Dealing with hard stuff with children

This is a topic I got asked about a lot, even before coronavirus.

So many Bible stories touch on topics of illness and death, injustice, violence, and loss. How do we address these topics with children? And now, when illness and death, injustice, loss, disappointment, uncertainty, anxiety, and so much more have become more a part of our children’s daily lives than we wished, what do we do, as church leaders?

It feels false simply to cheerlead them through sessions about how happy we are because God loves us. In normal times, many children’s lives are not simple, straightforward, and happy, but now even the safest and most secure child is dealing with a world that may seem scary and chaotic. So we can’t just pretend everything is okay. But we don’t want to make things worse, or offer just doom and gloom. And of course it’s all harder in that much of this is happening over Zoom, instead of in person.

Here are a few tips from my own experiences. Please do add your own thoughts in the comments.

  1. Create space for conversation. Don’t fill the whole session with activities – allow room for discussion. Children will be bringing things to your session; experiences, questions, thoughts, and so on. Make room for that.
  2. Make the conversation open-ended and safe. Establish ground rules – “everyone’s ideas are okay.” This may mean you create a system for taking turns on Zoom (raising hands, reaction buttons) and you can make it routine that you mute yourself if you aren’t speaking. Use “I wonder …” questions. (“I wonder what your favourite part of the story was” / “I wonder what the most important part of the story was” / “I wonder what part of the story is for you” / “I wonder what Jesus’s friends felt when that happened” etc.)
  3. Use story. Often, people of all ages find it easier to talk about their own feelings if they have a story to talk about it through. Talking about how the characters feel, what the ending means, and so on, can help you talk about what’s going on in your own life, without revealing really personal stuff. A child who responds to the Baptism of Jesus story by saying “I liked when Jesus heard God’s voice, because maybe he’d been feeling really alone, but then he knew God was with him” may be saying something deeply personal, but because it’s done through the story, it’s easier to talk about. I’m making weekly story videos of the lectionary, which you can find here. If you’re dealing with a bereavement, I have a Pinterest board of children’s books about death, which can be found here.
  4. But also, allow children to process feelings in different ways. Some children will find it easier to express their emotions through drawing or making something. Some things I’ve done include, “make a Play-doh sculpture to show how the story made you feel,” “go find an object in your house that represents something that’s been sad or disappointing this year and we can pray about it,” and “draw what you’d like us to pray about.” Don’t force children to share their drawings/objects/etc if they don’t want to.
  5. Acknowledge emotions. We want to reassure children and make them feel safe, and this can sometimes lead us to dismiss what they’re feeling, if what they’re feeling is uncomfortable. If a child says “I feel like there’s no hope,” we want to instinctively say, “oh, I’m sure it isn’t that bad.” Unfortunately, that can lead the child to feel dismissed, and to trust us less. Acknowledging the feeling – “that sounds very hard. I’m so sorry you’re feeling that way. Thank you for telling us. Has anyone else in the group ever felt that way? What did you do that helped?” can acknowledge the emotion as real, while also pointing the child to look for coping mechanisms.
  6. Keep it small – that’s where the power is. “Can you think of one thing that made you smile this week, and say thank you to God for it?” “Can you think of three things you’re grateful for?” “What’s one thing you can do this week to help somebody else?” All of us, but children especially, feel better when we’re able to feel useful and helpful and like what we do matters. Giving children opportunities to reflect on gratitude and small blessings, and then to think of what they can do to make a difference, can be very helpful. This can be a way to close your prayer time.

Do you have any other thoughts on how to acknowledge difficult times and support children’s emotional wellbeing? Please share them in the comments!

Bereavement at home

It’s tough, but hard to escape – more children than usual will be bereaved in the next few months, or already have been. These bereavements may be made more complicated by isolation – children won’t be able to attend funerals, visit relatives who are dying and say goodbye, meet up with friends, go to support groups or counselling, and so on.

We’re hoping to have a webinar about supporting grieving children – to hear more, make sure you’re subscribed to Children’s Ministry News (email us to get added) or follow me on Twitter at @stalbanscme.

However, there are also many resources already available.

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Child Bereavement UK offers a lot of support and help – I’ve linked directly to their page with videos and info sheets, which may be most immediately useful, but do explore their website to find out more.

Childhood Bereavement Network has lots of information and support, as well as cards

children can purchase and give to family members to tell them what they need, and how best to support that individual child. (There are also cards for children to give to friends/teachers/etc – these can be photographed and sent via email or social media, with parental supervision.) Some of the things on the cards can’t be done at this time, but others can still be done, or reworked.

