Why didn’t you come back?

We were not having a good day at The Ark.

Earlier that week we had organised an event for children in the Reception/Year 1 class at school and those at our local pre-school.  We had based it on the story of the Lost Sheep and different areas around the church and churchyard had been set up for different parts of the story. The north transept where we held the Ark, our fortnightly under 5s service, had been set up as a sheep pen.  I had contrived sheep by using pillows, propped against each other and fixing on black paper sheep heads.  It was surprisingly effective.

This morning there were only two families, each with a three year old and a baby.  I thought that they would love the different displays, but instead they were unsettled.  The area was not how it usually looked and although we began with singing and activities as usual, it just did not feel the same.

We had just finished singing when Clare arrived with her one year old.

None of us knew her.  She had just moved into the village and had come to see what we were like, as she had been to a church toddler group in her previous parish.  We all tried our best to welcome her but the unsettled three year olds continued to make things difficult.  The child who never had an accident, wet herself and had to go home in the other family’s spare leggings.  The other three year old who never had a tantrum went into complete melt down and cried solidly for 5 minutes…  I don’t think any of us were surprised when Clare didn’t return.

Several years later I came across Clare in a different context and got to know her properly.  Eventually I was able to ask her: “Why didn’t you come back?”

She stopped to think.  “It all felt completely alien,” she said at last.  “I didn’t know anyone.  At the previous group we all sat round and sang Christian songs and they gave the children instruments to shake.  I hadn’t really had anything to do with church before our daughter was born. We hadn’t even been in a church much so it was hard just coming through the door. The vicar used to come along to the group and she was really kind and friendly and we had our daughter christened there.  It just felt so different here…”

What could we have done to help Clare feel more at home?

Strange though this seems, Clare was the first person in a long time who had come knowing no one.  The previous year we had been a much larger group, but several children had moved onto school.  These families had mostly come because they all went to the same under 5s group, organised by one of our church mums. She had invited a few along and then they had invited more.  Other families had a church connection or came along to our children and family events. Everyone knew someone, so this was an aspect I just hadn’t thought about.

A way through this might be to have extra adults around who can act as befrienders.  At Footsteps, our children and families events, I have Marie who is now in her 80s.  I usually give her a specific responsibility – decorating cakes or a more complex craft that will need adult help (sometimes I get the impression that I am not her favourite person!)  I find I am watching the whole room, getting up to sort out extra paints or craft materials, engaging with the children over their creations and welcoming late comers and sharing the story with them.  Marie is in one place, creating a calmer environment around her. Even more extra adults might be an advantage, to chat to those who are feeling a bit lost or alien.

Secondly, I wonder about structure – or rather about changing too much of the structure at one time. The Ark service was very structured and the children had come to expect this.  We began with gathering activities and songs, followed by story, craft, prayer and refreshments.  The children knew and felt at home in the space.  If I had at least kept the space and gathering activities the same, then the children would have been more settled and it would have been a calmer atmosphere for Clare and her daughter. (Though by contrast Footsteps has no consistent structure – we can be acting one month and play and pray stations the next.  The space is never set up the same twice running. Children and adults are free to choose their activities and change at any time. I think this works because the children are mostly older and the under 5s follow along, taking their cue from their older siblings. And again, this is what they are used to.)

Our singing at The Ark was very skimpy, mainly because no one who came was particularly musical.  I tended to get it over with early on – but perhaps I should have spaced it out and included some songs later on?  Even the tiniest children can wave ribbons or shakers and it is an activity that everyone can join in at their own level – and perhaps more importantly know that they are part of it.

At her previous group, Clare had found the vicar a friendly and known person, someone she could relate to.  The Ark had been set up by a previous vicar and me working together, but this was many years in the past and subsequent vicars had only come briefly to one session to see what went on.  They were either too busy to come again or it was their day off.  This had not bothered the families, who were mostly non church goers but for someone like Clare, who was hoping for more church involvement after her daughter’s christening, it was a definite negative.     

How could we have helped Clare and her daughter to feel more at home in the church building?  I wonder if we could have taken them to explore, pointed out the wooden angels under the roof, the carved animals and the window of St Anne and the children? Would this have helped – or not?  I’m not sure, but we do need to be aware how difficult church buildings may be for some people to enter; the church is a symbol of Christian beliefs and even entering might be seen as a commitment (or at least a sympathy with those beliefs.) 

All of these might have helped Clare to feel less alien but what about other newcomers?

I find it hardest to go to events where I feel it is cliquey.  I knew that we were not cliquey at The Ark (these particular families only met at The Ark and lived some distance apart.) But for someone who knew no one, it might have felt cliquey and some groups really are cliquey.  How do you balance people’s need to catch up with friends with a willingness to welcome outsiders?  One answer might be to recruit the parent/carer who talks to anyone and everyone to be on the lookout for outsiders… But then I worry about over formalising this; my own approach has been to let things find their own level.  Some newcomers are happy to start slowly, engaging in activities with their children and only gradually becoming part of the group. 

I am often reluctant to follow up, to visit or call someone who has been a few times but stopped coming.  I don’t want to be pushy, to intrude where I am not wanted, to face possible rejection.  It’s a risk I don’t want to take, but perhaps I should?

How much difference would these changes have made to how Clare felt?  I don’t know.  Neither Clare nor I are the same people that we were then; it’s hard to look back and view this in isolation: Clare had just had all the stress of moving house, I had spent the week organising several school and church events and checking my son’s uni project for grammar, word count and whether it actually made sense… 

I think what this has highlighted for me is the importance of not making assumptions: much of what Clare told me I would not have guessed.  I had never thought about the place of singing, contact with the vicar, what we could do to help someone who knew no one at all.  I needed to ask, for it is different for everyone.

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