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

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Worth 1000 words …

Often, a visual focus can help children engage in worship, or can illustrate an idea or a story. Below are some pictures that might be useful for your groups – all were taken by me, so you’re free to save and use them however you’d like. All I ask is that you credit me (Margaret Pritchard Houston) and if you use them at an event you’re charging admission for, to get in touch and ask about fees (email me). But you can use them without payment for worship, Messy Church, Junior Church, etc.

I’ve included some suggested topics, but feel free to use them for other ideas as well!

To download an image, click on it to view it full size, then right-click and choose “save image as …”

Here are a few from my “journey” folder.

These could be used for All Souls or for other events looking at death and resurrection.

Here are some on “light”:

Some photos of the natural world that could be used for any number of things:

And a few random bits and bobs – ashes, home, water, sheep, etc:

Hope these are useful – and I’d love to hear about the creative ways you use them.

The light shines in darkness …

We now have a Light Box, which is available for you to borrow!

It comes with 85 letters, numbers, and symbols. This means you sometimes need to get creative if you need more of a particular letter than they have available.

You can use it in worship …

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You can use it as part of a prayer station …

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You can use it an an event or service if you want people to connect online with a hashtag …

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Or you could use it to publicise something coming up …

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You could also simply have it out for children to play with and make their own messages. You could take photos of every message/prayer/etc children make, and put these together as a collage for display or a slideshow to gather these prayers at the end of a session.

What other ways could you use it?

If you want to get your own, I got this one from Argos for £14 including shipping. Other versions are available – some of which change the background colour or have other bells and whistles.

If you’d like to borrow this one, get in touch via cme@stalbans.anglican.org.

Starting Rite

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One of the best books I’ve read in the last few years has been Starting Rite: Spiritual nurture for babies and their parents, by Jenny Paddison. Jenny has also come down to do some introductory training for the Diocese at two of our events. Starting Rite is a 5-week course based around play and conversation, introducing parents to concepts of Christianity and encouraging them to engage with and bond with their babies.

It can also be used as a baptism preparation/follow-up course.

Here’s what the publisher has to say:

When Anglican priest Jenny Paddison became a mother, there were numerous activities for new parents and their babies on offer: baby yoga, baby massage, baby swimming – but nothing from the church.

In response, she created this five session programme that connects with the immense sense of wonder and joy that new parents experience and provides spiritual nurture from the outset, recognising the innate capacity for spirituality with which we are born.

Starting Rite is designed specifically for babies up to a year old and their parents. It provides a complete practical companion to offering the programme locally, including story scripts, simple songs, ideas for multi-sensory play, as well as lists of equipment needed and how to create a welcoming atmosphere. It explores Christian themes though activities like peek-a-boo, blowing bubbles and splashing in water.

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Starting Rite enables local churches to offer a welcome to all new parents, and can also be used as a baptism preparation course.”

Starting Rite is excellent for reaching out to unchurched people. It’s a great place to start if you have few or no children and want to make your first steps in children’s ministry. Or it can be a fabulous way to refresh and expand on existing baptism or toddler group ministry.

Feedback from Jenny’s sessions was very positive, but a lot of people said, “it’s a lot of work to put the resources together to run the course – and a lot of money.”

So, very slowly, but surely, I’ve started putting the resources together. By the end of this year, I hope to have a set of 5 boxes, plus the book, available to be borrowed all together by churches who want to run this course. We’ll then get Jenny down to do some proper training on the course and address any questions or concerns you might have. So WATCH THIS SPACE, and if you’re not subscribed to Children’s Ministry News, contact youthoffice@stalbans.anglican.org to be sure you hear about the training when it’s scheduled.

New books!

I’ve just bought some new books for the Diocesan Resource Centre – they’ll be officially catalogued soon, but you can borrow them informally immediately if you want.

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Diddy Disciples is a wonderful resource to help you worship with babies and toddlers. You can use it on Sunday mornings in the creche, or in toddler group, or anywhere else you meet with this age group. It’s very user-friendly for the adults, and physically engaging for the kids. You can find out more (and see sample videos and materials) on their website.

