Little Saints, Coda

If you wonder about other tips and tricks and experiments and experiences… what kind of things have others learned from their own series of trial & error… never be afraid to ask for someone to share their wisdom with you. Learn by watching others, learn by asking others, learn by trying and iterating on your own. In fact, I am further along in parenting in the pew than the woman who wrote this post, but I just found this and think it’s so encouraging to see someone else saying the same things I have found to be true. She reminded me of some tips I had forgotten, and worded some things in ways that were a particular blessing. So read what Lisa wrote here – if only to know that I’m not the only one saying these things about little saints and training worshipers from their earliest days. And I am just beginning to read Let the Children Worship, which looks very promising. Maybe I’ll come back and give an official review once I have read the whole thing; it’s rather short and unintimidating.

If I have a choice, I will always sit in a pew rather than a chair. It is so hard to keep a kid in their own chair, rather than squeezing and snuggling together on a bench. Plus, chairs tend to have a space where the seat and back “meet” but leave a gap where things tumble to the ground – pencils or puffs or papers… or chubby little legs. Try to sit in a place where you can minimize those types of struggles in the middle of a service. Plan not only what to bring (and what NOT to bring), but where to sit. Is there a speaker nearby that will blast the ears of your sensitive kid? Don’t sit there. Is there a fan or heater vent somewhere that will distract your kid? Sit somewhere else. Can your kid reach the lightswitch for the sanctuary if you sit in a certain spot? Please find a different spot.

If your youngest child is more than four years old, sit as close to the front as possible. This is good for them – it narrows their scope of vision so there are less distractions. It is good for others – it leaves seats toward the back for families with younger children and babies so they have a quicker route to exit when it becomes necessary.
If you are old enough to choose where to sit in a worship service, please choose to leave the back rows for children with little saints in tow. This is a generosity and kindness that is too often underestimated. And if you only take up half a row, please leave aisle seats for parents with little ones. Again, this is a generosity and kindness: it is a way you can serve and help the parents in this trench of raising up little worshipers. Give them the aisle seat so they can come and go as they train their little ones. You ought not need to get up repeatedly during a service, but a parent who is training their toddler to be quiet and be still, to learn focus and attention and obedience, very well may need to be up and down five or ten times during one service.

There is literally almost never a reason for a larger child or adult to need a bathroom break during a worship service. Teach yourself and your children to use the bathroom before church starts, and then they can hold it until church is over. This might take some training and some practice – and there is always an exception to the rule for someone who has a medical problem with their bladder or a little one who is freshly potty training – but for the majority of church goers there ought not to be bathroom breaks necessary during the worship service. It is just as distracting and disruptive for an 8 year old or a 17 year old or a 42 year old to get up and walk out (and then flush the toilet in the hallway, which everyone in the sanctuary can hear, by the way…) as it is for a baby to fuss or escape their pew or whatever.

And water breaks? Learn to bring a little water bottle for those extreme moments when someone genuinely needs to wet their throat – a parent can determine if the child actually needs it (honestly, during pregnancy I had to almost constantly be chewing peppermint gum and sipping lemon ice water – so I know it’s not just a child’s issue). But going out to the water fountain in the middle of the worship service as a norm is unnecessary.

More and more often, we as a broader cultural community do not teach focus and attention and diligence to one another or the upcoming generation. We are all about instant gratification, fast paced video games with loud noises and bright lights, and everything needs to be bells & whistles for someone to put up with it or try paying attention to it for more than ten minutes. This is a disservice to our families, our children, our churches, our communities, and our humanity at large.

I’ve seen parents give phones and tablets to little ones during worship services, and this breaks my heart. In a doctor’s office waiting room or on a long road trip, or maybe possible even at something like a wedding or funeral… that kind of thing is fine. But remind yourself again what we are doing on Sunday mornings: we are worshipping the King of the universe, the Creator, the Lord of all. Don’t stumble your little ones by giving them a distraction. Rather choose the good by bringing them with you in this godly endeavor to love God with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength – to learn the liturgy and practices of being worshipers of the King. Bless them with the trajectory of knowing and loving Sunday morning worship.

I have high-energy, outside-the-box, energetic, fast-paced children. It takes effort to cultivate focus and attention and diligence in them. And I am still learning these things myself – partly because my brain is always on high alert, trying to not only be attentive to the Spirit while I worship but also to be holding my five kids accountable, plus either serving musically or supporting my husband as he serves during the service… I get that what I am describing isn’t always going to be easy. But it honestly is simple. (Ease and simplicity are not the same thing.)

Simply plan ahead.
Simply be attentive.
Simply be humble.
Simply come to the feet of the Lord as a child yourself, and let your little children come also to Him – don’t forbid them, for the Kingdom of heaven is also for them. (Acts 2:39 & Matthew 19:14)

Little Saints, Tips

After sharing about my theological and philosophical convictions about Christian families bringing their children (yes, of all ages) into the worship service with them as the norm, I think it is only fair to share some of the ways that I have made this work for my family over the last fifteen years. By the time my child is four years old, they can sit through an entire worship service on their own and participate well in it. My husband could lead music and I could be accompanying on the piano, and our children can sit on their own in the pew. Not because we are amazing parents, not because my kids are quiet little churchmice, not because we hold a monopoly on pew life. We simply hold to our convictions and prioritize living them out as faithfully as we can. It is God’s grace!

When my first child was a baby, I would listen to an audio sermon (or just a portion of one – this was before podcasts were a thing) and sit on the couch with him on my lap. My goal was to teach him lap-sitting skills. The first goal was to train his noises to quietness. His physical wiggles and wobbles and kicks and claps were totally fine. The only requirements I had for him were that he stayed on my lap, and that his mouth did not go above a whisper while we were listening to the sermon. Quiet snacks and little fidgety hand-toys were fine. Nursing or napping was also fine. If we could do fifteen or twenty minutes per morning of this, it was a success. It was worthwhile. I also would sing with him, balancing him in one arm or on my hip while holding the hymnal in the other hand – and I would encourage him to make noise while I sang. Teaching him to follow my example: make a joyful noise during singing, but sit quietly when a pastor is speaking. Until about two years old, those were my main goals and practices. And yes, practicing at home was helpful for my baby and for me as his mama.

I said that his physical movements were not my priority focus, but his quietness. We train their volume control first, and we get to their physical self control later. My second son essentially engaged in a silent wrestling match during sermons for a solid year of his life… but because he was already trained to have a quiet mouth when he was asked to, he pretty much just needed bear hugged on a lap to eventually train his body to be still. It’s not about a particular method, but about faithful consistency and not growing weary in doing good. It is good work to train children for worship. It is all too easy to grow weary in it. But the fruit that grows from planting and nurturing these seeds is indescribable. Don’t lose sight of the bigger picture: fruit takes time to see, but the sowing is crucial.

Until about three years old, a snack during the worship service can be helpful. Disposable pouches of applesauce or yogurt are pretty quiet and don’t make much of a mess. Cheerios, puffs, fruit snack gummies, or yogurt melts are good ideas if you have put them in a quiet container beforehand – some little baggies are pretty quiet, and so are these Munchkin cups. Crackers and pretzels or crackly packaging like most granola bars are wrapped in are NOT good ideas. But it doesn’t take a ton of planning to get rid of the crinkly bits prior to the worship service. Simply learn to be mindful of planning ahead.

For my kids, I train them away from snacks by offering it to them later and later in the service as time goes on. Nursing, milk or water bottles, and little snacks at any point during the service were fair game until my child is about two years old; and then at that point, it was time to relegate any of that just during the sermon. And by the time they are about three years old, it is time to give up the snack altogether. They can learn to wait until the service is done by the time they are that age. At that point, having a little snack once the service ends is like a reward for a job well done. It is a good reminder to whisper in their little ear: “you’re doing a great job, so after church, you can have your snack!”

