How an artist discovered her place in the church
(From the October - December 2018 issue of VOX)
In September, St. Mark’s church in Dublin city launched a new children’s ministry under the leadership of Karen McSweeney. VOX editor Ruth Garvey-Williams went to meet Karen to find out more.
In the unexpectedly-crowded restaurant, Karen takes a sip of coffee and promptly forgets that it is there. “It’s ridiculous!” she smiles as she thinks of herself heading up the re-launched children’s ministry at St. Mark’s Church.
Brought up in a Christian home, Karen’s parents were both pastors. She was one of six children but says, “I gave my dad all his grey hairs.” By the age of 18, Karen knew she wanted to do her own thing. “I didn’t leave God but I walked away from the church.”
It wasn’t until she was married to John with children of her own that Karen joined St. Mark’s. “They had a fantastic children’s ministry and I wanted my children to grow up in the church,” she explains.
About that time, Karen and her husband attended Summer Fire, where she heard Pastor Carter Conlon from Times Square Church, New York. “He explained that when you are forgiven, it is not about you, it is about Jesus. He has always loved you. You are perfect in God’s sight because of Jesus. Suddenly, I got it and my life changed completely!” The pieces fell into place and for the first time she truly understood that she was loved and accepted by Jesus!
Karen started off in business but her passion was always to create. Eventually, her work as an artist became full time. Karen has successfully exhibited paintings and textile art and is a member of The Design & Craft Council of Ireland. She found herself writing and illustrating children’s books.
“Last January, I heard Pastor Sean preach and somehow I just knew I had to talk to him after the service about the Sunday School. I had no idea that the church had just put an advert in VOX magazine for a new leader for the Children’s Church!
“Soon afterwards, I was walking through St. Anne’s Park, thinking about what the children’s ministry should look like, and I felt the Holy Spirit giving me a vision and even a name - “The Treasury”. I wrote it all down and then went through the whole interview process in the church telling them that this was the vision for the person who would take on the role. I never even imagined that person would be me! I just wanted to help,” Karen smiles.
But the leaders at St. Mark’s knew that Karen was the perfect person for the job.
“Never in a million years would I have dreamed of doing this. They saw the potential in me, even when I didn’t. I used to be afraid that people might think, ‘Who do you think you are?’ I know that I couldn’t do it without help and without God. It is only because of His grace that I’m sitting here talking to you. It is the biggest miracle!”
By this time, Karen’s coffee has gone cold but it goes unnoticed as she recounts her story.
“I’m not brave but God has given me the courage. I can’t explain it. Suddenly, my faith stepped into my passion and became my purpose…. it has just exploded. Nothing can stop me now. It feels like this was what I was born to do! Suddenly it all makes sense but I had to wait until I was 50 to discover how everything in my life fits together. God had a plan and purpose for my life.”
Karen’s vision for “The Treasury” revolves around her understanding of how precious children are to God. “Our children are our treasure. We don’t just mind them. We are to treasure our kids. We want them to be loved and valued. When people brought their children to Jesus the disciples wanted to keep them away but Jesus said, ‘Cause the children to come to me, and do not hinder them.’ And He blessed them. We are involved in causing them to come, in creating a space that is loving and fun - but it is Jesus who blesses the children! There isn’t a miniature version of the Holy Spirit for children. He is the same Holy Spirit.”
“I want to teach children in a fun way that God has got this. I really believe if you can get that as a child, it will be empowering.”
Throughout the summer, Karen worked to create a fun and beautiful space for the Children’s Church and to build a team of people that would be able to help out during two services each Sunday.
“I’m serving (because I took the position as a service to the Lord) with my unbelievably supportive husband by my side. John’s encouragement in my life has been a game changer. We have a great team of men and women and young people - there are mums, PE teachers and even a nurse.
“We really take child protection seriously because we want to look out for the children and make sure they are safe. So everybody who works with the children’s church is Garda vetted and will go through child protection training. People cannot just show up - they have to apply for the role and go through the proper procedures. The children have their own entrance and we make sure that the same adult who drops them off also picks them up. We pray for protection but we also do everything we can to ensure that they are safe.
The room is decorated like Treasure Island and Karen created colourful decorations and furnishings - from pirates to pineapples! The aim is for the children to have a lot of fun in an environment that is nothing like school and where they can make great friendships.
Karen has created a giant television set. Every week, the children can go inside the television and share their good news with the rest of the group.
“We also found the original tithe box from the church and I’ve painted it up to create a prayer request box. Each week the children can put their worries and concerns into the box and when God answers their prayers, they share their good news story in the TV.
“We will tell Bible stories in a fun and interactive way. I use a lot of character puppets. And we’re going to have a treasure chest filled with Scripture promises, which the children can take home each week and stick up on the fridge. I want to have a proper Kids Church band, made up of the young people from the team but I’d also like to buy miniature drums and instruments so the younger children can join in.”
Karen is seeking to integrate the children’s church into the wider ministry of St. Mark’s by enabling the children to help out and get involved in supporting the Homeless Ministry and finding out about mission agencies such as Compassion Ireland. “We are all in this together… To God be all the glory!” she beams.