What Should Our Church Consider When Reopening Our Children’s Ministry?
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It’s been nearly two months now since many of our churches gathered. And we’re beyond ready to be back together again. We miss the harmony of congregational singing and the joy of friends and families fellowshipping together in the church halls. This past week, some states began their phase-by-phase reopening plans. Very soon, churches will be able to hold in-person meetings again. When that time comes, it’s important that church leaders have clear plans outlined to help ensure that everyone—and especially the most vulnerable populations—remain healthy.
One essential area to think through carefully is the church’s ministry to children. Children’s ministry thrives on a culture of trust and a reputation for safety. In the spirit of cultivating and maintaining that culture, here are 12 things to consider when reopening your children’s ministry and a list of phase-by-phase recommendations.
- Involve a team of leaders in your decision-making. As you are putting your reopening plan together, involve as many voices as possible. Certainly pastors and staff should collaborate; it’s important to be on the same page. But with children’s ministry, it’s essential that parents and volunteers are also part of the planning process. You might begin by calling or sending a survey to each of the families in your church in order to gauge their interest and readiness to return should the children’s ministry reopen. Next, recruit a leadership team made up of staff, parents, and volunteers who can provide you with feedback about your plans. There is wisdom in a multitude of counselors. As Proverbs 11:14 (ESV) says, “Where there is no guidance, a people falls, but in an abundance of counselors there is safety.”
- Bathe your planning process in prayer. One of my hopes for this time of pandemic is that all the uncertainty has exposed in us our desperate need to depend on God. Remember, “the heart of man plans his way, but the Lord establishes his steps” (Prov. 16:9). We must trust the Lord with our whole heart, depending on him to unify our teams, give us wisdom, and make our paths straight (Prov. 3:5–6).
- Begin rebuilding your volunteer team right away. If you haven’t already started, your volunteer retention and recruitment efforts must begin now. A team of leaders and volunteers will be necessary to prepare the ministry for each new reopening phase. Here’s what I mean. When groups of under 10 or 50 are allowed to meet in your state, you’ll want to start gathering a small group of volunteers each week to help with preparation tasks such as deep cleaning classrooms or preparing activity kits for kids who will soon be sitting in the worship service with their parents. The early level of responsiveness from your volunteers in this preparation stage will help you to gauge the viability of your plans for later reopening phases.
- Make your discipleship plan scalable. The federal government as well as state and local municipalities have recommended that reopening occur in stages. Small churches may be able to resume somewhat normal activities when groups under 50 or 100 are allowed to meet. But medium-size and large churches will need to think about how to scale their equipping venues. Small groups that typically meet in homes—as well as more traditional Sunday School classes that will now choose to meet off-site instead of with larger numbers at the church facility—will begin to gather first. Children’s ministry leaders should think about ways to encourage these groups to minister to kids as they gather. You might consider recruiting a group of volunteers to organize care boxes with story books, games, crayons, and coloring pages that can be packaged and delivered to each group. As larger groups meet, these same activities can be scaled up for small children’s ministry classes and then larger ones.
- Begin with what’s essential. Before social distancing, many church calendars were packed with activities for children—Sunday School, mid-week gatherings (such as R.A.’s, G.A.’s, or Awana clubs), Vacation Bible School, summer camps, sports programs, and even Bible drill. As we reopen gatherings, most churches will want to launch the nursery and preschool programming that takes place during Sunday gatherings first. Pastors will feel the understandable need to provide young parents—for the first time in months—with a distraction-free worship environment. Beyond this initial offering, children’s ministry leaders should take some time to evaluate which of the programs they offered before are the most essential and fruitful for family discipleship. Begin by relaunching those programs first and staffing them with your best volunteers. If the economic impact of the pandemic leads to church budget cuts as many predict, children’s ministry leaders will want to retain the programming that is most effective in reaching the lost and making disciples—and it will be easiest to keep the programming that has reopened first.
- Be ready to dance. As gatherings reopen, phases will be subject to change as new information pours into local and state municipalities. There’s a possibility that we will jump back and forth between more and less restrictive phases. Church leaders need to develop a plan for dancing back and forth between phases as well as a logistics plan for a potential second wave of outbreaks. I spoke with Mallory Hammond, kids ministry director at Christ Presbyterian Church in Nashville, Tennessee. She suggested adopting a Phase + 7 strategy. To cultivate trust and to give ample time to overcommunicate with families, she’s considered waiting seven days after each new reopening phase is announced before reopening additional children’s ministry activities. Her goal is to reduce the number of abrupt cancellations and disruptions to family schedules.
