Rev. Marguerite Sheehan is surrounded by some Sunday friends and other church friends at the CROP Hunger Walk.
Trinity Church in Shelburne Falls is a small multi-denominational church, comprised of American Baptist Church, United Methodist Church, United Church of Christ, and Episcopal Church members. They are one congregation in one church building, and have learned over the years how to adapt, collaborate, and grow in faith.
The pastor, Rev. Marguerite Sheehan, describes the church as sturdy, and very connected to and involved with the local community. Like many smaller churches, they have few children and while they do still staff their nursery program, most of the children have now “aged up.” The nursery room is used during the week by a public-school parent/child group.
“The families who bring their children to church are keenly aware that this is the church home for their family,” said Sheehan. “And we knew we had to do something different than the usual Sunday School for them.”
The church looked back to ways that Christian Education happened previously. They realized they had much expertise in the congregation and lots of curriculum material to work with, but they knew that wasn’t enough. Their numbers were too small to have traditional Sunday school classes. They also realized that the children spend many hours during their week in school as well as after school programs, and came to believe that Sunday is not a great time for more school…not even church school.
“Today is not yesterday,” said Sheehan. “Keeping this in mind and knowing that what we do well as a church is building and sustaining friendships – sometimes unlikely ones – and trusting that Jesus loves us – we decided to create something unique that honors and builds on those relationships. We believe that if church does nothing more for us than bind us and challenge us and help us become more faithful, that is pretty great. So instead of a Sunday School we created ‘Sunday Friends.’”
Sunday Friends happens monthly, during worship. Each child spends time with one CORI-checked adult friend/mentor who has volunteered to be a Sunday Friend for at least one year. This is considered discipleship – with adults and children “friending” each other and building on that all-important church relationship. The pairs participate in worshipful activities that utilize Christian Education supplies – reading and talking about Bible stories, doing hands on activities, praying together, taking communion and helping out with social action like making sandwiches for the local outdoor Cathedral in the Light and walking with the church Crop Walk team.
“What is unique and is wonderfully received is the deepening formation, not only of faith, but of love and respect that comes in close friendships between the children and adults,” said Sheehan. “We hope and believe that these friendships are life savers in a world where most often children and adults are sent off to separate places to do their own thing.”
One adult Sunday Friend named Lois said: “I am an elder and am developing a special relationship with a very remarkable teen named Sammi. Her insights into the different Bible studies are profound. Sammi also participates in the Worship Service as an acolyte and in the choir as her schedule permits. I notice and appreciate how easily children and adults of Trinity Church relate during our social times after the service. I think it is the carryover from these special relationships with individual adults.”
“I can set aside things from my week and come to church where I can talk to my Sunday Friend Lois,” said Sammi. “I have fun doing special activities, like the time we carved a pumpkin in October, to remind us of the idea that God’s Light shines through us like it does through a jack-o-lantern.”
In addition to Sunday Friends, the children are tightly woven into other church activities and worship. They, like the adults, acolyte and welcome visitors, ring the bell to wake up the neighborhood, pray and sing together, and participate in the fellowship hour. There is a “Time for All Ages” every Sunday where children and the adults listen to the Word in ‘kid language.’
"Childhood development studies are consistently showing that children and teens who have solid, healthy relationships with at least five different adults, besides their family members, grow up to be more emotionally healthy as well as resilient in the face of significant stresses,” explained Debbie Gline Allen, Christian Education & Youth Ministry Consultant for the Massachusetts Conference. “In the church, we find that these young people have a more mature faith, a true desire to serve as Christian disciples, and are more connected to a congregation as a result of having these influential adults in their lives.”
The church got ideas for their non-traditional program while networking with other local small churches in their Association and in Sheehan’s community of practice group. Clergy Communities of Practice are part of the Massachusetts Conference Pastoral Excellence Program. These communities are designed to help more experienced pastors in honing ministry practices, developing meaningful and supportive collegial relationships, counteracting the risks of isolation and burnout, and growing in faith together. There are presently over 25 community of practice groups across the Commonwealth.
“Times are changing and for the most part, at least from our perspective, for the better,” said Sheehan. “Of course we would love to have more children and adults in our congregation, but we no longer look with nostalgia on the ‘good old days.’ Even if our numbers increase, it is likely that we would continue with our Sunday Friends, rather than group children into Sunday School classes.”
“We are all having a closer and more intimate walk with Jesus and with our Sunday Friends,” continued Sheehan. “School has its place, but so does friendship and worship. When two or more (and for us it is two) are gathered in the name of Jesus, love grows up. And we are glad.”
Rev. Marguerite Sheehan can be reached at the church office at 413-625-2341 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Visit their Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/trinityshelburnefalls.