Pittsburgh Theological Seminary

Bridging the Word and the World

6/1 2016

Welcoming the Little Ones

families in christian congregationsAlmost every church congregation that I’ve ever been a part of—whether as parishioner or pastor—has had one particular goal in common: attract more families with young children. Everybody wants more of these kinds of families in their churches, often because they are seen as a way of helping to insure faith communities’ growth into the future.

Whether or not families with young children are actually the key to a church’s continued vitality, or whether it is even appropriate to think about families in this way (in which families almost seem like a means to an end), are matters of intense debate—a debate which goes far beyond the scope of this post. Instead, what seems obvious is that if you want to invite more families with young children into your faith community, how you go about it is very important.

Given the many different demands of today’s culture, families simply aren’t going to devote a lot of time and energy to an organization where they don’t feel welcome. From my point of view, then, hospitality is the key to inviting families to visit your congregation, and perhaps to find a home there.

But what does hospitality look like for families with young children? What can churches do to welcome families with young children in congregations in ways that feel inviting and supportive? Here are a few ideas:

Ask the families!

If you already have families with young children in your congregation, ask them what the church might do to be more helpful to them. Maybe it would be providing child care for more church events, or planning a social time for parents to get to know one another better. It might even be something as simple as putting a changing table in the restroom. You may never know what would be most helpful to parents and their young children until you ask them. I suggest this not in a consumerist, “we’re going to give you whatever you want so you’ll be happy and stay here” kind of way. Rather, I think it’s a basic function of Christian community to find out what helps people feel truly welcomed, and then try to provide that in ways congruent with your congregation’s mission. If you don’t currently have families with young children in your congregation, ask families you know what would really communicate hospitality to them if they were to visit your church. You might be surprised by how simple and doable the answers are.

Keep children safe

Many of our Christian congregations pay close attention to children’s safety issues when it comes to things like broken playground equipment. But when it comes to keeping children safe from sexual or physical abuse, churches have often resisted implementing appropriate policies. Many congregations think “That could never happen here!”–and yet, it does. One of the most powerful ways of extending hospitality as a church is to show parents that their children’s safety is your top priority. If your church doesn’t already have clear policies in place to help protect children from abuse, consider creating some as soon as possible. There are many resources available to help churches with this. The “Safe Sanctuaries” curriculum, provided by the United Methodist Church, is one such resource. Be sure to check with your own denomination and/or judicatory to find out what is recommended for your particular congregation. If you already have safety policies in place, assess them regularly to make sure they are working properly and that they comply with the most recent state laws (for example, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania now has more stringent abuse reporting requirements in place than it did a few years ago. You can read a summary of the new requirements online.

Make worship a welcoming space for children

This one is complicated, because what “welcoming” means is going to vary a lot for individual families, and for different kinds of congregations. Even so, I think most of us realize that expecting very young children to be perfectly quiet and still for long periods of time during worship is not realistic. There are many different ways churches can make their worship time and space hospitable for children. Here are just a few ideas:

— Provide worship “kits” containing coloring materials or simple craft items that children can play with quietly during the service.

— Integrate more child-friendly elements into worship itself – for instance, sing simple choruses that children can easily learn and that don’t require reading; include embodied or interactive activities (marching around the sanctuary waving palms on Palm Sunday is a great example of this); or have children help act out a Bible story.

— Create a congregational culture where children are seen as vital to the worship experience, rather than as a distraction from it. Granted, this one is probably a lot easier said than done. But one Lutheran congregation in Apple Valley, Minn., modeled this in a very creative way by creating a “pray-ground” in the front of the sanctuary, where children can simultaneously play and be near what is going on in worship.

Welcoming families with young children into our congregations is important because as Christians, we are called to extend God’s love and care to all people. Finding ways to be as hospitable as we can to the families who walk through our doors is not only good manners; it’s good discipleship.

The Rev. Dr. Leanna K. Fuller is assistant professor of pastoral care at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and teaches in the MDiv Program. Her ministry experience includes serving as associate pastor of Oakland Christian Church in Suffolk, Va., where she coordinated youth ministry and Christian education programming. She writes regularly on pastoral care and counseling, pastoral theology, and congregational conflict.


2/25 2015

Why My MDiv/MSW Joint Degree Created Clarity

mdiv-msw-joint-degree-pittsburghI began my graduate studies as a student of the University of Pittsburgh working to receive my masters of social work (MSW). The course work was practical problem solving for those with mental health, social, and justice issues. It was exciting to be learning about how government programs work and how to best serve those with mental illness.

I was fascinated by my classes in cognitive-behavioral therapy and dialectical behavioral therapy. I could not get enough. In my second semester I was required to do my first internship. I began working as an in-home family therapist. It was wonderful work, coming alongside a child, and therefore a family, to offer services to better the life of the family and child.

