The Churches and Day Care

by Eileen W. Lindner

Ms. Linder, a Presbyterian minister, is director the Child Advocacy Office if the National Council of Churches. She is co-author of When Churches Mind the Children: a study of Day Care in Local Parishes (High/Scope Press, 1983).

This article appeared in the Christian Century April 25, 1984, p. 427.  Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Child care — provided to preschool children outside of their homes — once was considered to be remedial care for children of pathological or needy families. Today it is America’s way of raising its children. The church’s close association with so many providers (70% are held in church buildings) gives it a unique opportunity to stimulate a long and much-needed national dialogue about child care.

Child care -- provided to preschool children outside of their homes -- once was considered to be remedial care for children of pathological or needy families. Today it is America’s way of raising its children. Child care is available in a dizzying array of forms and price ranges. Often the form it takes is dictated by local need:

•In the hard-scrabble coal country of Pennsylvania, employment is hard to come by. When there is work, it is in shifts. The child-care center opens early, before 6:30 A.M., and closes late. It serves well over 100 children, many of them poor. The fees are low and on a sliding scale: government subsidies and food programs enable the centers to survive. The children range in age from a few months to five years old, and they have come because their parents must work or look for work. Providing a stimulating environment, the center fills the day with activities and friends.

• In a small Rocky Mountain town, life is even less generous. When the crop is ripe the farm workers must labor from morning’s first light. Their infants must accompany them, for there is nowhere else to go. It is hot in the fields and hotter in the cars where the young children wait. A group of local women became distressed about the conditions. Early in the day they go to the fields and gather such children as will come with them. Until the parents return at night, these volunteers give care and love. Providing a meal, telling a story, conveying concern, they change the whole nature of the day for the little ones. The children’s parents cannot pay for the cost of such care, but they are grateful: burdens have been diminished, their families enriched.

  In a California community everything about the child-care center says affluence. The children are well fed and nicely clothed. Often they are only children or have siblings already of school age. Without this place they would miss important opportunities for socialization -- learning to share, to get along with others, to find fun in learning. It is a “co-op” nursery school. In addition to the paid staff, parents, mostly mothers, take turns working with the children.

   In a university town in Washington state, the children are at the center while their parents -- predominantly students or faculty members -- attend classes. Some live with two parents, others with only one. They like this place, where there are good toys, activities that amuse and teach and, above all, people who are interesting and interested in them. In the afternoon they will be joined by other, older children, who will come here after school because their parents are still working. By 6 P.M. the families will be together for dinner and the evening, and then tomorrow there will be this happy place once again.

Such diversity of programs is common. Common, too, is the location of these programs: all are housed in churches. More often than not, perhaps in as much as 70 per cent of center-based care, the church is the location. Quite simply, the overwhelming answer to the question “Who is minding the children?” is “the church” -- if not directly, then through a wide variety of providers who locate their programs in church buildings.

In 1982 the National Council of Churches conducted an extensive survey of church-housed child-care centers. By contacting every congregation in 15 of its 31 member denominations, the NCC Child Advocacy Working Group gained a clearer picture of the role of the church in providing child care. Some 28,000 congregations replied, and more than 1,500 agreed to supply detailed information through an extensive secondary questionnaire.

The findings of this study, revealing the church’s major role in the provision of child care, ought to provoke discussion in both the religious and child-care communities. More than 18,000 church-housed programs have been identified, half of them operated by congregations and half functioning under a use-of-space agreement. A large majority of these centers -- 80 per cent -- are open for more than 30 hours per week, thus serving the needs of working parents. Virtually all programs -- 94 per cent -- report that they receive some subsidy from the host church. Over one third of the programs receive federal funds, an indication that many low-income children are being served. Only 16 per cent indicate that spiritual development constitutes a primary goal of the child-care program. While no accurate figures are available, we can conservatively estimate that approximately 40 per cent of all child care in the United States takes place in churches. Such a figure suggests the extent of the changes in American child-rearing practices. The recent history of child care as an ‘‘industry” further indicates some of the issues that now confront the church.