The Story of King Jesus, by Ben Irwin is a beautiful re-telling of THE WHOLE BIBLE, from Genesis to Revelation, in child-friendly language. Full of awe and wonder, this book is especially good for situations where you might only have one or two sessions with a particular group – school visits (“this is what the Christian story is”), holiday clubs, etc – though of course it’s great for Junior Church, Messy Church, etc. as well.

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Outdoor Church, by Sally Welch is a terrific and accessible resource for helping churches connect with God’s creation.

It’s ideal for rural churches, but her introduction includes ideas for how to make it work even in churches with very limited outdoor space (or none at all – suggestions are included on how to bring the outdoors in).

Each season has five sessions included, focusing on Bible stories and parables. There is an emphasis on COLLECTING, CREATING, FEASTING, and CELEBRATING, which allows room for people with different spiritual styles and gifts to participate. books3

If you would like to borrow any of these books, get in touch on cme@stalbans.anglican.org . And I’d love to hear your recommendations – what should we add to our Resource Centre to help your ministry?

New resource – labyrinth!

The Diocese now has a LABYRINTH, which is available for churches, schools, and other groups to borrow for use in their own programmes.

If you’re thinking, “what is a labyrinth?,” this short article can tell you a bit about their history and how they can be used for prayer.

Here is ours – in situ in a meeting room at Diocesan Office. It will look even prettier in your church, your churchyard, your school hall …

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How can I borrow it?

Simply contact cme@stalbans.anglican.org or youthoffice@stalbans.anglican.org and let us know when you’d like it. If it’s available, you can come and collect it.

I don’t have an enormous vehicle and seven weight-lifters to help me transport it – what do I do?

That’s okay! The labyrinth is made of plastic-backed canvas, so it’s very lightweight and it rolls up easily. It can fit in the passenger seat or boot of most cars, even small ones, and I can personally testify that a small woman who doesn’t work out very much can comfortably carry it under her arm for a ten-minute walk.

How do we use it?

There are no right or wrong ways to use a labyrinth. The simplest way is to walk through the path, slowly, pausing whenever you feel like it, and then walk back out.

You can also provide meditations or prayer activities at certain points along the path.

You can encourage people to walk the labyrinth barefoot.

You can line the path with electric tealights and dim the room the labyrinth is in.

You can play music, have incense burning, or have other sensory elements added.

You can use it as part of a story, as a response to a story, or as prayer.

You can just have it available when your church is open, or deliberately use it as part of a service or activity.

It’s up to you!

The only ground rules I would recommend you make clear to children are those you would do with any physical activity – giving other people space, not pushing or shoving, and a reminder that a labyrinth is a quiet and peaceful time, not a race.

Is there a leaflet to go with it?

Here’s the text that goes with it in its current space in the cathedral. You are free to use or adapt this as you like:

Our lives are like a long trip.

Sometimes the path is wide and easy, sometimes it’s narrow and hard.

Sometimes we feel far away from where we’re going, but actually we might be nearby. Sometimes we feel near to where we want to be, but we’re actually far.

People of all ages can walk this labyrinth.

You might want to think about all the places your feet have travelled through your life, and pray for the people in those places.

There are a few mistakes in this labyrinth. Maybe they remind you of times when things have gone wrong, and you’ve had to try to fix them.

Maybe they remind you that our lives, and ourselves, aren’t perfect, and that’s okay.

A labyrinth is a place to spend time walking with God. Take your time. Pause. Breathe. Pray.

I’d like to make my own, since I don’t live in your Diocese or I want to use it without having to play far ahead. How can I do it?

Here’s the tutorial I used. The total cost was about £50.00 – two dust sheets, duct tape to hold them together (I didn’t spend time sewing, like in the tutorial), paint, string. I had to adapt it slightly because I used two dust sheets and that meant the circle had to be an oval instead.

Life Events book klaxon!

life-eventsThe Revd Dr Sandra Millar’s new Life Events book has just come out, and you can order it here.

