Children’s Ministry Without Burnout: a book review

I first became aware of Mark DeVries and the work of his organization Ministry Architects and his books on Youth Ministry like Sustainable Youth Ministry (IVP 2005), Family-Based Youth Ministry (IVP 2004), and Build A Volunteer Team (IVP 2015). I’ve long been convinced that the best practical theology being done anywhere, begins in the youth ministry world and Brandon Mckoy, Andrew Root, Kara Powell, Pamela Erwin, have transformed my thoughts, not only on youth ministry but on ministry and mission in general. Devries work is less theological than some of these other folks, but he’s eminently practical, promoting systems and structures (e.g. a functional database organization, delegation, and systemic plan for volunteer recruitment and management).

8847I’ve often thought that most of what he says about youth ministry is broadly applicable to other ministries. When I read Building Your Volunteer Ministry: A 30 Day Change Project for Youth Ministry, I was pasoring a small church. The most natural application I saw for Devries (and Nate Stratman’s) wisdom was in our children’s ministry. Sustainable Children’s Ministry: From Last-minute Scrambling to Long-Term Solutions. Is essentially the wisdom of Sustainable Youth Ministry adjusted and applied to the realm of children’s ministry. While Mark DeVries is still the headliner, his co-star author, Annette Safstrom, is the children’s ministry consultant for Ministry Architects and the narrative voice throughout the book.  She took Devries ideas, adjusted them, and shows how they work in a children’s ministry context.

The book has 14 chapters. In Chapters 1 and 2, Safstrom tells of her shift to a more systemic approach to children’s ministry. When she first entered the children’s ministry world, she put in lots of hours and lots of ideas but no systems in place. She got burned out by the ministry. Her second foray as a children’s minister had more structure, and when she handed off her children’s director job, she left the church in a good stead.

Chapters 3 through 7 describe the systems approach to children’s ministry.  While many children’s and youth ministries focus on the fun event, like VBS and fun activities, an overemphasis on ‘the icing’ without attention to the whole cake, leaves children’s ministries with nothing but a sticky blob (31-32). Saftstrom and Devries argue that in order for ministry to thrive, Children’s ministers need to be as attentive to maintaining the dancefloor as they are in doing the dance (33).  Chapter 4 describes the staffing, resources, and investment needed for Children’s ministry to thrive. Safstrom and Devries have observed several factors common to  healthy children’s ministries: $1000 annual investment in children’s ministry per child attending, 1 full-time staff person per seventy-five children in the children’s ministry (or the equivalent staff hours), 1 adult volunteer for every 5 children, and a children’s ministry which makes up about 15% of the worshipping congregation. Safstrom notes:

I’m not saying you should spend more money on your children’s minsitry. I’m saying you should match your expectations to your investment. If you’ve only got the fund to faithfully engage ten children, then your church’s leadership needs to be crystal clear that they have decided to have ten children involved (and be happy about it). One surefire way to suck the energy out of a children’s ministry is to invest at one level and expect results that are twice (or ten times) as much as the investment would merit (46).

This is a key insight. Children’s ministry is like any other ministry. You get out what you have invested. Not more.

In chapter 5 and 6, Safstrom and Devries point at the particular ‘machines’ which serve children’s ministry—databases, calendars, volunteer recruiting and equipping plans, communication, attendance tracking, visitor and MIA follow-up, safety and security plans, check-in systems, facilities, and equipment maintenance. Chapter 7 describes creating visioning and mission statements, goals and plans.

Chapters 8 and 9 tackle the practical challenges of delegating tasks, managing a volunteer team and developing a volunteer rotation plan. Chapter’s 10 and 11 help Children’s ministers navigate (and see their role) in the realm of wider church politics, and how to partner with parents and families. Chapters 12 through 14 focus on self-management for children’s ministers (e.g. self-care, support structures and mentoring, maintaining spiritual health, and ways to stay emotionally healthy).

There are also several appendices with helpful plans, checklists and sample statements for putting Devries and Safstrom’s systemic approach to action.

This is a really practical book which will serve Children’s ministers well. Like the Sustainable Youth Ministry counterpart, the principles are broadly applicable, though it is nice to see the attention given to the particular context of children’s ministry. I recommend this book, especially for children’s ministers that are feeling overwhelmed by their ministry and are looking for ways to make this more sustainable. I give this 4½ stars. ★★★★½

Notice of material connection: I received a copy of this book from InterVarsity Press in exchange for my honest review.

