reflections on running a church toddler group (3)

This is the final of a trilogy of reflections on what it’s been like to lead our church toddler group, Tuesday Tots. My first post spoke of how our group is unashamedly Christian, but with no agenda for others to subscribe to our beliefs. My second spoke of the busyness and exhaustion entailed through running the group. This post looks at the importance of prayer.

I am a do-er. Prayer does not come naturally or easily to me, because I want to be active pretty much all the time. If I’m not engaged in a task on my to-do list, if I’m not feeling ‘productive’, then I struggle. So I’m incredibly grateful that, when we started Tuesday Tots, there were some wise friends around who inspired particular prayer prompts for the group. These prompts slow us down – they remind us that “unless the LORD builds the house, the builders labour in vain” (Psalm 127:1).

Firstly, we always pray for Tuesday Tots before we open the doors. Secondly, we aim to devote an hour or so of our Monday evenings to pray specifically for this group, and other mums/toddlers outreach projects around the city, from wherever we are. Getting together in an evening, when there are young children around and often husbands who work long hours, isn’t easy, but praying in our individual homes at the same time as others still gives us the solidarity of praying with others, in spirit if not in physical presence.

It’s not easy stopping to pray – but, ever since we started Tuesday Tots, I’ve been challenged that unless we’re committing this project to God in prayer, we might as well not be running it. A prayerful friend told me she never takes on a new commitment unless she knows she has the time to pray regularly for it. This sounds so obviously something I can agree with – and yet I still busy my life with action after action, filling every conceivable minute with ‘work’, rotas, good deeds, hospitality, church things, family and friends. All of these are good in themselves, but I know I take on too many commitments/relationships/favours without first asking myself whether I have the time to support them in prayer.

It was prayer which initially fuelled Tuesday Tots. A few of us sensed God particularly asking us to pray for the future of mums and families’ outreach in York, not knowing that just a few weeks later an opportunity would open up to start a new toddler group. God even seemed to be asking me to lay aside a different ministry – when I didn’t yet know what for. So, as Tuesday Tots started with prayer, so it is sustained by prayer. We don’t make decisions without several of us committing them to God first. We don’t make the group more complicated than it is, unless God makes that very clear.

And we’ve seen Him guide us so clearly! From additional volunteers turning up unexpectedly on the mornings we’ve needed most help, to raising our kitty from £10 to £90 in just a fortnight – God has been faithful, and will continue to be as long as we place this group into His hands.

Why am I waxing on about prayer? It’s been my observation that some church ministries – particularly those not overtly linked to worship, evangelism or discipleship – often function with little reliance on the Holy Spirit. Things happen because they always have done, because someone had a great idea, because there seems to be a need. But not necessarily because God is saying Here and now, this is what I want you to do. It feels like many ministries are a slog – and, whilst following God’s plan isn’t always going to be easy, I wonder how much we slog away at stuff which should have been finished long ago (or not started at all)? Carving out time for prayer helps keep us on God’s track.

Those of us who lead Tuesday Tots often feel that God keeps us on the edge – providing just enough of what we need (money, helpers, attendees), but not so much that we stop trusting Him. It’s been an exciting 15 months of relying on Him for the group, and gives us an enormous peace for the future. We don’t know whether the group will last another 20 years or be done with by the summer – but we feel sure that God will sustain it for as long as He wants, and that’s totally OK with us.

reflections on running a church toddler group (2)

(For the first post in this mini-series, see here.)

What is it like to run a church toddler group? Let me tell you what it’s like.

It’s like this: on the morning of the group, your husband leaves for work before your kids wake. Your kids wake, and the youngest needs a feed. Rendered incapable of doing anything ‘useful’, you sit and read to your eldest, wondering just when your youngest will have had her fill, as the clock ticks on and the list of things you need to do in order to get everyone out of the house fully dressed gets no shorter.

Eventually the feed ends. There is no time for a shower, let alone make up or straight hair. Yesterday’s clothes are dragged over three tired and mainly unwilling bodies. Breakfast is chomped down at speed. Teeth are cleaned, buggy/scooter/helmet/coat/shoes debacle begins – and ends – and eventually we leave the house. Charging down the street, it becomes apparent that the buggy may have a puncture, although it’s difficult to tell because it’s so laden down with bags – the kids’ lunches, snacks and cake for the group, story props, books for the lending library… Regardless, there is no time to stop – it’s past 8.30 and that’s late enough, although usually we’d still be in our pyjamas at this time.

