"You know what you're bringing into the lesson, but you don't always know what a child will bring. Still, you need to be as prepared as you can be for what happens during that time that child is with you."
An Unexpected Announcement
You spent Thursday night reading about fig trees and cutting leaves for your upcoming lesson. Sunday morning, you arrive early and set up your room for mega-crafts day.
Your group of eight-year olds arrive and the room fills with chatter, quieting only a little when you ask, "What happened to you this week?" Eight times you learn about new teeth, a perfect spelling test, a video game that is awesome.
"My grandpa died last night," comes from the ninth child. The room falls silent.
What happens now? Do you offer a simple, "I'm sorry" and pick up the bag of leaves? Listening to that child, being there as a person of faith, will teach more to your group than the fig leaves ever would. The lesson plan goes out the window.
If that sounds scary to you, you're not alone. Remember that - you are not alone!
Preparing for Unexpected Moments
You don't always know what a child will bring to your lesson. Still, you need to be as prepared as you can be for what happens during that time that child is with you. Think about how you might respond to news of a death, divorce, birth, marriage, or information about abuse or neglect before you're faced with it.
Talk to the person who coordinates Christian education in your congregation. Ask if there can be a gathering of leaders to share ideas on what to say and do when a child has had a sorrow or a joy, that needs special attention. Think about other people in your church. Who might be able to help volunteers prepare for the unexpected in their groups: your pastor, a nurse, a school counselor, a police officer?
Supporting Children in the Moment
When that unexpected moment does come, start with the basics:
Listen to the child. Don't make the child talk; let her talk. Invite her to share a memory or a hope, but also let her know it's all right not to talk.
Involve the other children gently. Ask what they think the group could do to help, to celebrate, to say goodbye, to let this child know he is important to them and that his feelings matter. One child's story may open the door for other children to talk about their experiences too, but try not to let the discussion go too far afield. Come back to the idea that we listen to and care for each other out of Christian love and concern.
After the session, follow up in an appropriate way. Again, this is something best discussed objectively beforehand with the person in charge of your church's Christian education program or your pastor.
A long time ago, Jesus was criticized for breaking a rule about working on the Sabbath. His response was, ‘The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath" (Mark 2:27, NRSV). Jesus was saying that people come first. The fig leaves will keep.
Jill H. Smalls is an experienced director of parish education in Brunswick, Maine.