Making Church Websites Family-Friendly

I spend a decent amount of time on church websites, due to the nature of my job. Some are brilliant. Some are awful. Most are … okay.

Most parents of small children are under 40 – this means they’re Millennials or even Gen Z, and have had internet access since their early teens, at the latest. You can pretty much count on your church being Googled before parents rock up at the door – and whether or not they give you a try may depend on what they get when they Google you.

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I had to Google photos of someone Googling and this is the most meta thing that has ever happened to me.

Here are a few tips:

  1. Make your service times easy to find. On the front page of your site if possible. And make sure they’re up to date, including special events. A family may feel more comfortable coming to your Crib Service or your Harvest Festival than to a normal Sunday morning service, so make sure those dates are up there.
  2. Include pictures of children, if possible – and definitely of people. I was on a church website recently that had about 30 beautiful photos of every part of their stunning building. But nothing showing that this was a community. If you can show pictures of children, particularly, this reassures anxious parents that your community values children and they’ll be welcomed if they come. (Of course, you need permission from parents/carers for any photos you do use.)redbourn
  3. “New here? Here’s what to expect!” The Revd Ally Barrett has a wonderful blog post here about why you should include a section on your website about what to expect if you’ve never been to church before – and how you can make that section work. Many parents may only have been to church occasionally before, but feel a desire to come now they have children. If they can read up ahead of time about what the experience is like, they will feel more prepared and less hesitant. It also sends the message that your church is open to newcomers – they won’t be expected to know everything. In our own Diocese, St Paul’s Letchworth has a good example of this kind of page.
  4. Christenings! Most church websites have information about baptisms, weddings, and funerals. Great! However, this may be hidden away under some tab with insider language like “Life Events.” How would I know, if I wasn’t a church professional used to that kind of language, that that’s where to look for information about christening my child? And while we’re on the subject, the word “christening” is much more familiar to society at large than “baptism” is. If your website uses “christening,” you’re more likely to come up in Google searches in the first place, and much more likely to get people to click on that tab and contact you. You can then use baptism preparation to help broaden the parents’ understandings of the different words used to describe this sacrament. But don’t put them off before they’ve even started by using language they won’t understand or won’t search for.

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    A smiling vicar, a cute baby, clear and simple descriptions of what happens – a good Christenings page on a church website.
  5. Connect the dots. If you have things for children during the week – toddler groups, Messy Church, Scout groups, etc – make sure these are prominent and easy to find. Don’t hide your lights under bushels. Your church website isn’t just about the history of your building, and Sunday morning – it’s the front door of your whole community.

Any good website tips I’ve forgotten? Leave them in the comments!

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Employing a Children’s/Families Worker

This is one of the things I get asked about a lot. As a general guide, you can’t beat Paul Godfrey and Nic Sheppard’s book on the subject, which you can find here.  Usually, if you’re in St Albans Diocese, we’ll send you a free copy if you ask.

And for questions about terms ofemployment employment, supervision, pay and benefits, etc., you should always go to an HR professional and not your Diocesan Children’s Ministry Advisor.

But here are a few of the things I’ve learned in advising at least a dozen churches in this process over the years.

(As always, there are exceptions. There are no hard and fast rules.)

Motivations:

Think about why you’re hiring someone now. Is it because you have no children and need to build up from scratch? In this case, you’ll probably need a visionary leader with entrepreneurial skills, who can help get things off the ground, help existing leadership to inspire the congregation, make changes to worship, programmes, etc, to make them more child-and-family-friendly, and probably start entirely new initiatives. Or is it because you have a great team of volunteers and just need someone who can pull it all together, support them, make sure everyone’s singing from the same hymn sheet, and resource and equip the volunteers? In this case, you’re probably looking for a facilitator, an encourager, a manager, and a mentor. Those are two very different people.

Very few people have skills to be a pastor, a visionary leader, a detail-oriented team manager, a mentor, a facilitator, an administrator, a teacher, a liturgist, a specialist in children’s spirituality, a theologian, a preacher, a musician, and a communicator/marketing person who can get your church noticed in the community. Yet when I go into meetings and ask “what are you hoping for from this appointment?” I often get a list of skills that include all of those and more.

Think of the top three skills that you’re looking for, and prioritise those. A children’s worker cannot be all things to all people, and cannot singlehandedly save your church. Especially if yours is a part time appointment.

