Who do we think we are?

Exploring the influence of culture and context on our ministry among children

There are many good things about travelling to visit new places. It gives us an opportunity to step outside our normal working environment to see our ministry with new eyes. There is also the challenge and the blessing of meeting difference, always a stimulus to personal and spiritual growth, but perhaps even more so when that difference is subtle, in a context where we feel we should and can recognise much that is familiar while at the same time there is a distinct otherness about the places and situations we encounter. For most of the 17 of us from the Children’s Ministry Network, southern Ireland was just such a new place to visit, deceptively similar in terms of language and geography and within the western Christian world, but also in so many ways a very different place, where we could learn not only about other approaches to our work but also where we could reflect on what that might mean for us in our ministry among children.

Our host was Rev James Mulhall, who did a splendid job in pulling together a fascinating and enriching conference. Through a carefully crafted programme of speakers and visits, we all grew to understand more deeply some of the blessings and challenges of Christian ministry and mission in this part of Ireland, and, in particular, in the Diocese of Cashel, Ferns and Ossory, which contains no fewer than 6 Cathedral towns serving this large rural south- eastern part of the Emerald isle. It is a part of the world where Christian identity is complex and conflicted, with roots in a painful history and with worries about an uncertain future.

This important background was opened up for as through two really helpful presentations, the first from Jacqui Wilkinson who lectures in Primary Education in Dublin City University and who is a leading RE specialist for the 176 Church of Ireland Church Schools; and secondly by Bishop Michael, whose expertise in history helped us to understand how Ireland has arrived where it is today and in particular he focused on some of the past wounds that sadly the Brexit vote in the UK could well reopen for Ireland as a whole.

Jacqui explored the crucial role played by Church Schools in the Church’s ministry among children, while acknowledging that faith schools are currently under threat from those who would wish to take religion out of the education system. The Church of Ireland as a disestablished Church and, as its own Province within the Anglican Communion, is a uniting force between north and south, straddling the political and religious border which has historically divided this land. It is a Church that has embraced ecumenism but it is also challenged as to its way forward in evangelism, particularly perhaps, as the Bishop observed, because its membership is very small – only 2.8% of the population identify as Church of Ireland and only 15 per cent of this number attend church regularly – but also because it has such a huge number of buildings to maintain. There is nevertheless still a residual belonging to the faith among many Irish people and, as Jacqui observed, this is probably the last generation who still remember the Christian story and could pass it on.

There was no doubting the spirituality of children and young people – something which Jacqui has researched. However, going to church was another matter, particularly with the very strong pull towards sports events on Sunday mornings. The Catholic Church has met this challenge by offering Saturday evening Mass and this led to an interesting discussion about how the Church of Ireland might also need to rethink when and where church happens for this generation. Ministry and mission among children was hugely dependent upon a large army of volunteers, many of whom were very busy and often untrained. Nevertheless, Sunday Schools still flourish in many places, though monthly rather than weekly attendance by many is now the norm. Most of us in the group could recognise this story as one which we have encountered in the United Kingdom and it led to a dialogue about what we could learn from each other to enable the faith here to be kept and passed on.

On the evening of our first day we heard some local stories of this is happening in this part of Ireland. Although many of us were very tired from long and disrupted journeys that day, nevertheless presentations from Carolyn Good and Rosemary Wallace – both Head Teachers of Primary Schools – as well as Rev Alec Purser and his daughter Emma, were both stimulating and informative. It was interesting to note what innovative and ground- breaking projects among children were happening in schools that helped them both understand their own faith history as well as hear the Christian story afresh, and this challenged us how we talk about faith on a Sunday morning with those who still come to Sunday groups. Alec talked about the success of the summer camps in this part of the world and how it brought generations together, as young teenagers could be leaders and work with the younger children. There was no doubt that this was an excellent discipleship experience for young people such as Emma, who told us that it was relationships that matter most when it comes to passing on faith: ‘people may not remember what you say but they will remember how you make them feel’. Finally, we heard from Rev Jane Galbraith, who like James is a Children’s Diocesan Officer as well as being a parish priest for many churches – in her case 12 in County Clare – who talked about her work across a very sparsely populated rural diocese. One positive message that came out again and again from all the speakers was the strength of community in this part of the world, which because of the size of population in the small towns is naturally intergenerational. This was something good on which the church could build a positive future.

