One can have goals for oneself and one’s behavior. One cannot have goals for someone else.* (This is especially true with adolescence, when the distance between the adult’s actions and the child’s choices tends to increase.) These goals are about concrete behaviors, and so are helpful in reviewing and improving one’s behavior. The hopes, however, are items for prayer and consideration. From the hopes come more goals and concrete choices—but we cannot accomplish them for students or on behalf of God however much we would like to.
Making a list like this individually and as a group is a great exercise for those of us engaged in children’s ministry. An individual minister can consider both what they hope for their students as well as what the parents and caregivers have expressed as concerns. A group making such a list together can find common goals to unite behind, and common hopes to center their prayers.
So here below are my own three goals for myself, as well as my hopes for my children. I’ve included beneath each an explanation of how the goal can guide behavior.
1. That leaders will show and teach a sense of God as an ever-present and loving figure in children’s lives.
We know from the work of psychologists that children acquire their images of God and other unseen forces and figures largely from the adults in their lives. If a Sunday School teacher consistently raises their voice angrily to get children’s attention, this does not support a sense of God as loving. If a confirmation teacher begins each sentence by saying, “If God really exists,” this will not support the growth of faith in these children. If a youth group leader talks a lot about confession or sin without also talking a lot about God’s forgiveness, this will not communicate the full sense of God which we hope children will have.
2. That leaders will show and teach that when we encounter suffering or pain, the Christian response is not to ignore it or move away but to move towards it.*
The Good Samaritan is one of the best encapsulations of this principle, but we see it too throughout the life of Christ. Leaders can show this by treating students’ words with care and taking their pain (their 3yo skinned knees, their 8th-grade nervousness) seriously and as deserving of attention. Leaders can teach this by repeating it (“When people are in pain, we move closer because God wants us to”), by teaching young children how to apply it in person (“I saw you push your friend, and now they’re crying—let’s go check on them and see if they’re okay”), and by supporting teens as they learn to apply it in person or on a societal scale (teaching how to check in on friends who seem depressed; discussing societal patterns of oppression and how we can act against them).
3. That leaders will show and teach a theologically informed kindness*—not niceness, or kindness as society knows it, but a kindness rooted in what we know about God.
In church we have the chance to move beyond simply “Say you’re sorry,” or “How sweet of you,” or the other flat statements given to children. A theologically informed kindness is not about “being nice” all the time, or being nice to everyone in the same way. A theologically informed kindness embraces boundaries, is not afraid of addressing wrongs or conflicts, and affirms that “we love because He first loved us” (1 John 4:19).
1. that children will come to know God, and know that God is ever-present to them
2. that children will experience God’s love for them and will come to love God in return
3. that children will come to understand that their relationship with God is ongoing, ever-changing, and based in prayer
* “Goals for yourself, hopes for other people”: I’m grateful to my parishioner, Debby Mills, for stating this so clearly to me in a conversation about parenting.
*“What do we do when we see suffering? We go towards it.”: I first heard this phrase as a teaching principle from the Rev. Timothy Somer Seamans as he taught a class at Holy Innocents in Atlanta.
*“Theologically informed kindness”: I first heard this as a teaching goal from Dr. John Boopalan, former professor of Episcopal Divinity School and current Theologian-in-Residence and Youth Minister at First Baptist Newton. .