We arrive at the hall and carry myriad toys, heavy carpets and books down one flight of stairs. We shift chairs, tables and screens. We lay out books, prepare the craft activity, set up for story time. We make drinks, chop up fruit, put out cups and plates of biscuits. I dash off to take the eldest to preschool. At 10 o’clock I’m sweaty and exhausted and feel like I’ve done a day’s work already – but the doors are only just about to open. And open they do – to a swarm of glamorous mums who had time to do their hair and make up, and didn’t sweat through all their layers in order to set up the room. Then it’s two hours of heavy socialising, followed by another 45 minutes spent reversing the work of a couple of sentences ago, in order to make the hall a pleasant place again.

This is, of course, a slight exaggeration (writer’s license) – not all of the above happens every single week, and I’m happy to say the youngest is now weaned. I didn’t mention the incredible buzz that I feel every Tuesday morning: when I first get out of bed, when I leave the house, when I get to the hall, when doors open. Tuesday Tots is an amazing group of parents and carers, and I love every minute we’re there!

But this doesn’t change the simple reflection that running a toddler group is hard graft. Physically, mentally and emotionally, it’s exhausting, humbling and sometimes even demeaning. Why do it? Why serve other mums when we’re struggling enough with our own families?

Recently, I’ve been reading Paul’s letters, and have been struck by how often he refers to hard work – either his own work, or that of others. I’m struck by how much of it seems to be physical graft – it’s not all about preaching and praying – and passages like this one, from 2 Corinthians 6 (using the Message translation), have really encouraged me that our efforts are not in vain:

Our work as God’s servants gets validated—or not—in the details. People are watching us as we stay at our post, alertly, unswervingly . . . in hard times, tough times, bad times; when we’re beaten up, jailed, and mobbed; working hard, working late, working without eating; with pure heart, clear head, steady hand; in gentleness, holiness, and honest love; when we’re telling the truth, and when God’s showing his power; when we’re doing our best setting things right; when we’re praised, and when we’re blamed; slandered, and honored; true to our word, though distrusted; ignored by the world, but recognized by God; terrifically alive, though rumored to be dead; beaten within an inch of our lives, but refusing to die; immersed in tears, yet always filled with deep joy; living on handouts, yet enriching many; having nothing, having it all.

If you’re involved in a ministry which just feels like hard work, perhaps these verses will encourage you too. Just imagine the impact that your lifting and carrying, pushing and pulling, setting up and packing down, could be having in eternity. When we’re feeling at our weakest, our generous God gives us His strength and energy. When we choose to give this back in service to others, they see His grace towards them. They see the God who created the universe, yet washes our feet. And this may just change their lives. Let’s believe it!

parenthood and ministry

This is part of an originally small, but now bordering on self-indulgent, series about discipleship as a parent of tiny children. Missed it? You can catch up here. Go on! Go on, go on, go on!

A year ago, my friend was praying and had a very clear, if initially bizarre, picture for me. I was in a pear orchard (like, how normal is that? Do they even exist??), and I picked two pears. I ate one, and put the other in my pocket ‘for later’.

It took several weeks for my frazzled little brain to work out the significance of this, but then I got it. The pears were different ‘ministries’ God had put on my heart. One (ministry to mums and young families) was for now; the other (worship leading) was ‘for later’.

Now I’d been involved in leading worship, one way or another, since I was 11. In some churches I’d had significant responsibility for the development of musical worship. Of course this had taken a backseat since having children, but I’d had some opportunities to be involved in worship leading between the two kids arriving, and was looking forward to returning to the worship team in the autumn, once Missy was weaned. It appeared, however, that God had other ideas.

In hindsight, it all makes sense. What my friend was really praying for, as she was given the picture, was the future of outreach to mums and families in our city. Little were we to know that, just weeks later, God would begin to lay the foundations of a brand-new toddler group – and call me to be heavily involved. At the time I was peaceful, if slightly perplexed, by the picture. Now, I’m massively grateful that God was calling me to slow down: there’s no way I could have continued with both ‘pears’ the way things turned out.