Until about six years old, quiet activities for their hands can also be helpful. Avoid things with loud zippers, crinkly sounds, and Velcro. Don’t give keys to your kid. And keep all toys with batteries at home or in the car – they have no place in church. WaterWow, BoogieBoard, colored pencils and a little notebook, and some versions of Quiet Books (again – zippers and Velcro are often not quiet) can be great. If you want to bring picture books, keep them small – board books or Indestructibles are highly recommended. And teaching kids to bring a Bible with them to church from the earliest age is great: I have picked up Bibles for fifty cents apiece at Goodwill before, and they are great for little hands to hold and page through – and it isn’t a big investment or a special family heirloom to be sad about when the pages get wrinkled or ripped.

During the ages of 4-7 most kids tend to come to an understanding of both reading and writing- until they are ready to learn how to take notes, using an activity book like this can be a fun idea. Depending on the child, though, having that many pages of activities can be overwhelming with too many options – sometimes one or two sheets on a clipboard is a better route to take. Print something off the internet and use cheap clipboards like this.

By the time a kid can read & write independently, it is a worthwhile practice to equip them with a notebook and pen (if your kid is going to obsess over clicking it during a sermon – don’t give them a clicking one). We like lined notebooks with a ribbon bookmark, elastic strap to keep it closed, and a loop to stick their pen in (like these). For the first year or so of “taking notes,” we assist the child by copying down some of the sermon text, and then making fill-in-the-blank spots for them to copy the words, and then writing keywords and leaving tally space, etc. After a few months, our child usually has learned to write a couple sentences of their own as a take-away from the sermon, or write down a question they have about it. (Similar to what this resource does – but we do it intentionally each week for our child, tailored to that week’s particular sermon text.) Step by step, little progression on a great trajectory. It’s beautiful to watch them develop this skill and grow in their understanding.

We have a little reward system with the kids, too – if they “take notes well” that week (and we judge it subjectively week by week, according to what we know that child is capable of, etc) as well as achieve a personal goal we set for that child (one child’s current goal is to sing boldly every song and every verse; another’s is not to doodle rather than take notes; another’s is to engage in corporate prayer with self-control over body and mind) – then they will get a candy. It is a great way to recap the sermon and share these growing skills with one another over a meal either Sunday afternoon or on Monday.

What about those moments when the toddler is flipping out and becomes a genuine distraction? For the love of your brethren, take the kid out of the sanctuary. There is a line somewhere that every kid crosses (some of them more frequently than others) when it comes to making noise during a worship service. If “shushing” and patting their lips gently doesn’t cut it, you ever so gently whisper in their ear “whisper, whisper, please” – and if that doesn’t cut it, you pick them up and leave the sanctuary for a time of teaching. In most churches there is a chair in a hallway or foyer or a mother’s room or something. In our little local church, there is a pew in the foyer, and it’s the perfect place for training a tot. It’s exactly the same as being in the sanctuary, but we are more isolated from others – so my toddler is less likely to be distracting to anyone around us, and I am less likely to become easily frazzled. But do I take him into “the nursery”? Absolutely not. I made the mistake of changing a soiled diaper in the nursery about a month ago, and there were a few moms in there just chatting while their toddlers were playing with whatever they wanted. When I had finished the diaper changing and was heading back into the worship service, my two year old threw a fit because he wanted to play with the other kids. I have now learned that we will no longer even so much as enter the nursery while a worship service is going on. I want him to know that he absolutely may play in there with his little friends before service or after service, but that he belongs in the sanctuary during worship. It was a good reminder to me as well. I inadvertently tempted him and knocked him off course. I asked him to forgive me for not being more mindful of that. And then we sat together on the pew in the foyer until the sermon ended, and we made our way back into the sanctuary to sit with our family for communion and a closing hymn.

But here is another nuance that I don’t want to neglect stating outright: if you keep your kid in the service until they get too noisy or too distracting, and then you just go to the nursery and chat while they play, you are rewarding negative behavior. Of course playing with toys is more fun than sitting still and having a quiet mouth for forty minutes! But rewarding my toddler with that playtime after the service is done is a bigger blessing in so many facets. We can’t overlook the negative things we teach our children by our actions, and we must pray for grace to have eyes to see our stumbling blocks and identify our blind spots!

As far as bringing “all the right things” to church on Sundays, we again just plan ahead with intentionality. We have a large canvas bag printed with the “five solas” that I ordered a long time ago from CafePress. And it is what we call “the church bag.” We only bring it to church. It remains packed with each child’s notebook & pen, quiet activities for the toddler (currently an LED writing tablet, a notebook, a fabric pouch of colored pencils, and a mostly-quiet book that he is not allowed to use the velcro parts on), a few Bibles, and two quiet snacks for the toddler (currently one applesauce pouch and one yogurt pouch). On Sunday morning, when we are ready to leave the house, we grab my keys, the diaper bag, and the church bag. That’s it.

I leave the kids’ allowance & pay out the night before, so on Sunday morning they are reminded to get their tithe in their pockets. Beginning at 5 years old our kids get a $1 training allowance, in order to teach them the importance of tithing as well as saving and generosity; at 10 years old it goes up to $2, at 15 it will be $5 – and if they earn any money by doing additional jobs during the week (nope, normal family chores and duties do not count – we don’t get paid to simply be a contributing family member), they tithe on that as well. Under 5 years old, my kids almost always ask for coins to put in the offering box – so I try to keep a solid stash of dimes and quarters around, so I can place a coin in their palm as well.

Why do I train my kids that there are church clothes and not-church clothes? Why do I train my kids to take their tithe every week? Why do I train my kids to attend the worship service from infancy? Because of what I believe about God, about worship, and about their place in the Kingdom of God. And it takes years of training and practicing to not only have the proper actions and participation, but to win their hearts and shape them into lovers of Christ, lovers of worship, lovers of true and good and beautiful things.

Sundays are where we start. It is the day of rest and worship.
Heaven is where we aim. It is an eternity of rest and worship.

Life here is just preparation for that glory anyway. It is worth prioritizing and implementing these practices with joy. For the glory of God and the good of the little saints who have been entrusted to you.

Little Saints

A little over month ago, I shared some good posts I found about Raising Worshipers. Or, as some people like to call it, parenting in the pew. Last summer, I shared a guest post where I wrote over at Humility and Doxology about Singing Psalms with Little Saints. And as I have been seeking to parent my own children faithfully on Sunday mornings week in and week out, I continue to ponder many of the themes which overlap and intertwine between those two topics. The idea of raising worshipers connects with the term “little saints,” which I apply to Christian children. My kids don’t have a catechism question which says exactly this, but I want them growing up knowing the answer to this question:

  • TO WHOM DO YOU BELONG?

My kids belong to Christ. They bear the image of their Father in heaven. They bear the mark of baptism. They are fed on the nourishment of the Lord’s Supper every week. We are raising them with the understanding that they are Christians just as much as they are Cummings. I have confidence in the fear of the Lord, and He is the refuge for my children (Proverbs 14:26). This is the underlying philosophy which informs every aspect of my parenting and homeschooling… including our weekly worship service every Sunday morning.

  • WHAT DO YOU BELIEVE ABOUT YOUR CHILDREN?
  • WHAT DO YOU BELIEVE ABOUT WORSHIP?
  • WHAT DO YOU BELIEVE ABOUT THE LORD’S DAY?

Your answers to those questions are where you need to start when it comes to the topic of Christian parenting. And I believe that what we believe about these things comes out our fingertips… no matter what we say our answers are.

My five children range in age from almost-3 to 14. I have only done this parenting thing a few times, and for less than fifteen years – but during my stint so far as a mother, I have encountered approximately 728 Sunday mornings with at least one child in my charge. (It actually feels like a lot more than that to me, but I double checked my math, so we’ll go with it.) Not infrequently, I have had people come up to me and praise my children and my parenting skills for the way my kids “sit through” worship. People say things like, “your kids are so well behaved!” or “my kids could never do that” or “are they always this poised and quiet?” I pretty much always chuckle out loud (or perhaps totally gut-bust in laughter, depending on the morning), trying to reassure the admirer that nope, my kids are definitely not always poised and quiet (but rather quite the opposite on an average morning), that their kids could be trained to do this just as much as mine could, and that they are only so well behaved during Sunday morning worship because we have spent their entire lifetimes pursuing and prioritizing their practice as children of the King.