Formalized child care is a burgeoning industry in America. While care for children by those other than their parents is not new, it has taken various forms through the years. Early in the century ‘‘day nurseries’’ were provided for immigrant children, and day-care centers sprang up during both world wars to accommodate the children of women working to support the war efforts. But it has been only in the past decade that day care has acquired a sense of permanency and service to all social classes. Since 1980 a majority of the mothers of children under five have been employed outside the home. Trends in birthing patterns and divorce rates have also contributed to the rising need for child care. Gone, too, are the days of the nearby extended family. Grandma and Grandpa are now more often several states rather than several houses away.

Child care is as varied as are the values of parents. Some seek out programs embodying specific cultural or religious teachings or educational philosophies. Others spurn the introduction of values dissimilar to those embraced at home. Child care is a fluid and an unpredictable industry, and it is costly. Parents ordinarily pay fees, with the government providing some subsidies directly for the poor, and indirectly -- through tax credits -- for the middle- and upper-middle income groups. Still, child-care workers are poorly paid, and the programs themselves frequently receive cash and in-kind contributions from the parishes that provide space.

Unlike most other commonly sought social services, the child-care industry largely lacks governmental support or regulation. Further, there is no professional association of providers, no dominant “corporation” and no clear image of the industry in the popular mind. Left wholly to the creative resources of providers and of families in need, child care sought its own way and soon found the church. It is not surprising that the church, long an institution engaged in family programming, has become deeply involved in this new cultural pattern. What is peculiar, and perhaps a matter for some concern, is the way in which it has become involved.

It is most accurate to say that child-care providers and families needing such care “found” the church. Because the church has had a poorly developed concept of its mission with regard to child care, it has sought the role of provider relatively infrequently. Until the recent National Council of Churches study, denominations did not keep records of parishes providing this service. Few denominations have adopted policy statements regarding child care, or have printed curricular or program-resource materials for it. National leadership, of course, is only one measure of church commitment to an issue. Even though such ordinary hallmarks of commitment as policy statements and printed materials are missing, one might argue that the church has actively sought a role in ministry at the local level. Yet even there, day care seems to have come to local parishes more by happenstance than by intentional ministry.

Nearly half -- 44 per cent -- of all churches surveyed reported that they merely house, rather than operate, the programs taking place within their buildings. This impression is reinforced by conversations with pastors and child-care providers. It is not uncommon to hear “we just rent them space” or “we don’t have anything to do with the church -- unless something gets broken; then we have conflict.” Even many programs that are “operated” by congregations have only a financial relationship with them, sharing their tax exemption and incorporation. Child-care providers point to several compelling reasons why so many programs have come to be housed in church buildings. Frequently these facilities are not only conveniently located but are ideal for people traveling to the workplace. Classrooms full of age-appropriate equipment often have been established for use by the congregation’s Sunday church school and are underutilized during the rest of the week. Then, too, the churches already have the status of not-for-profit organizations and this eases the administrative burden directors must face. But the advantages do not stop there. Because child care is so often the result of the entrepreneurial activities of young women with little or no capital or business experience, finding space at low cost is especially attractive to the industry. Moreover, the church frequently is a forgiving and indulgent “landlord.” Young children are messy and noisy: they damage equipment and leave behind fingerprints and other reminders of their presence. Quite often congregations -- or at least those members who make decisions about building use -- are willing to put up with these inconveniences.

There is much to celebrate in the story of the church and child care. Low-cost programs serving millions of children and their families have provided quality care for years, and have, in their own way, contributed to the lives of congregations. Yet all is not well with child care and the church. Some predictable consequences of the religious community’s rather unintentional entry into the field are becoming apparent.

Local providers, now drawn together by the NCC into the Ecumenical Child Care Network, frequently lament the seeming indifference of congregations. Often church members themselves, they say that their work is not affirmed or viewed as a valid ministry. Sometimes it is even considered suspect. Says one, “It is as if the church is saying that the child who is welcome at Sunday school is an intruder at day care on Monday.” At the same time, churches complain about the children’s lack of participation in the religious programs of the parishes.

