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cemetery on a hill at sunrise

Talking to Young Children about Death

cemetery on a hill at sunrise

Dying and the afterlife are difficult concepts for many adults to grasp. If we struggle with articulating it for ourselves, how could kids possibly understand?

Recently a fellow young clergywoman shared a story* in which she was talking to her five-year-old daughter about death. Mom was preparing her daughter to visit the funeral home where the child’s great-grandmother was lying in wake. She was explaining what it means to have a body in a casket but reassured her daughter, “It’s only her body in there.”

Her daughter listened and, trying to understand, said, “Okay. So…not her head?”

As a pastor and a mom of a young child, I am frequently asked how to talk to children, especially young children, about death. Dying and the afterlife are difficult concepts for many adults to grasp. If we struggle with articulating it for ourselves, how could kids possibly understand?

Young children are concrete thinkers. They hear and understand things quite literally. In the story above, the mom was insinuating that the great-grandmother’s soul was with God, but her daughter interpreted her words to imagine a decapitated person. Because young children take everything literally, it is essential that we use terms such as “died”and “dead.” Euphemisms such as “passed away” are confusing and misleading for children. In a way that is appropriate and accessible for each child’s developmental stage, it is vital for them to know the finality of death.

When talking about death with children, it is also essential that they understand life. A good first step is to teach them how the body works. Talk about the vital organs and processes that keep it alive. Help them listen for a heartbeat, take big breaths, feel a pulse. Once this becomes part of the conversation, explaining death becomes slightly easier. Death happens when those organs and vital functions stop working: the dead person no longer eats, swallows, farts, breathes in and out, and so on.

Explaining physical death is a place to start, but the conversation cannot end there. Many more questions are bound to arise, and each must be addressed in order to help children process their grief. This is often where our role as clergy becomes important. We are called in not just to provide pastoral care in a time of crisis but also to help make sense of all that is happening. Read more

When Love Blurs

Helms and her husband, Greg, lead weekly “devos” from their home for neighborhood youth at QC Family Tree.

I know we’re not supposed to have favorites, but let me tell you about my favorite. I met her ten years ago. Her brother was an active member of our neighborhood youth group. He’d walk a few blocks from his house to ours to hang out or participate in an activity. Then, he moved. Their new house was only a mile away and it was important to us that we kept our connection, so one of us would volunteer regularly to go and pick him up for activities. I hadn’t before spent much time at his house, but now I was making several trips a week to his front door.

I wasn’t sure who’d answer the door when I knocked. There were six siblings, a parent, and often a friend of the family staying there. After a few visits, I learned to expect that she and her little sister would be the ones to greet me. I took this front door opportunity to introduce myself and strike up a conversation. Then, I simply asked, “Would you like to go with us?” The girls looked sheepishly back at their mother. Once they got the nod to go ahead, they bounded out the door with excitement and a tad bit of nervousness.

After a short time living away from the neighborhood, the family moved back. Ten years later and these girls have become family. Some seasons in our relationship, we have gone only a few hours between visits. They’ve gone on just about every youth trip, babysat my children, taken care of our dog and house when we were away, listened intently as I’ve preached sermons, gone with us on family vacations, and have nurtured me in some of my most tender moments.

You know the blurry line of being in ministry and being in relationship? Nature or nurture – we’re taught to set boundaries. We’re not supposed to fall in love with the ones to whom we minister. Some might advise refraining even from friendships with congregants. Yet, we’re called to a ministry of love and authenticity. Plus, we are humans who have a deep capacity and desire to love and be loved. This makes boundaries tricky to set and keep. Read more

The Story Bible That Made Me Cry: A Review of Growing in God’s Love: A Story Bible

Confession – I’m a pastor, but I’m not great about reading the Bible with my kids. Maybe it’s because it feels a little bit like work. Maybe it’s because I’m just too tired at the end of the day. Maybe it’s because my kids whine, “Ugh, it’s not even SUNDAY.” Maybe I just know too much about the Bible so when I read the stories I can’t just let them lie – I have to explain and give context. I want to emphasize certain plot points and draw out the untold stories of women and girls. I hope to ask good questions that help them hear the overarching story: God loves us. God loves all creation. God is faithful, even we are not.