I remember when my oldest was just a wee thing, and he would sleep through pretty much the entire Sunday morning service every week. Sometimes I could be constrained to share my little snuggly boy (with cheeks like dumplings) with my mother, but usually only when I was the pianist for that week… so my mom loved those Sundays best. Once I had more children in the pew, it became a little more of a juggling game, especially because my husband and I often serve during services in one way or another. Passing babies back and forth, or relying on help from grandparents, became a kind of dance. But it was always worth it. (Always will be.)

I have never put my children in the nursery during worship. Not once.
I *have* put a child in a nursery during a Sunday school hour or a Bible study. I have no qualms about giving my child the time and space to engage in that kind of setting. But it goes back to my underlying philosophy about my child: he belongs to the Lord in whose image he was created, and therefore he belongs in the worship service of that Lord. The worship my baby or toddler or adolescent offers to the Lord is no less valuable than mine or my parents’ or my grandma’s. By the grace of God, we all belong to Him and we are all called to worship Him in the beauty of holiness (1 Chronicles 16:28-29). I would no more put my two year old in the nursery than I would put my ninety-two year old grandma in the nursery. Even though each of them can be distracting and need assistance sometimes. Neither one can hold the hymnal on their own or harmonize perfectly in song or sit quite still for a forty minute sermon. Neither one of them whispers convincingly but is always louder than they think they are, and there are occasions where either one of them will declare they have to use the bathroom in the middle of the service.

Grandma belongs to the Lord. She is called to worship Him.
My children belong to the Lord. They are called to worship Him.
I am tasked with motherhood by the Lord, and I am called to let them come unto Him in worship and for blessing (Mark 10:13-16).

Do you know when churches started having nurseries? It was not all that long ago, from what I can tell with preliminary searches on the internet. I have read about the history of Sunday School, as a lot of us probably have when studying the industrial revolution, but that was not intended to take the place of the worship service. It was meant to be a time of teaching and blessing children – it was not focused on worship of the Lord. Nurseries and other childcare meant to keep parents kid-free during worship services are an enigma to me. Call me narrowminded, but there it is. If you want a break from your children, especially the toddlers, go for it: but not to the extent that you are banishing those little saints from worshipping their King. I would commend to you that you reserve “a break” from your kids for just about any other time – during a weekly Bible study or occasional coffee date or so you can enjoy time with your husband or go shopping without kids in tow. But don’t bar these little saints from the worship of their Lord, and from their weekly opportunity to watch you and learn from you as you worship your Lord.

In Scripture, were children exempt from honoring the Sabbath or Passover? No. These things were as much for the children as for the adults. The Bible never describes children being kept separate from the adults – God works in families, through families, and Scripture shows us that children are not only important players in His story (Isaac, Moses, Samuel, John, Timothy) but were also considered part of the church by Paul (otherwise why would he address them directly in Ephesians 6?).

I don’t know when parents decided they didn’t need to bring their children to the worship service of the King. I don’t know why church leaders decided that it was okay to banish children from corporate worship and segregate families by age. Have you ever considered what it communicates to the child when they are exiled from even just a portion (say, the sermon, perhaps) of the worship service? Have you considered what it communicates to those around you when you send your child out of the worship service?

What we do is indicative of what we believe. What do you believe about your kids, about Christ, about the Lord’s Day, and about worship? The way you live and act and parent and worship on Sunday is more indicative of what you believe than what your words might say you believe. Our theology is lived out in our actual lives.

What kind of practical good comes from having children in the worship service? It teaches them how to worship, it teaches them that they are part of the family of God, it teaches them that their praise and prayers are valuable to the King. There is a battle against the family in society, and Satan is aiming straight at our children – and we can not give in to these attacks by distancing children from participating in the most important activity of the week.

We have to remember that the worship service is not about us. It is not about our emotional experience, or about us hearing every minute of the sermon, it is not about what we want or our own selfish needs. It is most definitely not about having a break from kids so you can listen to a sermon (you’ve heard of earbuds and recorded sermons, right?). If you aren’t able to absorb the sermon during the worship service, you have plenty of opportunity during the rest of the week to listen to the recording.

Children learn to tithe by dropping coins in the offering box alongside their parents. Children learn to sing by singing at the sides of their parents. Children learn to pray by praying with their parents. Children learn to sit and focus during a sermon by the faithful example of their parents. Children learn to stand and sit and kneel and lift their hands and bow their heads – by watching and imitating and enacting alongside their parents.

Can it be distracting to have kids in the worship service? Sure… but adults are sometimes super distracting, too. (Exhibit A: cough drop wrappers, blowing noses, and cell phones going off – oh my.) And have you never found that parents sometimes exacerbate the distracting elements of their children? (Exhibit B: parents giving their keychain to a child, or handing them snacks in crinkly packaging, or entertaining them with toys equipped with batteries.) Children do not have the monopoly on distraction.

It’s very well and good to say that I believe children ought to be in worship services with their parents because of my theology and philosophy… and it’s fine to tell you that from the outside looking in, people will tell you that my kids do great during worship every week… but my kids are far from perfect (as is my parenting), and I did not naturally know how to train my children for worship – it has taken over seven hundred Sundays to get to where we are now, and we still have room to grow and learn and iterate.

On the cusp of my youngest child turning three years old, I can share a few practical tips and experiences from my five times going through these phases and stages… stay tuned, because those practical tips will be shared in my next post.

Cultivating Community, 8

To wrap up this conversation about community creation and cultivation, I want to back up from the hands-on how-to aspects, and revisit the philosophical, theological underpinning of it all. I mentioned before that as image-bearers of the Triune God, we were created for community. Did we really cover what that means, though? What does community mean? Adam needed a helper, so God provided Eve. Does that mean they only needed one another? God told them to multiply and to fill the earth. Does that mean that they just needed to procreate and then send their children off to all the far corners of the globe? (Can I just giggle at that idiom, too, please? Corners of a globe? We know the earth isn’t flat and doesn’t have corners, y’all…)

I mentioned concentric circles moving out from immediate family to extended family to close brethren/friends to more formal communities like a church family or school or co op affiliation and then the community in which you live… but there are other communities too. What about a place of employment? How about a particular ministry at your church? And then there are kids’ sports teams and orchestra connections and… and… and!

I mentioned the fact that I did not actually seek out being the community builder for a conference or a co op — and yet, here I am! I told the stories of how God opened my eyes to the need, gave my heart a desire, and then ended up tossing it into my own lap when I least expected it, and called me to be the one who orchestrates it.

How do all of these things coexist and coincide together? How did I know that I was supposed to say YES to those things? I certainly can’t say yes to everything! (Just ask my husband: he is good at reminding me that I can not add more good things to my plate simply because they are good things.)

What is actually required of you? You as an individual. With a particular set of giftings, a particular frame, a particular family, a particular life. What does God require of you? Check out Micah 6:8 for the most amazingly basic yet broad answer to that question. And then read Romans 12, which describes marks of a Christian in a bit more detail which can really get the creative juices flowing. And one of those things we are exhorted by Paul to do is to practice hospitality. In Hebrews 13, we also find a list of virtues and pursuits which are encouraged for followers of Christ – and you’ll find hospitality listed there as well. So this begs the question: what is hospitality? (And how is hospitality connected to the idea of community building like a conference or co op?)

To be honest, I don’t like the official dictionary definitions for the word hospitality. Words like “providing services” and also “entertainment” pop up, and I think that is only one very small, niche aspect of hospitality. In Hebrews, the word hospitality means to actually “pursue the love of strangers.” Additionally, I have heard some people say that hospitality is just a fancy way of saying “welcome others.”

So as Christians, we are called to welcome others. We are called to pursue the love of strangers. We are called to contribute to the needs of others (Romans 12:13) and consider their interests as more important than our own (Philippians 2:3-4).

