“We’re missing a kid!” The children’s check-in person had just come barreling down the hall. When she spotted me, those were the first words out of her mouth. As we were racing back to the check-in station where she had left the parent—I was rehearsing worst-case scenarios.
Losing a kid fits into the same category as a kid breaking their leg playing kajabe-kan-kan or a spinal cord injury on a ski trip or a high schooler having sex at church camp. It’s just something you don’t want to happen on your watch as family ministry pastor and especially on Easter when trying to make the best impression with people who don’t regularly come to church. So, in between thinking about possible newspaper headlines and praying “Dear Jesus, please let it be someone I know and not a guest!” I tried thinking about what I was going to do next. This was the sort of thing that all of our check-in and check-out procedures were supposed to prevent. We just didn’t have any lost kid procedures.
When I arrived at the check-in station, there was the mother with that look of helpless anxiety, something that only a parent who has lost a child can understand—it comes after you have searched all of the possible places your child could be and start rehearsing all of the terrible things that could be happening. While the parent was barely holding it together, all my fear was diffused; I had just come from walking through the classrooms and I had just seen that kid. I said to the parent, “I know exactly where Bobby is, come with me and I will take you to him.” We weaved our way upstream through all of the parents picking up their kids to the classroom where Bobby was.
Afterwards we figured out what had happened. When we planned our Easter services, we had anticipated a significant increase in attendance. We had extra teachers, more check-in volunteers and multiple classrooms for each age level. Bobby had been checked into one classroom, but during an activity with different groups of the same age, Bobby had seen one of his friends and went back to another classroom with that friend. So, when the mother had gone to the classroom, he wasn’t there. Bobby was happily finishing up his craft in the classroom next door.
While, in the end, Bobby wasn’t really lost here are some important observations we made:
- Have a check-in person who is more calm than the parent.
- Give the check-in person a short list of things they should do before they go running down the hall shouting “We’ve lost a kid!” Things like checking other classrooms or the bathrooms, and notifying people monitoring entrances and exits. (We had a person checking kid tags and parent tags at every gate in and out of our children’s ministry area. So I knew that unless the kid had slipped out unnoticed, they had to still be in the children’s ministry area.)
- Leadership presence: This is probably the biggest one. Edwin Friedman describes leadership as a non-anxious presence. While I can’t know how I would have reacted if I hadn’t known where Bobby was, because I did know where he was, I was able to be non-anxious. Afterwards, Bobby’s mom said, that the thing that calmed her the most was how I responded. She said that she never doubted that I knew exactly where Bobby was.
Our presence as leaders in our ministry is one of the most important things. It is not only about the emotions that we display in the moment of crisis, but also a composite of all our past emotional reactions. That composite operates like an emotional field. When the people we lead have seen us lead in non-anxious ways, they will be less anxious when they are dealing with crisis even when we are not there. To do that, you may need to come up with a short list of phrases you will say and things you will do, because in the moment your emotions will have a way of carrying away what is really sensible.
Have you every lost a kid in your ministry? How did you respond? What was the result?