Bishop Michael’s talk on the second day was entertaining and stimulating. He raised questions about Irish identity and the relationship between the Church of Ireland and the Catholic Church. Any evangelism needs to be conducted with great sensitivity lest it be felt that one Church was poaching another’s flock. Relationships locally can be positive but boundaries still needed to be respected. One of the greatest mistakes, Bishop Michael observed, following the Reformation in Ireland was that the local Irish language was not part of the equation. English was used rather than the local vernacular and this has had far reaching consequences for the mission of the Church in Ireland.

However, not only has there been a problematic past which has shaped Irish identity, the future too is uncertain. Ireland has always had a good relationship with Europe and a ‘friendly closeness’ with the UK but this is now in jeopardy since Brexit, which could undermine the complex negotiations on which the peace process was built in Northern Ireland. He also noted that children’s ministry for many years in Ireland had all been about conflict resolution and peace-making rather than faith-building. All this might be opened up again because of Brexit. Conversations around this presentation focused on how we saw ourselves. What is our identity and how does that affect our understanding of the faith and, importantly, how we pass on that faith to our children? Thankfully children have resilience and ‘a bigger vision of the possible’ and the Bishop thought that maybe he and many of his generation are like Moses ‘seeing a promised land’ but not able to enter it themselves. Being with children is being with those who may well see this vision realised.

The Church of Ireland has been slow to break into new areas and it may be that new ways of passing on our faith, such as are far found in approaches like Godly Play, and new ways of being Christian together expressed in intergenerational worship, could be this new ground and new vision. He was thankful for our visit because he felt we could help them see new ways of breaking through barriers which previously they had thought were impenetrable. He was also thankful that The Holy Spirit blows powerfully outside the Church bringing true renewal and reflective discipleship.

On the Tuesday afternoon, we travelled to visit two Cathedral centres, in Kilkenny and then Waterford. Here we heard from leaders who embodied the very tensions and challenges that we had heard spoken about in the presentations. At the Cathedral in Kilkenny we met Rev Catherine Poulton, who is Dean, along with Claire and Linda, who works in one of the linked rural churches. They still have a strong Sunday School and they are working hard to pass on the faith creatively with the children who come. These are faithful ministers of the Gospel but also people who recognise that culture is changing and that Sunday morning attendance is under threat. It was interesting for us to reflect what we would do in their situation to maintain the good that they have. One suggestion was to listen more carefully to the children themselves and allow them to influence patterns of church and worship. Children can lead us into new creative ways, if we listen to their voices.

At Waterford we met the Dean, Maria Jannson, who takes a different approach to the challenges facing the Church of Ireland today. She has made this Anglican Cathedral a centre for creative partnerships with the other Christian groups in the city and a venue for innovative, ground-breaking exhibitions and conferences. It was clear that the presence of many ethnic groups within Waterford has played its part in enabling Maria to think out of the box when it came to the role of the Cathedral. She has made it a rallying point against some of the racism that has emerged in the city, making it a ‘city of sanctuary’ where the Joy Bells could ring out against such prejudices.

They have put on events that welcome migrants, those without a voice or others who have been marginalised. She feels that it is important to make this unique space a creative hub, and, while no doubt she may have upset some within the traditional ranks of the Church of Ireland, it was clear that her maverick approach was winning many new people back to the faith and was re-awakening the God-flame that had been burning low in some people’s lives. This work was however organic and paradigm-bending (her own words) and so perhaps it was not a model that others could easily copy, but nevertheless it gave us another side to the picture of ministry and mission in this part of the world.