But just because there is a need doesn’t mean that you are automatically the one who is called to meet it. I am not going to take the time to unpack that or defend it by philosophy from my underlying convictions. But I would be remiss if I did not at least make that statement. Another point which I feel the need to simply mention in passing is that if you start something, it doesn’t necessarily follow that you will continue it. I went into my first year hosting the Paideia Northwest conference hoping that it would be an annual thing, but being willing for it to end up being a one-time event. I am going into the fifth annual conference with no particular desire to call it quits any time soon. But if the Lord leads me to step away, I hope to have the humility and discerning wisdom to follow Him. Either to let it go altogether or to pass it along to someone else who felt the call to carry it on next. I hope that I would have that same attitude in relation to my co op or any other place where I minister.

I show hospitality by welcoming hundreds of women each November to an event where I seek to bless their souls, encourage their hearts, and equip them to stand fast in the trench of raising children for the Lord. I show hospitality by organizing a weekly homeschool co op and its attendant planning meetings, and facilitating all the communication that is necessary for that to run smoothly. I show hospitality by opening my home every Sunday during Advent to multiple families. I show hospitality by having an open door policy for anyone who needs to swing by for fellowship, a play date, babysitting — while I have not often had people take me up on that open door policy, I am committed to keeping my life flexible enough that I can serve others through my home whenever it is needed. I show hospitality by willingly opening my home to two dozen employees of my husband — I am genuinely eager to welcome them to our home, as a small act of gratitude and care for the work they pursue alongside us day by day each year. I show hospitality by having a small, dedicated guest room in our house that always has a bed made in case somebody requires a place to crash — and a particular nuance of that hospitality is that my husband’s parents know that they always have first dibs on it.

And each of those examples of hospitality could be reworded to show that they are different ways that I cultivate community. These are the things that the Lord has impressed upon me, and my family, as the important places to prioritize hospitality. If you have not read Rosaria Butterfield’s book The Gospel Comes with a Housekey, I do recommend it — but with a reminder: not every family practices hospitality or community building in the same way. I have very much in common with the Butterfields’ philosophy and theology on the topic, but it is lived out in a vastly different way here in my home, and in my current phase of life. I feel like she and I are shoulder to shoulder with linked elbows — we don’t do the same thing, but we serve the same King with the same passion for His Kingdom, and we pursue hospitality and community according to the gifts with which He equipped us as uniquely individual women as well as within the means He has provided (location, phase of life, finances). At any rate, here is a great article Rosaria wrote that will be a great intro or recap for you. Read it with these questions in mind:

  • What do I see here that I find winsome?
  • What are the underlying principles that make this look beneficial?
  • How could I glean wisdom or practical tips from this?
  • How could I apply these tips to my own opportunities for serving?
  • What needs do I see around me, and how am I equipped to meet them?

And then ponder what the Lord might want you to do with the answers. Are you feeling the need to start a large but infrequent community, like I did with the Paideia Northwest conference? Do you see a local need for something like a weekly homeschool co op? What about a monthly women’s book club or Bible study? A quarterly dance or soccer playoffs or neighborhood food drive?

There are all kinds of ways to expand your hospitality practices and build community. But you can not pursue them all. That is a recipe for burnout. Once people recognize you as someone who loves to show hospitality or who is gifted at creating or cultivating a specific community… you may find that more and more people ask you to do more and more things. We need wisdom. Discernment. Boundaries. People like me need to learn how to say no, or how to offer advice rather than taking reins.

In conclusion, this is my personal story. These are the areas where I have felt the call of the Lord to take up a cross and follow Him. To gird up my loins and build my strength for particular tasks. I bring my family along in it with me. I’m iterating as well as learning to delegate. I seek to pursue leadership within the bounds of a joyful humility. And I will probably always want to say yes more often than I should… so my husband will probably always need to be hedging me and shepherding me in these things.

My encouragement to you is this: when you feel the call of the Lord, seek Him first and follow where He leads. Give something a try. Large or small or medium. Occasionally or frequently or annually. If each of us were to follow His call to pursue hospitality more regularly, wouldn’t that be a joy? If there were more opportunities to embrace Christian community, wouldn’t that be a blessing?

Romans 12:4-6
For as in one body we have many members, and the members do not all have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one or another. Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them…

Cultivating Community, 7

I think the size and structure of any given community necessarily requires different types and levels of organization underneath it. The bigger the garden or the more intricate the garden plan, the more prep & planning is involved at the front-end of things. The front garden spot in my yard took a lot of work the first year, but since I planted perennials, it really is just about maintenance at this point, ten years later. My vegetable garden in the back yard is a different story. We reorganize it, add raised beds, and iterate the watering system just about every year; we are still figuring out the best methods for fertilizing and composting, and experimenting with different types of foods to grow as well as where to purchase seeds & starts. It’s more like starting from not-quite-scratch every year than it is simple reiteration or maintenance. Year over year, it remains an enormous project, and I never feel like my thumb gets much greener. But I still jump in and try!

At this point, I still run Paideia Northwest almost completely on my own, so I am able to keep the organizational structure pretty simple. Running a ten-family weekly homeschool co op has required more official paperwork and organizational communication than running an annual conference for hundreds of registrants. That seems rather backward to me when I ponder it on the surface! I think the reason for this, however, is that the homeschool co op is meant to be more of an equal cooperative of families mutually serving one another – which means more shared burdens and equal servanthood and bearing of the load. The conference is more of a business structure (although I treat it as a ministry, in practical application), where I run it from the top down, and I am slowly learning to delegate and

CONFERENCE ORGANIZATION:

If I were to have more women officially on the Paideia Northwest team, I think I would likely use a GoogleDrive format similar to what I previously described in my co op organizational habits. Since it’s pretty much just me, though, I find using Word documents and the Notes app in my phone is adequate. I have a website, social media accounts, and email account for communication, registration, and marketing. I also have SurveyMonkey and MailChimp, although I think we have outgrown both platforms’ free versions – so I need to probably iterate those things and find replacement programs (or budget for their paid versions). I communicate with my advisory teams mostly via Voxer chats or texts. But I keep all my documents and lists and recaps on my laptop, and just email them to people when such times become pertinent.

What kind of documents?

-conference master list, by year
-speaker agreement packets
-brochures
-letters to churches, schools, and co ops
-vendor agreement packets

It’s the master list that really is like my brain download.
It contains:
-Task List
-Spending Recap
-Packing List
-Conference Schedule
-Volunteer Teams (Set Up Crew, 2 Coffee Crews, Luncheon Crew, Clean Up Crew)
-Task Lists for each Team
-List of Vendors
-List of Journal Ads
-List of Giveaway Items
-Personnel (Names, Position, Contact Info)
-Bio of Each Speaker
-Intro for Each Session
-Hymns & Prayers & Scriptures

I think it is the Task List that makes people the most curious. What in the world does it take to plan, prep, and pull off an annual conference for hundreds of women? (200 the first year… expecting over 400 this year… it has grown year over year, and has always sold out very quickly!)
I can generally break down my tasks into monthly sections. I endeavor to have six months “on” followed by six months “off,” but it doesn’t cleanly slice that way, because I actually do things for the conference off and on all year long. But the mindset I have is kind of six and six, more or less, and mindset is a big foundation for how this all plays out. On a most basic level (because yes, it actually IS more involved and complicated than this list: so this list is simply the basics), it looks like this:

Jan: email & social media sparsely; contact speakers to finalize agreements; make sure taxes were all done and filed properly
Feb: email & social media sparsely; communicate with speakers and location as necessary
Mar: clean out last year’s inbox and documents to make room for organizing this year’s
Apr: design this year’s conference graphic; try to finalize location; book AirBnb for conference personnel
May: make sure location is finalized; share graphic and other artistic elements online; check email regularly; social media regularly; begin to plan swag and decor
Jun: introduce each speaker on social media; schedule registration date for Aug; check email regularly; social media regularly; experiment or shop around for swag and decor
Jul: finalize catering; contact potential vendors; mail brochures and fliers to churches, co ops, & schools in the region; check email regularly; social media regularly; finalize swag and decor; reserve hotel block
Aug: get website, MailChimp, and PayPal set up; open registration; order pens and stickers and other swag; record & release short podcast episodes with each speaker
Sept: follow up with potential/committed vendors; be vigilant with email and social media; purchase decor; plan clothing for conference
Oct: close registration 10/1; make sure all digital files are received on time; place shirts order; finalize all Master List details; make sure all drinks and snacks and paper goods are purchased; fill my freezer with freezer meals for the weeks surrounding the conference; make sure volunteer lists are finalized and task lists emailed out; design, create, & order conference journals
Nov: daily email and social media interactions & updates; print name badges; stuff name badges; write checks for all speakers; write thank you notes; pay caterer; pay location; get all swag bag contributions; stuff bags; shop for any last minute items; get ahead on homeschool commitments and co op duties the week before the conference; spend one day packing vehicles; spend one day setting up; plan to have at least 48 hours of recuperation after the conference with zero outside commitments; send thank you emails; send survey; send audio & video file links to all registrants
Dec: keep an eye on email and social media; make sure the recording links were sent out and received; rejoice over God’s good work; make sure all the moneys and taxes and receipts are in order and ready for upcoming tax season; pack away all the conference supplies in the basement