I know too well that many of the classic children’s stories can be – or should be – quite disturbing. In “Noah’s Ark” everybody on earth dies in a flood. In the story of Joseph, his brothers sell him into slavery for being a brat. Even the central story of our faith – the cross and resurrection – can be traumatic for young ears and needs to be handled carefully.

As a church professional I own a LOT of story bibles. The Spark Story Bible is my favorite for reading in worship because it’s close to the text of the NRSV but tells stories in an engaging way and has (non-Eurocentric) illustrations which add feeling, meaning, and depth to the words. The Deep Blue Bible Storybook is my favorite bible for parents because it has great study notes that will help parents as they read to their kids. It’s kind of like a parent study bible. The Jesus Storybook Bible is lovely for weaving the scriptures into an overarching narrative which can be really powerful for adults and older children. While these are all excellent works that I highly recommend, they still leave me wanting – especially for a story bible for young children (their intended audience).

Growing in God’s Love: A Story Bible is the Bible I want to read to my children because it feels like it’s written in my voice. The authors of these re-tellings are my colleagues, trusted pastors, chaplains, educators, and even a rabbi. These faithful practitioners of children’s ministry tell the story for kids, offering context and language that suits their understanding. Each story ends with questions and encouragement to Hear, See, and Act in a way that deepens understanding for childrenAnd, sure, adults can get a lot from reading this bible to their little ones, but it’s written perfectly for preschool and early elementary kids who think concretely and struggle to understand metaphor and symbolism.

In order to help parents choose a story that might be helpful or interesting for a particular child or situation, the editors chose to forgo the traditional order of the books of the Bible and group the texts thematically with headings like Beginnings, Prophets, and Listening for God. For example, the Rivalries section has the stories of Hagar, Sarah, and Abraham as “A Family With a Big Disagreement” (Gen. 16:1-16) and “A Family Changes Its Shape” (Gen 21:8-21). While this may throw the biblically literate a bit off-kilter, it is still grouped into the two testaments and follows the basic flow (with a helpful scripture index in the back). The illustrations vary in style, but all are beautiful, and the majority are non-Eurocentric.

But what really makes this bible unique– what brought tears to my eyes– is how it lifts up the stories and points of view of female characters in a way that istrue to the text and to women’s lives. The first eighteen stories in the Strong Women and Men section have women as central characters. With titles like “God Made Sarah Laugh,” “Miriam Hides Moses,” “Queen Vashti Says ‘No!’” and “Nabal, Abigail, and David” the traditional stories gain a fresh and faithful perspective. Read more

Faithful Families: An Interview with Traci Marie Smith

Faithful Families has new material, expanding on Seamless Faith. Which faith practice were you most excited to add?

Though it is a sad practice, I was grateful to write a practice for pregnancy loss. It’s something that was requested in more than one workshop and small group discussion. Losing a child before birth is heart wrenching and awful and it’s hard to know how to talk about with other children. Also, the church hasn’t done a great job of opening up opportunities for families to grieve and remember together. ​I was also excited to add a practice on tolerance and the golden rule for families that are interested in raising children to be kind and knowledgable about religions other than their own. ​

As you’ve shared your books with parents, churches, pastors, and Christian educators, what has surprised you? What stories have you heard of how faith practices have helped children and families to learn and grow? Read more

Pastoring After Orlando

3704240804_76133ef97b_bIn the wake of the shootings in Orlando, you are not alone if, as a clergyperson, you find yourself asking, “What’s a real thing I can do in response to this?”