Nearly all (98 per cent) of the programs studied are open to all community members without regard to their religious affiliations. While there is cause to rejoice in this sort of service to the community, a congregation that enters into a relationship with a child-care center solely in the hope of involving new families in parish life is likely to be disappointed. Similarly, parents who select church-housed child care partly in the hope that their children will receive instruction in Christian teachings may be disappointed. Less than 16 per cent of all programs report Christian education as a primary goal. Providers who do wish to include Christian ethical teachings are quick to point out the absence of printed curricular resources giving an adequate nondenominational, age-appropriate basis for such work. Plans now call for the publication of a technical assistance manual for congregations in June 1984, and for the development of a printed curriculum for child-care programs, but one wonders how such an extensive need has gone unnoticed for so long.

The price of this unplanned involvement is paid not only by providers and children, but by the churches themselves. Many congregations take justifiable pride in the bricks and mortar that symbolize generations of faithfulness in a given location. Many have a sense of stewardship that instructs them to make these resources available to the community. Nonetheless, untold conflicts over shared space and equipment arise each year between child-care centers and host churches. Equipment that once lasted for years now is worn out rapidly by hard daily use. Not uncommon is the feeling expressed by a parishioner in an aging congregation: “It used to be our building; now it seems to be theirs. My grandparents helped raise this structure as a church.”

Clearly much remains to be done in clarifying the relationships between child-care centers and the congregations that host them. Often these congregations provide direct subsidies through scholarships, and indirect subsidies through utilities, equipment and space. Despite this generous support, the potential for warm ties between center and congregation often is obscured by the day-to-day complaints inevitably arising.

Congregations will need to consider their missions within their communities. Some will doubtless conclude that they can best serve by allowing others to operate day-care programs containing little or no religious education. Others will conclude that families in their community seek and need programs with a Christian emphasis, as well as with educational and custodial functions. America’s families surely need this variety, and the church is uniquely able to provide it. The challenge will be to do so with less conflict and more mutual affirmation than now exist. Recognition and affirmation of the church’s role as a child-care provider must take place at all levels of its life. With a clear perception of their mission and ministry, congregations can take concrete steps to bolster the quality and to support the work of child-care programs.

Through the Ecumenical Child Care Network, the church is now in contact with the largest number of child-care providers that has ever been identified. Many of the challenges that confront the congregations and the programs can and will be met. A proposed comprehensive child-care policy statement will be presented to the NCC Governing Board and circulated broadly among local parishes. And, happily, thousands of churches have found ways to work with and support child-care programs so as to enhance both the care offered to children and families, and the larger ministry of the parishes.

The church’s close association with so many providers gives it a unique opportunity to stimulate a long and much-needed national dialogue about child care. Although some would prefer to glorify the past and return to simpler days, their wish does not alter the economic and social realities that have created the enormous need for child care. The dialogue now needs to focus on establishing a just and equitable child-care policy. The United States is one of the few industrialized countries wholly lacking in such a policy. Governmental attempts to become involved have been piecemeal and fraught with problems. Those states that have attempted to regulate child care have uneven and unenforceable regulations. Parents -- and indeed all of us -- would do well to question our seeming inability to ensure minimum standards of quality in a field so significant and basic as care for our children.

Related problems also cry out to be addressed. A majority of those who work in child care -- nearly all of them women -- are underpaid and lack the most basic job benefits, even when employed in church-housed centers. Can we in conscience ignore their plight, given the church’s long history of advocacy for fair-employment practices?

The church community often has been a source of moral authority within our nation. It has helped to shape and gather support for some of our most important public policies. Today it is in a unique position for bringing this moral authority to bear on child-care legislation. Through the Network, the church has access to a large number of child-care providers well aware of the problems caused by our national policy of child “care-lessness.” It can, if it will, give those providers new channels for voicing their fears and hopes.