Moms in Faith (a "how-to" of sorts)

A couple of Fridays ago, our Moms in Faith group at First Congregational Church of Western Springs had our fifth fall kickoff. This ministry, which had been talked about and hoped for but not implemented until shortly after I arrived in 2010, has been remarkable. It is a real source of strength and joy for a lot of mothers -and, by extension, a lot of families.

I'm asked quite frequently about advice and resources for starting a mom's group, so I thought I'd share a few things that have worked in our context.

1. Offer excellent childcare
Seriously. You can have pretty invitations and an awesome speaker and a lovely breakfast spread, but if you are expecting moms to line up their own babysitters in order to come, you're going to get nowhere fast. From the start, the church has underwritten childcare costs for the program - anywhere from two-six fairly paid childcare workers (depending on registration numbers). Obviously this can get pricey fast; it may be that you need to charge a fee to cover the costs, and that's fine. I also think it's important to run background checks and offer any relevant trainings to the workers, and to make sure that the nursery space is clean and safe. Several of our childcare workers have been working for us for years, and are known and loved by the kids. On related note, offering childcare at the church also allows the kids to know and love one another, and to have their own fun while the moms are meeting.

2. Establish a culture of hospitality and trust
It's one thing to say that everyone is welcome; it's another thing to actively practice hospitality toward  one another. We've always taken turns bringing treats. When we say that we'll pray for one another, we mean it. We hold confidences in confidence. We organize meal trains when families have new babies or experience crises. We try to be intentional about following up with people if we haven't seen them for awhile. Once a year or so I say that we are so thrilled to see you if this is your one chance all week to wear dangly earrings and cute shoes, and we are so thrilled to see you if the only way you could make it here was unshowered in yoga pants. We welcome church members and non-church members warmly, and don't have any hidden agenda. It's true that several non-members have gone on to join the church, but it's also true that we have always had many moms who are part of other churches or are happily unaffiliated, and they are every bit as much a part of Moms in Faith.

3. Generate peer leadership
During our second year in Moms in Faith, the co-founder (a lay member of the church) and I organized a Steering Team to help make decisions and attend to tasks related to running the program. This group has vetted books, tracked book orders, planned mission projects, coordinated hospitality, kept up with publicity, organized childcare, managed budgets, and led small group discussions. For that last part, I offered a couple of trainings for small group facilitation. We've tried to be careful about having healthy leadership turnover; generally, people serve for two to three years.

4. Have traditions, but be flexible
During our first year, we were all in one group. We started with a devotional (I often share things from [in]courage or Caryn Rivadeneira's Known and Loved, and then went around the circle answering an opening question. We talked about whatever the reading had been that week, trying to be mindful about making sure the extroverts didn't overwhelm the introverts (for this, I always use myself as an example because I am an extrovert who is entirely capable of causing introverts to collapse from interpersonal exhaustion if I'm not careful). Then, we went around the circle again and shared joys and concerns, and closed with prayer. That was great - except that by the end of the year we were a bit too big. So even though it completely intimidated me to tinker with a good thing, during our second year we started in that opening circle (devotion, opening question) - but then we split into two smaller groups, one discussing a parenting book and one discussing another book, and closed with joys and concerns in our small groups. Then we had more people, so we split into three groups, following the same pattern. For one session we had so many people registered we did four groups, but that turned out to be an overstretch.

For this fifth year, we've (almost) completely shaken things up. Many of our original members have moved on to other groups or commitments, though we've also welcomed quite a few new participants. We're back to one large discussion circle twice a month, a fellowship breakfast where we'll discuss videos from a Work of the People series about prayer in small groups around tables, and then - this is so new! and exciting! - once a month we're welcoming a guest speaker. To cover our extra costs, we've initiated a program fee to participate for the first time (though in the past, we frequently collected money to cover books). In addition to making it a little easier for busy moms to miss a week or two without getting behind on a long book discussion, we've also found a way to offer multiple formats that appeal to a broad spectrum of people, all within the same program. At least that's what we hope will happen; we haven't actually had a fellowship breakfast or speaker day yet this program year! The point, though, is that we've been actively responding to what people need and want from the group, and have taken risks even as we've kept up some of the rituals that feel central to the spirit and ethos of the ministry.

5. Know your people, and select material accordingly
One of the most challenging parts of facilitating this program has always been finding the right materials. After several years of reading and discussing books together, we're reading blog posts and a handful of studies from The Thoughtful Christian. This has made it quite a bit easier, though I don't for a minute regret that we read all those books together. (Okay, maybe I regret one or two.) It is a tricky, tricky thing to pick a parenting book that will be enlightening and entertaining and something very busy and very tired mothers will make the time to read each week. And then, because inevitably the moms will get worn out on talking about parenting and remember that, oh yeah, we can still talk about other things! - it is also a tricky, tricky thing to pick a non-parenting book that will be enlightening and entertaining and something very busy and very tired mothers will make the time to read each week. Plus, we want it to be rooted in the Christian faith, but we don't want it to be rooted in an expression of the Christian faith that is so culturally and theologically conservative that it doesn't resonate.

All that being said, these are some of the books I recommend for this kind of group. We've done most but not all of them; most we discussed week by week, either a chapter or section at a time. A few we discussed in a one-off evening summer book club. They're in no particular order.

In the Midst of Chaos
Hopes and Fears: Everyday Theology for New Parents and Other Tired, Anxious People

The Five Love Languages of Children
Building Resilience in Children and Teens
The Hole in our Gospel

Notes from a Blue Bike
Momumental: Adventures in the Messy Art of Raising a Family
Eat With Joy
Love Wins
Siblings Without Rivalry
Carry On, Warrior

You'll note that some very-well regarded Christian parenting books are not on this list. Grace-Based Parenting is a perfect example. I just could not quite picture it translating well to our progressive United Church of Christ context. It presumes an evangelical subculture that we're simply not a part of. That being said, if that's your context, I give that one two thumbs up as well, as well as Sally Clarkson's books. Know your people, and select material accordingly.

If I were consulting with a start-up mothers' group in a mainline Christian church, the two books I'd recommend starting with - and in this order - are Hopes and Fears and Say Goodbye to Whining, Complaining, and Bad Attitudes in You and Your Kids (which is kind of a terrible title and the cover is even worse, but this is my all-time favorite practical parenting book). You can find a free discussion guide for Hopes and Fears online; Say Goodbye has questions at the end of each chapter. Sometimes it's enough to simply ask, "what stood out to you?" and let the conversation flow from there.

6. Do other stuff
This is kind of the "junk drawer" of this how-to. Invite everyone to a Moms Night Out, including the working moms if your regular meetings are during the day. Go on retreats. Get your kids together for church Valentine and Halloween parties. Engage in mission projects together, either during your regular meeting time or as special events. Do an evening summer book club. Go to Family Camp together. Nurture meaningful Christian community.

Hope this is helpful!

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