 

The Axe Man: a kids book review

Ever wonder where Christmas trees came from? Claudia Cangilla McAdam’s Kristoph and the First Christmas Tree describes the story:

It was Christmas Ekristoph-and-the-first-christmas-treeve in the year of our Lord, 722,  Kristoph, an orphan boy, went with missionary priest, Boniface through the countryside, hurrying to reach the village before nightfall. They  come upon a group of people in the forest worshiping an oak tree, . There is a boy bound in their midst. Boniface intervenes, the pagan worshippers sneer. To prove that the oak was powerless and that Boniface’s God was not, Boniface fells the oak with a single stroke of his axe. The sacred oak was destroyed, but inside its trunk was a fir tree as big as man.  Boniface called it “the tree of the Christ Child,” and instructed the men to bring this tree into their home, warning them “it will not shelter evil deeds, loving gifts and lights of kindness.” He chops down the fir tree with a single stroke of the axe, and the men carry it away. Boniface, Kristoph accompany the rescued child, the son of a Chieftain, to his home with the promise of Christmas dinner awaiting them. They find another evergreen along the way, and cut it down for their celebration. This time it takes three whacks for Boniface to fell the tree. The decorate the tree, topping it with a beeswax candle.

This is the stuff of legend. There really was a Saint Boniface who led the Anglo-Saxon mission to Germania. He really did fell a Great Oak tree worshipped by the land’s pagan inhabitants (somewhere near Hesse, Germany). Did Boniface cut it down with one axe strike? Was there a fir tree growing from the stump? Who’s to say? I wasn’t there.

McAdam’s telling of the story is a fun folk tale for children, accompanied by Dave Hill’s illustration (Hill was the illustrator for the brilliant and beautiful Hildegard’s Gift). The story is entertaining for kids of all ages. The book closes with a prayer of blessing for a Christmas tree based on St. Boniface’s words. I give this four stars! ★ 

Notice of material connection: I received a copy of this book from Paraclete Press in exchange for my honest review.

The 8lb 6oz Baby Jesus: a kids’ book review

I am a father of four and I appreciate a good Christmas picture book, something that explains the meaning of Christ’s coming, in ways which are accessible and vivid for my children. And of course, cultural sensitivity is important too. There are too many Jesus books where Jesus, Mary and Joseph appear in Northern European guise, instead of as olive-skinned Mediterarian Jews. That Baby in the Manger by Anne Neuberger discusses how one Catholic parish wrestled with how Jesus appeared in their annual Christmas crèche and how they expressed the message that Christ came for one and all.
that-baby-in-the-manger
Anne Neuberger, the author, is a religious educator and children’s author who has produced teaching resources on Catholic customs and kids’ books on saints, notably Saint Francis & His Feathered Friends (Tau Publishing, 2013), and Saint  Kateri Tekakwitha, Lily of the Mohawks  (Novalis, 2013). That Baby in the Manger is illustrated by Chloe Pitkoff, a Brooklyn artist and student at Davidson College.

The story begins with first graders from the parish school visiting the church during Advent to look at the Christmas crèche. Mr. Gonzalez sits in the pew, watching and listening as the students discuss how Jesus is missing, not yet placed in the crèche, and the ways the Jesus used in the church crèche has blond curls and blue eyes. Father Prak explains to the children that the real Jesus probably had dark hair and eyes and that their statues are just there to help them reimagine Jesus in the stable.

Mr. Gonzalez remembers a similar discussion with his daughter when she was a little girl. He goes home after the children leave, and digs out his daughter’s old doll, swaddles it and returns to the church and lays it in the manger, offering it as a more accurate proxy for baby Jesus. On Christmas Day the church is full. The first-grader each came to Mass lovingly carrying their own dolls, with a wild diversity of shapes and sizes. They sang Away in a Manger and each placed their doll near the manger.

The story shows how Jesus came to us all. Neuberger’s words are illustrated by Pitkoff’s drawings—watercolor and colored-pencil sketches—in vibrant color.  I enjoyed this book a lot, as did my kids (though, it didn’t hold the attention of my two-year-old). This is a perfect addition to our Advent & Christmas library. Four stars -★★★★

Notice of Material Connection: I received a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review

Preparing for Advent with Paraclete Press: Part 1 (Family Edition)

Advent is almost here and if you are hunting for Advent devotionals, Paraclete Press have some great ones. In fact, for the past few years, Paraclete has been my go-to publisher for books for Advent and Lent.  They are the  publishing arm of the Community of Jesus, an ecumenical Christian community in the Benedictine monastic tradition. Two family oriented books I’m really excited about are: All Creation Waits and Look!

