By Jessica Connor
From a family standpoint, attending last year’s Annual Conference was a hardship for the Rev. Brian Arant.
His wife came along, but with no opportunities for their two young children to interact with their peers and no child care, his family was mostly relegated to a hotel room.
“What we did last year was not a really fun experience,” said Arant, pastor of the Cherokee Springs-Liberty Charge in Spartanburg.
Clergy couple Chris and Donna Lollis had much the same experience. Both are required to attend the event – he is associate pastor of First United Methodist Church, Clover, while she pastors Antioch UMC, Rock Hill – but they have a tough time finding care for their daughter, Sarah, age 5.
“Typically my mom comes with us and takes care of Sarah while we’re at Annual Conference, but last year she came down a day late, and this year, she can’t come at all,” Chris Lollis said. “We really struggled with what to do.”
The Arants and Lollises are not alone. Dozens of other young families in this state are balancing United Methodist ministry with parenthood, and they often have a tough time finding adequate care for their children during this most critical time of the year.
But now, many are relieved to learn child care will be provided at Annual Conference for the first time in years.
Organized by the Rev. Elise Erikson Barrett, the conference will be offering laity and clergy low-cost child care for infants to fifth graders for the bulk of Annual Conference.
Daytime care will be offered at Central UMC on Wednesday, June 8, 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., and Thursday to Saturday, June 9-11, 8:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. At night, there will be a nursery at the convention center for infants through age 5. No care will be offered on Sunday, which is the ordination service and sending forth.
“For clergy couples and others with children at Annual Conference, if you don’t have family who can take them, it’s very challenging,” Barrett said. “You end up running them around the concourse sometimes, and you don’t end up participating in the same way. But this is really an opportunity for us to do something hospitable and informative for children, allowing Christian conferencing for children in an age-appropriate way.”
Calling it “a little like vacation Bible school,” Barrett said the cost will be $40 per child for the whole time.
Sally Malambri, wife of the Rev. Will Malambri who pastors St. James UMC, Spartanburg, is helping Barrett with the childcare. An early childhood educator with young children of her own – ages 3 and 6 – usually she is not able to go to Annual Conference.
“But I want to go,” she said – to see people, keep up with the business of the conference and support her husband.
Malambri said people in their 60s and 70s often tell her how much fun they used to have at Annual Conference when they were young because child care was provided. But Malambri and other young families of this generation have not been able to experience Annual Conference the same way. They say they are relieved to be able to enjoy the event and not have to worry about their children’s care.
“It’s wonderful,” Lollis said. “If it wasn’t for this, what would we do for childcare? Otherwise, it’s a burden – we would have to find someone, pay them, and it’s maybe someone Sarah doesn’t know well.”
Annual Conference child care will be similar to traditional licensed childcare: naps for younger children, lunch and two snacks, and age-appropriate learning activities. Caregivers are all experienced Safe Sanctuaries-trained workers from Central UMC’s nursery staff, plus other trained volunteers from Highland Park and St. Paul UMCs.
Barrett said they plan to do some things to parallel what parents will be doing, plus offer service projects such as sending letters to people at retirement homes.
“It’s more than, ‘We’ll watch your kids and make sure they don’t run into traffic,’” Barrett said. “We didn’t want to have something like, ‘Here’s a room, dump your kids here for nine hours a day, won’t have that be fun for everybody?’ That’s not fair for them. For a 3-year-old, you can’t expect them to sit without planning activities for that long.”
Arant loves the idea that the child care will be much more than daycare.
“The idea that it’s like vacation Bible school seems like a natural extension of what holy conferencing should be,” Arant said.
“To be able to offer all of this in a reliable, Christian environment is just really good,” she said.
Barrett hopes to continue Annual Conference child care every year and would love to add a middle school or high school experience one day – even a mini-Salkehatchie with service work and other ministry opportunities.
“I’m very excited about it and the sort of potential it brings,” Barrett said. “I’m really hopeful this will be something that will be a special part of our conference. Part of this is saying to these children, ‘This is a special time when we get together and do business of the church, but also build friendships.’ And maybe someday when they hear about Annual Conference, they will be interested in going themselves.”
To sign up for childcare, look for the informational sheet in pre-conference packets, which will instruct people to e-mail children’s names, birthdates and contact information to Barrett, who will then send out a formal registration packet.