Here is what the publisher has to say:

Baptism, weddings and funerals bring the Church of England into close contact with hundreds of thousands of people every year.

The ministry offered by local churches at these key times of life has been the subject of a widespread study with the aim of fostering best practice and deepening theological and biblical understanding of the occasional offices.

Here, Sandra Millar, who led this study and has presented its findings to over half of all dioceses so far, shares its contents and offers many practical suggestions – often from local parish practice- for enriching the quality and depth of pastoral support offered at these highly significant moments.

Grounded in rigorous research, this volume includes the research findings, biblical reflection, practical ideas and questions for reflection.

Every church in the Diocese should have received the PCC Discussion Booklet that goes with this book – if you would like more copies, you can get them here.

Since this blog focuses on children’s ministry, you might think the baptisms part is the only relevant bit – but children are guests and participants at weddings and funerals as well, and it’s worth thinking how to include them and make those events meaningful for them. You can find lots of ideas in the individual sections of the Church Support Hub website, and also on my Pinterest boards:

Children at Weddings and Funerals

Baptism

Have you tried something with baptism, weddings, or funerals that’s worked well? Let me know about it in the comments!

The Prodigal Daughter

In 2016, I went to the European Conference of Christian Educators, where I saw Bibliologue storytelling done with chairs – you can find a short summary here.

I then used it when I did Prodigal Son prayer stations with Readers a few weeks ago – you can find a write-up of that here.

Now John Griffiths and Jonathan Evans, of St Cuthbert’s Church in Rye Park, have done a script using the image of a mother and two daughters, and given me permission to share it. They used it in worship on Mothering Sunday.

Note how most of it is simply the Biblical text, with a few small changes – and how the story is stopped at different points to wonder about how characters are feeling at that specific moment. By focusing on each section of the story individually, you might draw out details that would get missed if you saved up the wondering until the end. (However, for some people, it might interrupt the flow of the story, and they would get more by waiting until the end for wondering. This is why mixing up different approaches can be good.)

The Prodigal Daughter

 

Place three chairs by the steps of the sanctuary carpet.  One larger and two smaller and say:

There once was a woman who had two daughters.

Move the ‘younger daughter’ (i.e. a smaller chair) over in front of the mother’s chair. 

The younger daughter said to her mother, “Give me my inheritance NOW
so that I can enjoy it.”

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So the mother divided her property between them.

Move the ‘younger daughter’ a little way along the road. 

Place the mother in the centre.

Move the ‘older sister’ off to the side (almost out of the scene).

move to the younger daughter chair and say

The younger daughter gathered all she had and travelled to a distant country

She spent her money on wild parties and having a really REALLY good time.

Move the ‘younger daughter’ towards the ‘end of the road’ (top of the central aisle)

I wonder. What is the Mother thinking?

I wonder. What is her older sister thinking?

 

But the day came when she had spent all the money her mother had given her and she had nothing left. 

Turn the daughter’s chair onto its side.

There was a severe famine in that country and she was hungry and poor.
So she went and hired herself out. To a pig farmer. Who made her look after pigs.

She was so hungry that she would have been grateful if she was allowed to eat what the pigs were eating; but no one gave her anything.

 

Then she came to her senses, she said to herself

“All my mum’s maids have plenty to eat, but here I am dying of hunger!

I wonder What is the younger daughter thinking?

 

I know what I’ll do. I will go to my mother, and I will say to her, “Mother, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your daughter;  could you give me a job around the house?”

Move the daughter on the road towards the other two chairs

So she set off to return to her mother.

Move the mother down the road towards the daughter, say:

While she was still far off, her mother saw her and was filled with compassion;

Her mother ran and put her arms around her and kissed her.

Move both the mother and daughter close to one another at the bottom of the aisle say:

Her daughter said to her, “Mother, I have sinned against you; 

I am no longer worthy to be your daughter.”

But the mother said to the staff, “Quickly, bring a dress – my very best one  – and put it on her; put a ring on her finger and my favourite shoes.

Remember her favourite meal? – go and make it, and let’s eat and celebrate;
for my daughter was dead and is alive again; she was lost and is found!”

