young families and the church

I received an email today from a colleague of mine in the Diocese. She posed the following question:

“I’m beginning to accumulate a nice group of young families – parents with 1-2 children (sometimes 3) under the age of 7. I’m trying to imagine what might meet their needs formation-wise. I’m wondering if you have any thoughts?”

I emailed her back and responded, “You don’t even want to know how many thoughts I have on this one. I have lots of thoughts. What I don’t have are solutions.”

It’s a sad but true story.  I spend a LOT of time thinking about how the church can minister to young families, probably because I watch so many of my dear friends and family members who are in that stage of life: diapers, bottles, nap time, runny noses, interrupting toddlers, laundry, work, cooking, diapers, bottles, nap time….

I call it the tunnel.

Once those beautiful babies come out and into the world we ooh and ahh at the magic of it all and we breathe in their wonderful baby scent and we baptize them in beautiful ceremonies at the church.  The pictures on Facebook are GORGEOUS.  But let me tell you – I’ve swayed colicky babies back and forth for hours on end to no avail.  I’ve watched my friends sink into the couch at the end of a long day when the littles have finally gone to sleep only to see their face fall when no sooner have they sat down that the cry starts up again from the bedroom.  I’ve spoon fed those babies, and then desperately tried to pick another task to help a friend out because it is so boring (I don’t care how cute the baby is) trying to keep their attention long enough to get the mashed banana into their bellies.

Don’t get me wrong, those first years are incredible and transformative and joyful and magical.  But they are also hard.  And the days just keep coming.  Changing diapers until they are ripping the diapers off until you are fighting with a three year old who refuses to use the potty.  Nursing until you cave and use a bottle until you spoon feed until they can feed themselves and the spaghetti sauce is just everywhere. Rocking and holding those babies until they can crawl and suddenly it matters that your outlets are covered and there’s nothing dangerous on the floor until they can walk themselves and OH WHAT A HOLY MESS THE HOUSE IS.

Parents in the tunnel have a kind of glazed look on their faces and they are tired all the time.  They don’t remember what life was like before babies, or who they were before they were tending to another human’s every need.  A day in the tunnel is a success if they can both keep the children fed and take a shower.  The parents I love who stay at home feel lonely and isolated and wonder if they are missing something, and the parents I love who work are maxed out and feel like there’s never enough time with their kids and wonder if they are missing something.

Near as I can figure these parents emerge from the tunnel around the time their children are in the early years of elementary school – maybe 3rd grade.  When you can look at a kid and say “pour yourself a bowl of cereal” or “run up and take a shower and put your jammies on” then you are starting to see the light.

Obviously after the tunnel everyone is just in another stage with different challenges.  But today I want to talk about how to minister to people in the tunnel.

Here’s the thing: I think when young families are in the tunnel we might just have to crawl into the tunnel and meet them there.  I don’t think we can ask them to crawl out of the tunnel, put their church clothes on, and commit to two hours on a Sunday morning. I don’t think it’s fair to put them on committees. I don’t think we should ask them to teach Sunday School.  Yes, some parents want to do all that, and of course clergy have to be discerning and encouraging for those who fit well into those roles.  We just can’t forget about the parents that want a connection to God and community, but can’t make those other commitments happen.

And yes, I know somehow young families figured out how to do this in the 1950s.  Here’s the thing – it’s 2013.  I’m not going to get into why things are so different now (though it might have something to do with the fact that you could put your kid in a laundry basket in the backseat of your car when you went somewhere – car seats alone are a reason not to go to church). I’m just going to say that we can’t keep wishing for how things used to be.

That said, I was chatting with a friend the other day and she was lamenting that she had to take her toddler to the doctor’s office.  “It’s such a risk,” she told me, “I want him to see the doctor but he feels terrible and he’s cranky and there’s all these other sick kids in the doctor’s office!  I wish doctors still made house calls!”

Ok, I know I just said that we can’t keep wishing for how things used to be. I stand by that. But it would be totally awesome if doctors still made house calls.  It would be great to keep that kiddo curled up on the couch in his pjs and still get the care that you need.

That’s pretty much where I am with the question of how to minister to families in this stage of life.  How do we give them the care that they need?  I know there’s all kinds of merit to committing to a church community, sacrificing to be part of the larger whole, giving of your time and talents, etc, etc.  But what if – while these parents are in the darkness of the tunnel – instead of asking them to give more of themselves to the church, we bring them a little candle from the church to light the way?  What if we let them know that they aren’t alone and that we just want to care for them without any expectation of return on our investment?

This summer at ECC we had a Family Camp.  We welcomed 15 families, most of whom had very young children.  We kept the cost of camp low, and we paired our counselors with the families so that they had personal assistants.  I’ve heard my friends say countless times that they never have a real vacation because they are caring for their children wherever they go, and so we tried to meet that need – offering them the chance to be with their children without having to care for them every minute of the day.  In the mornings the counselors rallied the children and played games, made crafts, visited the animals, and sang and danced.  The parents poured an extra cup of coffee and settled in the lounge to talk and reflect about how God was working in their lives.  Then they had some free time. There was a beautiful balance of free time and family time, and the help of our incredible counselors made it so that parents could enjoy their time with their kids without being overwhelmed by them.  Side note, the counselors were beside themselves with joy having little hands to hold and sweet hugs from toddlers.

