Six months ago I volunteered to do a stint as an assistant teacher in my church’s two-to-three-year-old Sunday school class. My main motivation for volunteering was to help my son adjust to the class. I hoped my presence would calm his fears and within a month or two I’d be able to quietly slip away. He made the adjustments just fine, but six months later I still found myself serving in this capacity. I entered the situation assuming I was simply helping my son make some adjustments in his life. It turns out God was helping me make some adjustments in mine.
Cultivating Pastoral Character
As I’ve observed, many seminary students and other brothers aspiring to pastoral ministry are always on the lookout for opportunities to serve in the church. Regrettably, I think sometimes we have our sights set on only one type of service—public teaching. Of course, nothing is necessarily wrong with desiring to exercise your gifts, putting them under the evaluation of the church, and cultivating pastoral skills for future ministry. The problem is that many aspiring pastors fall into the trap of thinking this only happens by engaging in the adult teaching ministry of the church.
Serving in the nursery may not feel like a time to cultivate your pastoral gifts, but that may mean you have a too narrow or professionalized view of pastoral ministry. We cannot reduce pastoral ministry to proclamation and teaching, though that task is obviously central and essential (2 Tim. 4:2). If we take our cues from the character qualifications given to elders in 1 Timothy and the example of Jesus’s own life, we find a comprehensive picture for Christian ministry that is both more beautiful and more daunting than anything like mastering Greek and Hebrew. Serving small children in nursery might just be the place to cultivate the very character qualities Christ demands of those who would lead his church.
Cultivating Christlike Character
Jesus models this for us in John 13 when he fills a basin of water, kneels in front of his disciples, and starts scrubbing off the filth encrusted around their heels and toes. In this act, Jesus shows us the true character of Christian ministry—humility, compassion, and an initiative to volunteer for the least reputable acts of service. I’m always struck by the fact that this event occurs at the end of Jesus’s ministry, a time he might have felt most entitled to be served and to avoid the less glamorous aspects of ministry—a temptation we all face. “Sure, I’ll serve in the nursery or cut the grass . . . at least until I can work my way up to teaching a Sunday school class.” Ministry for some is a pyramid scheme where we work our way out of avenues of the church’s life we find less desirable. We “serve our time” in one part of the church, never to return. Jesus, on the other hand, after working miracles in front of crowds larger than any modern celebrity pastor could attract and preaching sermons that would shatter podcast download records, embraces the ministry his disciples would have considered too menial even for themselves.
Spending an hour with 10 two-year-olds every Sunday may not stretch your preaching skills, but it might just be what the Lord uses to make you a more compassionate and faithful church member in the present and church leader in the future. Nursery service is a great way to grow to love the children in your church—you may just find that requests for their salvation and faithfulness become part of your regular routine in prayer.
This type of service is also a great way to grow in love toward the parents in your church. At the risk of being captain obvious, parenting is hard work. Bearing the responsibility for someone else’s children so that weary-worn parents can be nurtured in the corporate gathering is one of the most practical ways you can carry the burdens of your fellow members (Gal. 6:2). Additionally, children provide a unique window into the life of a family. The more you know the particular struggles parents face as they raise the children God has placed in their homes, the more sympathetic and tenderhearted you will be toward them. Nursery also gives you a profound sense of gratefulness for the precious saints who labor to oversee nursery and children’s Sunday school as part of their regular ministry to the church. If John 13 has anything to teach us about the character of Jesus, these brothers and sisters just might be some of the most Christlike people you ever encounter.
Emulating Our Lord’s Example
So brothers, serve in the nursery. Serve in children’s Sunday school. Don’t let your M.Div., Ph.D., or any other life situation or experience convince you that you’re overqualified to emulate our Lord’s example. In our cultural context, picking up saliva-soggy Cheerios off the floor, changing a diaper, and telling a toddler about Jesus may just be the closest thing you ever do to washing someone’s feet.