And they all began to celebrate.

Move the mother and daughter’s to the centre of the sanctuary blue carpet

When the elder daughter came home, she heard music and dancing.

She called one of the maids and asked what was going on.

The maid replied, “Your sister has come home, and your mother has made her favourite because she got her back safe and sound.”

But the older daughter became angry and refused to go in.

 

What is the older daughter thinking?

What is the mother thinking?

 

Move the mother to the back of the carpet in front of the elder daughter, say:

Her mother came out and began to plead with her.

Twist away the elder sister and say

She said to her mother, “Listen! For all these years I have been slaving away for you, and I have never disobeyed you in anything; yet you have never given me a single night in with my friends.  But when young madam went off and played the tart and wasted all your money comes back. YOU treat her like a princess!

Move to the Mother chair, and say

The mother said to her, “Oh Darling, you are always with me, and everything that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate, because your sister was dead and has come to life; she was lost and now she’s found.”

What was your favourite part of the story?

What was the most important part of the story?

Which person in the story did you most connect with? 

All-Age Prodigal Son Prayer Stations

On Saturday, I was asked to lead an hour and fifteen minutes of worship at a retreat/meeting day for the Readers in our Diocese. The ideas I used were supposed to engage the adults present on the day while also inspiring them with things they could take home and use with children in their churches. So they had to be TRULY All-Age!

I led about half an hour of worship at the beginning – the slides for this can be downloaded by clicking here: Readers Retreat Day. For the story, I used Bibliologue, which I’ve written about on this blog before. The song I used is a Hebrew melody, using language from Isaiah as a prayer for reconciliation – appropriate to the story of the Prodigal Son. If you don’t know it, you can hear a tinny recording of me singing it in my office here. The two parts can be sung together, as well – I had the congregation try this. The Lego prayers referred to in the slides can be found here.

Then we had about half an hour to explore prayer stations, which I’ve detailed below. During this time, I played my YouTube Lent playlist, to create a contemplative atmosphere.

In putting together the prayer stations, I was loosely guided by three things:

  1. The different parts of the story. Some had quotes on them from the story to show a focus on that particular element. Some were more general.
  2. The four spiritual styles detailed by Dave Csinos in his book “Children’s Ministry That Fits,” and based on work by several others: Word, Emotion, Symbol, Action.
  3. A model from a colleague who told me her prayer life operates in three ways – inward (ourselves), outward (others), and upward (God). (She may have got this from someone else – if so, please let me know!)

At the end, I gathered the group back together and talked about how the Prodigal Son is an apt parable for Lent – it shows a time of alienation, ending in reconciliation. Just like the son and father are reconciled at the end, we are reconciled with God at Easter. I read the following from an essay by Debie Thomas on the “Journey With Jesus” blog:

“How exactly did Jesus spend his time?  Was he tempted 24/7?  Did he walk for miles each day, or camp out in one spot?  Where did he sleep?  What was the silence like, hour after hour after hour?  Did he break it up by humming, laughing, or shouting?  Did he star gaze?  Play with birds?  Chase lizards?  As the days stretched on and on, did he fear for his life?  Question his sanity?  Wish to die? Mark — given, as ever, to brevity — leaves all of these questions unanswered.  But the few details he does include in his account are telling, and they give us much to cling to as we face deserts in our own lives.  I’d like to focus on three:

  1. Jesus didn’t choose the wilderness.
  2. The struggle is long.
  3. There are angels in the desert. “

Then I said that we are still in that desert time of Lent, but we know Jesus is with us even there, even in the desert. We closed with this wonderful video and some wondering questions.

So now, on to the prayer stations …

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I focused several stations on the opening part of the story – the idea of leaving home and going to a distant land. Here, I invited people to think about those who are forced to leave home because of war, and to reflect on what they would bring if they had to leave home quickly. There were then ways to take action on refugee issues.

With children, I might not provide a “donate now” text code.

You can download the leaflet here.