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I have a Pinterest board of good children’s books about death, dying, and grief. You could send the link to parents, or you could buy a book and have it shipped directly to a grieving child. I also used to buy notebooks and special pens for children in my church who had been bereaved. I told them they could use the notebook to write to the person who had died, or as a journal, or to scribble angrily or tear up pages if they needed to, or to draw, or in any way that would help them. It was their safe place.

The Diocese of Birmingham, with help from staff at hospices, has put together guidance on supporting children through loss and bereavement. Download it here: Supporting_children_through_loss_and_bereavement

Louise Warner, my counterpart in the Diocese of Leicester, has put together some ideas for how children can make memories, and remember someone who has died, at home. From making a memory box, to writing a prayer, to planting something, there are lots of great, practical suggestions. Download it here: Thinking about someone that has died

If you have your own resources, or ideas, or thoughts, please do let me know in the comments!

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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Baby loss services – tips for worship leaders

Every so often, someone calls my office or sends me an email – “I’m leading a service for Baby Loss Awareness Week – got any tips?”

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They’re asking partly because this sort of falls under my remit as Children’s Mission Enabler – these services are a ministry to families, and often, other children are involved either at the time of the loss or later. Providing a meaningful place to honour and remember the life of their child can create a deep pastoral relationship with a family for years to come. But they’re also asking because they know I’m a bereaved parent myself – my son Isaac died at birth in 2015. So I’ve seen these services from both sides – as a parent, and as a leader. And here is what I’ve learned:

  1. Connect with your local SANDS group. You can find your nearest group here. Not only can they help you plan an appropriate service, they can help publicise your service to families. You may also want to contact local hospital chaplains – many hospitals do annual memorial services and might have some tips, or service sheets from past years you can use.
  2. The service itself should probably be about half an hour long, at most. People may want to stay afterwards and talk – and this may actually be longer than the service itself. Plan for this time and provide lots of refreshments.
  3. Generally, regardless of what else is done in terms of music, readings, remarks, etc., the two things that these types of services consistently include are: a time to read off the names of the babies being remembered (usually before or while people can light candles), and something to take home as a memorial (the Baby Loss Awareness Week pins are good). Have a list people can add their baby’s name to as they enter, so they don’t have to send anything in advance.
  4. The delegate pack from an event we did on baby and child funerals is attached to the bottom of this post – this can provide ideas for readings and music.
  5. You may have children in attendance – siblings or cousins, both before and after the loss. It’s worth considering that this is potentially an All-Age event. Remember in your welcome to include parents, siblings, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins – “whoever you are, you are grieving a baby you loved today, and we welcome you.”
  6. Some families may have made the awful decision to terminate a pregnancy after a diagnosis, or because of risk to the mother’s health or life. Others may have had to decide to turn off life support. They may be struggling with feelings of guilt, and worried the church might condemn them. Some may be dealing with a loss from decades ago when stillbirth wasn’t considered a “real” loss.
  7. And finally – this will probably be emotionally draining for you as a leader. Plan your diary for the hours after the event accordingly. Whatever is restorative to you, make sure you include some of that. And don’t expect to be able to go straight from a baby loss service to leading a wedding rehearsal, or Messy Church, or a funeral visit, or whatever … take care of yourself.

If you want a more detailed conversation about any of these issues, do get in touch. And please remember, if you are leading one of these services, how much it means to the families simply to have their baby remembered and named. Thank you so much for doing it.

Download: Funeral Ideas for Delegate Pack

“But I’m Not Good With Kids”

Most of us will agree it’s really important that our churches reach out to children and families. But what if the thought of holding a baby terrifies you (“what if I just … drop it??”) or if, given a choice between leading a Junior Church session and sitting through every one of these Top 100 Bad Movies without a bathroom break, you’d be reaching for the DVD remote every time?crying-baby

The good news is, you don’t have to be good with kids to support children’s ministry in your church.  All ministry is supported by a lot of background work that makes the face-to-face stuff happen. Here’s a Top Ten list to get us started – feel free to add your own in the comments!