This is just a quick summary of the biggest points, the main tasks that absolutely have to be accomplished. And this just follows a general timeline of what I have found works best for me. I don’t get paid to do any of this work (which is what I mean when I say that I treat this as a ministry – I don’t cut myself a paycheck or anything – all my time is donated, and a lot of my personal resources are also donated), so it has to be spread out among many months in order to make it doable. I am in a busy season of life (is there ever a season that isn’t busy?! I’m doubting it…), and I will never get any of these days back. I do not want to come to the end of my life and wish I had not done what I am currently doing. I want to be wise. I want to serve. And I want to follow the Lord’s plans for me. And a good portion of that means that I need to plan well and wisely in the midst of the busy hours, days, months, years, and seasons. Planning with hope and joy and intentionality.

I didn’t even plan my own wedding and reception, to be honest, so when I decided to plan a conference including catering and swag bags, I went into it with about as little experience as a person could imagine! In fact, I’ve also never been to any kind of educational conference before. I have never once attended a homeschooling conference! And while that surprises people when I mention that, I kind of wonder if it keeps Paideia Northwest unique and fresh. I essentially plan according to what I genuinely would personally find helpful, beneficial, and sweet. I do not plan anything according to what “should” be done according to any kind of other event standards. I am not trying to copy what anybody else does anywhere else. In fact, from what little bits and snippets I have seen online of occasional other conferences, I would actually prefer NOT to emulate many of the things I’ve seen.

The main reason I felt the need to pursue Paideia Northwest in the first place, though, was because there were no options in the area that I could attend. As a fulltime homeschooling mama in a family with a single income, I do not have the time or finances to pursue the luxury of traveling hither and yon to places around the country to fill the need I felt for this kind of community, connection, encouragement, and resources. And that is precisely why I have never been to a homeschool (or other educational) conference or event! I have dreamed about attending some. But that’s what it has remained: dreams.

So in general, I find it to be a good practice just not to look around at other events too much. Not only do I not want to cast sidelong glances (contentment and comparison can both be hard), but I also don’t want to get distracted from what is needed HERE. I am trying to be attuned to what I hear women in my own region saying blesses them, encourages them, and urges them to raise and educate their kids with faithfulness according to what God has led their families to do.

And that’s one of my main points about cultivating community all over again: it has to be intentional, and it needs to be about what is needed where you are, among the people you’re with. Just because it is a community, doesn’t mean it is the right community for every place or gathering of people.

We need to be asking what does God want me to do here, with this specific community, and the specific gifts He has given to me?

Cultivating Community, 6

One of the questions I have frequently been asked boils down to how do you keep track of everything? This can really be the make it or break it sticking point, I think. I have always loved lists: shopping lists, checklists, to do lists… you name it, if I can make a list for it, I will love it better. And when I love something better, I have more confidence and feel like I am doing a better job. (I probably AM doing a better job, to be honest.) So I have learned to make documents in Word just to keep track of stuff (having it on a laptop, which was a business expense, is really helpful), and I keep smaller versions in the Notes app in my phone. I try really hard to diligently keep the two synced and current. Having both not only gives me two places to put updates but gives me a double layer of accountability. That’s like my low tech backup hack.

This goes for Paideia Northwest (the annual conference) as well as Paideia Studies (the weekly homeschool co op). I know it is hard to get a handle on what kind of documents and lists are helpful without seeing it yourself, so I’ll try to briefly step through some of the main ideas. I will have visuals and printables through a Scholé Sisters workshop this summer, so that might be a great place to connect with me if you want the real inside scoop.

CO OP ORGANIZATION:

One of the best things I learned at a previous co op was the trick of using GoogleDrive to organize everything and give all the co op families access to all the necessary things… including all the weekly homework. It took me a solid six months to catch on to how to best utilize the Drive myself, but by then I was absolutely hooked. I think the moms at Paideia Studies had a similar experience to that! Once you get the hang of it, it really streamlines things.

We have folders there on a shared drive for Formal Documents, Current Details, Weekly Homework (which is then divided up by class), Moms’ Meeting Agendas/Minutes, and Curriculum Assets (essentially where we can keep lesson plans from previous years so we don’t have to recreate the wheel each time we do Latin Primer A or Story of the World Volume 3, for example).

When it comes to administrating the co op, I have formal documents in that folder on the Drive such as:
– Family Interview
– Visiting Family Feedback
– Application
– Family Agreement
– Intent to Return
– Philosophy Statement and Links
– Sample Scope & Sequence
– Official Handbook (that’s a 24 page document, in case you wondered)

And then I also have a folder of current documents on the Drive which will change prior to each new school year, including:
– current directory (a version with a family picture, as well as a simple text version)
– current student list (organized by date of birth)
– class rosters
– cleaning duties sign-up sheet
– playground supervisory sign-up sheet
– birthday list organized by month
– class schedule
– year’s calendar at a glance
– curriculum & supply list for current year
– financial reimbursement request page
– reimbursement receipt page
– there’s a folder we call Year’s Pics for everyone to upload any co op pictures to throughout the year so we can make a fun slideshow super simply to share at our celebration at the end of May.

Communicating with all the co op families takes multiple forms as well. We have a group text that we all just kind of keep going, and we inform one another that way of anything pertinent. I open every co op day’s morning Collective with announcements to make sure everyone is aware of any assignments or delegations or substitutions. Then within 24 hours after that, I make sure to send a recap email to everyone which reiterates any announcements and includes links to anything shared in Collective or in classes (if a teacher texts me a link to share for a resource or article or YouTube video, for instance). And then at the monthly moms’ meetings we start with “business” after an opening prayer in order to communicate in a clear and straightforward manner anything that needs to be shared with all the co op families, especially if there are any upcoming events or class changes or deadlines.

Speaking of the moms’ meetings, that took some real iteration and practice! I had never been taught how to lead a meeting before, and I sort of took it for granted that it would just happen naturally. I learned quickly that nobody can read my mind and my tendency toward not wanting to hurt anyone’s feelings or crush anyone’s excitement made it hard to stay on track. While the meetings were supposed to end between 9 and 9:30, the first few meetings went well past ten and we’d stay around fellowshipping closer to eleven. In retrospect, I should not have been surprised: throw ten women in a room together and try to have them all on the same page working toward the same goals at the same time… and you’ll quickly find that it takes a long time to accomplish anything even with the best of intentions. I think it was the month of February where I finally listened to the counsel of our Board (which is made up of three co op dads from different churches and with different aged kids – it just helps with plurality), which was to structure the meetings more officially and business-like and according to a set pattern. It was way outside my comfort zone to do that! But now that we have done it that way three times, and we have ended on time… I can see the validity of their recommendation.