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Lots of people wrote prayers for countries where they had connections, or where there is violence. When I’ve done this with children, they often pray for the places their families come from, or places they have been on holiday.

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This was a very popular station. The cardboard outlines of people are available from Baker Ross, and are a very flexible resource to have on hand.

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This was also a very popular station … I can’t imagine why!

There is not just solemnity in the story, but also rejoicing. So I thought of the image of a party, and went with cake and balloons. Participants were asked to think of something that was going well, and write it with a Sharpie on a balloon. The balloon was left on the altar as an offering of thanksgiving, and then people served themselves cake.

I provided one cake that was Gluten/Dairy free.

readers13One thing I learned … make sure you have a plan for what to do with all the balloons afterwards! If you’re not able to pop them afterwards (we had lunch, then a Eucharist, so I couldn’t), bring a big bag to carry them out in! I did multiple trips to the car, and my back seat is now full of unpopped balloons …

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For people who prefer contemplative silence, we had a side chapel available, with the words of reassurance given to the older brother – “child, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours” – and some glittery candles. These are electric candles, also available from Baker Ross, and great for staying safe with under-5s. Older groups may wish to use real candles, but still make sure an adult is on hand.

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For those who pray best by talking and sharing with others, the Table Talk sets are great! These are available to borrow from Diocesan office – we also have special sets designed for use with Messy Church and for use with teens. Because this was a bought rather than custom-made resource, this prayer station wasn’t specifically about the story. But the fact that it has questions about the nature of God, and friendship/relationship, means it addresses some of the same questions the story does.

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This station was about the story as a whole – and again, all these resources are available from Diocesan office. We had fuzzy felt, “The Lost” storybag with its wooden figures of the story, and the wonderful knitted pigs made for us by the Mothers’ Union. I printed out a copy of the story and encouraged people to read it and play with the materials.

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And finally, there was a very general open-ended art table, with some ideas to encourage people who might feel stuck when told to “make anything.”

Many of these ideas can be adapted VERY easily for use with other stories – and could be used in Junior Church, Messy Church, All-Age Worship, and more.

 

Estate agents and Christenings

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A year ago this month, I completed the purchase of my flat.

I got the card above in the post the other day.

On the back was a brief handwritten note from my estate agent congratulating me, saying she hoped I’d been happy in my new home, and to let her know if I needed anything.

And of course I was reminded of Ann, a woman from the church where I served as Children’s Worker for seven years, who lovingly wrote anniversary cards to the family of every child we baptised, until she became too frail to keep it up.

There’s something about the personal touch, about a handwritten card dropping through your letterbox, that makes us feel like someone’s gone the extra mile to care for us – whether that’s simply good customer service, like in an estate agency, or in the broader and more holistic relationship of pastoral care that churches provide.

So if you have an aging congregation, you don’t necessarily need to train them on Mailchimp and social media (though some of them may be more familiar with it than you are – you never know) – don’t forget that a simple handwritten card saying “we remember this important occasion in your life. We shared it with you. We’re here for you” can make a real difference.

A few tips on making the most of it:

  1. To make it easier, set up a system whereby as soon as a baptism happens, the date goes on a list, broken down by month. That way, the person writing these cards isn’t chasing down 35 separate pieces of paper every few weeks to try and get it done.
  2. Have a basic “suggested wording” (I’ve written one below), but feel free to add special details or memories.
  3. Remind them of what you have to offer them now
  4. Make sure the person/people writing the cards know who to notify when stocks are low! (A quick Google for “baptism anniversary cards” turns up lots of possibilities for you to choose.)

One possible wording:

Dear Alan and Sarah,

All of us at St Martin’s send you our love on the anniversary of Jonah’s christening. We hope you have fond memories of this special day. We are praying for you, and Jonah, and Jonah’s godparents, as you all continue to journey together and grow with God.

We promised on that day to be your church family and support you as you raised Jonah to know and love God. We are always pleased to see you at worship on Sunday at 10 am or at  our Messy Church on the first Saturday of the month at 3 pm.

May God be with you and Jonah on this special day.

Love,

Revd Jane and everyone at St Martin’s