickly became necessary for me to grow in a few areas.
First, I needed to overcome my need for constant reassurance. In many ways, it became sink or swim that first year, and I definitely felt I was the only one in the pool. Through some tough bumps, I grew in my confidence in God and his call to me in ministry. I learned not to expect praise from my male counterparts, which wasn’t bestowed often, but to highly value it as a worthwhile, true compliment when given.
Second, I had to learn how to control my sensitive and emotional qualities. I had to toughen up a bit and be able to take criticism and confrontation from people within the church without emotionalism. People aren’t always so nice and kind; they can say and do hurtful things. This can blindside us because we don’t expect a church to be like this. I learned that first year that often these hurtful things aren’t about me but about how the people are themselves hurting.
Third, I had to realize I’m not Superwoman. No matter how endless my energy might seem, at some time there’s always a stopping point. Out of all the things I wish someone had taught me, at the top of my list is boundaries. This lesson alone would’ve saved me years of struggling and workaholism.
Gerri Baker is the elementary minister at a church in Indianapolis, Indiana. She has been a children’s minister for five years.
First-Year Advice: Broaden Your Ministry
by Jennifer Dimbath
I wish someone would’ve told me early on that there’s more to children’s ministry than children—that the adults who influence them require a great deal of love and care from the children’s minister.
Before I knew it, my days that had once been spent building relationships with kids around their school lunch table and going to ballgames and dance recitals were now consumed by administrative tasks. Instead of teaching children’s church, I was recruiting and equipping someone else to teach. Instead of going on outings, I was putting the dates on the calendar and empowering someone else to plan them and participate in them with the children. Suddenly, I was ministering more to adults than to children. This was not what I’d signed up for!
From Struggle to Success
I struggled for months as the children’s ministry continued to grow and I became more removed from the children. Is this really what God wanted me to do? I thought I was going to minister to children!
But as my time with the children decreased, I began to see amazing things happen within the ministry…more children were learning about Christ, and the team members were growing closer to Christ themselves as a result of their ownership and participation in ministry.
And as the children’s ministry team became more equipped, felt more encouraged, and was empowered to do ministry, our children’s spiritual lives benefited even more!
My #1 priority is still to influence the eternal lives of children. Unfortunately, I had to learn the hard way that I’m least effective when the majority of my time is spent with the children (although it’s necessary) and most effective when my time is spent empowering, equipping, and encouraging adults to reach, love, and train children for Christ!
Jennifer Dimbath is the children’s ministry director at a church in Peachtree, Georgia. She has been a children’s minister for three years.
First-Year Advice: Leadership Growth
by Ed Barnes
I assumed that I needed to do it all and be the “go to” person. That’s what I thought leadership was—being the guy in charge and taking care of all needs at all times. My wife slowly drilled into me the fact that other people can do things, too. My two children began to ask the question, “Daddy, why are you going to the office again?”
That was the kicker.
Seeing Leadership Growth
God had things worked out brilliantly, though. It was about that same time that our church staff dug into leadership growth with the help of a John Maxwell study course. My eyes were opened like they had never been before. In short, I began to find joy in mentoring more leaders and giving big decisions and projects and programs to other “very capable” volunteers. They loved it, and it was awesome to see them loving the chance to really make a difference in our church. It was no longer them “helping Ed” do ministry; it was their ministry. My feeling of success then came from helping the church really be the church.
Advice? Study the process of how to “grow” other people for the purposes of the church. Go to your local bookstore and stock up on leadership books. Study leaders in the Bible—both good and bad.
The second thing is to find a mentor. A number of people in my life have blessed me through what I’ve learned from simply by watching them and listening to them. I’ve watched their lifestyle principles lived out, listened to how they talk, and observed how they treat others. After doing this, get ready to mentor your volunteers. Find joy in being mentored and in mentoring others in leadership and ministry.
Growing your ability to lead is part of your job. Take time each day to pray for God to strengthen your leadership ability. The best part of leadership is leaving a legacy that has the footprints of God all over it.
Ed Barnes is a children’s and youth minister at a church in Canton, Ohio. He has been a children’s minister for nine years.
First-Year Advice: Stay Focused
by Diana Pendley
I love trying new things! I love doing things the way they haven’t always been done; but at the beginning that got me into a little trouble.
When I started in children’s ministry 15 years ago, I was very fortunate to begin at a place that allowed us to color outside the lines. My boss was always open to that. As long as something was in good taste, scriptural, and helpful for us to reach boys and girls for Jesus, we were allowed to try new avenues of ministry.
When I’d attend a conference, I’d come home with a legal pad of new ideas and ministry plans that other churches were doing (that always seemed better to me).
I remember not being able to sleep at night while attending a conference because I was working on plans for different ministries for our children’s ministry. It was so difficult for me to hear about these great ideas and not want to do everything.
Now I realize—through a few hiccups along the way—that not every good ministry program or plan or even awesome outreach tool is meant to be at our church. If an idea doesn’t fit with our vision statement and purposes for our church, then it probably shouldn’t be done.
