Monday, March 3, 2008

Our journey into a youth-pastor-less youth ministry

In response to Riddle's recent post on "The Insane Youth Ministry Solution," I wanted to share a bit about what our congregation has been doing recently in the area of youth ministry. Not so much to toot our own horns, but to share what has worked (read: what we think is currently working) for us.

It began a few months ago during the interim ministry period. There was basically one or two people both completely burnt out on youth ministry, with no desire, no time, no energy, and no physical wellness left to contribute. In October my ministry officially began here and right from the start there was a group of kids asking about having a youth ministry. They were asking me from day one when we were going to have a youth group, when we were going to take mission trips, etc..., etc... My response was simple: We'll have them as soon as, but not before, we're ready.

So we spent a couple of months meeting with the youth, the parents, and other people in the congregation learning their hopes and dreams for youth ministry in the church and having serious conversations about what it would really take to make these happen. Interestingly enough, "Hire a youth minister" was never spoken. This might be due, in part, that we couldn't afford the luxury of hiring out our youth ministry, but is also due to the close-knit nature of congregation and their desire to see their kids (literally their own kids and grandkids) participate in meaningful ministry.

For background sake I'll tell you: The old model at this congregation was to have one person in charge of everything, including recruiting other people to help, which was probably the most burdensome task. Immediately we recognized that the old approach would not work. We discussed needs for our youth and narrowed them down to a few: numerous significant relationships with adults who care about them, an environment that's open enough and safe enough for them to explore all aspects of their faith (including the questions), and a faith community that welcomes them, listens to them, and gives them a significant place (role).

Now, I can't tell you that we're doing so hot at all of these yet (the third will take quite some time and effort), but here's what we're doing. (Note: in our congregation youth is defined as Grade 3 through College.) First, we're defying the normal logic that youth ministry needs one specific person in a hierarchical leadership role as well as the logic that says you've got to program to death to build momentum. Recognizing that kids and adults alike are busy and prone to burnout, we built around a team ministry concept and an irregular schedule.

First, the schedule: We meet for "youth group" twice a month, on Sunday afternoons, with a meal, games, small group discussion and bible exploration, and some music. We have one monthly service/mission activity. And we have one specifically fun activity per month just to blow off steam and build community. We only do this four months in the spring and three months in the fall. Once per quarter we have youth led worship, also, and they have all the responsibilties over both our Saturday evening service and our Sunday morning service (including the preaching!).

Now, the team: We've identified a bunch of different people with different gifts, talents, and desires and given responsibilities over specific functions. Some functions share responsibility between multiple people. For any given youth "function" we have about ten to twelve people there helping...this is for a youth group of about nine or ten kids! Some people teach, or share teaching responsibility, some help with games, some with food, others with music, and others have hybrid roles. And the vision/direction/planning/whatever you want to call the administrative responsibilities falls to a group of people that consists of both adults and students, all laity. We have no professional youth minister and do not need one. (In almost a decade of dedicated youth ministry I told myself I'd vision myself out of a job--as far as youth ministry goes...I guess that happened.

My role, as the only pastor of this congregation, is really different than anything I've experienced. I help lend voice, direction, and training to the lay leaders, and I participate in cyclical responsibilities, just like any other volunteer in the group.

To this point we're achieving something good. The volunteers are enjoying their responsibilities and really getting creative with their planning. The kids are beginning to get into it and invite others. Last week we began planning our next youth led worship services and we had kids asking for responsibilities I'd not originally planned to turn over. But I'm turning over the reigns to their passion, voice, and desire to participate in the ministry of the Church.

We don't yet know what the future will hold for us...but right now we think we've found a better way, at least for us. We're no megachurch, no super para-church organization, and, as of yet, no books have been written about us. Maybe someday we'll come up with a reason we need to hire another youth minister, but right now, I think we've already got a lot of good ones.

I hope our story has been helpful for you in some way.