By Megan Ulrich, OSV
My parish recently held a “town hall” event so parishioners could get a pulse on our church and have a chance to speak directly with parish leadership. It was well-attended but as the meeting got longer and longer, more and more young families left to tend to small children. By the end of the meeting, only empty-nesters remained, with one older parishioner complaining that so few “young people” come to parish events.
This example, and others like it, reveals the stark disconnect between the practical realities of being open to life while also participating in church functions. This isn’t a dig at our parish leadership, or even the person who spoke about the lack of young adult engagement. Unless you’ve raised small humans, you truly don’t know how many hurdles there are to get a family of young kids to attend a parish event. In my experience, many of us want to be a part of a vibrant parish, but we could use some help from our parish community.
The antidote to this isn’t easy, but it is simple: Treat the family as a whole unit, not just individuals who can be siphoned-off. As much as I love women’s and men’s Bible studies (and think they are vital), I also want to learn about and worship Jesus with my children and my spouse. There is beauty in keeping the family together.
This idea can take many forms, depending on the needs, charisms and desires of your parish. Here are a few ways to draw families into closer communion with God and facilitate an inclusive and engaged parish body:
• Child care available for adult-focused events: Parishes can boost their attendance of adult-focused events by offering child care. This can either be paid for by the parish or funded through parish volunteers (i.e. teenagers who need service hours, seniors who would much rather hold a baby than listen to another budget meeting, etc.).
• Child care for small-groups or grassroots alternatives. There are many beautiful small groups at my parish that I can’t attend because they don’t have adequate child care. Because of this, a group of local families at my parish have banded together to host weekly morning Bible studies (before the kids are awake) in someone’s house. More grassroots programs like this, that take advantage of times when children are already asleep, can make Bible studies and parish events more accessible for parents and working adults. It’s also something parents can start on their own, even if their parish doesn’t have the resources to provide child care.
• Parish functions that respect mealtimes: It’s safe to assume most households with small kids are having dinner between five and seven on weeknights. If your parish is hosting an event during these hours (or during other mealtimes), be prepared for minimal attendance from young families unless food is provided. If it’s too expensive to feed everyone, which is more than understandable, try to plan events in-between meals. For instance, announcing: “We are having a parish ‘town hall’ from 10-11a.m., and there will be child care and plenty of filling snacks available during this time,” can free parents to fully engage because they know their children will be happy when it’s time to leave.
• Integrated family events: If it puts too much of a burden on parishes to provide child care, then focus on keeping families together. The options here are endless: parish family movie night, family adoration, family-friendly stations of the cross, potluck parish picnic at a park, etc. The key is to manage expectations so that everyone attending knows there will be children present and they will most certainly make noise.
It is possible to get more young families to attend parish events if everyone brings their gifts in service to their neighbor. This isn’t just about one group bemoaning the lack of child care and another the lack of involvement. If you have young kids and want a vibrant parish, make your needs heard, but be prepared to participate when the parish meets you halfway. And for those parishioners who don’t have small kids at home, don’t be afraid to share your desire for an inclusive and engaged parish community, but make sure you’re also ready to show up when the time comes.
Megan Ulrich lives in a charming little town in East Tennessee where she enjoys biking her kiddos to school, reading too many books and convincing her husband to donate everything they own.