With donut-filled cheeks and sticky fingers, Charlotte and Isaac skip down the hallway behind me to find a seat in church. With a smile, the usher greets us at the door. “Morning!” He offers the bulletin to me while two small hands reach up with a chorus of, “Me too!” and, “Mine!” 

“Another one,” Isaac shouts as he’s handed a different bulletin from the one his sister is holding. 

The organ’s deep notes pipe through the sanctuary and welcome me to the space. Piling into the pew, each child voices his or her own demand: “Mommy sit next to me,” Charlotte pleas as Isaac quickly yells, “No me!” Dropping the diaper bag, bulletins, and my purse we all sit as the music continues to play. 

It doesn’t take long before Charlotte starts whining for Cheerios. “Os please, Mama?” 

“Not right now,” I whisper knowing it’s too early in the service to use the only thing that keeps them quiet.

“I sit Mommy lap,” she says and wraps her arms around my neck. 

“No, my mommy,” Isaac protests as he tries to squeeze himself on my lap, too. For a second, I hold them both on my lap while we listen to the Scripture readings.

“Os please, Mommy.” 

“Os, Os, Os,” they both declare. 

“Shhh . . . not right now. Soon.” By now they’ve both made their way off my lap and Isaac is standing on the pew smiling at anyone who catches his eye. Jumping down on the seat, he grabs another red hymnal, pulls out the page marker, and waves it around. 

“Rainbow!” He smiles proudly as the bright streamers twirl in the air. 

“Me too!” Charlotte reaches to grab another one while I take her arm and tell her to sit down again. 

Once it’s time for the Gospel and sermon, I grab their snack bags and let them eat. 

For a few moments, they both sit quietly shoveling Cheerios into their mouths. 

As a preacher and worship leader, children in worship never bothered or distracted me. Kids who cried or melted down, ran up to the front of the church, or talked loudly were always a joy to see and hear. It brought joy to see their energy and enthusiasm. I reveled at the gift of their presence. Children in worship allowed me, as the pastor, a chance to offer thanks for the parents and families who showed up week after week for worship. 

Yet, as a mom with her own children in the pew next to me, my patience is almost non-existent. Every sound they make feels like shouting from a megaphone. What could be considered cute and funny at home (counting together, saying their ABCs, or climbing all over me) drives me crazy. I know from my conversations with other parents that it’s hard to be in worship and it’s a challenge to focus when kids are with you. Yet, I can’t help but see other families (or at least the picture of them I have in my mind) with kids coloring quietly or listening without an arsenal of snacks at the ready. Many Sundays sitting in the pews with my kids, I feel like I’m not measuring up and that my children may never learn to focus in worship.

The crazy thing is I don’t actually have a family in mind who sits perfectly in church every single Sunday. I don’t know one parent who hasn’t wrestled her kids in the pews or faced a toddler wanting to take his clothes and shoes off in worship, or listened to the never-ending question of wanting another donut.

Worship with children is loud, exhausting, and a sometimes-never-ending wrestling match. But I still think my kids should behave and sit quietly. Yes, there are Sundays when I look at another family and see all the kids sitting and listening, or at least coloring, quietly. There are the families whose kids fall asleep like clockwork on their shoulders without squirming and crying beforehand. There are the families who don’t look more tired after worship than when they arrived. 

But mostly, if I really take the time to see the families around me, I see families just like me doing the hard and holy work of raising their kids in faith.

If I were the pastor to my present self with kids, I would say to give myself more grace. Perhaps I told parents over and over again how much kids in worship are welcome and how they expand our worship experience because deep down, I knew I’d be the one who needed to hear the words, “You’re doing great. We’re glad you’re here. We know it takes so much, but it’s worth it, and most importantly, God is with you in it.”

God doesn’t measure how loud or unruly our children are; rather, God’s marveling at the sheer beauty and energy of their lives. God doesn’t measure the number of Cheerios needed to keep children quiet; rather, God’s marveling at the families who show up week after week. God doesn’t measure how much I get out of the liturgy; rather, God’s marveling at me and my children as beloved, precious gifts—the work of His hands.

Next Sunday may be just as challenging and tiring but we’ll be there, together. In the pew with Cheerios and pencils and fidgety bodies. That’s one of the messages I hope my children receive from worship week after week: that we’re there showing up as a family, honoring the presence of our neighbors, and reveling in the measure of God’s love and grace that encompasses us all.

This post originally appeared on the author’s blog

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Kimberly Knowle-Zeller

Kimberly Knowle-Zeller is an ordained ELCA pastor, mother of two, and spouse of an ELCA pastor. She lives with her family in Cole Camp, MO. You can read more at her website or follow her work on Facebook.