- Keep things clean and sanitary. Take extra precautions to ensure your children’s ministry facility is clean and that it remains clean. The Malphurs Group recommends creating a specific cleaning checklist for every classroom, placing stations for sanitizing in strategic locations around your facility, and encouraging frequent handwashing. Within the children’s department, this will involve a deep clean before the church doors reopen and eliminating the majority of classroom toys so that between-gathering sanitizing is kept to a minimum. For now, plush toys, books, and any food items should be eliminated from classrooms and placed in storage. Larger churches that have the capacity may want to rotate which classes are used during each service time. This will allow one team to sanitize a set of rooms while the other set of rooms receives children. In addition to cleaning the facility, kids ministry team members should be reminded to wear gloves and wipe down all surfaces during diaper changes and when providing restroom assistance. If you use check-in computers, touch screens, or iPads, it’s best to have one attendant at the check-in station—wearing gloves—who checks in each family so that only one person is touching the keyboard or screen during each service. Take every precaution to emphasize cleanliness in word and deed; this is essential for building trust with your congregation.
- Continue to take socially isolating seriously. Government agencies have already recommended that families sit six feet or more apart during worship services. Where possible, follow the same encouragement in your classroom environments—setting up tables with six feet of distance between each seat. You will also want to adjust the curriculum so that activities are low-touch. And be intentional about directing families to use separate entrances; this will involve clear signage and carefully thinking through your facility’s traffic patterns. Mark Smith, pastor of the West Seattle Expression of Hallows Church in Washington, is making plans to designate larger-than-normal overflow areas for families so that nursing mothers’ and “wiggle” rooms are not overcrowded. Some churches are planning to set aside their entire fellowship hall for this purpose.
- Keep classroom numbers small—especially for toddlers and preschoolers. When we reopen children’s ministry, toddlers will be the hardest age group to socially isolate. Infants can be held by workers apart from one another at a safe social distance. Older preschool and elementary children can be taught to social-isolate. But this is impossible with young preschoolers who are mobile but have not learned more mature levels of self-regulation. For these reasons, classroom caps will probably need to be smaller for this age group. Some local churches are planning to require pre-registration for all children’s classes, and they’re capping their classes for younger age groups at four or six children per classroom. Children’s ministries that gather large groups of kids for worship or music times will likely need to suspend these assemblies, and it may also be necessary to suspend programming for older age groups in order to have enough space for younger children to meet without overcrowding. Be sure to follow state and municipal guidelines for daycares and churches in your area.
- Take care of vulnerable volunteers. Many local churches will multiply the number of services they offer in order to accommodate everyone while still practicing social isolation. The potential danger of this approach is putting key volunteers and staff at a greater risk of infection. Before you ramp up services, slow down and consider the impact on your team. Volunteers who are part of vulnerable populations should not be asked to serve until it is safe—potentially until there is a vaccine. Also, think about the volunteer who may serve during multiple gatherings. Are you doing what is necessary to keep this individual healthy if serving at service after service puts her or him at a greater risk of being exposed to asymptomatic children?
- Make your sickness policy clear. Put it on repeat: Both adults and kids who demonstrate signs of sickness should stay home. Post your policies about sick children and volunteers throughout the children’s ministry area. And be prepared to follow the government recommendations regarding wearing masks and taking volunteer temperatures before services; these encouragements are likely forthcoming. Seeing their teachers wearing masks may be a difficult experience for kids at first, heightening social anxiety. But, as Aaron Rothermel, pastor of discipleship and families at Wausau Alliance Church in Wausau, Wisconsin, suggested to me, “if masks are introduced as the new reality, providing fun masks for kids, or encouraging parents to make them could be a way to soften this experience.”
- Communicate clearly and repeatedly. If you feel like you’re overcommunicating; you’re not. Repeat your plans and policies through regular venues, on your website, and in signage throughout your building. And don’t rely on whole-congregation communication. As a children’s ministry leader, you should communicate directly with parents about your plan. Outline any new caps for your classrooms as well as changes to your sickness policy, snack policy, and normal traffic patterns. If there are times when some classrooms are closed for cleaning, be sure to make signs that declare, “Closed for sanitizing.” Be clear in your communication but also gentle, assuring your congregation that these steps are taken for their safety as we slowly move toward a new normal.
My goal in working through this list of considerations was to be thorough, but when we approach something unprecedented it’s impossible to be exhaustive. As you think through a reopening plan with your team, you’ll discover more considerations that need to be taken into account. As you do, know that God has placed you in the role you have for just this time. So, confidently shepherd the flock of children that is under your care and watch over them, not because you must but because you are willing and eager to serve them (1 Pet. 5:2). Reopening is going to be hard work, but I believe there will be joy in it, because our children’s ministry teams will—once again—be working toward this goal together.