Members of The Young Clergy Women Project shared some of their ideas over the last few days. Here are some ideas from young clergy women in a variety of denominations and contexts:

Pastoral Care

  • “Call your members who are LGBTQ. They’re scared, they’re hurting, they’re angry, and they may need pastoral care. Tell them you love them and remind them that God loves them.”
  • “Especially if you are white, hetero, cisgendered: Call the people you know who are gay, Latino, LBBTQI, Muslim. Say you are here for them. Ask how this affects them. Respect if they don’t answer. But if they do, be quiet and listen. Just listen. Don’t share your own reaction or what you think that person should be feeling or doing. Just listen and honor the story.”
  • “Don’t forget the family members of LGBTQIA people. And family members of Muslims. Listen attentively. Validate and normalize the complexity of feelings. Love them, network for them, build them up.”
  • “Apologize for how hurtful the Church has been to the LGBTQ community. Acknowledge that we are still going to mess it up. Commit to try your hardest to personally work for change and ensure the safety of LGBTQ people. Proclaim that while the Church fails, God never fails in God’s love for them.”

Worship

  • “You could offer a requiem Eucharist to celebrate the lives of the beloved children of God who were murdered. The role of the Church is to give our air time to the people who were killed, to comforting those who mourn, and to create ways we can end senseless violence.”
  • “Consider preaching about this, even if it’s hard. It’s good to post prayers on social media, but this may have to be addressed from the pulpit. Consider saying each name during your sermon.”

Public Witness

  • “Fly a rainbow flag at half mast on your church’s flagpole.”
  • “It’s Pride month. If you aren’t involved, it’s not too late to help out, be present and watchful (not creepy though) during Pride events in your community.”
  • “Open your mouth when you hear hate and stop it. Be uncomfortable and be disliked. It’s worth it.”
  • “If you see a Muslim family being harassed, intervene if you can. If you can’t, then console the family after their attackers are gone. Help to make the world safe for our LGBTQ brothers and sisters because their community was attacked and an attack on the Muslim community happened as well.”
  • One young clergywoman shares these plans as an example of ways to build community and solidarity: “We are holding an interfaith lunch in a cafe owned by a same sex couple (which is a noted safe space for LGBTQ persons) as an act of solidarity and fellowship. One of our Muslim interfaith council members will be reading a statement of peace and reconciliation. We hope this leads to further partnerships.”
  • Another young clergywoman writes, “I went to a local mosque today to ask how we could help. The imam asked if we could host an iftar dinner between his community and the LGBTQ community at our church because his mosque didn’t have a large enough space. I know God’s house is big enough.”

Other Thoughts

  • “Talk to your kids about this. A pediatrician I know posted this article.
  • “Even if your denomination or church is not in full support of LGBTQ rights, talk to your congregation about the consequences of the language that we use, what it looks like to show love and support even when we disagree, and what it means to work for the preservation of life in all places.”
  • “Avoid the sentiment, ‘I believe homosexuality is a sin but…’ This is neither the time nor place for that conversation.”
  • “Explicitly acknowledge that this hate was directed at the LGBTQ community. Some of the language out there right now is contorting itself to avoid saying the obvious truth, and that is one more denial.”
  • “If your church has caused harm to queer people, it’s time for repentance. Please don’t participate in ‘praying for Orlando’ without acknowledging that you’ve actively caused harm. If you are interested in Holy Spirit change, that is great! But don’t use the LGBTQ community in prayer when it seems convenient. There is a big difference between churches that represent a wide variety of theologies, but do their best to minister to all, and churches actively doing harm to the LGBTQ community. If your church is the former, by all means, pray. Pray loudly. Lift this up. Let it fuel your work toward a wider lens of inclusion. Acknowledge this as a hate crime and its intersectional nature. But if yours is a church where queer folks would not really be welcome, one which hosts ex-gay ministries etc., then you need to think hard about what an appropriate public voice is.”
The author's toddler daughter

My Daughter’s Ministry

The author's toddler daughter

The author’s daughter, the minister

Right before Christmas, my daughter fed the baby Jesus to our dog. We have a long-suffering boxer mix, Gary, who will do anything my 16-month-old daughter asks. I was working on plans for a Christmas event, and my daughter was across the room playing with our wooden nativity set which I thought was indestructible. I never imagined my daughter could possibly get into trouble while I worked no more than five feet away. I was wrong. She fed the wooden figure to Gary—and Gary, ever obedient, ate the baby Jesus like a dog biscuit.