Sometimes parenthood can leave us feeling out-of-the-loop, ministry-wise. We long to use our God-given resources to serve the church, and it’s not like we feel un-talented anymore, it’s just that parenting kind of eats at those resources until we feel we have nothing left for others. When I’m in and out of the cell group I apparently lead, because my boy won’t settle in creche without me, how can I possibly facilitate a Bible study or develop deep relationships with other members? When I’m nervously glancing at the clock, wondering how much more milk my baby can possibly extract from me, because we need to get out of bed and rush into town to set up toddler group, how can I then bear to show my face in front of a large group of mums and their kids, knowing that I’ve impatiently rushed my own daughter through her morning feed?

Ministering to others outside my own family has, in the past, felt like a massive juggling act, where I end up dropping all the balls, and prioritising the additional ones rather than the basic three I’d been given to handle. It has left me feeling guilty for putting my family second, then jubilant for finding ways to involve my kids in service to others – and then just flippin’ drained.

But God is teaching me the beauty of these well-worn verses in 2 Corinthians:

But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.

(2 Corinthians 12:9)

When we insist on struggling forward in our own strength – which, let’s face it, is hardly at its peak during early parenthood – it’s like we’ve forgotten to call on the power of the risen Christ to act in all situations. But when we take a break from using our gifts because we’re just too exhausted – well, perhaps we’ve forgotten that we can call on the power of the risen Christ to act in all situations.

So why tell you about the pears? Because this was God’s confirmation to me that He still has stuff for me to do: that I’m not defunct just because I have two tiny people to care for. They are my main ministry, but they have also opened up other opportunities which God has called me into.

Now, a year on from any sort of worship leading, I find myself preparing to lead a slot this week at the Burn 100-hour prayer and worship event. The following week I’ll be giving two separate talks on two separate challenging subjects to two separate groups of students. Do I feel equipped for any of this?

Paul had his weaknesses – mine are a lack of sleep, time, coherent thought, completed conversations: need I go on? But, like Paul, I’ll ‘boast all the more gladly’ because, however much of an idiot I look, if God’s power and glory are displayed through this frail, shattered, incoherent mess of a desertmum, then that’s good enough for me.

Is this a good series? Are you enjoying it? Any of it? Be honest! I have a couple more ideas then will probably wrap it up. Is that a good idea? Are you bored yet?

parenthood and prayer 2

A few friends wisely commented that my previous post on prayer was pretty scant on the ‘how?’. This post seeks to address that issue.

I am no expert. But I am desperate to continue being a disciple of Christ, despite the pressures of having small children. John Ortberg suggests we should be ‘training’ rather than ‘trying’. This makes a lot of sense. Have you ever tried to lose weight? Tried to go for a run? You may have had some success, but ultimately when we try to do something, the focus is on a point which we haven’t yet reached (a goal weight or a running time), and therefore we’re bound to feel like we’ve failed.

When we’re in training, however, the focus is still on where we would like to be, but there is an understanding that we can’t fast forward to that point immediately. We realise we can’t lose three stone overnight, but we know that if we train ourselves into different eating habits, more exercise, etc, then that overall goal is more than possible.

So I’m applying this principle to my prayer life. I am not discouraged when I have a busy day and pray little. But I’m in training for a more disciplined life of prayer. Here are a couple of practical things which help me.

Pray without ceasing (1 Thessalonians 5:17)

As I ‘train’ to live a life of prayer-on-the-go, I figure I will start with the times when I am pushing the buggy. As a prompt, I have attached this band to my buggy handle:

Pray without ceasing.

It reminds me to pray (if not conversing with Joel or anyone I might be walking with). Great. A reminder. But what do I pray for? Baby-brain kicks in, and if I wasn’t in training then I’d have nowhere to start. But I am – so my decision is that my buggy prayers will focus first on whoever is in the buggy. Next, I will pray for wherever we’re going, whatever we’re doing, and the people we’re likely to meet. Once I’ve done that, we may be at our destination – if not, then my praying brain has usually been warmed up sufficiently to remember other prayer needs.

Prayer prompts

I am a visual learner…images help me to concentrate. So I made a prayer board. As Al says: “Bored of prayer? Then try the board of prayer!” (He was very pleased with himself for that one.)