I read a short Scripture and open in prayer, and then the Steering Committee (a couple co op moms from different churches and with different ages/stages of kids – again for plurality and a broad range of experience/input) presents the Business portion. Anything that is just relaying of information from the leadership of the co op isn’t up for discussion or debate (clarification is always okay, obviously), but discussion points are marked on the agenda by an asterisk* so everyone knows they can interject or offer another viewpoint or idea. Then we have a Scholé Moment, where we ponder and discuss something true or good or beautiful. I pick a different thing each month: a poem, a hymn, an article, a chapter of a book… and the moms have it ahead of time to read and ponder, if they want. Or they can just listen at the meeting, as I try to have it be something short enough that we can simply read it aloud when we are together. Then we have a Hot Tip open forum in case anybody has a pressing need for something, or stumbled upon a neat item or hack or event or whatnot in the last month. It has been a recipe, an Amazon link to a skirt, or checklist suggestions at various times. Then we share prayer requests and pray aloud for one another. We don’t tend to skimp or cut it short. If someone needs to leave, and it gets past 9:30, then they are free to just slip out at that point. There’s no pressure to stay past the predetermined time of 9:30. And then after prayer, we fellowship until we need or want to head home. I frequently don’t get home until 11pm give or take, because I am the one who opens and closes the building, in general. I am also usually the one who brings tea or sparkling water and something to munch on: cheese and crackers, chips and salsa, chocolates and bruschetta… but we don’t always have to have food. However, since a lot of the moms seem to head out to the meeting without stopping to eat dinner with their families, it tends to seem like a blessing to have at least a little something munchy to offer. And everyone knows that if they want to volunteer to bring snacks or drinks, they are always welcome. Our next meeting is on Cinco de Mayo, so I might just put out a little request that anybody can bring anything Mexican themed just for fun. 🙂 I’m planning to bring a layered Mexican dip with chips, plus churro cookies (using this recipe).

This is again another place for striking balance between business and fellowship. Constant iterating has been my experience up until this point, but I feel like we are just now getting the hang of it.

Administration of something like a ten-family co op (which included 45 kids this year) does include a lot of front-end groundwork in order to make it the most smooth as possible month by month. Last summer felt like a crazy whirlwind as I tried to research different ways of accomplishing these administrative tasks without any kind of instruction or teaching on the subject! And this spring I have tried to recreate the necessary things in preparation for next year so that I don’t have to spend all summer on those things, and so everyone has the information well in advance so everyone (not just me) can prepare well.

What I do plan on spending my summer doing in relation to Paideia Studies is preparing all 31 weeks of Collective, and printing up copies and getting them bound. I would like to print the black and white pages at the library (because I can print 80 pages per week per library card at our county library… I pay taxes, so I might as well use the paper & ink they buy!), and then will get the art study pages done more nicely – at a copy shop or something (I printed them on my home color printer this year, and don’t plan on doing that again in the future).

I also try to do lesson planning during the summer so that it is easier week by week to implement teaching and homework assignments, as well as to have things already prepped in case we get sick or have a family emergency or something. Every class has a “teaching assistant” assigned to it, which means that if the teacher is absent for any reason, the assistant steps in to take over the class. Because they are in that class every week, they are already up to speed on what’s going on, and it really is a smooth ordeal for subbing.

In case anybody wonders, yes, I have already started lesson planning for the next school year… but that’s really only possible because I already finished (and uploaded all the lesson plans and homework to the Drive) all the prepping and planning for this current school year. I don’t know about you, but I prefer planning generously ahead of time. It makes me a more cheerful, patient person – and everybody appreciates that.

Cultivating Community, 5

Once I had the courage to try something new, to bring a small basket of loaves & fish, I learned to then prayerfully watch the Lord do the blessing & multiplication.

Within just one month I had a business license, created an LLC, purchased the website domain, designed a logo, and was fully in the planning phase of the inaugural event… which I brazenly scheduled for just three months down the road! As I said over at Paideia Northwest, “Registration opened at the end of August for an event called Courage for the Daily, held in November 2018. With 200 women in attendance at that first event, the need for this blessing was solidified – and Paideia Northwest began to put down real roots.” I could hardly believe the variety and depth of positive feedback I received after that event. Truthfully, I was genuinely surprised that it didn’t flop. It’s only because God is good, and He was the One at work.

The community which we seek at Paideia Northwest is an atmosphere of principles over methods, and simply raising kids for Christ is my goal in encouraging regional mamas. Practically everyone calls it a homeschooling conference, but in practice it is really much more broad than that. I never mind when people refer to it as a homeschooling event. Yet homeschooling is one method of raising and educating kids for Christ… and the principle beneath it is much more graciously broad. We have so much to learn from each other, regardless of educational niche. Unity in essentials (Christ!), diversity in non-essentials (methods), charity in all things (brotherhood).

The mission with this annual event continues to be a desire to build bridges, create community, encourage camaraderie, and facilitate fellowship in the Pacific Northwest region of the United States. I know that each year there are a couple of attendees who have flown in from other corners of the country, which honestly surprises me. But it also delights me. While the goal for Paideia Northwest is to keep our events local to our region, we not only welcome people to attend from other areas, but are eager to see this mission & vision take root in other locations on the map. I love how the annual conference has built a new sphere of community for Christian mamas in the OR, WA, ID corner of our country. But I also love that I receive emails every single year after the conference, asking if I would be willing to “take it on the road” and do the same event in other locations (short answer: nope) or willing to “share the vision” by helping other Paideia Communities form (short answer: you bet).

So, why me? Because God called me to it. That’s really it.

Why an annual conference? Because that’s what God put on my heart, and what He has equipped and enabled me to pull off at this point.

Why in the broader Spokane/Coeur d’Alene area? Because that’s where I live, and where I have personally felt a need… and the attendance of the conference which increases year over year has confirmed that I’m not the only one who felt the need.

Going back to the question Brandy Vencel asked: is it worth it? Again, I can wholeheartedly say YES. But what’s really interesting about that question is that the people who ask that question have no idea what it costs. Financially or physically or emotionally or time expenditure – none of it. So I can say it’s totally worth it, but that still honestly gives you no clue (zip, zilch, zero) about what I invest in the process each year.

I know that you have no idea… because I had no idea prior to jumping in and just figuring it out on my own.

So what DO you think it takes to put something like this together? What would you imagine goes into the planning of a one-day conference, just once a year, for 200, 300, or 500 women? What kind of team is needed? What kind of finances? What type of organization setup or practical administration is necessary? How is the creativity side orchestrated? What about advertising and social media? Who plans the themes and books the speakers? How do you know who to ask and what to pay and how much to plan for?

As far as I know, there aren’t really classes to teach this. Or maybe there are, and I was in too much of a hurry that first year to bother looking around. Also, I didn’t have money to put toward that kind of thing! Any furthered education I needed in order to learn how to be a conference and event planner, I had to seek for myself. I researched what I could, Googled what I imagined might be helpful (again: so many weeds to weed through when you do that), and just went by faith into trial & error.

I am not a master gardener, but I do have a vegetable garden every year. I do my best. I iterate. And there is always fruit (actually mostly veggies, but you know… idioms). And it is fun to stand back and see what the Lord brings up for harvesting each time. Some things do better than others. I take notes and learn from them for the next season. Each year, I have more notes and experience to build upon, so it feels less like trial & error and more like practice & iteration.

I am also learning that cultivating community by myself as a one-woman-show is more exhausting than cultivating larger community as a small community. This is what’s known as teamwork, delegation, working together, sharing the load, bearing one another’s burdens, partaking in one another’s joys. Yep. I’m still growing. Still learning.

There is more cultivation to do.

Cultivating Community, 4

In addition to communing well in my own home with my own family, and pursuing solid relationship and reliability within our extended family circle, plus intentionally cultivating both a healthy church family AND a homeschool co op where we foster a variety of friendships and collaborations… I have engaged in the formation and cultivation of a larger community as well.

My friends at Scholé Sisters emphasize that learning happens in community, and that is one reason they have taken on the task of developing and maintaining a growing and thriving online community of homeschooling mamas, particularly those in the Classical Christian niche. It’s been a while since I heard it, but I remember their episode which talked about communities versus networking – and I loved pondering the distinctions there. Both have value. I am part of the Scholé Sisters Sistership, which is their online community for banter, brainstorming, and spitballing. It is a blessing, it is unique, it is sweet… and it’s a form of social media I can get behind.

But it is still digital, distanced, and the only “real” face to face time comes when you happen to have your schedule free enough to prioritize the meetups for reading accountability, book discussion, mentorship, and retreats (which is still done through the medium of internet and screens). There is a huge blessing to this nuance of the digital age. And yet if that’s the closest community we pursue… it is going to leave us a bit droopy and dry. (That’s why Scholé Sisters actually encourages you to find others in your local community to live out the principles together which they teach and promote.)

