My name is Tim and I lead the team running High Street Methodist Toddlers and Little Lunchers in Stevenage’s Old Town. In 2010 I was working as a reception teacher and exploring a call to children’s ministry by volunteering at my then home church in nearby Hitchin.
High Street Toddlers was formed in November 1986. Over the years a number of people have led the toddler group and it has been run in a variety of ways too: from very formal to very informal. The group has always been focused on friendship rather than faith, though the Christian celebrations of Christmas and Easter have been embraced.
In 2010 the group leaders were looking to step down, and I was exploring a call to paid children’s ministry. During this time I helped to set up a Thursday group (Little Lunchers), which ran in a similar way to the Monday toddler group but also included a Bible-based craft, Bible story and lunch.
The neighbouring Catholic church does not have a toddler group and many Catholic families have been to High Street Methodist Toddlers. One of these took on leadership of the Monday group at the same time as I set up the Thursday group.
Within a year it was clear that teaching was no longer what God wanted me to do and, at the same time, the church had decided it needed more support for its children’s work. Together we took a step of faith to apply for grants for me to work for 15 hours a week in order to lead the volunteers at both toddler sessions, as well as supporting the junior church leader and making links with community groups. By October 2011 grants had been received. Since the role would also include helping with Sunday school my wife and I transferred our membership to High Street.
The volunteers at the time had already begun to make changes to the Monday session to enable it to be more welcoming. Drinks had become available all the time rather than only at snack time. When I started the team I agreed that the waiting list should be abolished and replaced by a ‘sorry we are full’ sign if more than the 40 families came.
I have encouraged talking about church as part of the normal conversation at Toddlers and Little Lunchers, because we have discovered that families from other faiths are actually more likely to stay for the story time and singing when we tell Bible stories.
I have helped strengthen links with the Stevenage North Children’s Centre and invited them to join us to run Harvest, Christmas and Easter services jointly.
When volunteering in Hitchin I came across Care for the Family’s Smalltalk leaflets and had begun to have a display of them in the toddler group there. I brought this idea with me and expanded it. Now we have a leaflet of the week focussing on an issue that I have been asked for frequently or that fits with the time of the year. For example running up to Father’s Day the leaflet of the week looked at the role of fathers in supporting their children. This was very well received.
The numbers for Little Lunchers slowly grew from three families per week on average in 2011 to 20–30 families per week. In fact, numbers have grown so much that in the first four months of 2018 we have had more children and carers come than in the whole of 2010. We also discovered that some of these families were only having a midday meal on the days we were feeding them, and so we started providing breakfast during the Monday group.
The parents and other carers seem to be really happy with both of the groups. One parent, Toni, has commented: “The groups are an absolute joy to be part of. The church is a warm, safe and friendly place where mums, dads and even a few grandparents come together to break up their week and get the chance to socialise with other grown-ups, while children can play and explore with new and old friends of their own. I love the weekly rotation of different toys and the lovely links to the church calendar. The extra special part of this group would have to be the Thursday little lunches, which provide busy family members the chance to eat a meal with their children and new friends without worrying about rushing around after their tiny tots. The food is always amazing and the atmosphere is caring and helpful. I don’t know what we would do without Tim and his team.”
While church members were keen to have new families join them they were in agreement that my role would be to support families in coming to know God. They realised that for some parents and carers this might mean looking again at the denominations that they went to as a child. We have gained some families at High Street Methodist Church so that our junior church has grown from an average 1-2 children per week, to 10-12 children per week. However some of our families now worship regularly at neighbouring Catholic, Anglican and Baptist Churches.
So that we can continue to support our toddler families as their children grow up we have set up a group called Fun From 3 (for 3–8 year olds and their families). This includes a short church service and sandwich tea.