By Lance McKinnon
Shortly after college, I decided to investigate a teaching career in the public school system. I signed up to substitute teach at a nearby middle school to see if this would be a good fit.
I got my answer the first week. It was Friday during the last class of the day. The kids were ready to go home, and I quickly realized I had little influence in that room. These kids needed leadership, and I aimed to give it to them. But everything I did only made matters worse.
I began with threats of extra work. No response. I carried out those threats. Nothing. I then had some of the more troublesome students sit in the hallway. This was a miscalculation—I had now incentivized the other children to join their ranks. The noise level got worse, and the kids were running all over the place. I did what I thought any self-respecting man should do—I rose to my full stature of 6 foot 3, stuck out my chest like an attacking rooster, and crowed at the top of my lungs: SHUUUTUUUP!!!
This set in motion a series of events. First, the room came to a screeching halt as each child turned towards me with a wide-eyed, open-mouth stare, as if seeing me for the first time. Then, they started looking at each other, their open mouths slowly closing into grins, till finally I heard the sound that brought my short teaching career to a welcomed end—snickering.
I had nothing. I stood there, humiliated, wondering if there were legal ramifications for abandoning a class without notice. Then, before I could turn around and escape, every kid in the room abruptly stood to attention, scampered to their desk and sat down as if waiting for instruction. I turned around to find that my shout for silence was received as an SOS call by the teachers down the hall. There in the doorway stood three ladies, half my size, and twice my age. They weren’t glaring, scowling or even frowning. They spoke no words at all (and thankfully they weren’t snickering). They just stood there with the presence of an immovable fortress. I realized it was time for me to join my students by scampering to my desk to await their instructions. The only thing appropriate about class that day was its subject—history.
That may not be the best story to set up an article on leading our children. Clearly, I’m not qualified. But those three ladies taught me something about how the Trinity views leadership—it’s about relationship.
As a new substitute teacher, I was completely disconnected from those kids. My attempts at bringing them onto my agenda were pointless. But the three ladies in the doorway knew these kids inside and out. They were probably teaching before most of those kids were born. The kids knew them—they had been taught in their classes and had eaten with them every day in the school year. These wise and skillful women didn’t need to say or do anything for the kids to fall in line. They just needed to be seen.
It seems this was part of what Jesus was getting at when he told the disciples to basically get out of the way and “Let the little children come to me” (Matt. 19:14). The disciples had their own agenda, which didn’t allow room for children to see Jesus. In contrast, Jesus treated the children as one who knew them before they were even born. They belong to him and to his kingdom, and it’s his relationship with the children that sets the agenda. Not the other way around.
Jesus’ reprimand of the disciples stands as a cautionary warning to not lead children with our own agenda driving our actions. As we follow Jesus’ lead, we see that blessing children with hands-on relationship is what he is up to. It is in a hands-on relationship that Jesus is seen at work, bringing forth blessing for each child. He is still doing that today and invites us to join in.
Whether we are a worker in a children’s ministry, a parent, or an overseer of children in some other compacity, we all have the call to let children see Jesus through the blessing of hands-on relationship. Like adults, children see Jesus most clearly in the eyes of others who do not overlook them.
I wonder how many times I’ve let my personal agenda blind me to the needs of a child who would have been blessed with just a little attention from me. I can think of many times when I was a youth that positive attention from an adult—an encouraging word, a gift, time spent without an agenda—blessed me in ways I still draw from.
Perhaps this approach does not sound like real leadership, at least not the way we usually think of it. Isn’t leadership about leading others into fulfilling an agenda? Perhaps, but when the agenda is about relationship, our view of leadership radically changes. Relationship is not a means to get kids on board or in line. Relationship is both the means and the ends.
Though understanding this does not negate our responsibility to teach and train our kids, it does remind us that we do so via relationships, which are primary, with all else flowing from them. In and through relationships, our kids are helped to see Jesus in unhindered ways. How they respond is then between them and the Spirit and we can provide a guiding hand. Relationship is thus vital to discipleship—it helps kids see Jesus, and it helps us, their disciplers, see Jesus as well.