In this work I got to travel all around the city of Pittsburgh. I worked with families that were very affluent and some that were the poorest of the poor. In all of it, my education, matched with outstanding supervisors, gave me the confidence to enter any situation, face it, and do my best to improve the lives of those I was working with and for.

As I entered my second year of graduate school, a more intense internship was required. I began working at a step-down program for children and youth exiting the psychiatric hospital and slowly transitioning back to school. There I had to apply what I was learning in a completely different way.

Suddenly, I was faced with children and families who were experiencing trauma that I could not imagine in my worst nightmares. During a therapy session with one such child he asked me, “Does Jesus want me to forgive my auntie who hurt me? My pastor said on Sunday that we should forgive everyone. Is God mad at me?”

And with that one therapy session I realized I needed way more than the training I was receiving in my MSW. Clinically, I could answer that question with a question, “What do you think Jesus would say to someone like you?”

Theologically, I was not ready to proceed. And I could not proceed. Working in a large conglomerate system does not allow for personal religious beliefs and frankly, neither does therapy. It is about working out the problems of the client and helping the client achieve mental health. For this young man, I can say that I did the best I possibly could. We worked on his problems and my hope is that he is a well-adjusted man today.

But personally, I knew I had to go back to the drawing board. My MSW was not enough. I needed a theological education that would provide a foundation for all of my practical and theoretical knowledge. And that is why I then began attending Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, earning my MDiv through the PTS/Pitt joint degree program. I graduated with both degrees in 2005 and have found the mixture of practical and theoretical knowledge perfectly supported by my theological education.

Being able to see the world and the great, tragic problems of the world, through the lens of my theological education gives me great eschatological hope. And great practical hope. The lens through which I understand God and our human interactions with God does not get clearer every day, if anything it gets foggier. But having both an MSW and an MDiv allows me a clarity that one alone did not.

The Rev. Erin Davenport is a 2005 alumna of the MDiv program. Through the Seminary’s joint degree program, she also earned her MSW from the University of Pittsburgh. A former chaplain, she now resides in Pittsburgh and serves as the Seminary’s Director of the Miller Summer Youth Institute.


11/26 2014

Cross-Cultural Outreach – Part II

Cross-cultural-outreach2We are charged as Christians to face the challenges of our times head-on. We need churches that have cultural relevance and dare to go beyond their comfort zones in order to affect lasting change within their local communities and beyond. As we do so, I am convinced we must keep in mind three things.

1. Practice humility

It is easy for those who have wealth or privilege to believe that they come to the communal table with answers. We must harness our false sense of superiority and practice humility when approaching other cultures. Each person has the God-given autonomy to be the leader of her or his own life. When engaging cross-culturally we must come as a support, humbly learning from our neighbor.

Esteemed missiologist Lesslie Newbigin in his book The Gospel in a Pluralist Society expressed that when engaging another religion or culture we should take off our shoes, for the ground on which we stand is holy. A deeper read of Newbigin reveals that he staunchly believed in Christianity as fact, and as such rendering all other religions as false. Even with such decisive convictions, he still regarded the “other” with utmost regard and genuine love. When we approach other cultures we do so as students, not as experts.

2. Provide for immediate needs

No one wants to hear what we have to say until they know our motives are genuine. This comes through meeting people’s immediate needs. Please note that, whether rich or poor, everyone has needs.

When conducting outreach in larger cities like Pittsburgh or in small towns like Warren, Latrobe, or Kittanning, Pa., we have to focus on meeting their immediate needs. The needs may be an after school program, career mentorship, financial seminars, homework help, daycare centers, free public meals, a food bank, a community center, job training programs, etc. Once people see we are genuinely invested, then they may trust us to speak into their souls.

3. Tell your testimony

I will never forget traveling throughout South East Asia visiting Sikh temples, Buddhist temples, and Muslim mosques. I was so utterly humbled by the impeccable display of servitude, devotion, and faithfulness I witnessed. In my post-trip debrief with a mentor I confessed how inadequate my own Christian service seemed in comparison to my new friends. How could I tell them about Christianity being fact when I was so awestruck by their personal devotion. My wise mentor shared with me a truth I will share with you. There is power in your testimony!

No one can ever refute or deny that which Christ has done in your life. I personally know God as a healer, deliverer, provider, forgiver, and so much more. My life testimony of Christ is fact. Because the power of God’s love and grace in my life has been so amazing, I cannot help but share God with others. We each have a testimony. It is our most powerful expression of the gospel message.

In a day and age when it is so easy to live an isolated life, presumably unaffected by the challenges of the people around us, may we step past our comfort zones and cultural safety nets and live out the gospel in the world around us as did our brother Christ.

Kimberly Merrell, an MDiv alumna of Pittsburgh Seminary, is the director of the Metro-Urban Institute at PTS.

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