All Creation Waits

all-creation-waitsFor Advent last year, my family read through Gayle Boss’s All Creation Waits, which counted down the days of December to Christmas with woodland creatures. In the northern hemisphere the days leading up to Christmas are dark and cold. Boss had us look to animals, some asleep, others with only wit and instinct to carry them through lean winter days. From the animals we learn what it means to wait. And Christmas morn we read of Jesus the light come into the world.

All Creation Waits may be my favorite devotional we’ve read as a family. Last year, my wife and I read this with kids (then ages 9,7, 5 and almost 2). The two-year-old paid no attention but the other kids listened with interest, excited to discover how each creature waited out winter. And of course David Klein’s beautiful woodcuts brought each animal story to life (Here is my post about the book from last November). This is a perfect daily reader for the season, and not just great for kids. It helped me see the season a little more and discover how to wait through dark days.

LOOK!

lookA new book I’m excited about is Look!: A Child’s Guide to Advent & Christmas by Laura Alary, Illustrated by Ann Boyajian.  Alary and Boyajian previously collaborated on a similar book for Lent and Easter, Make Room, which my kids also loved (my review of that book is here).

Alary describes the traditions of Advent (e.g. the Jesse Tree, the Advent Wreath) and what the season of Advent means. She explores what it means to wait by inviting us to look back, look around and look ahead. We look back at the people of Israel suffering in oppression but awaiting God’s action on their behalf. We look around, the way John the Baptist watched and waited for the time at hand and saw the Spirit descend like a dove on his Jesus after he baptized Him. We look ahead, the way Mary heard the angels word’s, consented and became pregnant with her savior and lord. And yet nine month she carried him (and 30 years raised him!). With Mary we learn to say yes to the things God may be calling us to.

Alary has practical suggestions of how we can step out and be more kindhearted and generous with others. This is what most excites me about this book. When my kids read Make Room they came away with a new appreciation for the liturgical season and the ways attempt to make more space for God in our lives. This book invites kids to pay attention and I wonder what they will see!

Notice of material connection: I received copies of these books from Paraclete Press in exchange for my honest reviews

 

Directing My Kid’s Spiritual Formation: a book review.

As an erstwhile pastor and a full-time parent, I have a vested interest in my kids’ spiritual formation. So I was excited to dig into Jared Patrick Boyd’s book, Imaginative Prayer: A Yearlong Guide For Your Child’s Spiritual Formation. 

4625Boyd is a Vineyard pastor, spiritual director and founder of The Order of Sustainable Faith (a missional monastic expression). He has previously authored a book on composing a rule of life (Invitations & Commitments: a Rule of Life, The Order of Sustainable Faith,  2014).

In Imaginative PrayerBoyd provides a template for leading your children through a year-long transformative prayer practice (actually 42 weeks).  The book begins with a six-stanza  ‘Imaginative Prayer Creedal Poem (11-12).  Each week has an Ignatian style imaginative prayer designed for kids ages 9-12, reflections for parents and mentors, suggestions for pressing deeper into each theme with your children (through activities, research, and conversation), and suggestions to get your children to journal about. Even seven-week cycle includes a week of review which incorporates questions, activities and memorizing of the section of  Boyd’s creedal poem that corresponds to that section. The 42 weeks cover the topics of God’s Love, Loving Others, Forgiveness, Jesus the King, The Good News of God, and The Mission of God.

I read through this book a couple of weeks ago and took an atypical amount of time sitting down to write this review. Part of it is, this book came out in July, so me, or anyone reviewing it now, has not used the book as it was intended (a 42-week spiritual journey with kids). I actually have not used this with my own children, though I spoke with my daughters about it and they are super excited to try this out and I think it is a great way to harness their imagination to deepen their connection to God in Christ.

Essentially what Boyd provides, is a roadmap for us parents to slow down and become spiritual directors for our kids. Boyd tested the material with kids ages 9-12 because children these ages are old enough to grapple with significant questions and abstract concepts but also young enough to have a ‘sense of playfulness’ which makes the material more engaging (303-304). However, I plan to use this with my 8 and my 10-year-old. Having previewed the material, I like Boyd’s sense of the larger Christian story and the way he employs contemplative practices in an engaging way for kids.

On the topic, I have a big problem with a lot of Christian children’s curriculum because they focus almost exclusively on getting kids to behave better, promoting a form of moralism. Or they impart a faith formula that kids ought to believe. What is refreshing about Boyd’s approach is that is a transformative invitation to prayer.