Which brings me to …

The Tooth-to-Tail Ratio:

This is something I heard from a friend who served in the military – in deploying personnel, the army considers how many “behind the scenes” people you need (the tail) for every one soldier on the front line.

The same is true in terms of how you deploy your time. Children’s ministry – especially in smaller churches without large staff teams – requires a lot of behind the scenes TIME for every one hour of actual contact with children.

Here’s an example: a family whose child was baptised at your church a few months ago walks through the door on Sunday morning. They have three children – the baby, and then a four-year-old and a seven-year-old. The four-year-old goes to your Diddy Disciples Group and the seven-year-old goes to your Junior Church. The baby stays in church with its parents. That’s a total of three hours of contact – one with each child.

What’s it taken to do this?

A welcoming phone conversation at the initial baptism enquiry, sending the baptism form (with a box to tick for permission to be added to the mailing list), preparing and running baptism preparation alongside the vicar, sending multiple follow-up emails reminding them of other things happening in the church, recruiting volunteers to run those Sunday morning groups, training the volunteers so that Junior Church is spiritually nurturing and not just “here’s the moral, here’s a colouring sheet, done,” setting up the Junior Church spaces on Sunday morning, buying resources for Junior Church, planning the session you’re running, working with the congregation as a whole to make sure they won’t stare daggers at the family if the baby makes a tiny bit of noise, developing and maintaining a Pray and Play area for the baby (if you have such a space), and encouraging people to talk to new families after church.

That’s a LOT of work for three hours of in-person contact.

And remember that any community contacts – schools, uniformed organisations, etc – take huge amounts of time to build before you start to see any real results.

So if you’re hiring someone for sixteen hours a week, that’s maybe eight hours of actual programme time – Sunday morning, and one other thing every week. A 16-hour contract is Sunday morning, toddler group, and maybe some special events at Christmas and Easter. So often, I have seen jobs that claim to be 16 or 20 hours a week, which expect the person to run Junior Church (and all its volunteers), Messy Church every month, Toddler Group every week, build relationships with schools and do assemblies and support RE learning, do community events and holiday clubs, plan and lead All-Age services, start teatime Sunday services for families, and more. That’s a full-time job. Allow at least one hour behind the scenes for every one hour actually leading something. Building mailing lists, keeping in touch, planning and publicising events, and building relationships with the community all take time.

As a general rule, full-time posts get more applications. If you can’t afford a full-time worker, be prepared for the fact it may take a while to fill the post.

Boundaries Are Good:

I’ve seen several posts that are advertised as providing housing – sometimes in a parishioner’s spare room.

First of all, if you’re providing housing as part of compensation, speak to an HR professional. This can count as payment in kind, and there are tax implications.

Secondly, while I respect the generosity and hospitality inherent in the offer of accommodation, I would advise against providing it with a parishioner, or in the house of another member of staff. This blurs the boundaries between work and home, and limits the children’s worker’s ability to relax and be off duty.

The relationship with parishioners is a pastoral one – imagine if the vicar stayed in the home of someone they pastored, 24/7. You would need to continually be in “vicar” mode. That boundary between pastoral role and human being is one that needs careful protection, or burnout can happen.

Also, despite best intentions, sometimes living arrangements don’t work out. And it’s easy for a problematic domestic situation to then spill over into how the parishioner and children’s worker treat each other at church/work, as well as at home. The end result of this can be factions, cliques, rumours, blame, etc.

And finally, it’s not healthy for the children’s worker to be so dependent on someone outside official line management and complaints procedures.

Providing housing in the home of a parishioner or fellow member of staff could end up creating problems that require a huge amount of time, sensitivity, and money to sort out.

Speaking of Dual Roles … :

When I became a children’s worker, I lost my priest.

Because I was now worshipping at the church where I served, and the priest there was now my boss.

There are things I would happily tell my priest that I wouldn’t feel comfortable telling my boss. So when they became the same person, it presented a difficulty. I ended up with nowhere to go for spiritual and pastoral support. For years.

Think of what opportunities your children’s worker will have for spiritual and pastoral support that are not provided by their line manager.

And think about what opportunities there will be for retreat and reflection – especially if your children’s worker is leading a Junior Church group almost every Sunday. The same problems that can arise with clergy – always leading, never simply receiving – can affect children’s workers. But they don’t have the official support networks that clergy do (which are often meagre enough, let’s be honest).