I’ve been wanting to make a prayer board for ages…finally, the planet of Spare Time has aligned itself with the planet of “Eventually-got-a-noticeboard-on-Freecycle”, whilst the moons of “Got-round-to-printing-off-some-photos” and “Collected a few prayer letters” have collided…and it’s done. It displays photos of family, friends and godchildren we are praying for. There are pictures, logos and prayer points for the organisations we support. There is space to add new prayer requests.

In the interests of confidentiality, I can’t show you the rest of the board. Sorry – you’ll just have to imagine! One day, someone can teach me how to pixellate…

It’s a helpful place to keep prayer letters where they’ll actually be seen, read, and hopefully prayed through. It stimulates my weary mind when I know there is stuff to be praying for, but can’t remember exactly what. Effectively, it makes better use of my (limited) prayer time, as I can launch straight in, rather than spend three minutes trying to remember what I’m meant to be praying for, then get interrupted by a waking child or an incident involving wee. It’s also totally fab for encouraging Joel to pray! He loves looking at the pictures of his friends and family, and praying (or asking me to pray) for them.

God made you…YOU!

My friend Hannah reckons a lot of it comes down to recognising what type of people or pray-ers God has made us. If you’re an activist (me), then perhaps doing something, and then using that as a prayer stimulus, is the way to go. Her example was: buy a box of chocolates, then pray about who to give them to. If you’re a prophetic pray-er, then you could commit to praying prophetically for a specific person. As Hannah says, “If we work within our gifts to start with then perhaps it will open paths for different types of prayer”.

This is just the type of discussion I hoped my blog would start! So – over to you – what are your practical ideas for prayer?

P.S. One more day to enter this giveaway!

yummy mummy, letting things slide

Recently I scanned one of those ‘what’s hot/what’s not’ columns at the front of a lifestyle magazine. Under ‘what’s not’ I was interested to read that ‘yummy mummies’ were on their way out, because they were more prone to depression than ‘working mums who let things slide’. Oh dear, I thought. I’m a stay-at-home mum who lets things slide. Where does that leave me? My house is one dusty, crumby, snot-filled backdrop for a toy-bomb which explodes daily – and I don’t even have a paid job I can blame.

Seriously, stuff just gets deposited round my house and I know not how. I spend my days tidying and tidying, only to find that at the end of the day the house looks worse  – or, at best, the same as when we woke up. A friend recently told me how she feels most of her days are spent keeping mayhem at bay. Nothing really moves on from the start to end of the day, but nothing gets significantly worse. That’s a win.

Our bedroom, successfully illustrating my point. It’s always the last room to get attention!

But I wouldn’t have it any other way. Much as I love the decision I’ve made to stay at home with my kids, it doesn’t come without sacrifice. The last thing I want to do in ten years’ time is look back and regret this period of my life. If I’m going to forego my career for a while, I don’t want to forego my children too.

And the truth is, some things have to slide. I just can’t spend proper time with the kids whilst also keeping up with all the housework. As part-and-parcel of Al’s job, we get a large house – a great perk, but totally overwhelming in terms of keeping it immaculate. There are enough times in the day when I have to say “Not now, Joel”, “In a minute…”, “I just have to do this first…” because of housework that needs to be done (preparing meals, loading/unloading dishwasher, laundry) that engaging in any additional hoovering, dusting and general cleaning would surely be at my children’s expense. Things I clean today will be dirty again tomorrow, whereas time I spend with my children today will reap huge benefits tomorrow. It is massively important to me that my children and I have a good, communicative relationship. If I don’t sow the seeds now – then when?

So, on the one hand, I’m riled by the assumption that it’s only (salaried) working mums who let things slide. But on the other hand I’m comforted by the suggestion that this more laissez-faire approach to life has its advantages. Whoever we are, mummies or not, setting overly-high expectations for ourselves is not likely to result in much peace.

Oh, and for the record – I dislike the term ‘yummy mummy’ in most contexts. If you think I spend my time shopping, lunching with friends and frequenting spas, while my husband earns mega-bucks and someone else cleans my house, then I have two words for you. Clergy wife.

The happy little monkeys. They don’t mind a bit of dirt.