Fresh out of graduate school and looking like I had just graduated from high school, I jumped into a church staff role as director of children’s ministry. I had the education, the prior internship, and the experience working with kids. I was ready to make an impact. But I forgot to consider one thing: the assumption that because I didn’t have kids, I couldn’t possibly relate to parents. Women leaders are already more likely to have their authority and expertise questioned in ministry settings. On top of that, people perceived me as not having experience with kids because I wasn’t a mom. How could I minister effectively when others questioned me?
It’s often true that those who have experienced something firsthand have the best knowledge of it. But that premise is problematic when we assume that those who don’t have firsthand experience can’t possibly understand. For me, this translated into the idea that only parents understand children. While this may be true in some respects (after all, only a parent knows what it’s like to go into work after staying up all night with a teething child), it’s not always true. For instance, I didn’t need to be a parent to understand the emotional and spiritual needs of children.
Maybe you’ve experienced this as a young person who’s leading older adults, or as a married woman leading a single moms group. Regardless of your circumstances, it’s frustrating when your authority or expertise is challenged simply because you haven’t had the same life experiences as the people in your ministry. When that happens, I’ve found the following tips to be helpful.
1. Name the source of your inner struggle.
My deepest desire to care for these children was rejected when I heard from parents that I simply couldn’t understand. Naturally, as working women in churches, we want to nurture and support all those around us. Regardless of context, being a leader involves pastoring because we each shepherd the flock given to us. When the flock thinks you will never be able to understand, however, it takes an emotional toll. Over time, I started to resent parents who assumed this about me, but I knew that would only hinder building a relationship with them, so I worked to release that resentment. Take the time to know how you may or may not be emotionally triggered by others questioning your authority, and figure out a way to handle it in healthy ways. For me, finding a Christian counselor has helped tremendously. Figure out what you need to do to guard your heart in this matter.
2. Understand your culture and context.
When I first started out in ministry, I was leading a divorce care ministry for children. While I had a good idea of what I might face in ministry, I wanted to be sure rather than simply assume. So I researched my context to know what kinds of families were in my ministry. Understanding that context was instrumental to my approach to those families and how I coached them. The more I got to know them, the more I understand what they expected from me and my ministry, and that helped me and my team serve them better.
3. Don’t undermine yourself.
A dear friend and mentor asked me to notice in discussions how many times I said, “Does that make sense?” or “I know this might not sound right but …” I couldn’t believe how many times I used these phrases! By using them, I was subtly undermining my own competence. It sends a message, ever so imperceptibly, that I am not confident.
Another thing I struggled with was my body language. My supervisor told me that when I talked with parents or colleagues, I crossed my arms in front of my body and hunched forward, like when you feel queasy or even ashamed. I wasn’t aware I was doing this or how I was being perceived until she gave me this feedback. If you stand tall with your arms at your sides and look into others’ eyes, you will not only exude confidence, but you will also be inviting them to hear what you have to say. No one wants to work with someone that believes they are always right, and, on the flip side, no one wants to work with someone that doesn’t believe in what they are saying. Remember that you were chosen for this role and that your perspective and expertise are needed. There’s no need to undermine what you have to offer.
4. Be present.
It’s extremely important to be present with the people you shepherd. Be intentional about being in the moment, making observations. Take mental note (or even physical note) of what you see. In my context of children’s ministry, I ask what’s going on in the child’s surroundings: How is the child responding to the environment? Is the child being provoked by others to act in a certain way? Who else is there? What is happening? When does a certain behavior begin or end?
If we’re not present and attentively observing, we’re not shepherding. If we don’t take the time to see and hear the people in our ministry, we won’t know the people in our ministry very well, and we’ll fail to be taken seriously. Getting to know them and intentionally being present during ministry events communicate that we care.
5. Know the facts and specifics of the situation.
Opinions are not helpful when you’re trying to express an issue that is causing chaos within your ministry. When an issue arises, take the facts of the situation that you observed while being present. In children’s ministry, this most often happens when talking to parents about a behavior issue. The parents need to know that I see their child. Having specific observations helps the parents feel that I’m with them. For instance, instead of saying “Jacob had a rough night,” I say, “When we went to teaching time, Jacob got upset that he didn’t get to be the leader of the group. He then refused to participate.” Being able to tell parents specifics of the situation invites them into the environment to imagine what it was like for their son or daughter and work with me to remedy the situation. Facts are your friends, so use them as you deal with issues that arise in your context.
6. Listen and don’t defend.
Remind yourself why you’re here: to support everyone involved in your ministry. It’s easy for anyone who is feeling shamed or questioned to get defensive. You want them to know that you are qualified, knowledgeable, and educated. This is not the space for defense, however, but a space for you to listen and truly hear what they have to say. In speaking with parents, I have found myself fast-forwarding through their words so that I can get to my point. This does not set up anyone to have an effective conversation. Instead, listen in real time. Listen for emotion and what they might not be saying. Repeat back to them what you heard. Seek to understand their perspective. Approaching anyone in this manner shows honor and respect.
7. Invite them into a partnership, not a battlefield.
Finally, you want to invite people in your ministry into a partnership—not onto a battlefield where a winner takes all. Invite them into a dialogue by asking them intentional questions. In my context, this entails asking intentional questions about their children: “Tell me about how Jessica does playing with others at school. What does she enjoy doing with other children?” These kinds of questions help you find out more facts about the person and allows for others to give specifics. Honor the person by reminding them that God has placed them here to grow them into a follower of Christ. You aren’t there to prescribe or critique. You are there to uplift, support, encourage, and journey with them. You are there to speak truth in a humble and graceful voice that demonstrates how much you care for them.
God has chosen you for your role. No matter how others perceive your “real-world credentials,” the only credential that counts is his anointing. God is using you, your expertise, and your presence to make an impact.
Kirsten Hitchcock is the director of Awana Midweek for Kids and Child Grief Support at Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, IL. She holds an MA in Christian Formation and Ministry with an emphasis on family and children from Wheaton Graduate School.