Ministry: Was I Idealistic or Right?
I graduated from college in the mid seventies. We were a very idealistic generation who read the draft numbers posted on the cafeteria walls and sometimes watched classmates or relatives drafted into a war we didn’t believe in. We were part of a huge cultural shift. I think our angst often didn’t have a focus, and I therefore have great respect for the present generation’s desire to serve others and fight for social justice. I graduated believing I could make a difference. I may have been idealistic, but I still believe I was right.
I chose a career path that made little sense to most. I believed in small children. I believed what happened to children in the first five years of life was the most important. I believed this long before it was proven by brain research. I also believed it because it was a truth embedded deep inside of me as a result of abuse. Without consciously knowing what happened to me in a home daycare situation at three, I subconsciously knew those years had influenced me in ways I would not understand for another forty years.
Along side my belief in the importance of early childhood experiences stood a steadfast belief in God. With these two pillars—faith and early childhood, it seemed logical to pursue a career as a church preschool director. Jesus loved the little children, right? With so many more mothers going work full-time, the church had an opportunity to make a difference in the lives of young children and their families. My first job was as an assistant director in a church preschool and I was on my way to change the world. I was woefully unprepared for what I learned.
Specifically what I learned is, not everything called ministry qualifies. I idealistically believed the preschool programs in churches would naturally be supported as an outreach of the church. I am thankful I did find churches where this was the case along the way, but I had to become disillusioned first.
(Please note, the following stories are from experiences within three different denominations and my observations in many others. This is not a denominational problem; it is a church-wide problem.)
I was so excited to go to work at my first post-college job. I had worked in the Child Development Center during college under the tutelage of a professor whose career had begun during the early days of Head Start. The lab was not glitzy, but the needs of the children were met, the curriculum was developmentally appropriate, and the teachers were master teachers who cared about every child. I knew what early childhood programs should look like! I am indebted to the quality education I receive at what is now Point Loma Nazarene University.
What I walked into was a church preschool program with few supplies, hardly any toys or instructional aides, sad tired equipment, torn carpet, and worst of all torn and worn books (any who took Children’s Literature with me will understand this was a huge problem). I also found a director who was not a member of the church, but who loved the children and did an astounding job of providing quality care with limited resources.
When I began asking why there was so little provided for the children, I learned that except for wages (which weren’t the lowest in a field where those taking care of our precious children often make minimum wage); most of the income went to pay for space rent and utilities. I never joined the church even though I was hounded on a weekly basis. When the church hired an administrator and began paying him out of the preschool budget, I resigned. I was told by said administrator that it didn’t matter ‘worth a hill of beans’ if I was there or not.
I then accepted a preschool director’s position in a very large church school. This was a VAST improvement, but I fought for higher wages for my teachers every year. The preschool, with an enrollment of over 100 was the moneymaker, which supplemented the elementary through high school programs. I was to learn this was almost always how it worked. Once I accepted this, I loved my time in this position and despite making many mistakes along the way; I learned to be a competent administrator—and how to run a business. In this school, I met many wonderful educators and staff who remain my friends to this day.
My biggest problems were with the tensions involved in sharing the large fellowship hall with the youth department. Every Friday we had to make the large divided room appear to have never been occupied by small humans. On Wednesday, we had to navigate around the set up for the dinner provided for those going out on visitation. When I told them our preschool licensing requirements did not allow us to mix the preschool children with the unlicensed elementary day care, I was fired. I really can’t make this stuff up.
My dismissal was a tragic ending to a mostly happy story (especially since it was where I met my husband), but along the way I learned another lesson about ministry and preschools. I tried to convince the church staff that instead of making ‘cold calls’ during visitation, they could visit the parents of the children in our preschool—most of whom did not attend church anywhere. All I ever got was a pat on the head, and a “Why would we do that?”
I then accepted a position as a kindergarten teacher in another school. My belief a preschool could be a ministry was finally rewarded. In this school, the church took no money from the school; in fact, the church contributed to the expenses above and beyond providing space and utilities. The staff knew each family and the pastor led chapel for the children once a month. The first day he walked into my classroom to say hello to the children, I just stared at him like he was an alien from outer space. There was no way to
explain why I was so dumbfounded.
I am so grateful for this experience. I soon moved on and began teaching at the college level. In this position, I was always starting early childhood degree programs and was able to provide illustrations for how a preschool can be part of the church’s ministry. I had seen families begin to attend the church. I had seen the church reach out to families when they faced difficult circumstances. I had seen the church members mingling with parents during evenings when we met to create instructional materials for the classes. I had so many examples of what it should look like! If I had come to this school right after college, I would have thought that was how it looked everywhere.
During my career, I visited many schools. While working on a doctoral project, I hand delivered a survey to almost every church preschool in our city. I saw the wonderful and not so wonderful. The only consistency was the teachers who were clearly caring about the children. I am sure most were at the bottom of the pay scale. I knew they were spending money to provide those things they believed were important, but were ‘not in the budget.’ Many could have made more money elsewhere but truly believed being able to share Jesus was worth the sacrifice.
I am not sure I even need a conclusion. Sometimes a story speaks for itself. The research is very clear. The first five years of a child’s life are the most formative. Young parents are struggling to make ends meet as they pay for childcare and often are forced to make decisions they are not always sure are in the best interest of their children. On the other side, children need consistency and often the teacher-child bonds are broken because a teacher has to move to a higher paying position at another school in order to take care for her own family (not leaving men out here, but the field is predominantly filled with women).
We, as the church, are losing this opportunity to minister to young families as a result of public/free preschool programs, but we need to think long and hard about why the opportunity is being lost. What does it mean for a preschool, or before and after school daycare program, to be called a ministry of the church? What would we be willing to do to make it a ministry? I have never, ever heard a church say the youth ministry had to support itself.
Do you want to reach young families? Care about their children. Decide you will invest in small children. It is that simple. The research is clear. Early childhood is where our dollars can make the biggest impact. Our preschools can make a difference in the lives of children and families. I hope many who read this will say, “We do this! Our preschool is a ministry!” Give your self a great big golden star! Or maybe a happy face sticker! Then tell me your story in the comments on Facebook (still working on the comment feature at this blog)!