In St. Albans Diocese, the SIM (Support In Your Ministry) scheme is available to paid children’s and youth workers as well as to clergy. And Sheldon retreat centre offers its minister’s discount to lay ministers as well as ordained ones. But it’s also worth thinking about who in your area could be on hand to be your children’s worker’s go-to person for pastoral care – it could be someone in your own clergy team who isn’t their supervisor, or it could be a neighbouring priest, or someone else.

Practicalities:

Where to advertise: don’t overlook your local area, especially if you’re a village or rural area. But we will also put your advert on our Diocesan website and social media, and on the Going 4 Growth national church website (especially if it’s full time). If you have a budget to pay for advertising the post, then consider Youth and Childrenswork Magazine and/or The Church Times.

How much to pay: The Living Wage Foundation recommends an hourly rate of at least £9 nationally and £10.55 in London, to meet the actual cost of living. Considering that you are looking for specialist skills and possibly for anti-social hours, I recommend you do better than this if at all possible. Most posts I see are between £20,000 and £27,000 for a full-time role. This is an enormous sacrifice for most churches, and still provides barely enough for someone to really live on. That disconnect is a problem nationally.

How to choose: I recommend including children in the hiring process if at all possible – in drafting the job description and person specification, and in interviewing. You will definitely get a different perspective and a better understanding of their needs.

If you don’t have a clear front-runner, or you have someone towards whom you’re feeling, “well, I guess they’ll do, I suppose,” then don’t appoint. Go through the interview process again. It may feel like you’re failing, but it’s much better to hire the right person after six months than the wrong person immediately.

Book recommendation

I’m going to recommend a book that is not for children, not about children, not about children’s ministry, not about church, doesn’t mention God once, and which may be one of the most relevant books for ministry you can get.

It’s called “That’s Not How We Do It Here!” (sound familiar?). The subtitle is “a story about how organisations rise and fall – and can rise again.”meerkats

It’s an easy read – I read it in an afternoon – because mostly, it’s a story about meerkats. The meerkat colony’s habitat is changing, there are new threats, and the old way of doing things isn’t working. So young meerkat Nadia leaves the group and finds a new colony with some fresh ideas – but their way of doing things has problems too. Can Nadia and her fellow meerkats figure out the “best of both worlds” and help both colonies function well and adapt to change?

Definitely one for your PCC to read and discuss, if possible. I have a copy in the office, so do let me know if you’d like to borrow it and we can post it to you!

 

Messy Church – Playfully Serious

For those of you who may not yet have seen the research from Church Army on Messy Church, called “Playfully Serious,” please find it attached below. It’s very useful in helping churches discern what you’re doing Messy Church for, how to do it well, how to make it church instead of just entertainment, and so on.

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CA Messy Church Playfully Serious

Creation/Harvest Story Bag

We now have a Creation/Harvest Story Bag for our Resource Centre – churches can borrow it for Junior Church, Messy Church, assemblies, clubs, All-Age Worship, or anything else. The Resource Centre is open at Holywell Lodge, in St. Albans, from 9-5, Monday to Friday – however, if you can’t get down here, let me know and we’ll send out an APB to the staff to find someone who’s driving your way and can deliver the item.

The story bag contains:

Bible stories and non-fiction books related to the story of Creation and the themes of Harvest Festival

Toys to help explore the six days of creation – a light-up sun for “let there be light,” fish and birds, green growing things, animals, and people!

A toy farm to help connect with Harvest Festival and thank God for the earth and all that sustains us.

You can have the bag available for free play, base your entire programme around using it, or anything in between. The games included can be played according to the rules, or they can simply be used to play and build. It’s designed to be as flexible as possible.

The bag will be available to borrow within the next few days. We also have story bags for Pentecost, Easter, Christmas, Water stories, Shepherds, and more – as well as a great variety of Godly Play stories, books, and other materials.

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Song Sharing Workshop files

Last week, we had our Come and Worship residential conference, looking at children and worship across multiple contexts. As part of this, I chaired an open workshop where we shared child-friendly songs that have worked for us and don’t need a great deal of musical skill or instruments.

Some are specifically written for children, some are simply pieces of music appropriate for worship that are simple to pick up, and don’t require reading skills. Some are ancient, some are modern, some are in between.

These can be used in groups where you don’t have a CD player or a WiFi hookup, where you have no piano (or nobody who can play it) or where you find yourself suddenly with five or ten minutes you need to kill and feel like doing some singing.

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Here are the links to YouTube. There’s some chat, some teaching of music, some singing … hope it’s useful!