This was a rich conference, not only with lots to think about that many of us will be processing for some time but also great memories of our time together with good food and on the final evening the opportunity to enjoy traditional Irish music in the bar! And indeed, we had additional sessions alongside our focus on the context and culture in Ireland, with times of prayer and reflection and time looking at ‘children’s wellbeing’ based on the first chapter of the recent Children’s Society report on this topic. For this we chose different ways to think through the findings in groups, addressing the question of how we might make opportunities to explore wellbeing and resilience among children both in an intergenerational and peer group context. We all felt it was important to help them think through what defines our ‘self-worth’ and indeed to explore what the Bible says about this. As Christians, we all too often belittle ourselves and contributions both in church and our community for fear of becoming victims of pride or arrogance. We also thought about how we might help parents and grandparents not to buy into ‘designer culture’, particularly for girls, and maybe also whether we needed to challenge Christian publishers when they ‘conformed to this world’ by producing Princess or Hero Bibles! Of course, being real and authentic with each other, is bigger than gender, and learning how to be truly present with the other was something we all need to work on.

Following our business meeting on the final day, we spent a short while reflecting on what we would take back from this conference. This was set within the teaching of the parable of the talents in Matthew 25, asking ourselves what gifts we were taking away from our time in Ireland and how we would be investing them for the good of those among whom we minister. The following brief thoughts were expressed:

  • We need to find ways to let our children young people lead us rather than feeling we always need to lead them.
  • We need to find ways to enable all generations to value each other within our churches and communities
  • We should recognise, value and celebrate the passions God has given us.
  • We must remember that small numbers are not a barrier to God’s work.
  • It is good for us to see ourselves through the eyes of others.
  • We had received the gift of hospitality that we should pass on.
  • The outsider can often help us see things we have missed.

Our brief time in southern Ireland left its mark on all of us. We were all very moved by the welcome we had received and the willingness of so many people to share their stories and their time with us. Each of us must work out our Christian faith in the place and among the people that God has put us and it was encouraging to see how this was being done in this part of Eire. Finding our identity, understanding who we are and what has made us who we are, is a vital part of our own Christian journey and impacts on our ministry. Only when we know where we’re from, where we’re going and how we will be sustained on the way, can we hope to have the grace and humility to serve others with integrity and authenticity. It is no accident that St John records at the beginning of the passion narrative, just before Christ stoops to wash his disciples’ feet, that he knew ‘he had come from the Father, was returning to the Father and that the Father had given him all things’. Because he knew who he was, he could serve and give himself up for each one of us. This is a truth and insight for us and for our children to seek after, wherever we come from.

Ask and you will receive… research and you will find!

A record number of us gathered at the International Mission Centre in Birmingham this November for our first conference with a new logo and a new website!

Our focus was on current research into children’s ministry training and the ongoing conversations around the family ministry research which our network co-sponsored last year. We were very grateful to Sian Hancock and Sara Barron who shared their findings and insights into the current state of training for children’s ministry across the UK and for introducing us to a wide variety of research projects in this area; and also to Gail Adcock who facilitated sessions unpacking how her research has been shared and explored in a variety of vision days across the country.

All four sessions helped to map the children’s and family landscape and give us a better understanding of some of the new challenges for our work as we face both financial pressures and cultural shifts in society. It was appropriate then that we began our conference with some reflections from Richard Knott’s time in Malawi which reminded us of our dependence on God when it comes to receiving the resources what we need and even the knocking at the door in our attempts to find the right way forward for our ministry.

Sian and Sara have provided a very helpful summary of their sessions which have been sent as a separate attachment to members along with posters that include different sorts of research that are happening in the areas of: church life; discipleship and evangelism; and playful spirituality and wellbeing. We also spent time creatively with building blocks deciding what should be the key theologies, knowledge and skills in a healthy and fruitful training course on children’s and family ministry. It was very good to get the bigger picture of what research was going on and therefore what still needs to be done, as well as to who is doing this training and to what levels. The worrying trend is that training for ministers is minimal and that opportunities are in fact shrinking with more and more providers fishing in the same pool.

