Ministry in today’s world is continuously changing. It can be hard to discern what your ministry needs and how to best meet the needs of the children in your care. Today we’re interviewing Ellen Gotelli, a Youth and Children’s Director, to hear about a creative way she is approaching ministry amidst the pandemic.
Tell us a little about your context of ministry.
I am a part-time Director of Children's and Youth Ministry at an upper-middle-class, mostly white congregation on the Northside of Chicago. When I started at this church, we had no youth programming, and about 5 children we've expanded to about 25 to 30 two children, pre-Covid 19.
What did children’s ministry look like in your context prior to the pandemic?
Prior to the pandemic, because we were growing so much and trying to keep up with building our volunteer base, we were using a one room school model using Cokesbury’s Deep Blue Curriculum.
What is the current state of your overall church’s ministry today?
After gathering input from key parents as well as my volunteers, we decided to suspend in-person children's programming for the time being. We do have in-person worship on a limited basis but other educational opportunities at our church for adults, children, and youth have gone completely virtual or have taken a new creative path.
What creative idea have you implemented to continue ministry in the midst of gathering restrictions?
After surveying my parents and my volunteers, there seem to be several problems with just a virtual version of what we were doing. Kids are on computers all day long and they're exhausted by it. Not to mention, programming for a virtual class just isn't the same as we do so many kinesthetic activities. One of my volunteers, who is an elementary educator, shared with me that weekends are a time where their family takes a break from technology and do things together because when everyone's on their own Zoom calls during the week, there's almost no connection. So, I wanted some sort of low-tech Sunday school that could be done at home while also recognizing the individual needs of each family.
I was also inspired by my weekly produce subscription box, where I choose my own produce based on what I want to cook that week and it’s delivered to my home. I thought about what would it look like to have a Sunday School subscription box or bag so that we could create low tech activities for children to do either by themselves or with an adult that can offer faith-based conversations and activities in the home, encouraging caregivers and children to have faith-based conversations and to learn together. So far, these subscription boxes have been following our congregation’s sermon series.
I further gathered from different parent input that it's hard to come together as a family and talk about some of these things that are happening in the world. So in response, I also include a hard copy of a dinner table devotional, which is a set of questions that are made to encourage deep conversation about the values and faith basics of a household and allowed caregivers to have a springboard to talk about harder things with their kids.
How do families choose their options and what is included in each box/bag?
Caregivers receive an email with a link to a Google Form where they are presented with 6-8 options to choose from as well as to indicate the ages of the children in that household. They'll then pick up to four activities. It also includes a hard copy of the dinner table devotional, a note from either me or one of my Sunday school volunteers, and something fun I surprise them with. In my last bag, I included a tiny plastic dinosaur and encouraged in my note for the children to give their dinosaur a name and let me know what they named them, as an effort at connection as well as giving them resources to work through. We are currently sending these out every two weeks, but playing around with the idea of moving to once a month or even twice a quarter.
How can you work to implement communal elements in the midst of this ministry format?
So that's been one of the biggest challenges, is how do we still offer some sense of connection and community. One of the things that I have tried is inviting children to create art that can be communally displayed or shared. In my last bag, there was something called the backyard photo challenge which gave kids a couple of photography tips and tricks and then 10 creative prompts such as something that's changing, a good hiding place, something that's happy, and allowing kids to interpret those things to take pictures. Then their caregivers can send them to me to post on social media or put together as a video compilation that we can send out.
What do you love about this format or find life-giving?
I love this idea because it's customizable for every single child. It really has given parents the option to choose rest for their kids, if that's what they need. I am not in the business of forcing everyone to do a bunch of activities if your kid is totally burnt out from how hard this season is. I really strive to serve my students not just facilitate them, and right now if rest is what you need, I still want to meet your need. The subscription bag is a great way for families to say we only want one activity because that's all we can handle, or you know we're going to skip this bag we're going to see how we feel the next time around.
What changes will you make in the future to continue to use this format to meet the needs of your families?
I think for us it's an excellent format. As we go forward, the biggest challenge is going to be finding volunteers willing to help me with the legwork of putting them together and delivering them. I will also say that I have been really inventing the wheel to create all new content to match our sermon series. As we go forward, I'm switching over to the Celebrate Wonder curriculum seeing how we can adapt the already curated curriculum into these bags so that I'm not writing every single thing or creating every single thing that goes in there. The prototype was tough but I'm excited to see what the evolution of this idea looks like.
Ellen Gotelli is a part-time Youth and Children’s Director at a United Methodist congregation in North Chicago. Have questions or want to learn more about how to implement this idea in your ministry? You can contact Ellen at Ellen.Gotelli@Garrett.edu