Christ Our Peace

Come Into God’s Presence Singing Alleluia

Emmanuel

Famous Fish (Steve Morgan-Gurr)

Fruits of the Spirit

God Welcomes All

I Am a C-H-R-I-S-T-I-A-N

Jesus in the Boat

Lift Up

Litany of the Saints

Round of Three Saint-themed Songs

Tick Tock (Steve Morgan-Gurr)

Vine and Fig Tree

We Believe

I also taught this song – “King of Kings and Lord of Lord,” which you can find more professionally done here, at Worship Workshop. You can download backing tracks, teaching tracks, and full tracks, as well as the sheet music, for this and over 90 other songs of varying styles and degrees of difficulty. You need to register in order to use the site, but registration is free – it’s just needed for copyright reasons.

A few participants also referred to Fr. Simon Rundell’s Nursery Rhyme Mass – there’s also now a nursery rhyme Christingle, and a nursery rhyme Christening (which began its life on this very blog!).

Adapted Lectio Divina With Kids

I was stuck for ideas with my group on Sunday. It was half-term, so I knew we’d only have a few kids. They could be anywhere from age two to age sixteen. And we’re doing psalms and prophesies, so I couldn’t fall back on the power of a well-told story – I had to find a different way of engaging children with the text.

Here’s what I improvised. We ended up with only two kids – one age six and one age eleven – one of our regulars, and one who comes occasionally when he visits his grandmother, who’s a parishioner.

Lectio Divina is an ancient way of reading and entering into Scripture, in four parts: Read, Meditate, Pray, Contemplate. It is “intended to promote communion with God and to increase the knowledge of God’s word. It does not treat scripture as texts to be studied, but as the living word.” It was practised originally as part of monastic life.

I used the “Psalms for Young Children” book by Helene Marie Delval, and we sat in a circle around a selection of resources – wooden toys, the Jesus doll, some icons, Play-doh, our shepherd and sheep set, etc. (For an explanation and tutorial for that prayer board, click here.)

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We passed the book around, each of us opening it randomly to a page and reading that page. I said you could pass your turn if you wanted, and if we’d had non-readers, I would have had them choose a page and then pass the book to someone to read it for them.

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Then we took some quiet time to think, or to make something with the stuff in the middle of the circle.

Then we read the passage again.

Then we talked about anything we thought or felt about what we read, or about the pictures in the  book, or about what we’d made.

Here, the Jesus doll was originally holding the heart, touching the arms of the heart with his arms. Then, after the next reading, the people were added.

One of the kids made a series of elaborate Play-Doh structures but he had squashed them up and put them away before I could get a photo of them after the service.

It led to a very thoughtful and relaxed atmosphere. I participated in making stuff during the appropriate time, which I think gave the kids permission to start messing with the materials too. It also meant I was participating alongside them, not giving instructions which they followed – we were doing this together.

Also, having the routine of “read, respond, read, discuss” meant we never had a long chunk of time where we were expected to sit still and listen. This means, paradoxically, it’s easier to create a contemplative atmosphere, since the need to fidget has an outlet permitted by the structure of the session and doesn’t need to find ways to rebel. And by setting the expectation of “open the book at random” rather than “choose a page,” I eliminated the possibility of a child taking ages leafing through the book to pick a page while the rest of us waited and kids got the fidgets.

Play and Pray inspiration – Psalm 23 again!

This is titled Pray and Play inspiration, as it shows a space for imaginative spiritual play – but since it was part of a Junior Church session, I’ve included response time/wondering ideas as well.

We’re finishing up the Hebrew Scriptures in my own Junior Church group – we started with Creation in September, and I timed the Babylonian exile to go with Lent, and the return home to happen around Easter (though of course they celebrated Palm Sunday, Holy Week, and Easter as part of the main congregation).

The rest of the year will be spent on psalms and prophesies. Last Sunday, we had a mixed session with our under-5s group, since our attendance plummets on Bank Holidays and we merge the groups. I picked Psalm 23 – for many of the reasons listed in my previous post about it. It’s accessible, it’s familiar to some children already, the imagery works with people of all ages, and it has simple language with deep truths. We ended up with a small group ranging in age from 7 to 15.

I set up this play space as one of the options for response time. I did tell the teenagers that if they wanted to regress to childhood and play with it, I wouldn’t tell their friends. It got a bit of use, but not much – I imagine with toddlers, it would have been much more popular.

