For 18 years the church I now serve in Seward, Alaska has had a preschool. It started long before I came to the area. When it began, there was a great need for early childhood education in the town and the congregation saw their preschool as a way to meet that need and extend their Christian Education programing outside of the usual Sunday morning.
There were some decisions made at that time that shaped how the school ran. The preschool would be unashamedly Christian in focus. The preschool would make holistic education a priority, not only teaching Jesus-stuff by trying to address social skills and get kids prepared to enter the school system. Moreover, the preschool would be seen as a ministry of the church whether or not the kids who were enrolled ever came to church on Sundays. It was a way to bless the community. Even the name of the preschool was a description of how they envisioned the program: SEEDS OF FAITH.
And, for 18 years the kids came. A lot changed in the community over that time. Other preschools opened and closed. The town had growth spurts of young parents and times when there were fewer kids and helpers available. And the church adapted to having a preschool operating in its building, whether it was there for three days a week or four depending on the year. Lots of “seeds of faith” were planted during this time.
When I came on the scene a little over two years ago it was a joy to work out a routine of coming and singing with the kids most days. I’d show up after they’d had a snack, around 11:15 each morning and I’d look to see what letter they were learning about or what the theme for the day was and try to come up with a song that, in some way, connected with the activities they were already doing.
At an early stage it became clear that it was a distraction whenever “Pastor Jim” showed up. The kids, in all their joy, wanted to play with me and joke around with me. Somewhere along the way they started calling me “silly” and I’m now greeted with shouts of “Silly’s here!” when I come to church. They make it fun to show up.
It’s pretty wonderful.
But times have changed since the preschool first opened. We now have a government-subsidized preschool that provides free early childhood education. (That’s a good thing.) And there is another preschool/daycare opening up this year run by the local Alaska Native tribe. (That’s a good thing, too.) This has meant some challenges for our enrollment.
But this spring, as our two long-time teachers move towards retirement, we just couldn’t find anyone who was able to take over the program. It wasn’t for lack of trying. All the local churches and many local parents think it’s a great idea and they love the fact that there is faith-based early childhood education in the town. But we couldn’t find a teacher; at least anyone with the qualifications to continue the preschool in its present form. If we were going to have a preschool, we wanted one with the quality and standards we’ve been used to.
So, Seeds of Faith is closing.
And this is big deal for me. It’s a big deal because I’ve already overseen the closure of another preschool some sixteen years ago and I know how challenging it can be. It’s a big deal because the preschool was part of my usual routine for the last 2 1/2 years and I’m going to miss seeing all the kids several times a week. And it’s a big deal because I know how hard it can be for a church to say goodbye to a ministry that has, in many ways, defined how it understood itself for so long. We’ll need to be asking the question: If we’re not the church with the preschool, who are we?
Now, in all honesty, we may very well have another children’s ministry spring up from the ground. We’ve talked of a Mothers of Preschoolers group, or a play group, or a co-op. And I know parents are engaged in the discussion as well. But we need to wait for the right leadership to come along and meet the right need.
But in the meantime we’re left praying that, over 18 years of planting “Seeds of Faith,” some of that seed fell on good soil and will continue to bear fruit in the world…in the lives of children and parents and our community.
And, as a church, we’re left asking what we need to do with the seeds the preschool planted in us over the past 18 years.