I may revisit this later, but for now, I give this an enthusiastic 5 stars. Now for the practice of prayer. . .

Notice of material connection: I received a copy of this book from InterVarsity Press in exchange for my honest review

Where’s Mikey? a kids book review.

I have heard the stats that only two in ten millennials attend church regularly. Why? I blame Martin Handford, creator of the Where’s Waldo series (Where’s Wally in the UK). Because of him, a generation of kids, in the late 80’s and 90’s, stopped looking for Jesus and instead asked ‘Where’s Waldo?’ It was more detrimental to childhood faith development than Bill Nye the Science Guy explaining away theism.

978-1-4964-2243-9Thankfully, we now have Bible Sleuth: New Testament. Mike, an adventure-loving little boy, sporting an orange and red painter’s cap, a red and white striped t-shirt and yellow overall shorts (an outfit which was last seen in 1991 worn by R&B sensations TLC) explores the New Testament. Unlike Waldo, who trekked across the globe, urban centers, and visited other cultures, Mike restricts his exploration to Bible Stories alone. So when you hunt for Mike and other figures in each scene, you are sure to only learn the Bible and not any new, subversive ideas. Doesn’t that sound much safer?

I’m kidding. There are tons of kids’ search books of a wide variety, and Bible Sleuth stands in a long tradition of Christian children’s books making use of the same idea. Bible Sleuth illustrator, José Pérez Montero has previously illustrated Seek & Find Bible Stories (Zonderkids, 2008, with author Carl Anker Mortensen) and I have reviewed similar kids books here before (see here or here).

Here is the thing though, when it comes to kids book reviews, my critical faculties pretty much go out the window and I end up saying things like, “My kids like it, so I like it.” And this is true again. My oldest, who is nearing ten, my seven-year-old, my six-year-old all enjoy it. My two-year-old likes the pictures though hasn’t demonstrated the patience required to find everything (though he is really great at Where’s Elmo).  All of us get annoyed that invariably one of the people we are looking for in the picture is barely cresting out from the center crease. But such is life.

But one of the things I always try to pay attention to in Children’s Bible books, “How white is everybody?” I remember a friend observing that Jesus’ family once hid in Egpyt, so you know he must have had some color. And yet Little Mike and his pasty legs blend in pretty well to these pages, because of how white all the middle Eastern Palestinians seem to be. At least Jesus has brown hair and not blonde locks, that is until he is surrounded by a crowd of ONLY white people in John’s Revelation 19 vision (and the final scene in the book). Hair color throughout ranges from red, to brown and blonde.[The Tyndale site identifies the author of this book, as Scandinavia Publishing House, which may explain some this].

My kids like it and that means something, but on cultural accuracy and sensitivity, I find this book wanting. I give it a middle of the road review. -3 stars.

Notice of material connection:  I received this book from Tyndale in exchange for my honest review

The Hairy Choose Balloons : a kids’ book review

I’m a fan of John Ortberg. I’ve listened to his sermons on the Menlo Park Church podcast and read several of his books. He is called, with affection, Dallas-for-Dummies for his ability to translate the writings of his late mentor Dallas Willard into the language of the people. Your Magnificent Chooser is a short children’s book designed to help kids understand how to make good choices.

978-1-4964-1742-8This is not a children’s story but a poem designed to teach kids. He explores the things we choose, what bad choices look like, and how God wants us to choose for ourselves. Illustrations by Robert Dunn personify (or creaturefy?) our Choosers as a furry balloon following us everywhere and into every situation. We learn, “a Chooser is a thing/ That is not just for you,/ Because everyone else/ Has their own Chooser too” (17). Ortberg helps children use their Choosers to love others, use  Chooser often and use it to make good choices (just like Jesus would).

Three of my kids are at an age where they appreciate this book (ages 6, 7.5, and nine). We’ve had several discussions since I first read it, on our Choosers and the importance of choosing wisely. They enjoyed it and got them talking. That strikes me as a good book.

I’ve tried to instill in my own kids the importance of good choices. I let them choose things (and sometimes suffer the consequences of poor choices) because I want them to learn to choose and choose wisely. Ultimately, I want them to choose Jesus. We talk often about what good choices are and the options available to them. Ortberg’s book provides a means to deepen and extend the conversation, towards the mundane and the sacred.

This book didn’t grab me the way some of our picture books do, but the kids really liked it.  As a parent concerned that our kids learn to make good choices, a book like this provides language to help kids think about, visualize and understand what good choices are. Therefore, I give this book four stars.

Note: I received this book from Tyndale Books in exchange for my honest review.