As part of their session, Mary Hawes also reported on the CofE research called ‘Rooted in the Church’ which is soon to be made public along with research into church toddler groups. In the latter case it was important to think through what are the distinctives of a church- based toddler group and what are its missional opportunities. For ‘Rooted in the Church’ a group of young adults aged 16 to 30 were asked what had kept them in church and themes such as inclusion, equality, leadership and safe emotional space emerged , along with the interesting finding that an intergenerational culture of church is much more likely to retain young people.

This theme of retaining children and young people was picked up in our theological reflection based on a chapter from a new book of research from America called ‘Growing Young’. In groups we were able to make connections between the authors’ understanding of ‘keychain leadership’ and the importance of taking risks with our children and young people by sharing responsibilities with them at a much younger age and giving them significant roles in the body of Christ. ‘Young people do not want to sit comfortably on the sidelines but are drawn to churches and leaders who help them get in the game.’

At the end of our first day together we used an abbreviated version of ‘open space technology’ to break into groups and discuss topics of interest which included:

  • LGBTI young people in mission
  • Gender identity
  • The synergy between Sunday church and fresh expressions of church for children
  • How do we teach challenging children in church?
  • Using the Guardians of Ancora app
  • How do we intentionally help create a culture of all age discipleship in a local churches?
  • How can the value of what we do and learn with children influence structures, theology and life in the wider church?
  • A new resource from Northern Ireland called ‘Jigsaw’

On the morning of the second day, Joy Raynor’s reflection reminded us that research is nothing new and that diverse family life has been around for a long time. A church where all are known as ‘kin’ with shared, extended responsibility for the children should be part of our understanding of church and particularly today with a growing importance of grandparents and grandparent figures for young people.

This helped us prepare for Gail’s presentation which reminded us of the scope and the findings of the ‘We are family’ research and the 12 different sorts of family as depicted on the set of coasters produced by the Methodist Church. Family work includes both ministry and support although they should not be seenasseparateentities. Gailhasbeeninvolvedinfacilitatinga number of days around the country based on this research exploring a wider understanding of family and therefore a wider spectrum of ministry among families. This in turn opens up further questions of how we become intergenerational not just multigenerational and how we do faith together. Following discussions in groups here are some of the headlines that emerged:

  • How much do churches still only look inwardly and not outwardly to the community?
  • There is family diversity but how much is this reflected in most churches? And if not, why?
  • Insights into the millennial generation of parents suggest that courses may not be the best way forward but rather tailored, issue-based conversations.
  • Many churches have a sticking plaster approach to employing children’s and family ministry and do not consider the bigger picture.
  • The need to balance intergenerational activities and space for peer group support
  • Different parenting styles today should be influencing how we connect with thepresent generation of families
  • Is enough time given in ministerial training to an understanding of family work andhow this is best supported in a church?
  • We need to support conversations between the different groups of people involvedin appointing new workers
  • We need to be careful in our assumptions about families, particularly using wordslike ‘broken’ or ‘struggling’ to describe them, as this implies a false assumption as to what is right (or even Biblical). We need us walk alongside families prayerfully and humbly.

In her second session, Gail introduced us to a YouTube clip entitled ‘Not in our town’ in which we heard children and adults talk about their different sorts of families. One young boy of 11 said prophetically, ‘you shouldn’t just go to the people who are like you but reach out to everyone.’ https://www.niot.org/nios-video/our-family

Before breaking into discussion groups again, Gail shared with us her 6 hot discussion topics for this area of work:

  • The transforming narratives of family life
  • A ministry that fits
  • Ministry that is joint enterprise
  • Relationships matter
  • Work beyond Sunday, including faith at home
  • An appetite for training

Gail also talked about the unfortunate language of blame that is often expressed about families who can’t make it on Sunday morning, and also the challenge to model being church outside the formal structures of church. Too often our church language around families is elitist and off-putting. An incarnational ministry is not just about being in the same place but about understanding the mind set of those with whom we work.

