Contributor – Annette Safstrom, Senior Consultant with Ministry Architects

Content vs. Systems

Meet Anxious Amy. She loves, loves, loves Jesus, and she loves kids. She has been leading a large children’s ministry at her own church for over 7 years, and Amy has been running at full speed, ever since she can remember. Her motto is, “If you want something done right, you have to do it yourself.” She is energetic, and will do whatever is required to get the job done. However, she rarely slows down long enough to take care of herself, or tend to the multiple piles of paper on her desk. That’s all right with Amy, though, because she keeps anything of importance mentally filed away in her ultra quick, filled to the gills brain. She remembers every volunteer’s name, and the names of his children after one meeting.

Right now, Anxious Amy is putting out some children’s ministry fires. Come to think of it, she seems to spend most of her time dealing with some level of ministry crisis. This week, she is dealing with volunteer and equipment issues. Volunteers are consistently inconsistent. For the last three weeks, one of the third grade Sunday school teachers has been MIA. While Amy hopes that the teacher is all right, her real concern is how she is going to replace this teacher. Beyond that, rumor has it that the Kindergarten teachers have gone off the proverbial curriculum rails, and are just “teaching” whatever comes to mind. In the pre-school class, the video projector hasn’t been working for a couple of weeks, and Amy just found out about it this morning when a curt text arrived from a frustrated volunteer asking when the projector would be fixed. Amy is thinking to herself, “How can I fix a problem, if I don’t know about it.”

Amy’s dream is that one day, programs will run smoothly, volunteers will be responsible, and she will get to bed before 11:30 p.m.

Meet Calm Catie. Catie leads a children’s ministry across town from Amy. She has been hoping to meet Amy for lunch, but every time they have planned to meet, Amy has cancelled at the last minute with a frantic apology and a promise that she’ll make it up to Catie. For the past five and a half years, Catie has been serving as the director of children’s ministry at her church where she loves building relationships with her volunteers, parents and kids. Catie’s motto is, “The more, the merrier.”  This week, Catie is focused on planning the details for her volunteer gathering/training event for the next quarter. She is anticipating honoring her pre-school volunteer coordinator on being named Volunteer of the Year. Catie’s husband marvels at how she always does her job with a smile on her face. It seems that every Sunday, someone that Catie is counting on gets sick, or has some sort of unforeseen emergency. However, Catie just smiles and says, “Honey, that’s what substitutes are for!”

Every Tuesday, Catie does a walk through of each of her Sunday school classrooms, gathers individual incident report forms, classroom needs forms, and lesson feedback reports. She heads to the kitchen, pours a cup of hot coffee, and heads back to her office to enjoy it as she reads through Sunday’s paperwork and crafts her “to-do list” for the rest of the week. In addition to planning her volunteer event, Catie will make some recruiting calls, parent calls, and ask her supply coordinator to order craft supplies for the next quarter. Before Catie leaves for the day, she will complete a maintenance request to check the projector light bulbs in the preschool rooms. At 5:30, Catie is headed out to watch her son play baseball.

While Amy and Catie are fictional characters, they clearly reveal the difference between a children’s director who is tirelessly focused on content and a director who is utilizing solid systems to manage her ministry.

Content thinking is short-term, isolated-incident thinking. By nature, my personality is to deal with an incident and move on. On the other hand, my husband’s nature is to deal with the root issue of the problem, so that we never have that particular crisis to deal with again. Sometimes, this approach takes too long for my short attention span. However, in my experience, I have learned that while it may be easy in the short term to deal with the immediate crisis and get it off of my plate, in the long run, those issues will come back to haunt me, over and over again. If I address the system rather than the content, I will solve the problem once and for all. Do you see why I say this isn’t rocket science, but it is hard work?

For example, both Amy and Catie had issues with their video projectors. Amy was completely unaware for weeks that this was a problem. If part of her lesson included a video component, there is no telling how long those volunteers may have been supplementing the lesson on the fly. (And, building ongoing frustration in those volunteers!) Catie, however has a system for volunteers to report when something is broken and a preventative maintenance plan as well. By providing a feedback form for classroom needs, properly trained volunteers will fill out the form, and the problem can be addressed before frustration rears its ugly head.

Additionally, it appears that Catie has a substitution system in place. She knows the nature of families and understands the surprises that life can dish out on a Sunday morning. Catie has prepared for that by having an on-call sub each week who is trained, ready and available wherever needed.

In Song of Solomon 2:15, The Beloved mentions the “little foxes that spoil the vine.” What a perfect picture of how being focused on content affects our ministry!   When you get focused on the little things (content), you tend to become anxious and lose your focus. You allow those “little foxes” to spoil the productivity or fruit of your ministry. However, when we have the proper systems in place to protect the precious content of our message (and the programs supporting the message), those little frustrations won’t have access to you or the ministry. You won’t find yourself in a panic over last minute emergencies (like broken equipment) when you have a system in place for volunteers to communicate those types of things. Jesus said that his desire for your fruit was that it should remain. (John 15:16) The right systems, can act like a fence, and offer protection for the smooth operation of your programming. Once you have employed the right systems, you will find things running smoother. Most importantly, you will move from constantly being reactive to working proactively able to prepare for a bright and well-ordered future.

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Annette Safstrom has been involved in children’s ministry since the 1980s.   After graduating from Bible college in 1991 with a certification in children’s ministry, she earned a Bachelor’s degree in Psychology from Texas A&M University, and  a Master’s from SMU.  Over the years, she has consistently served in various roles and in various settings as either a staff member or volunteer team member.

In recent years, Annette served as a director for a rapidly growing children’s ministry, and has been a member of the Ministry Architects team since January of 2012.  She enjoys working with children’s ministry leaders and helping them to build sustainable ministries and balanced lives. She lives in McKinney, TX with her husband Kevin, and their two children, and enjoys traveling, cooking, and writing.