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!

reflections on running a church toddler group (1)

This post is long overdue. In September 2012, two friends and I set up a new toddler group at church. In July, I handed over leadership to one of these friends, having been expecting to be relocating, and intended to write some reflections on what I’d learned through its leadership. However, it’s taken me three months to eventually get round to it, and my friend Izzy is now well established as the new leader. (Is there any point apologising for my tardiness anymore? You’ve come to expect it, right?)

Tuesday Tots was set up because we wanted to bless families in York with a safe, joyful environment in which children could play and parents could connect. From the start, we were keen to make it a place where our faith could be talked about in an open way with those who wanted to know more. But here lies a delicate balance: how do we incorporate our faith without ramming it into people’s lives? Because, after all, families don’t come to these sorts of groups to discuss religion – they come so that their kids will learn how to socialise and get to play with different toys. Parents come to gain some adult company, make new friends, and receive support in their parenting endeavours. They come because to stay in the house all day with a small child can be unbearable.

But they don’t come to hear about Jesus. Why would they?

And yet if we believe anything as Christian parents, it’s that God is interested in our parenting, that He longs to refresh us after sleepless nights and comfort us when we feel sad about some aspect of our child’s development or attitude. He longs to wrap His Fatherly arms around us and tell us we’re doing a great job, that our children (and us) bring Him such immeasurable delight, that He knows the sacrifices we make daily for our children – and that He’s hugely glorified by them.

In other words, to try and encourage families using just our own resources can only go so far. Ultimate refreshment, peace – or whatever these families need – comes from God.

Through hearsay and experience, I know that some church toddler groups make those with no faith feel pressurized and isolated – whilst others tiptoe around their faith, assuming that those who come to their group couldn’t possibly ever want to know about something so stressful and disengaging as the gospel (you know, the one that tells us we’re unconditionally loved and forgiven by the grace of God…), and if they do want to know, well they’ll just work it out for themselves through us being nice to them.

No – from the very start, the Tuesday Tots leadership team was clear: we wanted the group to be an oasis for families in our city, somewhere they would find acceptance, value, encouragement, peace, joy, hope, love and coffee in unlimited quantities. And, because these things come from God (yep, even coffee), we wanted there to be opportunities for those who were interested in God to find out more.

Looking back over the last year-and-a-bit, it seems the initial vision has worked. Our families know we’re Christians. (For to be secretive about this would be deceptive, and deception to those we’re serving would be unthinkably disrespectful.) We start with a sensory/interactive Bible story, which seeks to engage the little ones whilst making our beliefs clear as crystal to the grown-ups. But those who aren’t interested just rock up later – no sweat. They don’t mind that we’re doing a Bible story, and we don’t mind that they don’t want to hear it. We don’t want to force our beliefs onto people: we don’t need to. God’s pretty good at changing lives.

There’s also a lending library for the grown-ups available throughout the morning. I think it’s an incredible resource. We parents often feel a bit brain-dead in these early years of parenthood. We may be off work (temporarily or permanently), and not feeling like our minds are being engaged by anything much. Free books are a great way to say “Look, we don’t think you’re stupid. We reckon you might be looking for something to get stuck into for you. Go on, take a book and carve out a few minutes of luxurious reading time for yourself. You deserve it!” Many of the books are to do with marriage and parenting. Some are novels. Quite a few are Christian books. Again, there’s an opportunity to explore faith. But unforced. Jesus didn’t force anyone to believe.

I currently have the privilege of running an Alpha course at Tuesday Tots. It’s something we were praying about for a while, and suddenly everything came together to be able to offer it to our grown-ups this term. Funnily enough, once we started to advertise, it seemed that quite a few of our grown-ups wanted to do it. What do you know – God actually has a decent sense of timing.

The delicate question of “How Christian do we make the group?” is one we are constantly thinking about, chatting through and praying over. I think we have it right, in that our regulars include Christians, Atheists, and everything i nbetween – but we’re always keen for feedback. Ultimately, our aim is to bless families – not to preach at them. But if we can be a forum in which those who are interested can learn more, then brilliant!

I have just added a ‘1’ to the title of this blog post. Oh dear. There will be more to come, but I’ve just spotted the word count. Over and out for now.