Back in early 2018, I found myself longing for an occasional meetup with more likeminded mamas than I found at our church at the time (there were only a few of us homeschooling families there, and it was honestly not closeby) or at our co op at the time (there were only half a dozen or so of us). I heard stories and saw online snippets of different conferences and events around the United States. I was particularly intrigued by the sound of the Great Homeschool Convention, because I knew Sarah Mackenzie, who spoke at those & promoted them broadly. At the occasion of her book releasing party for The Read Aloud Family in early 2018, I remember asking her if she knew if GHC would ever consider doing an event in the Northwest. She kind of chuckled and told me that the folks who run GHC consider their event in southern California “local” for the entire West coast… even northeastern Washington state. I think I made a snide remark about how they needed to study United States geography a bit better than that. But anyway, I then asked her (because she’s an outgoing, gregarious, entrepreneurial go-getter) if she would ever be up for hosting (or helping with) some kind of actually local event to encourage moms in educating their kids. She said, “I am not the one to do that, but I think it would be great if you did it.” I laughed and told the friends I was with, “I am not interested in doing something like that. I just really want someone else to do it! I think the Pacific Northwest really needs something to encourage moms like us!”

There were a couple more instances of similar conversations that popped up that spring from time to time. Then in June, Sarah told me she thought that Mystie Winckler might be interested in a similar endeavor, and I should connect with her. I had actually met Mystie a few years previously at a women’s event at a church a couple hours away – neither of us were local to it, and we sat together at the luncheon. So reconnecting with her felt easy. She told me to get the Voxer app, and we chatted back and forth for hours, piece by piece. (Oh, here’s a hint: the Voxer app is another great way to pursue community with someone who is long-distance, but with whom you want to share conversation. It’s another excellent medium for encouragement, accountability, spitballing, and bouncing ideas around.)

It was those conversations with Mystie which God used to change my heart. I did not want to be the one to drum up a local conference. I did not feel equipped to start a business or ministry that needed so much groundwork. I didn’t want to do the work necessary for the kind of blessing I wanted to receive.

But I felt called to it.
And God used Mystie to give me the courage necessary to give it a try. I went into that first conference thinking that I would love for this to be an annual thing, but knowing that I would be content if it ended up even just being a one-off event.
And yet here I am four years later, preparing for the fifth annual event with more wind in the sails and encouragement from the offing’s than I could have predicted or imagined.

I have been asked lots and lots of questions about this in recent years. Why a conference? Why this niche? Why you?

And again, I can’t help but go back to the idea that it was all God. I am just a bit player in His story, and this is but a wee sidestory in the grand scheme. I like being a nobody, and prefer to remain a nobody. (Great Homeschool Convention? Nah, no thanks. Not my gig. I prefer small, intimate, down to earth, real community where authentic fellowship can take place.) But while being a nobody, I am happy to do lots of work behind the scenes to deeper bless the mamas who are laboring nearby in the trenches alongside me, seeking to follow the Lord in furthering His Kingdom here on earth while we anticipate the culmination of it all someday in heaven.

We long for community because we were made for community. It is worth the sowing effort of time and resources and stress because of the fruit God brings from it. I am passionate about cultivating this community and sharing its fruit with anyone hungry for it because I have seen God at work, and I love to see Him praised.

Cultivating Community, 3

Cutting to the chase, only three weeks after I received the phone call that we were losing our much-loved co op community, I hosted a parents’ informational meeting at my parents’ church, five minutes from our house to see if there was adequate interest in a new homeschool co op closer to home. (This happens to now also be OUR church… because God likes to surprise us and work in mysterious ways!) Thirteen households were represented at that meeting. And one month after that, we had created an official co op. Paideia Studies.

It was a whirlwind of a summer for me. I spent three months trying to create a solid foundation for a beautiful community to grow. This was not work I wanted, nor asked for – but the Lord made it very clear that this was a good work He had prepared for me to walk in. Because of that, I took great joy in throwing myself into it. God graciously provided for the nitty gritty needs: from pencil boxes to handbook outlines, a location to meet, and enough families to give the manpower (actually, mompower) to juggle classes for each age group… God did it all.

It just so happened that the co op we had loved which dissolved had been around for 26 years, and we actually knew a couple of the families who had started it in their family rooms all those many years ago. So we were able to get together with people who had begun the cultivation of that community, in order to learn how they did it. It’s like getting tips from a master gardener. This was an opportunity for me to do some major educational research: nobody had ever taught me how to start a co op, how to run and direct a co op… and y’all, it is honestly not as simple as hosting a weekly playdate. At least, not in my experience. For our first year of Paideia Studies, we had ten families (including the one other remaining family from our previous co op), which equaled 45 children ranging in age from 1 to 17. So we jumped right into the deep end, needing classes & staffing for every stage from toddler through high school. Remember how I said I had been excited to help develop the high school program at our previous co op year by year as my oldest aged? Well. That flew out the window pretty quick. With eight high schoolers right off the bat, we scrapped together the best ideas we could and decided to run with it.

The co op needed a name, documents, organizational structure, school supplies, a location to meet, a schedule for co op days and a calendar for the whole year. We needed to construct a leadership team and to define all kinds of terms and priorities and parameters. Most of the families didn’t know each other, so this was like throwing together sixty people from different places and saying, hey these could be your new best buddies! and just praying that God would grow something valuable and lovely and fruitful.

The thing that really just sticks out as a high priority is intentionality. You absolutely have to be intentional. That actually points back to the name of our co op as well. Paideia Studies. And yes, if you know me, you might know that I love using the term paideia. I’m not exactly a broken record or stuck in a rut, but I’m very intentional about keeping paideia at the forefront of my mind as I go about life. I’ve shared before about the definition of paideia – formation and cultivation of a society, the entire enculturation of a person. You are going to grow a culture in your family & home, in your co op, in your church… in whatever circle or community we’re talking about at any given moment. Each group or gathering of people will have a culture, and it will grow. So we want to be very intentional about what culture we are growing. What are we cultivating in a particular community? Something is going to grow! But will it be weeds or will it be fruit? We absolutely have to be intentional.

Nobody taught me how to start a co op, but the Lord led. Nobody showed me how to make class schedules or write a handbook for a Classical Christian homeschool community, but the Lord provided. Nobody trained me in leading weekly Collective for almost sixty people, or monthly moms’ meetings for ten women (and how to fight for the balance there of business and fellowship), or how to assist in restoring peace and communion when there are bumps or miscommunication in a community. There wasn’t a class to give me tips. Although I did Google randomly for a lot of things! But there were plenty of weeds to pull out in order to find healthy snippets to take for cultivating.

Now that it has been almost a full school year of cultivating this particular co op, it finally feels like an oiled machine. And I look forward with great joy and happy anticipation to the time when I can say that it feels like a WELL-oiled machine! 🙂 We will have eleven families this next year in our co op, equaling 49 students ranging in age from 2 to 17. My oldest son will be in the high school (and my youngest son still in the nursery), and I will be teaching a class in the high school for the first time. I am still learning. Still iterating. Still actively cultivating.

But there is so much life being exchanged. It’s like a fantastic biome! (Or at least an ecosystem?!) We give and receive and work alongside one another with humility yet confidence, initiative yet gentleness. We seek one another’s good. We bear one another’s burdens. We pray for one another. We give grace. We receive a soft place to land.

I have known many of these families for less than a year, and yet I feel intimately knit with them. I love their children and long for them to grow in knowledge, understanding, and wisdom. I’m eager to walk with them toward that end! I love these women and long for them to see fruit prosper from their labor. I’m excited to cultivate an atmosphere of truth, goodness, beauty, and excellence with them in that pursuit! My children have told me how much they love this community of friends – they love the classes, they love the teachers, they love the work, they love the consistency and predictability and structure. And God is granting so much joy to each of us, simply because He graciously loves us, through the labor involved in the continual cultivating of this community.