This messy and absurd event was the holiest moment of Advent for me. While I was hard at work planning for Christmas, my toddler was (literally!) offering Christ to another living being. It was a powerful reminder of what my ministry should be and of what I believe as a Quaker. Quakers believe that each person carries ‘that of God within’ or the ‘Light within’ and is therefore a minister. My official title at my Meeting (the word we use for ‘church’ in Quaker speak) is ‘pastoral minister’ which suggests that I am only one type of minister in that community. I am a pastoral minister because the ministry I am called to is pastoral, but there are as many ministers at my Meeting as there are members and attenders.

My daughter is a minister. She ministered to me as she fed the nativity baby Jesus to our dog, reminding me with her joy and holy play that our faith is an embodied faith and that nothing can separate me from God. She and the other youngest members of our community minister to our Meeting each week, reminding us that we carry the ‘Light Within’ or the ‘Christ Within,’ that the Spirit is a Living Spirit, and that we each cradle within us the Divine spark. Read more

handprints in paint on a white wall

Ask a Young Clergy Woman: Running Down the Aisles Edition

handprints in paint on a white wallDear Askie,

Recently, our church has seen an increase in young children attending worship. Now, I love children very much, and I know that young families are a wonderful addition to our congregation. However, the noise and commotion can be very disruptive, and really detracts from my (and others’) worship experience. Our congregation offers childcare, but I guess some parents aren’t comfortable with that.

Another problem is that as these children get older, they feel right at home in the church building, and can often be seen running around with little or no supervision. This can be dangerous for the children and for the unlucky folks in their path. How can our church address these problems without chasing the families away?

Sincerely,
Concerned about Children

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ladder on the side of a building, into the sky

The Old, Old Story for a New, New Step-Mom

ladder on the side of a building, into the sky

Jacob’s ladder for the modern step-family

I am a pastor and the daughter of a pastor. I attended Sunday school, worship, and Bible studies for all of my growing-up years. I majored in Religion in college, and I have a Master of Divinity. I have taught and preached Bible stories to thousands of people across multiple congregations. But one night, as I sat on the couch listening to my husband, Lee, read a children’s Bible—Desmond Tutu’s Children of God: Storybook Bible—to our boys, the Bible surprised me in a way I had not expected.

If someone were to peek into our windows and watch us as we sit on that couch reading Bible stories together, we would look like an ideal American family, a picture of peace and virtue. But we are not most people’s version of an “ideal” family, and we are not always at peace—at least not right now. Our Bible time is a rare sanctuary in what often feels like a new and unstable world.

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child's hand taking communion bread

Wonder Bread

child's hand taking communion bread

Taking Communion

In seminary, I learned all about the right and proper celebrating of the Lord’s Supper. Like any good Presbyterian, I could quote the appropriate passages in our Book of Order and Book of Confessions —not to mention that I had memorized the standard liturgy from our Book of Common Worship. Whether communion was to be served in the pews or by intinction, I was confident that the meal would be properly celebrated with everything done “decently and in order.”

I knew what to say. I knew what to do. But somewhere along the way, I had lost touch with the wonder and deep joy that is found in the sacrament.

That is, until I met a 7-year-old named Zoe.

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Ask a Young Clergy Woman: PK’s in the Pews Edition

children in churchDear Askie,

My husband and I are both clergy, and parents of three kids, ages 3, 5, and 6. Although we’re a clergy couple, we never actually both had Sunday morning churches until recently. (I stayed home with the kids when the first two were babies, and then I pastored a church and he worked as a chaplain; now, we’re each pastoring a congregation.) When only one of us was working as a pastor, the other one would get the kids ready and bring them to church. Now that we’re both working Sunday mornings, we’re struggling. From deciding who gets them ready and which church they’re going to, to supervising them during the long stretch of pre- and post-worship activities not to mention dealing with congregants’ expectations that our children be perfect angels all the time, and handling actual misbehavior we are totally overwhelmed. We know that other clergy couples do this, though. How do they do it, Askie? How?

-Frazzled Pastor Mom

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