Lots of important strands came together in this conference that link our understanding of children within families today and the best way forward to equip and train those who work among this particular group. Children’s work is never in isolation and increasingly we need to recognise and understand the bigger picture of how the generations connect around the children and indeed the ways those children and young people connect with the generations above and below them.

As usual our network, with its wide expertise and professional experience, meant that discussions were lively, informed and thought-provoking. There are many strands from this conference that the CMN would like to pick up and take further and so our challenge is to work out not just the best way to support each other but also how to inform and better equip those children’s and family ministers who work within our denominational networks.

Our researching has helped us to find many new things about our ministry and the church in the UK today and our job as a network is to go on knocking and asking so that we might find the best way forward to grow God’s kingdom in the lives of the children and families in our care.

A time for listening and a time for speaking

When you bring together a group of professionals working with children and families, their shared passion and experience far outweigh any differences there may be among them. This has always been true for the Consultative Group for Ministry among Children, where those representing a diverse range of national organisations and denominations have an opportunity to sit down together with those engaged in similar ministries from around the UK, to reflect together on what is most important about our work and focus on what unites rather than divides us. Although we often do have outside input from visiting speakers or have been involved in running a conference for a wider audience, there is also great encouragement and inspiration to be had when we simply come together to listen to and speak with each other, as was true at High Leigh this January.

Our recent meetings have largely been driven by the work around our research into Family Ministry (along with a national conference and the Core Skills book) and an in-depth look at our own constitution, aims and terms of reference. This January conference was a moment to gain some perspective on where we are now and to look forward with a fresh start as the Children’s Ministry Network (CMN) by beginning to explore what it means to better fulfil our new strap line namely, ‘to promote reflection and best practice for the whole church’ when it comes to ministry among children in the church, within families, and in the community.

The way forward for our network

For our first session, Mo Baldwin facilitated a discussion on what we understood by ‘children’s ministry’ and how and whether this was different from being a children’s worker or advocate. Ministry should be a holistic word, although it is often limited by Christians in its application to a church context and to matters of faith. Mo shared something of her own ministry as it relates to the welfare of children which needs the support of good theologically-sound government policy on their behalf. If we as CMN are to promote a broader understanding children’s ministry then maybe we will need to seek input and expertise from a wider constituency. This led us on to wonder who else might be invited to share in our conversations.

Three key words emerged in our discussions, namely that ministry needs to be incarnational, proclamational and relational. The cultural context in society and church has changed since CGMC was set up over 40 years ago. Since then many of us have travelled in our understanding of children’s ministry – something on which we reflected briefly through a visual presentation at the start of this session. It has been a journey away from the more didactic educational model of the Sunday school leader with his or her group of children separate from the main body of the congregation towards a desire for greater integration of the generations where faith can be shared, sometimes without always being named, through the example of old and young ‘being church’ together. Ministry is about service and this is something all ages can experience as we encourage our networks on a similar journey of re-imagining our commitment to each other in the body of Christ as a community of mutual faith formation.

While holding on to this vision, we’re all well aware how much work there is to do to help churches even to begin to travel a similar journey. The reality of many churches’ attitudes towards children is still painfully disappointing. Our advocacy for children is for the sake of the whole church and not just the child and this has been mapped over the years in the range of seminal documents that CGMC has produced. Our newly named Children’s Ministry Network should be a place both to stand together and to shout out together on behalf of children because there is still much to do to affect cultural change within the church – in effect to change ‘the rule book’ when it comes to ministry among children.

In recent years as a network we have changed how we work and this change in our ‘way of being’ is in itself a model which we can encourage others more locally to imitate. We are called to be prophets to the church on behalf of children but also to live that out in our own way of listening and acting together.

The way forward for the Family Ministry research

Penny led us in our next conversation, for which we broke up into two groups to think about how we can carry forward the momentum of Gail’s important research and the impact of the Liverpool conference last September. The notes made during this session will be circulated to the group including the key recommendations on which we voted by ticking those suggestions we thought were most important.