Finally, with a group of faithful core leaders, lots of prayers, searching the Scriptures, knowing the heart of our pastor and ministry staff, and knowing the mission and heartbeat of our church, we came up with our children’s ministry mission and six purposes that are the measuring stick of everything we do. Now when there’s a potentially new program idea, I only have to go back to what I know of our purposes and mission. Does it fit? If yes, then great! Let’s pray about it and try it. If no, then we don’t have to waste time checking our budget and calendar or praying about it. We already know the answer!
Diana Pendley is the minister of children at a church in Plano, Texas. She has been a children’s minister for 15 years.
First-Year Advice: My Top 10 List
by Vincent Hart
1. Devotional time builds a thick skin.
Doing God’s work is hard. Doing it alone never works. Telling kids about God’s love without loving God and receiving God’s love in a daily way leaves you vulnerable.
2. All adults are little kids in big people’s bodies.
Think about what the motivation is behind something and you’ll be able to respond with the grace that’ll restore instead of reacting to someone in unhealthy conflict. Allowing people to be people, and handling occasional childishness with grace will build bridges.
3. Champion the kids.
Be their cheerleader. At a staff meeting, it isn’t reasonable to expect everyone else to stick up for what’s in the kids’ best interests. That’s your job. Learn to lead up, sideways, and down in order to build a healthy and balanced church that has reasonable expectations and plenty of resources for children’s ministry.
4. Build your team.
Never do ministry alone. Jesus didn’t, and neither should you. Replicate yourself in others and you’ll more than double your ministry potential to the community. Every adult you personally recruit to minister to kids doubles the number of kids you can reach.
5. Beware of the change trap.
Don’t make changes. Let your team make changes that you cast the vision for. If you’re working toward a common vision, and if the team believes in it to the point that they’ll sell it to others, you won’t fall into the pit of oops-I-changed-it-without-bringing-anyone-else-along. It’s a bummer of a place to dig out of.
6. Do what you say and say what you do.
When you lead, be verbose in the communication department. If you tell folks you’re going to paint the parking lot purple at 2 a.m., then you better be at the parking lot at 1:50 a.m. with a bucket of purple paint. If not, then you won’t have as many on the next painting trip and when you try to tell them what’s next, not as many will listen.
7. Cast vision constantly.
This isn’t babysitting; it’s life change! And God rewards those who get it. If people are constantly reconnected to the purpose of ministry, then they won’t get lost in the details. Tell them over and over and over and over.
8. Invest in cards, calls, and sweat equity.
Ministry is all about relationships. People need to feel God’s love. It can’t be faked or ignored. If you love on them, they come and serve.
9. Make time for people.
The people are the ministry, not the things, plans, or programs. Don’t ever let the task be more important than people. If you start to hear “I’m sorry to bother you, but…” or “If you aren’t too busy…” from your folks, you’re in a trap.
10. Keep perspective.
If you find yourself getting stressed, heading toward burnout, or losing your head because of “all the things you have to do,” then stop. Building the church of Jesus Christ is more about being than doing. Be only what God called you to be and then let God do the rest. It’s Christ’s church; let him build it through you as you enjoy his company.
Vincent Hart is the children’s pastor at a church in Round Rock, Texas. He has been a children’s minister for 11 years.
First-Year Advice: Surprised By Joy
by Patty Anderson
I began my ministry much like David, called to serve God, but not very equipped. But when you’re clearly called, you answer.
During my first year in ministry, I learned a lot. First and foremost, it’s very important that a leader keeps her priorities: God, family, and then ministry. In the beginning, I worked incessantly to prepare and lead a perfect program. In doing so, I missed out on crucial quiet time with God and fun time with family. I became so focused on my work that I forgot what’s really important. If I’m obedient to God first, shepherd my family second, then, and only then, the program is God-honoring. Sure, a successful program requires adequate preparation—but not to the point of obsession.
I also learned to delegate, delegate, and delegate in that year. Andy Stanley, in his book The Next Generation Leader, advises a leader “to focus on the three things she does best and does only that.” And that’s what I did. I focused on leading the large group, teaching the shepherds, and planning curriculum. No more and no less. In doing so, I allowed others to use their gifts and passions.
I learned to place people in areas of service based on their spiritual gifts. Assign task-oriented people responsibilities that include preparing lesson materials, shopping for supplies, and sorting materials. Ask your people-people to serve as greeters and shepherds. Allow them to do what they do best.
Know Your Kids
Another lesson I had was to survey my target market. Each quarter I take a bunch of kids out for pizza or ice cream and we just talk. We talk about what’s hot, what’s not, and what’s happening with them. I use this information to plan the curriculum—to make it radical, real, and relevant to the children who attend.
During that outing, we usually stop at the Christian bookstore. I allow pairs of kids to peruse the music section and pick out one CD to purchase. On the way back to the church, we sample the CDs in the car. The kids help me select the songs we’ll use. Because they’ve chosen the music, the kids are eager to help the other children learn the songs. Often, these same kids will choreograph the songs, too.
Glory Be to God
My last lesson is to remember that in the end, after the teaching, the cutting, the crafts, the snacks, and the sorting, the thing that matters is what God does in the lives of children. All the glory goes to God.
Patty Anderson is the minister of children and families at a church in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. She has been a children’s minister for three years.
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