Creating a Safe Space for Holy Work with Children


Tanya Campen describes how practicing respect, preparation, and presence create safe spaces where children are valued and respected. She highlights the importance of preparing ourselves and safe spaces so that we can be fully present as children claim and respond to God’s presence in their lives.

In our work as leaders in ministry with children, we demonstrate a different and more fruitful model of how to engage faithfully in ministry with children. We do this by creating a safe space where children are valued and respected and by inviting them into the process of learning through claiming and responding to God’s presence in their lives.

Practicing respect

Our work begins with a deep respect for the children with whom we are in ministry and a desire to create a space where all are welcomed, respected, and heard. Instead of merely “imparting knowledge,” we build relationships, get to know the children in our communities, and provide opportunities for them to discover and share who they are as beloved children of God. Our work does not involve forcing our ideas, thoughts, or desired behaviors on those with whom we are in ministry simply because they are younger. We can share our thoughts and model best practices as we enter into a holy conversation with those we journey alongside. We claim the divine presence in each of the children we will meet, and we grow closer to God and neighbor through this holy work.

Part of building respect is creating space to get to know each child while paying attention to how their culture and community impacts what they feel, experience, and do. Cultural awareness is essential as we strive to learn more about and build relationships with our children. We are shaped by our community, our culture, and our experiences. For this reason, as a researcher and leader in ministry with children, I value the opportunity to get to know each individual child as they reveal who they are as shaped and formed by their own wonderings and experiences. We build respect by asking each child to show us who they are as they share their culture and experiences with us. We learn and grow as children teach us about who they are and the things that are important to them. Children shape our understanding when we create space and are open to all they have to teach us about their unique realities and experiences.

It is also important that we train and equip our adult leaders in safe practices as they model respect and care for the children with whom they are in ministry. For when we engage in ministry with children, we adults bring with us a certain amount of power and authority by the very nature of our role as the adult in the room. The children look to us to keep them safe. And so we must hold our power and authority carefully. How do we show this? By avoiding any actions that feel or appear to be coercive or manipulative. By offering children choices, listening when they speak, and encouraging them as they learn how to be in community with others.

Finally, it is well to recall that we do ourselves and the children a deep disservice if we are lax about finding good teachers. They need far more than a “warm body” to teach them. Through prayerful discernment, we can find persons truly called and gifted for this work. This is an essential step in creating safe spaces: identifying and supporting adults who value and respect children and want to shepherd them in the holy work of their spiritual formation.

Getting ready

We show our respect through our actions and our words. This begins before children even arrive in the space we are creating. We show respect to the children with whom we are in ministry by taking the time necessary to prepare thoroughly, to get our bodies and our space ready. Leaders who rush into a room without the proper supplies or plans are simply filling a role, just doing something, instead of striving to create a meaningful learning space. This is where most ministries fail: rushing to the objective, moving quickly through a curriculum, and not taking time to invite all into the process.

We get our bodies ready through prayer and preparation. We might choose to:

  • Pray before we enter into our ministry space, asking God to help us in this holy work.
  • Pray over the ministry space, asking God to move in and through our time with the children in a way that is encouraging and life giving to all.
  • Pray for each child and their family by name.

However we ground ourselves and prepare for the work ahead, we are intentional in beginning our work well, acknowledging the call, and asking God to guide us in our work. We make sure the classroom is set and ready, i.e., the curriculum has been reviewed and thoughtfully planned and all supplies are gathered prior to the start time of the ministry setting. This enables us to be fully present when the children arrive.

Practicing presence

Once we are ready, we show up and practice the gift of presence by greeting children at the door, welcoming them to the space, and inviting them to participate in the gathering. This is an important opportunity to greet every child by name or to ask their name if you do not yet know it. This is where relationship building begins. As we practice presence, we have an opportunity to ease any concern the child or their caregivers might have. This also gives the child time to observe the classroom and to find peace before they enter into the new space. As children become accustomed to the space and to our greeting, they will likely look forward to greeting us and sharing things with us, too. This is a wonderful time to connect and show that we care about them and their experiences.

I meet children at the door, often kneeling down or sitting to greet them at eye level, introduce myself, and invite them to join the others inside. For example, this is what I might say on a given day:

Greeting: “Hi, [name]. My name is Tanya, and I am one of your leaders today. I am excited that you are here.”

Invitation, depending on room setup: “I invite you to find a seat in the circle (or a chair at the table) that looks good to you.”

Through the greeting and invitation, we give children specific instructions as to where to go and what to do. This creates a clear pathway for them to follow as they enter the space, and it minimizes any confusion or anxiety.

Some children will not be ready to enter the classroom immediately. Make them comfortable as they decide whether or not to enter. If a child is not ready to enter into the space or to leave their parents or caregivers, you can say, “Sometimes it’s hard to get ready,” or “I see that you are not ready to come into this new space.” Then follow with an invitation, “You can sit next to me and watch as you get your body ready.” As children grow comfortable with the idea of entering into a new space, encourage their parents/caregivers to stay outside the space with the child until that child feels comfortable and safe to enter the space on their own.

This article is adapted from Holy Work with Children: Making Meaning Together (Pickwick Publications, 2021) by Tanya Campen. Used with permission from Wipf and Stock Publishers, This book is available at Wipf and Stock, Cokesbury and Amazon.

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About Author

Tanya Campen

Rev. Dr. Tanya Campen is an ordained deacon in the Rio Texas Conference of the United Methodist Church and currently serves as Director, Intergenerational Discipleship for the Rio Texas Conference Office. Her book, Holy Work with Children: Making Meaning Together (Pickwick Publications, 2021), celebrates children as theologians and invites those who journey with children (parents, caregivers, ministry leaders) to consider how they support and encourage children in their meaning making process as they grow in and develop a lifelong faith. The book is available at Pickwick Publications, Cokesbury, and Amazon.

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