Our second baby suffered from chronic reflux and colic to the point where, at just few weeks old, his oesophagus was ulcerated. He slept for 40 minutes every four hours and screamed for most of the other three hours and 20 minutes until we all collapsed from exhaustion late each night. Needless to say, these were the toughest months of our lives personally and as parents. We’d only been Christians for a few years and I can say unequivocally that we would not have survived without the practical and spiritual support of a few godly women from our church.
Times of crisis for young parents, however, are not the only times the Church should offer help and support. If you’re a Christian parent with older children and teens, you’ll no doubt remember what it was like to be sleep-deprived and financially-pressured as you tried to navigate parenthood for the first time. But mentoring, supporting and loving less experienced parents in your church goes beyond giving sound advice. In fact, most young parents would probably say that advice was all they got!
How do we, as fellow Christian parents, offer practical and spiritual support to other parents in our church communities? Here are some suggestions.
Spiritual and emotional support
1. Offer encouragement. When you’re struggling with fatigue or feeling overwhelmed, there’s nothing more helpful than words of encouragement. ‘You’re doing so well with your little boy. He’s such a delight.’ ‘Good on you for making it to church today. I remember how hard it is to get out the door with a baby.’ ‘I love the sound of your little ones singing, laughing and saying “Amen”.’
2. Be genuinely interested. It’s easy to say ‘How are you going?’ to people as you pass, without stopping to find out the real answer. It may take a few times to get a real response, but showing genuine interest over time will mean that you’ll be able to identify where best you can support and serve a fellow parent.
3. Offer advice only when invited. When your baby is not sleeping or feeding well, when your pre-schooler hits and bites, or when your older child is hyperactive, there’s a myriad of well-intended but ultimately unhelpful advice. Even if you think you might have the answer to their problem, hold back and perhaps ask, ‘Would you like some ideas that could help?’. This will give them the opportunity to say ‘no, thanks’. Don’t be judgmental: begin your advice with ‘It might be helpful to try …’ rather than ‘You should have done …’.
4. Be honest and empathise. Don’t say you know how they feel if you really don’t. Sometimes just listening and then praying for God’s wisdom with them can be a wonderful relief for parents trying to sort through the issues themselves. Resist the urge to say ‘Oh I had the same thing when my kids were young …’, and then divert the conversation to a diatribe of your own experiences! Be open to sharing your mistakes too. Sometimes our churches can look like they are full of perfect parents who have their act together, rather than ordinary people with real struggles, who sometimes fail.
5. Point people in the right direction. If you can see that a young mother is depressed or their husband is not coping, encourage them to seek professional help. Your church may have a pastoral worker or counsellor, but if it doesn’t, offer to help with the baby while the mum or dad sees their family doctor or a psychologist. Be gracious but not pushy. Many women with Postnatal Depression feel like they should be able to cope without help and find admitting that they can’t cope means they are a failure as a mum. Follow up to see how they are managing and ask for ways you can practically help and pray for them.
6. Be a positive role model. We can learn a lot from more experienced Christian parents just by seeing what they do with their own children. We’ve personally adopted quite a few practices from respected friends with older children - everything from pocket money chores and bedtime routines, to how to teach our children to pray and understand the Bible. Be careful of gossip and voicing criticism of other parents or their children; not only is it unhelpful and unbiblical, it fails to present church as a place of grace and acceptance.
In researching this article, I asked many mums and dads what practical support would be most helpful to them as new parents. The following points may help in formulating support networks for parents in your church.
7. Be available. It’s not always convenient when we have our own family commitments, but the desperate call for help doesn’t always come at convenient times. I remember being courageous (and desperate enough) to phone a lady from church at 6pm one night when I felt I could no longer cope with a screaming baby. It’s better for desperate parents to call a support person at these times rather than harm or leave their child alone. Of course, in less stressful circumstances, being available to help out with babysitting for doctor’s appointments or just to give mum and dad a few hours’ break can be a real blessing.
8. In-church services. Crèche and cry room rosters can be the hardest to get people to volunteer for. It is hard to get to church with one or more children (particularly after a sleepless night), but when you spend the service rocking an unsettled baby, it can all seem too hard. If you see a parent standing at the back of the church or outside rocking a pram, why not offer to take baby for a walk while they listen to the message? Offer to read a book to a toddler sitting next to mum, or to hold her baby while she gets herself a coffee and catches up with friends after the service. Don’t give noisy children and their parent sour looks of disapproval during the service—we want families to feel wanted and comfortable enough to make the effort to attend church.
9. Bible Study and playtime groups. If you’re a parent of school-aged kids and don't work fulltime, consider helping out for a few hours each week with the playtime group or Bible study groups attended by young parents. It may be the only time that week these parents get to read their Bible and study God’s word, or just connect with other parents. Playtime groups are often open to non-Christians, so you’ll be doing evangelism as well!
10. Don’t ignore the dads. Few Christians dispute the wisdom and benefits of mentoring. Titus 2:3–5 specifically targets women’s relationships with one another. But it also applies to men who could support and encourage other dads in your church community. Try meeting him for coffee before work to talk and pray together. A quick text to follow up or a phone call might be all that’s needed to make a guy feel like someone cares. The same suggestions on advice and listening above also apply to men!
11. Dinner and date nights. Many churches already have a food roster for people who are sick or in need. Consider offering this ministry to new parents in the first few weeks, but think about what is most helpful about this provision: delivering the meal hot and ready to eat at a time agreed that afternoon; heat’n’eat meals for dads running to and from the hospital; adding plain extras for fussy toddlers and pre-schoolers who only eat sausages or chicken nuggets! The best meals I remember during this time included cheese and biscuits as an entrée and chocolates for coffee afterwards: indulgences we couldn’t afford at the time! If you have responsible teenagers, encourage them to babysit older children free of charge, so that parents can have a restaurant dinner locally or go for coffee and dessert once baby is fed and sleeping.
12. Clothes and kit for loan or to keep. Not everyone is financially equipped to buy the necessities of a new baby (particularly unexpected ones like single mums or single-income families). Even the loan of a capsule or baby seat while you’re not using them can be a real blessing. It can be as simple as advertising the need in the church newsletter and being the contact person to facilitate the exchange.
As Christians, we need to show God’s love to everyone in our church community and beyond. With our own experience as parents, we can easily identify and relate to the trials and joys of those following behind. Let’s use those life lessons and God-given gifts to build a strong network of support for all parents - one that differentiates us in a positive way from the secular playtime and mother’s groups available outside.
Julie Firmstone is the Assistant Director of Publishing at Youthworks Media.
 http://www.beyondblue.org.au/media/media-releases/media-releases/women-with-postnatal-depression-fear-bad-mother-label accessed April 14, 2013.
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