I have attended almost every conference that The Young Clergy Women Project has hosted, but the conference in Nashville last month was the first one that offered childcare as part of the registration process. The conference committee performed the amazing feat of transforming two Divinity school classrooms into kid and baby-friendly spaces. They thought of everything: cribs, a changing station lined with disposable paper, a potty seat and step stool in the bathroom, a room with a comfortable chair and sofa so moms could pump milk or breastfeed their babies, a refrigerator for storing milk and snacks, and, of course, a number of caring, trained childcare workers.
I traveled to Nashville with my second child; he was so young that he hadn’t even started daycare yet. I kept him with me most of the time, but I was so thankful that there was a comfortable place to feed him, a clean place to change him, and a place where I knew that he would be well cared for if he was fussy, or if I just needed a break.
On Monday evening, I entered the chapel for our opening worship service. All along the perimeter of the room, moms with babies and young children sat comfortably, some nursing, some bouncing babies, some gratefully handing their children to friends who had offered to hold them. My heart filled with gratitude for this place so full of life, for these women whose song was punctuated by squeals and screeches, and for the TYCWP conference committee, whose thoughtful planning allowed so many clergy moms to fully participate in the conference. I am happy to report that the committee charged with planning The Young Clergy Women Project’s 2014 Conference (Minneapolis, early July) is working to line up childcare for next year, as well.
All of this got me thinking about ways that churches can make our spaces and communities friendlier for families with kids. I tapped into the collective wisdom of my colleagues in The Young Clergy Women Project, and together, we came up with these (relatively) simple things.
Intentionally welcome children in worship.
Children’s programs such as Sunday School and nursery care are great, and will go a long way in attracting families, but it’s also important to make room for children during worship. We are, after all, the whole body of Christ, young and old alike. Opportunities for multigenerational interaction are increasingly rare in the lives of many families. Even if the kids at your church are in programs for much of the year, make some time for everyone to worship together. Offer a children’s sermon every few weeks, and you might just find that the adults listen better than they’ve ever listened. Put in some songs that children know. Let kids lead readings or usher or serve as acolytes. Ask a Sunday School class to write the prayers of the people. Invite children around the font to witness a baptism. Let them help pour the water or splash around a bit. Have a basket filled with shakers, tambourines or drums, and hand them to children for the closing hymn. Watch the smiles spread across the faces of your parish elders as they hear this joyful noise.
Speaking of joyful noises (and not-so-joyful ones, too), an encouraging word from a pastor or other parish leader goes a long way in easing the mortification that many parents feel when their child starts wailing or shouts something “inappropriate” during church. If you truly want to welcome children in church, church is going to be a little bit noisy. Keep a kind-spirited sense of humor about it.
Make space for kids within the worship space.
Create a kid-friendly area within your worship space. Take out a pew or two to make an area where kids can stretch out. Include books, a rug and a few soft toys and make sure that they get cleaned regularly. Consider the placement of this area. It should be relatively close to an entrance to the worship space. While a few families like to be close to the liturgical actions, many parents of busy-bodied kids prefer to be near the rear of the worship space, where their kids’ behavior isn’t on display for all to see. Rocking chairs can be a blessing to nursing mothers and anyone else holding a fussy baby. Make sure that the books that you select for your children’s area, if religiously themed, actually reflect the theology of your denomination or community.
Be inviting, but flexible.
Even if you have a well-equipped nursery with wonderful staff and beautiful Sunday School classrooms with wonderful teachers, not all families will want to make use of these services. For some families, that hour on Sunday mornings is one of the few times of the week that they can be together all in one place. Some children are shy and have a real struggle being separated from their parents, especially in a new place. Train greeters and ushers to let parents know about activities and programs for children, but do not pressure families to make use of these services.
Install changing tables in convenient locations.
Whenever possible, changing tables should be located on the same floor as the worship space and in both men’s and women’s restrooms. Better yet, designate a single-stall restroom as unisex and put a changing table in there. Dads change diapers, too. My husband, who is out around town with our kids a lot more than I am, is particularly sensitive to this. If he is out at a restaurant and there is a table in the women’s restroom but not the men’s, he will ask the manager to stand guard outside the ladies’ room until he emerges with a freshly changed baby. Equip bathrooms with a lidded diaper pail or trash can. For extra-thoughtful hospitality, stock the changing area with wipes and a few sizes of diapers.
Be responsive to special needs.
Visiting a new church with a family of young children is enough to make any parent nervous. For families with special needs kids, visiting a new congregation can be downright daunting. On that first visit, you will almost certainly discover ways in which your church is not equipped to meet all of the needs of a family with a special needs child. Please, please, please do not let that stop you from welcoming them. Ask the parents what would be helpful. If challenges came up during their visit, ask what you might be able to do to make the next visit a better experience. Caring for a child with special needs can be incredibly physically, emotionally and spiritually demanding. Instead of placing the burden of fitting into your community on families that are already stressed, show them that you are willing to change the way that you do things in order to fully welcome them.
Allow children to explore holy space.
Like so many things in the lives of young children, there’s a lot about church that is designated off limits. Yet, many kids who go to church, even very young ones, have some understanding that there’s something special going on. Invite children to participate in supervised exploration of your chancel or sanctuary. Let them dip their hands in the baptismal font. Let them touch the communion vessels. Take them up to the organ console while the organist plays a demo. Have the praise band teach the kids about their instruments. Show them the colors of the liturgical seasons, and let them run their hands along the fabric. Children know this is a special place. Help them to know that they are fully a part of it.
How does your church provide welcome for families with young children? We would love to hear your thoughts in the “Comments” section below.
Editor’s note: The Young Clergy Women Project, including all of the mamas who were able to attend our conference in Nashville because childcare was provided, extends our sincere gratitude to Vanderbilt Divinity School for so graciously accommodating us and our children. We also thank Christ United Methodist in Franklin, TN, Westminster Presbyterian in Nashville and Katherine Hande Smith, the Director of Admissions at Vanderbilt Divinity School, for lending us nursery supplies and equipment.
Photo by Bob Page, http://www.flickr.com/photos/76775365@N00/145815282/ August 21, 2013, used under Creative Commons license.