We are blessed to be able to provide that kind of ministry to young families for a few days at camp, and I realize we can’t use that model for churches.  But perhaps it’s time for us to start thinking about how to reach the people in the tunnel and bring them just a little bit of light.  Maybe our clergy and some members of our congregations who don’t have young children need to be making house calls.  Maybe we need to bring a Bible and a bottle of wine to stay-at-home moms after bedtime so they can have some fellowship and formation after the kids are asleep.  Maybe we should be bringing communion to shut-ins and to young parents.

I’m still confused about all of this. There’s part of me that wants to say that being part of Christian community means committing and showing up, even when it’s hard – because that’s how we grow. There’s part of me that thinks our culture is too much about having things the way we want them instead of realizing the blessing of being part of a larger institution. There’s part of me that thinks too many of us are just unwilling to do the work of being spiritual and religious.

Then I talk to my younger sister, who’s raising the two most beautiful babies I have ever seen.  She’s in North Carolina because her husband is in the military so she’s not near family and friends. She’s isolated because when one child is asleep the other is awake and even when she tries to commit to being in the church choir her husband’s schedule changes and he has duty so she has to stay home with the kids. And I just think, man I wish someone from her church would just go over to her house and bring her a dang casserole so she doesn’t have to cook dinner again.  She’s tired, and she’s doing such hard work raising those babies.

So for today I’m sticking with my sister and my soapbox.  I think we should just crawl into the tunnel and meet our young families there until they crawl out the other side. We might just find God there together.

Rejoice! It’s Joyce!

I was just out and about in Chepachet and at one of the stores I popped into the Ellen show was playing on the television above the register.  I only had about a minute to watch it, but I caught Ellen introducing a new segment of the show called “Rejoice! It’s Joyce!” (see above) It has something to do with finding this woman during the show like you would Where’s Waldo. But that’s irrelevant to my story.

The quite-horrible jingle the producers created for the aptly titled “Rejoice! It’s Joyce!” segment reminded me of a post I’ve been wanting to write for a couple of months now about our very own Joyce Roberts, resident manager at ECC.

Actually, calling her resident manager doesn’t really do her any justice.  She’s like the EVERYTHING-manager.  And on the side she’s the Meaghan-manager. The other reason I’ve been thinking about Joyce lately is that I recently came across the following recording on my phone. It’s from the tail end of the gospel service at Jr./Sr. Conference during the announcements. I was recording the closing song and forgot to end the recording, so caught this gem.  Go ahead and listen:

Did you catch what happened there?  In case you missed it here’s a synopsis, with a bit of back story.

First: I decided I was tired and lazy and that our rising bell was too early.

Second: I asked Joyce if we could just sleep in the next day, and she talked to the kitchen staff to arrange for a later breakfast time.

Third: I forgot that we had the conversation. (I forget everything)

Fourth: I led announcements, and right when I was about to send everyone off to bed she reminded me that I had asked her to arrange a later breakfast time. (Joyce remembers everything).

Fifth: I got to announce the late rising bell. (Side note: did you hear how happy those teenagers were? See why I love my job? They’re so easy to please!)

Sixth: The group – in their elation – started chanting “MEAGHAN! MEAGHAN! MEAGHAN!”

My friends, this is the story of what happens at ECC.  I whirl in with an idea that serves my self-interests, Joyce does all the work to implement said idea, and then I get all the credit.

Now listen – this is not to say that the teenagers don’t love and appreciate Joyce.  They ADORE Joyce, as they should.  And they are smart enough to realize that Joyce makes our little world go round up there (with help from Lance, who I will blog about some other time). The reason for this blog post is not to convince the counselors and campers of the many wonders of Joyce Roberts.  Instead it’s for the rest of you – the many wonderful folks who might not be lucky enough to spend a summer with this woman (or for those of you who don’t even KNOW her!).

Joyce stole my little heart over a decade ago when I first met her as a young adult staff person at ECC.  It was this past summer, however, that I decided she was a superhero.

Here’s the thing: Joyce had a tough summer. And I don’t mean garden-variety tough. I mean “once in your whole life you have a summer this tough” tough.  She started the summer with personal news that rocked her.  Then one of her llamas got sick – something that is no small thing for Joyce. She loves her animals deeply. And then one weekend when I was holding my breath afraid that Joyce’s llama was going to die – her mother died. Elaine’s death was sudden and unexpected, and it stunned us.  The llama – Nina – died a few weeks later.

We were two weeks into a summer that was offering us a host of challenges.  The heat was brutal, almost everything at camp broke, and I had made some administrative changes that required lots of new systems that hadn’t yet been created.  Extenuating circumstances aside it would have been a “garden-variety” tough summer.  But add a daily care for a large animal, an unexpected funeral, and some significant grief and.. well.. it was hard.

I would have understood if Joyce had pulled the covers over her head and not come out of bed for the rest of the summer.  She didn’t, of course.  She just kept right on going – making the camp run, keeping me straight, and loving the community surrounding her.

Everyone that worked or volunteered at camp this summer was a rock star.  Truly.  It’s amazing to be a part of the energy and love that goes into a summer at ECC.  But I couldn’t let the season sail off into the sunset without a shout out to Joyce, who positively rose above all of the challenges in her midst and did everything she could to make it an incredible summer.

If I could write music, I’d come up with a better jingle for Joyce.  Since I’m not, I’m going to borrow from someone who offers me tremendous wisdom and spiritual guidance: Kelly Clarkson.  This is my jingle for Joyce (the chorus really… the verses don’t so much make sense):

Thanks to Ellen and Kelly for helping me capture how we all feel about this woman.

Rejoice – it’s Joyce!