Recently, we asked people at our church to fill out a brief survey. One question we asked: "If you are unable to attend a small group, what keeps you from attending?" The number one response: childcare. Whether people are raising children alone, have limited resources, or simply don't want to be separated from their kids after a long day of work, it's clear that figuring out what to do with the kids is the number one thing preventing people from joining a small group. But it doesn't have to remain an obstacle.
As a small-group coordinator, childcare in small groups is a common issue I discuss with leaders. I've found that different groups will handle it in different ways. It all depends on your group.
Julie shared her experience as a small-group member with me. She and her husband tried attending a group; however, they quickly realized they would be unable to attend together. While they tried, something would come up that prevented them from doing so. One child might be sick or need to go to dance class, and they'd have to decide which parent would go to group, and which one would take care of the child. After a while, they resolved to attend the group separately, Julie attending one week and her husband, Chip, attending the next. This experience didn't hinder them from small groups; rather, it propelled them to provide a group that would meet the needs of families in their same circumstance.
Currently, Chip and Julie lead a small group that alternates guys one week and women another. This small-group format allows one parent to stay at home with the kids as well as enables couples to discuss the content of the study and learn the material together. Then every once in a while, everyone comes together, children included. This allows relationships to grow and develop among whole families.
Finding a Babysitter
Another option we've provided for small-group leaders is a list of youth within our church who have expressed interest in taking care of children and that are of an age and maturity level where they can be trusted. Leaders can contact students to see if they can babysit the night of the meeting at the leader's home. We've found it works well to have everyone that brings children pitch in a few dollars to pay the one or two youth who cared for the children. Even a few dollars may be a burden for some group members, though. If that's the case, consider having a few others pitch in a little extra to cover the cost. This enables everyone in the group to feel comfortable and not have to worry about their children or finances.
Apart from hiring teens from the church, you might want to use a trusted babysitter from your neighborhood or another couple or person from your church that attends a different group. If the babysitter is a stranger to some of the children, it might be a good idea to let the children meet him or her first. One group at our church had the sitter come to a meeting where everyone was together to introduce herself and hang out with the kids so she wasn't a stranger to anyone.
Another idea is to have group members take turns watching the children. Just as many groups have people sign up for bringing a meal or snack, you could have group members sign up to watch the children for a week. This allows group members to serve the group in an important way.
Working Through Special Needs
A couple in our church has a daughter with cerebral palsy. In regards to childcare, I asked the mother, Lindsey, what she'd be comfortable with so they could attend a small group. Lindsey said she'd be fine with someone watching their daughter, Aubrey, during the meeting, but she'd want to make sure that the person was comfortable with her daughter. She suggested setting up a meeting ahead of time with the volunteer or sitter so he or she could meet Aubrey. Lindsey also stated that she would feel more comfortable if the sitter watched Aubrey either in the same house she was in or in a nearby home. Additionally, the home would have to be wheelchair-accessible. It was clear, though, that Lindsey and her family would be willing to try small groups with such options available. If your group has a child with special needs, talk with the parents to see what they are comfortable with and any special requirements.
Considering Background Checks
Whatever childcare option you decide, you might consider doing a background check on the people watching your children. We have all our small-group leaders and family ministry volunteers fill them out, which helps everyone feel safe and comfortable. This won't make anyone fail proof, but it does alert you to any major issues.
Remember that providing childcare for your group is a ministry to families. This will allow them to grow spiritually and build support systems as they develop lasting relationships.
—Peri Gilbert is Small Group Coordinator at The Simple Church; copyright 2013 by Christianity Today.