  1. Maintain an up-to-date email list of baptism families, and send them information of any activities your church is doing that are friendly for under-5s (Mailchimp can be useful for this – it’s a user-friendly way to send mass mailings, and the free version has everything you need).
  2. Keep an eye out while in charity shops for any toys or puzzles featuring Bible stories, in good condition, and bring them in for your children’s corner (if you have one) or your Junior Church.
  3. Make a knitted Nativity set (Parkinson’s UK has a pattern for £10) or knitted teddies for baptism families, or child-sized vestments for “playing church,” or …
  4. Be responsible for keeping track of volunteers, organising your Junior Church volunteer rota, and reminding them when it’s their week.
  5. Cook for Messy Church, or organise cooking teams for Messy Church.
  6. Help set up and tidy up Junior Church, Messy Church, etc – anyone willing to wield a broom, stack chairs, wash dishes, hoover up sequins …
  7. Distribute leaflets around town for your crib services, Messy Church, All-Age Services, holiday clubs, etc.
  8. Set up a standing order of £10 a month for art supplies, games, etc.
  9. Graphic design skills? Make leaflets and posters for your events.
  10. Be an ally to parents of young children in the service – remind other worshippers that babies and toddlers will sometimes fuss a little and it’s okay, or give an encouraging smile to a parent, or say “you’re doing really well” to a parent wrangling three children under 5, or smile and say “I’m so glad you’re here – it’s great to have the children in church.” Often, parents tell me that this is what made the difference between coming back to church or not!

Pastoral care of children

I’m doing training on Saturday on the topic of pastoral care of children, and my slides are attached below.  I’ve also done a new Pinterest board on pastoral care and mental health, with lots of resources – do suggest more in the comments.

There are two anecdotes I refer to in the slides, under “the healing power of story,” but which I don’t explain in detail – I will during the training itself, of course.

The first one is from my mother’s ministry, with children from deprived areas of New Haven, Connecticut, in the USA. Many of these neighbourhoods have high levels of incarceration – what sociologists and activists are calling “the school-to-prison pipeline.” My mother ran a Tuesday evening club that included worship, art time, and a communal meal. One day she was telling the story of Joseph, and got to the point where he was thrown into jail on false charges.

“My daddy’s in jail!” one kid piped up.

“So’s my brother!” another replied.

“My uncle …” “My cousin …” the stories started coming thick and fast. The Biblical story of Joseph had given them the starting point to explore a difficult and painful part of their own lives. It gave them a launchpad to talk about what it feels like to be in jail, what it feels like for someone you love to be in jail, what it feels like when the charges are unfair, and whether God is still with you even in those situations.  And it gave the leaders a chance to start looking at how the liberation of an individual which leads to the liberation of the entire people is at the heart of so many Bible stories – Joseph doesn’t just get out of jail to save himself, when he gets out of jail he saves all of Egypt, and his own family as well, who had brutalised him in the past.

The second anecdote is from my own ministry. I was looking at the story of Ruth, and what struck me (love-treepartly from having read Lauren Winner’s excellent book Girl Meets God, which looks in detail at Ruth) was how this story provides a broad and inclusive model of what it means to be a family. It’s a step in the movement away from the purity model of the early patriarchs, when who your father was, and how cleanly your blood led you back to Abraham, was what mattered most, and towards Jesus’s model of, “those who follow my commandments are my family,” and the early church’s assertion that “there is no longer Jew nor Greek … all are one in Christ Jesus.”

Ruth is a woman from a different tribe, the Moabites, and she is brought into God’s Chosen People by marriage. After her husband dies, she chooses to stay with his widowed mother – her family is now one of choice, not of blood. Her second husband is Boaz, a relative of her late first husband, but their marriage requires another kinsman to refute his claim on her. Upon Ruth and Boaz’s marriage, and the subsequent birth of Obed, the family is now: the mother of Ruth’s first husband, her distant kinsman Boaz, his wife Ruth (from a different tribe), and their child. Naomi has a grandmotherly relationship to her son’s widow’s second husband’s child, and the Ruth/Boaz relationship is a mixed marriage. How very modern this all starts to sound! (And of course, out of this family of adoption and choice and mixed heritage came King David … and Jesus himself.)

So as one of the activities, I encouraged children to draw their family trees, and to think about “who do I count as my family?” I asked them to think about godparents, close friends – are they family? How do people become part of our family? Birth, adoption, and marriage are all ways of becoming family. Are there others? What about our church family? What about people who have died, like Ruth’s first husband? Are they still part of our family? How do we keep them close to us?

I was working with a small group of children at the family tree table, and when I said, “what about people who have died?” one girl’s face lit up, and she said, “like my brothers!”

The story gave her a way to tell me what had happened in her family, and she received affirmation that her brothers were still part of her family. She told me their names, we put them on her family tree, and she received a story which connected to her own experiences, and the affirmation that God’s story relates to her own life, and that church is the kind of place where you can process this sort of thing.

Please do check out the Pinterest board and the slides below, and let me know your thoughts, and any resources I haven’t stumbled across!

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