Starting the community was just the first step. That’s definitely not where the hard work ends. Just imagine if we treated gardens that way. The most fruitful gardens tend to be the ones with the most intentionality in their cultivation. The same thing goes for growing a community of people longing to bear fruit.

And this is the question Brandy Vencel asked me recently: is it worth it? Is it worth all the trouble and time of not only starting the co op to begin with, but to maintain and grow and cultivate it week by week, month by month, and (Lord willing) year by year? I can say confidently and gladly: YES, it is worth it. It is worth it because the Lord is bringing fruit from this labor. And it is good fruit. It shows up in the moms’ meetings where we could just pray together for a whole hour and suddenly realize it is 11pm and we need to get home to our husbands. It shows up in the social dancing time each week when we see friendship and camaraderie between each co op member – teenagers dancing with a kid half their age or with someone’s mom – laughter and delight wrapping up our day. It shows up when there is miscommunication somewhere, and hard conversations need to happen, but it is done with truth in love, Christlike grace, and results in forgiveness & clarity & big hugs. It shows up when a teenager pulls a mom aside to ask if they can talk because they need encouragement. It shows up when my two year old now genuinely thinks he has an additional grandma because he spends every Wednesday with his buddy’s great-grandma in the co op nursery. It shows up when kids’ relationships get messy, when assignments are ignored, when things are done well, when there are reasons to rejoice… The fruit is literally weighing down the branches, and I can’t seem to count it.

So yes, it is worth it. One hundred percent.
And yes, it is exhausting and labor-intensive.
This community is only here because we have been intentionally cultivating it. Because God made it obvious that that was His plan.
And I’m here for it.

Cultivating Community, 2

I was homeschooled during the eighties and nineties in the state of California, which is very different than homeschooling in the time and place where I currently do it. There were some necessarily isolating factors built into the practice in my childhood. There weren’t co ops and large homeschooling communities or gatherings… or at least, none nearby that we knew of. There were other homeschooling families at our church, and we occasionally did something with another family or two (or ten), especially things like fieldtrips or Christmas parties. But it was sporadic and unpredictable. There were two different years when we did a weekly homeschool day with one other family, and I remember snippets from those studies more than just about any other part of my childhood homeschooling experience. (Math with my dad was memorable because of all the M&Ms… but it was also very ordinary, very daily.) What stands out in my memory are the things which we did in community – including a year of anatomy which included things like getting our blood typed (I was the only one who wouldn’t let the moms prick my finger! We waited to type mine until I got a bloody nose one day…), we kids got casts put on our arms for a week-long experiment, and we did cool dissections like blowing into a set of lungs attached to a trachea by puffing into a PVC pipe inserted into it. Perhaps predictably, one of the most striking memories I have from homeschooling alongside another family was our three week long “fieldtrip” going along the coast of New England one autumn, because we had just finished studying early American history. Even that was done in community, because we traveled across the country with our friends. It was that pursuit, that cultivation, of community that really made it stick and stand out.

But now in the current generation, we not only have curriculum galore (enough to drive one batty on the best of days), we also have community almost anywhere and everywhere we want to find it. Co ops are almost as common as coffee shops. And yet real community is often elusive.

Sometimes I think it is because we can tend to treat things such as a homeschool co op (or social equivalent) like a drive-thru coffee hut. You blitz through in order to make a transaction, but you aren’t really engaging and communing on a deeper level. It’s grab and go. On the run. Take what you need, pay your dues, but keep a level of distance. It is all very business-like at times.

When my oldest child was eight years old, I decided it was time to see what kind of community I could engage in as a homeschooling mom. We live on a large plot of family land, where our closest neighbors are my parents, half a mile walk away. At that time my husband worked almost an hour away and our church was an hour away… and so were almost all of the people with whom we had fellowship or relationship in those spheres. If I wanted friends, I had to pursue friendship actively. If my kids wanted friends, I had to learn to prioritize making time for fellowship. So when I was invited to join a homeschool co op that was only 25 minutes from home, we jumped in excitedly! There I was: every single week, packing my four-at-the-time children into the car with backpacks and lesson plans… and I gave myself and my kids predictable pep talks each week as we pulled into the parking lot. Have fun, be friendly, learn well, listen more than you speak. Those kind of things. My kids loved the classes, because they love studying new things, being challenged, and learning alongside others. I enjoyed being stretched to teach things I had never taught before: music & movement to preschool kids, plus a letter-writing class that got rave reviews (and always included things like being assigned a long-distance penpal as well as a field trip to a nearby post office), for instance. That was also where I first developed Singing School to teach vocal & choral music to children outside my own kin. But what we did not get in that co op was real community. It was all business. A work environment. It was not about cultivating a rich fellowship of likeminded families. It was more about checking boxes for educational practicality. Not that that doesn’t have a place in life at times. But it was not what my family needed, and it did not lift any educational burden from my shoulders for our other days of homeschooling each week. After two years there, we felt completely depleted, exhausted. I wasn’t even on the leadership team, but I felt like I was carrying so much weight, without having others bear any burdens alongside me. My husband could see that it wasn’t ultimately a healthy community for us. Just because it is a community doesn’t mean it is the right community for you to be cultivating. (Different plants need different nutrients in their soil, right?)

It was over a year later that we finally found a homeschool co op which felt like home. (There was actually one in between as well, but suffice it to say: that was a little bit more of a burden than a blessing. We were grateful it was shortlived.) Finding a place where we fit in, and where God was obviously wanting to use us as well as fill us, was such a huge answer to pray. It was still a lot of work, took effort on my part to prep & teach as well as on the kids’ parts to be well-studied and prepared for classes each Tuesday. But it was not just about checking boxes. It was about relationship with one another while learning subjects for the sake of knowing God and His creation better. And it overlapped into our other weekly homeschool days, which made it feel like a blessing every day of the week- the blessing of Tuesday flowed throughout the other days. It felt so very different. Even though this co op was nearly an hour away (fifty minutes usually, but getting stuck behind a schoolbus or dealing with icy road conditions happened all too often), we instantly had deeper fellowship with that group. Once a month, the moms got together for a meeting. The workload of teaching and cleaning and watching toddlers was shared equally among the group. The kids immediately had friends like they’d never had before… and my oldest was eleven by this time, so they were ready for peers and buddies. The two years God gave us in that Classical Christian co op changed me for the better, grew my kids in pivotal ways, and spurred me on deeper in my love of truly good community. We were so excited to help develop the high school level year by year – my oldest was in the oldest class, so we were eager to assist in the building of what high school co op could look like. This was the first place where my family really felt like we actually fit in. It totally felt like home.

And then it dissolved. I did NOT see that coming. I was already planning what classes I would teach in the fall, had purchased my curriculum and was excited to plan ahead… but the last week of April last year brought a phone call that broke my heart. Co op is going to close. Four out of the remaining six families aren’t returning next year. It was my family and one other (who just had one school-age child remaining at home). I tried to be brave on the phone, understanding and empathetic. But I couldn’t wait to hang up so I could bawl. It felt like a death.

Looking back, I now know that it gutted us so badly because of what the community was for us. It was not just educational boxes that were checked off each week. This was where we spent our time, our resources, our heart, our relationships. We were closer with our co op community than with our church community – there were lots of reasons for that at the time, which I won’t go into here (but I’d be glad to share about personally any time). Suffice it to say: I think my kids and I wept for four days without coming up for breath. It was grief. (And I know grief.) As C.S. Lewis said, I never knew grief felt so like fear. And even in this instance of grief (which is different than the grief of a broken engagement shortly before your planned wedding, and different than the grief of miscarriage, different than burying baby after baby after baby), it felt scary. The rug was ripped out. Our community felt torn from us.

Within one week after that, two different women from different spheres of my life mentioned rather casually to me that they wished I would start a homeschool co op. My reaction probably included rolling my eyes, but I know it included me basically blowing that off. I don’t want to start a co op. I don’t want to be in charge of something like that. That’s not something I want to do.

I want. I don’t want.
I suddenly paused to ponder… but what does the Lord want?

Community cultivation is more than simply putting a date on the calendar to get together. It is so much more than that. Considering what the Lord was doing, I needed to consider what He was asking me to do next. And that was a very humbling experience.