Emily Peck McClain describes the very real challenges children, youth, and families face during this time of upheaval and distance from physical church. She offers practical suggestions for how congregations can meet their material, spiritual, and emotional needs.
Those who minister with families are facing difficult challenges in these days. When schools are closed children suffer the loss of much more than classroom education. Many schools serve breakfasts and lunches at free or reduced rates, and often send home backpacks full of food for the weekends. Many provide books, school supplies, coats, and clothes to children who need them, as well as access to nurses and counselors. Schools provide community and contribute to a child’s cognitive, social, and moral development. For children who endure abusive homes, school can be a sanctuary and the place where abuse is identified and reported. For many children in our communities, despite a virus raging outside the walls, it is not safer to be at home.
Being in ministry with children, youth, and their families during the pandemic isn’t all that different than being in ministry with them any other time. People need to be fed, safe, and loved.
Kids who are at home in this extremely difficult time have spiritual and religious needs, as well. Online worship is the safest option for many people now. But just as adults grow weary of Zoom worship, so do kids. Zoom Sunday school just isn’t the same. And I hear from frustrated youth ministers that teenagers are just plain over it when it comes to youth group on Zoom. But as virus numbers climb in different areas of the country, distanced church is likely to be reality for many in the foreseeable future.
So how can we keep ministering to our children and teens and their families? There is no one solution, certainly not one that will be helpful in every context, but these possibilities might offer a way forward.
1. Ask families what they need.
The best way to find out what families in your congregation and community need is to ask them. Reach out through phone calls, emails, or surveys to learn what types of material, emotional, and spiritual support is needed.
2. Know what community resources are available.
Those who want to minister to the needs of the children in a community should be aware of what food provisions are available for those who would normally get food in school. Are all days covered? All areas of your town or city? You can reach out and connect with other social service organizations who are looking out for families in your area and offer to help in whatever way they need.
3. Provide safe, internet-accessible learning spaces and tools.
As working parents struggle to imagine how they will work and care for their children if school is virtual for the fall, the church might be able to help. Maybe the church has a parking lot or green space where a tent can be set up with tables and chairs and the WiFi signal from inside boosted to reach outdoors. Kids who would otherwise need to find a public hot spot could be on church property instead. Maybe the church could offer the use of computers or tablets for these kids, too.
4. Think beyond Zoom for meeting the spiritual and religious needs of families.
When it comes to meeting the spiritual and religious needs of kids and youth, they may not participate on Zoom as you’d hoped. Socially distanced visits to their homes might go a long way to remind them they have a minister who cares for them. The truth is that when we care for others in our churches, we are tending to their spiritual needs. Reminding kids that they aren’t forgotten and that you and God still love them is extremely important. You may be able to put together packets for worshipping and learning at home. Sending letters, cards, and books with meaningful messages will help. Offering scripture verses on hope will remind them that when people have endured difficult times in our faith history, they have come to God with their grief and found solace and hope.
5. Engage the congregation in supporting families.
Enlisting the help of others in your congregation to connect with kids and their families reminds them they are part of a community of faithful people, even if they can’t be together in person right now. Can people in your church sew child-sized masks for the kids in your community and pass them out with a blessing attached? Can your community offer specific prayers for families with children and teenagers at this time? A prayer for missing the first day of school, a prayer for when a friend is diagnosed with COVID-19, a prayer before COVID-19 testing?
6. Create new rituals.
There may be rituals you can create for your community — a ritual for grieving the loss of fall sports, theater, and band, or a virtual Homecoming ritual. Youth groups are coming up with all kinds of creative socially distant ideas for gathering. This is a wonderful time to connect with others who are in ministry and share ideas and brainstorm together. Find something to just try and see how it goes. Gather a group of families, kids, and teenagers to evaluate how it went and see what new ideas it might spark.
In the end, being in ministry with children, youth, and their families during the pandemic isn’t all that different than being in ministry with them any other time. People need to be fed, safe, and loved. People, including our youngest ones, need rituals and prayers to help create meaning when our lives are in upheaval. When the church helps to meet these needs because of their love for God, it is meaningful ministry, even if it’s not done the way we expect.
Originally published by the Lewis Center of Church Leadership. Republished with permission by ResourceUMC.org. Dr. Emily Peck-McClain is the Visiting Professor of Christian Formation and Young Adult Ministries at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, DC. She is also an ordained elder in the New York Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.