Gail is already involved in courses at Cliff College based around Core Skills for Family Ministry and she has been leading road show days across the UK introducing the research, going through the modules in the book and helping equip trainers to use the resource in their local contexts.

Alan Charter told us about the Children Matter initiative called ‘Faithfull Generation’ and invited us to join in with a day conference at IMC in Birmingham (26th May) entitled ‘Let’s talk family’. The aim is to disseminate best practice of faith formation in families and in church drawing together a spectrum of resources in a similar way to the ‘Will you make a difference?’ DVD launched some years ago.

In this context it was also important to hear from Mo about forthcoming research from the Children’s Society looking at the impact of neglect in families across the board – particularly emotional neglect. This should be fed into our thinking about ministry among families and particularly among those Christian parents who are too busy, too overwhelmed and who just don’t know what to say to their children. This is an issue with which our Children’s Ministry Network needs to engage the church: namely ‘how can the whole people of God be an emotional as well as spiritual support for our children?’

The way forward among our members

Our early evening session on the first day was a more relaxed sharing together in threes, looking at our personal work focuses for the year ahead and how some of our earlier discussions in the day might inform those. We heard encouraging stories about a knitted Christmas tree in Birmingham and the flotilla of soul boats in that city’s Cathedral; Sarah shared a challenging story about a child’s ministry to her neighbourhood which she had heard at the Hope Forum discussions; and Mary told us about a more positive approach to research among 11 to 30 year olds, asking the questions, ‘why do you stay in church?’ and, ‘what contribution did your parents make in this?’ – it is called ‘Rooted in Church’. Finally we heard the encouraging story of the most recent translation of the Bible into Welsh. We ended this part of the evening by praying in small groups for each other.

The way forward for faith formation

As part of our new way of working in the Children’s Ministry Network, we have decided that every conference should include an opportunity for theological reflection based around a significant piece of writing by a leading theologian. On this occasion we considered a chapter from Faith Forward (published in 2013) and written by John Westerhoff, entitled ‘And so the gift can be given’. John Westhoff is someone who many in our network have longer respected as a prophet in our generation, although sadly he is often less well known among college theologians. He urges us to keep rethinking and has admitted that he regrets writing his many books, simply because it can encourage people to become fixed in their views and not be prepared to change. This is particularly true of his theory of faith development. The chapter invited us to recognise that we are in a period of transition – one in which we need to regain the intuitive dimension of faith with an accompanying need for creativity in exploring it. ‘One Christian is no Christian’, he writes, and ‘community is an important gift from God’, where faith can be formed through our common story and common interests. He warns of the danger of becoming specialized and having a chronological understanding of people’s faith development. The way forward was doing things with, not to or for, each other. Unsurprisingly the whole group agreed that they had found this chapter inspiring.

The way forward for large events?

After our mid-morning break we welcomed Kyle Cottington to our conference who shared with us a computer based ‘child check-in service’ that has been produced by his company iknow Church Software (www.iknowchurch.co.uk). It involves wristband scanning in of children to a large church Sunday school, or, as came out in our questions afterwards, it could be useful too for one-off large events. They work with CCPAS and there are all sorts of additional record keeping possibilities that are part of the system. There was a standard cost for large churches, who would use it regularly, but it seems that there might be the possibility of negotiating a reasonable one off-cost in which most of us would be more interested. Aled would be ideal to lead any negotiations!!

The way forward for 2016

We ended our time a High Leigh with our usual Business Meeting at which we were able to draw together some of the threads of our conversations and also look forward to conferences this year and beyond. Most immediately there is the ECCE conference, which the UK is hosting this year, at High Leigh in May. The working group urged us to book into this as soon as possible so that we might sit alongside our European counterparts and colleagues in children’s ministry in the same way in which we have richly done so at our CMN conferences in this country. The theme for the week will be ‘accompanying children on their life long journey of discipleship’ and there are full details of the programme available on our website. Judging from the feedback from our members who have attended previous ECCE conferences, this will be another unmissable opportunity to enrich our own journey of theological reflection and help us to promote best practice across the churches in Britain and Ireland.