Stewarding Relationships, NOT Filling Slots

Tapping into gifts from your faith community

young child playing in an astronaut helmet

Before I started working at Luther Seminary as a Program Coordinator, I was a Director of Children’s Ministry in a large congregation. I learned very quickly that Children’s Ministry is about building relationships with parents, caregivers, and congregation members as much as it is about building relationships with kids. And once you have relationships, they must be stewarded carefully, because providing safe spaces for young children to encounter the living God is holy and important work. Children’s Ministry also requires a lot of volunteer leaders, and parents of young children are stretched super thin and exhausted, so how do you fill all your slots?

STOP trying to fill slots 

Shift the way you think about volunteer leaders, and focus on their humanity. Tap into passions and talents. Invite potential leaders to do what they love, and align your ministry with the passions and talents of your leaders. This is really hard to do, because it is a totally different way of thinking about ministry, but on the other hand, begging people to teach Sunday school doesn’t work because teaching Sunday school is not even on the list of things they would love to do. Ever. And, we’re talking about sharing God’s love with children, here—so we do not want reluctant leaders!

So I tried a new approach. Instead of sending out emails asking for help filling all the open slots I had, I spent time getting to know people. I asked them about themselves and their families, pets, and interests. If they were parents with young children, I asked them to tell me all about their kids. And I asked everyone this question: 

 “If you could spend your days doing things that bring you joy, what would you do?” 

In the beginning, people looked at me with a moderate level of suspicion because of my role. They were waiting for me to say something like, “Your child’s Sunday school class needs a teacher—will you please prayerfully consider this and join our team?” Instead, I got to know people and learned about their loves and their talents without asking them for anything. I learned that some people love being outside, and some love baking. One person loved their work as a meteorologist and another loved being an optometrist. One woman loved fostering dogs and another was passionate about working with kids with special needs. And, the stories of passions went on and on. 

Sticky note extravaganza!

I started wondering what kinds of passions and talents were embodied in the members of my Sunday school leaders, and then I started wondering how we might be able to provide opportunities for them to share their passions in Children’s Ministry. At my very first Sunday school leader meeting, I decided to try to find out. I invited all the leaders to tell me about the types of activities they really enjoy by having a Sticky Note Extravaganza!

  1. Tape giant sheets of paper on the walls around the room. 
  2. At the top of each sheet, write broad category headings like: Science, Art, Music, Theatre, Reading, Shopping, Organizing, Working with Kids, Working Behind the Scenes, Christmas, Parties, Sewing, etc.
  3. Give each meeting participant a stack of sticky notes, and a writing utensil.
  4. Introduce the activity by telling people you want to get to know them a little better by learning more about what brings them joy.
  5. Ask each participant to write their name and contact info on a few sticky notes, and add a sticky note to each large sheet of paper with a category that brings them joy.

The Sunday school leaders loved this! And—of course—they all added their names to different sheets of paper. It was a stress-free, zero-judgment zone. People with shared interests found each other, and my imagination about what might be possible within the context of Children’s Ministry was sparked. 

Spreadsheets and Google Forms: Organizational nirvana

The next step in this activity turned out to be the most important. I took all the large sheets with the sticky note names on them, and created a spreadsheet like this one to keep track of the information. (Google Forms also work really well!) Then, because shopping is my least favorite activity and I had 15 people who love shopping, the next time I had to purchase supplies I contacted those 15 people to find out who could do the shopping in the time allowed. I had three people available, so I divided the list three ways and within 24 hours I had all the supplies I asked for. One unexpected benefit: the people who did the shopping often donated the supplies, despite encouragement to submit a receipt for reimbursement. I don’t know how many times I heard, “I can go shopping. I like it. I’m happy to do it. Just please don’t ask me to be in a room with a group of kids. I can be part of my kid’s Sunday school experience this way.”

Sharing passions and talent

After collecting all of the information during the Sunday school leader meeting, and continuing to have conversations to get to know people better, I was able to invite people to participate in Children’s Ministry in ways they never imagined they could—and in ways that were transformative for them and for the kids. Relationships were stewarded carefully and faith grew!

When we covered the story of Creation, I wanted to come at it from a new angle so I invited the woman who fosters dogs to come talk with the kids about what that is like. She was so excited to be asked! She made a PowerPoint presentation with pictures of all the dogs she has fostered, told stories about each of the dogs and their forever homes, and even brought one of her dogs in to meet the kids. Then she helped the kids make pet-safe toys for cats and dogs that they could take home to their pets or leave with her to take to the animal shelter. 

We covered the story of Jesus calming the storm, and I invited our meteorologist to come and teach the kids about storms. He brought all sorts of props with him, and taught the kids about weather and what it is like to be a meteorologist. The kids loved it!

After the first Sunday school leader meeting a woman approached me very carefully and asked if she could organize our supply room. She loved to organize, had seen the condition of the supply room, and knew she could help. I responded with an enthusiastic YES and she was thrilled. She brought her preschool-aged daughter with her and made calm out of chaos. 

A final story: One summer, we had a VBS with a Space Camp theme. After I shared the VBS kick-off Children’s Message in worship, a man in his 80’s approached me to tell me he was a retired test-pilot and had flown with and knew all of the astronauts who were part of the very first moon landing. I was blown away! And, I invited him to share his story with our VBS kids during the summer. Again, he was thrilled to be asked. It was an amazing experience for the kids and for him—and one that nobody would have had if I was focused on filling slots. 

How might you steward the relationships with everyone in your care? What hidden talents are waiting to be uncovered? Who is waiting for an invitation? Where is God’s Spirit blowing?

  • Arlene Flancher

    I have landed at Luther Seminary as a program coordinator for CYF and Stewardship after working for 12 years as a medical technologist in hospital labs, 15 years as a product developer and project manager in publishing at 1517 Media, and nearly 9 years as a director of children and family ministries in a congregation. My passion is ministry with kids and families - especially kids ages birth - 6th grade. My favorite church season is Advent. No question. When I'm not working, I will be walking outside with my dog in all kinds of weather, teaching piano lessons, reading, binging on Netflix, mentoring kids, seeking natural beauty, trying to garden, meeting friends for coffee or lunch, or spending time with husband of 38 years and our expanding family.

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