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I based the three zones off the imagery in the psalm – “green pastures, still waters, the valley of the shadow of death.” These are picked up on in the Godly Play telling of the Good Shepherd parable.

This wonderful shepherd and sheep set can be purchased for around £12, from many places, including Amazon. I added fencing from a model railway set. Plain coloured cotton can be found at Hobbycraft and other places for around £2 to £5 per metre.

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The sand tray is the packaging from a wooden Nativity set I bought a few years ago (note: the link takes you to Mustard Seed Kids, which I own – the set is available elsewhere as well). I just kept the tray it all came in, and filled it up with sand, and a few rocks from the church garden. There were no wolves in the plastic animals set the church owns, so I used cheetahs.

Later, I wanted to make it clearer that the blue fabric was water, so I added some boats. You could also add shells (I have some – you can see a few in the sand tray – I just didn’t think of it) and/or plastic sea creatures, if you have them.

The older kids sometimes have trouble figuring out what to do with response time, and phones come out. So I gave them a few prompts:

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Some of the wondering questions I used:

I wonder what your favourite part of the psalm was.

I wonder what the most important part of the psalm was.

I wonder if you have ever been someplace that felt like the green pastures and the still waters.

I wonder if you have ever been someplace that felt like the valley of the shadow of death. (“EXAMS” was the immediate response. The follow-up here WOULD have been the Godly Play follow-up – “I wonder what got you through” – but we got sidetracked into a discussion about how some things can be symbols of both life AND death, and I forgot it!)

I wonder what it feels like to have a meal prepared for you in the presence of your enemies.

 

 

You can’t pour from an empty cup

A parenting support group just posted this on Facebook with the comment that it often applies to adults as well.

Where in our ministry with children and parents are we filling up their cups? Where are we – without meaning to – draining them? How do you, as a paid or volunteer minister with children, fill up your own cup? What would your PCC say if you showed them this and asked those questions?

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The Lord is my Shepherd

Psalm 23. One of the first bits of Scripture many of us learned. One of the few Bible passages most people still recognise and find comforting. The theme tune for The Vicar of Dibley.

It’s worth breaking out of the Bible STORY mold occasionally and introducing children to the other parts of the Bible – primarily the poetry and prophecy. This has several benefits – first of all, the rich imagery of these passages can be very meaningful to children, and secondly, it plants the idea, early on, that the Bible is a complex book full of many genres of writing.

Here are a few of my favourite Bible books that can help do this, starting with two retellings of the classic 23rd Psalm.

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FOUND, by Sally Lloyd-Jones, illustrations by Jago.

Simple text and beautiful illustrations remind children of God’s enduring love and care. A perfect book to read aloud at bedtime, give as a baptism gift, or have in your church creche/children’s corner. You can also use it as the story in Junior Church for an under-5s group. (We have a copy of this in the Resource Centre if you’d like to borrow it.)

 

psalm23-2PSALM 23, illustrated by Barry Moser.

This one was available in the UK when I bought it for my church, but doesn’t seem to be now. It’s worth keeping an eye out for, however, as it uses the Biblical text and the illustrations have lots of details that can start discussions with children about what the psalm means and how they feel about it.

The imagery – a modern-day child like them, in a T-shirt, and other details – helps ground the psalm’s reassurances in a world familiar to children.

 

PSALMS FOR YOUNG CHILDREN, and IMAGES OF GOD, both by Marie-Helene Delval and illustrated by Arno.

These books have a simple format – a line or two of Scripture on one side of each spread, and a beautiful illustration on the other to bring it to life. The text is accessible even to toddlers, without diminishing the richness of it, and each page has a Biblical reference, so parents and older children can look up the original line and its context. These are also in our Resource Centre.

graphic-bibleFor older children, the LION GRAPHIC BIBLE, by Jeff Anderson and Mike Maddox, is very good at showing how the prophecy and poetry came to be written, and when in the story of God’s people the different parts of it appear. You see the Babylonian exile, and then you read the psalms written at that time, and hear the words of the prophets. It’s a very good introduction to some of the story of how the Bible came to be, and how the poems and prophesies fit into the whole. (Bear in mind I haven’t read all of this book, so there may be glaring problems with it I haven’t caught. But I’ve used parts of it with small groups and it’s all been good so far.) Again, we have a copy of this in the Resource Centre, so do borrow it.

What books have I missed? Add your recommendations in the comments!