Nothing could have prepared us for this, folks—not my master’s degree in Family Studies, nor my books about children and family ministry, nor my previous parenting experiences, nor my life of working in the church. We really need more synonyms for “unprecedented,” because I’m hearing that word overused these days. How do you do children’s ministry amidst a pandemic?
My church community is on the smaller side. We see about 140 people on a Sunday morning, and roughly 30 of those are children. My story of reaching out to kids during this time is here for the sharing, and I hope it can be useful to you whether you typically reach 3 kids on a Sunday or 300.
Zoom Calls with Kids
Once our staff recovered from the initial shock of taking our Sunday morning services online, our first thought was to bring folks together somehow in prayer and sharing. We now offer two video-chat open calls to our church community each week, one on Tuesday mornings and one on Thursday afternoons. While kids make welcome appearances on these calls, generally the adults use this time to share their work status, prayer requests, and anxieties. We pray together and enjoy this modified form of connection.
Seeing the benefit of having some face-to-face time on our screens, we decided to try it with kids. I scheduled a Zoom call, and about 19 kids participated! We started simply by greeting each other, and the kids quickly discovered the joy of flooding the chat window with emojis. We got to see each other’s blanket forts and favorite stuffed animals. After a few minutes of greetings, I made use of the “Mute All” button (a necessity for Zoom calls with kids!), and once everyone was quieted, I read a chapter from one of my favorite children’s storybooks.
We have now planned a weekly Zoom call for “Big Kids” as well as a call just for “The Littles," and parents can opt into whichever one they think works best for their child’s age and personality. With the Big Kids, we share, joke, converse, and then read from a storybook geared toward older elementary kids. With The Littles, we do show and tell, sing preschool songs, and then read a Bible storybook for preschoolers together.
Keeping kids engaged with their church friends (and giving parents a half hour or more of relief) has been one of the biggest and best encouragements to me and to families while we are social distancing.
Whether you love me or hate me for this, I must confess: I am not a big fan of children’s moments in church. In my experience, they are well-intended but often problematic… I won’t get on that particular soapbox right now.
But, in the absence of in-person children’s ministry, I have found giving children’s messages during our church’s Sunday morning live-stream to be a crucial and meaningful way to speak life to the children of our church (and the adults too, as always). When we were live-streaming in person, I would step up to the camera and give the message as part of the service, standing as close to the camera as possible so that my face filled the computer or TV screens of the kids I love who were watching.
Now that I’m worshipping from home on Sundays, I pre-record my message to children, and it is spliced into the worship service after the first two songs.
For Palm Sunday, I displayed and talked through several symbols of Holy Week, such as a white cloth for Maundy Thursday and a rock for the tomb on Holy Saturday.
For Easter, I will read the Easter story from a children’s storybook Bible and gush about Jesus’ great love for us and this most beautiful and important day of celebration in our church year. When I finish, I will prompt them to respond as we do in church to “This is the Word of God, for the people of God,” with “Thanks be to God.” Even from a distance, the rituals we perform around the reading of the Word are still available, and still comforting.
The important thing is to make eye contact with the camera, express your love for the children of your church, and give them a blessing straight from your heart.
Distance Ministry to At-Risk Kids
Some of us are particularly worried about some specific kids in our ministry. What about the child who is shuffled between households due to a divorce custodial agreement? What about the child whose family is food insecure? Who are the children in our churches whose parents are both working outside the home? Or not working and therefore not earning income at all now?
While we truly miss all the children in our churches right now, there are ways to be especially intentional to those we lose sleepover. We may not be able to drop in or have personal contact with them, but here are some ways to reach out. Remember, meeting basic, physical needs is every bit as important as meeting spiritual needs right now.
- Holy Listening—if you haven’t heard of Holy Listening before, it is simply offering a special time to truly listen to a child. You can learn all about Holy Listening from Rev. Dr. Leanne Hadley’s website. If you offer Holy Listening to your families, they can schedule a time for a personal video chat between a child and an adult leader (make sure that a second, unrelated adult is nearby for Safe Sanctuaries adherence). Use symbols such as a candle, paper and crayons, hieroglyphics, emoji charts, or other items that kids can choose from to express themselves. Ask them questions, and give them space to answer. End by assuring them of your love.
- Food Delivery—families will usually hesitate to ask for food or financial help until they are truly desperate. If you know that a parent has lost income, or that a family was already food insecure before all this, then assume that they need our help. Use benevolence funds or take up a special collection to deliver basic food items (in a no-contact manner) to families who can use them.
- Consider Internet Alternatives—some families may not have access to the Internet, or if they do, they may not have enough devices available for kids to join a Zoom call with you. If you suspect this is the case for children in your church, consider getting in touch the old-fashioned way! Write them a letter, and here’s the kicker: be sure to include a self-addressed, stamped envelope with stationery so they can write you back! Include a survey for them to fill out, with questions like “What am I doing for fun?”, “What was the hardest part of today?”, and “What are my prayer requests?”. Instruct them how to fold and put the letter in the mail back to you, and use any info they give you to provide for their personal needs.
- Prayer—this seems so simple as almost to be a cop-out, but it is most definitely not one. Prayer is the powerful underdog that we have at our disposal. I’ve taken to writing “Prayer Page” at the top of my journal some days, and then just writing down names as they come to me. Hide the children of your church in your heart, and ask God how you can minister to them during this time. Lift up the families of your church to the Lord.
Balance and Self-Care
There are a lot of ideas here, but the cliché we have all heard about self-care is true: we cannot pour from an empty cup. It’s possible that the best thing you can do to care for your household and the children of your church is first to care for yourself. Journal, pray through a Psalm, call your mom, color a picture, or take a nap. Remember that God is with you and that God’s mercies are new every morning—claim those mercies for yourself in gratitude.
God bless you in your current pandemic children’s ministry, whatever shape it takes!
Sarah Flannery is the author of the Children and Family Ministry Handbook. She has led ministries for children and families for the past 15 years, both as a church staff person and a volunteer. After graduating from Asbury University with an English degree, Sarah earned her master's degree in Family Sciences from the University of Kentucky. She currently serves as Assistant Pastor at First United Methodist Church in Lexington, KY, where she leads in children's ministry, supervises other ministry teams, and provides pastoral care to church members. She and her husband, John, parent two boys, Thomas and Jack, and live with an alpha cat named Annabelle and a goldendoodle with zero chill named Ripley. Sarah hopes anyone reading her books will find that in her stories of hit-or-miss ministry experiences, they also can discover new ways to live out their callings to serve and disciple families.