Back to School: Tips for Ministry Leaders

For many of us, our students have either already returned to school or will be in the coming days. With school returning there are many changes happening in the lives of students and families, and this presents many new challenges for youth leaders but also some amazing opportunities.

It can be easy for us to bemoan the difficulty of trying to compete with students’ schedules and all the things they are committed to, but I would recommend a different approach. See this season as an opportunity. An opportunity to do ministry in a different way, an opportunity to see your reach extend past the traditional Sunday or Wednesday, and an opportunity to reach more than just students.

When it comes to a new school year, there are some action steps I would suggest that every student ministry leader take as the fall begins.

Pray. This is a simple one, but often the most simple things fall by the wayside. But take time to pray for and with your students. One of my favorite things to do is pray over students at church or youth group. But the biggest rewards have been when I have texted students during the day and said, “Hey, just wanted you to know I am praying for you. What can I pray for?” Wait and see what the results are.

Host a venue for families. The church I serve at now hosts a “passage ceremony” to create a space for families to speak into the lives of their students. We host it for incoming 6th and 9th grade students and their families each year for a couple hours after church. We provide a full lunch, and allow for space for parents to pray with and for their students, and to speak truth and encouragement into their lives. As leaders, we also recognize this change and encourage the students and families. The results from this (and our subsequent venue for graduating seniors) have been awesome! Students and parents alike talk about how this has helped them mentally and spiritually prepare for the school year and the new journey that is ahead of them.

Be willing to go to where your students are. One of my favorite things about working with students is going to their events and supporting them. I love going to fall football games with my wife and leaders, the Halloween parade is a blast with all of the bands participating, and watching my students act and sing in plays and musicals is awesome! But the money shot here isn’t just meeting my students and supporting them, but loving and ministering to their friends and families. Venues outside of church allow for you to meet and engage with countless other people who you may never have met before. I am not advocating for you to go to all the things, but instead to see ministry as larger than just the time at church.

Also, encourage your leaders to do this as well. This is key in the disciple-making process and allows for the reach of the ministry to be even larger. All of my leaders love supporting their students and actually get their small groups to go to one another’s events. We have even advocated for small groups to do this on youth group nights because it allows for more intentional connection and we have seen awesome Gospel conversations come about from those moments.

Engage with teachers and school leaders. I try to have open lines of communication with our school administrators and reach out throughout the year with an offer to buy them coffee or lunch. I let them know that we are for them and want to do whatever we can to support and care for them. We also have a group of churches that host a lunch for the teachers as they do back to school training and we get to love and encourage them as they serve. This will open up many conversations and opportunities to minister in ways you may not have anticipated.

Remember the parents. It is hard for parents to see their students go back to school and experience the changes happening at home. Make sure to invest in the families, and to offer support to them as this new season begins. We send out a monthly newsletter with articles and resources to help equip and strengthen families because this isn’t about doing life alone, but as a group of Christ followers. Stop parents in the halls, at events, or shoot them a text asking how they are doing and how you can pray for them and their families. Watch and listen for key things and phrases, and follow up! Let them know they were seen, heard, and valued.

Also make sure to let them know how their kids are doing. You don’t need to give them a 40-page debrief on the previous youth group night, but point out some things you have noticed about their students. This will not only encourage them but give them buy-in to the program as well. It will also challenge you to intentionally see and be involved in all the lives of your students so you can do that. Your relational rapport will grow and subsequently strengthen the program overall.

Preparing as a Volunteer Leader

Fall is almost upon us and so is the start of another school year. Whether you’re a veteran leader, or this will be your first year serving in student ministry, it’s a great time to prepare for the upcoming year. It’s easy to simply roll into student ministry without giving it too much fore-thought, but I believe taking some time to prepare can be beneficial. Here are a few ways to help be better prepared for the start of this ministry year.

Get in the know

Our ministry hosts a leader training session before each school year starts. This helps us to get on the same page, go over any rules and requirements, talk about the plan for the year ahead, and bond as leaders. If your church doesn’t host leader training or if you’ll miss it, I recommend scheduling a meeting with your student pastor. Use the time to hear his/her vision for the year, learn important rules, find out who is in your small group, and grow in your understanding of the program and its leadership. The more you can learn about the students, the ministry, and the leadership, the more effective you will be as a member of the team.

Meet with key individuals

If you have one or more co-leaders, I recommend getting together before the school year starts. In addition to getting to know each other and how to work together well, you can take time to pray over and cast a vision for your group. This may sound like a lot of work, but if you have a direction and goal you are all working toward, it will help to build intentionality within your small group time. You can also think about how you want to lead discussion, how you can work together to challenge your small group, and how you want to divide any tasks or responsibilities. If you come in with a plan and vision, or if you simply show up with zero fore-thought, it will ultimately reveal itself in how you lead. As the old phrase goes, “failing to prepare is preparing to fail,” and students deserve the best we can offer.

In addition to meeting with leaders, you may want to meet up with your students as well, if possible. Any time spent with students is a great opportunity to bond–they get to know you and you get to know them. You will become an even more effective leader the more you know your group, the issues they are dealing with, and the things they are passionate about. You can also use this time to encourage and challenge students you have identified as leaders within the group. Help them get ready for the year ahead by identifying areas where they can serve and have an impact.

Invest in your spiritual growth

This is something we should be doing year-round, not just before the school year starts. As leaders we need to have spiritual inflow in order to produce an outflow. But now is a great time to re-focus and make sure you are getting adequate inflow. And to be totally honest, youth group should not count toward your inflow. You are there as a leader, to guide and help students to grow, not to find growth yourself. That is not to say that you won’t grow, or be challenged by the teaching, but your time with students should not be a primary source of your spiritual growth.

Personally, I find growth and inflow in a few key areas: personal devotional and quiet time, and corporate worship and Bible study. In addition to the Sunday morning worship service, I also participate in a women’s Bible study where I experience deep personal relationships and community. I also value quiet time alone when I can study the Word, pray, and listen to the Holy Spirit without distractions. I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to have steady, healthy spiritual inflow.

How to Build a Ministry Schedule

I am often asked “how do you create a schedule?” And usually that is framed by questions like, “what exactly do you do” or “what should I do for my students” or “I think your schedule would work for my ministry.”

Finding and building a schedule for your youth ministry can seem overwhelming and difficult, but honestly it really isn’t. When you are building a youth ministry or reshaping how it functions, the reality of a schedule is rooted in the heart and passions of the ministry leader and the ministry participants.

Each ministry is going to be different, and their function and flow will be unique to their venue. Even within churches that have multiple campuses the flow will look different at each venue. No one church has the best schedule or philosophy for all the other ones. No single structural model can be replicated. And no one pastor is the right fit for every church or ministry. What I mean is this: don’t place other missions, visions, schedules, or leaders as the end-all, be-all for you and your ministry. Remember that you, your students and families, your location, and your ministry are all unique. Don’t try to replicate; rather, utilize resources, know your program and participants, and leverage your knowledge and vision to make the program a success.

So how do you actually do this? Let me give you a few suggestions that I believe help to achieve a proactive schedule.

Identify your priorities and vision

As the ministry leader, you must know what your priorities and vision are for your people. For instance, my priorities are discipleship, community, and the Gospel. For others maybe it is evangelism, games, music, or student leadership. The reality is that you must know your priorities and vision for your students so you can shape the ministry around them. When you know your passion and heart, then you can begin to shape the ministry in the appropriate way. This will show what the value and heartbeat of the ministry is to students and families.

Identify your philosophy of ministry

Your philosophy of ministry will identify your long-term goals and how you look to achieve them. In essence, you are stating how you are looking to accomplish your priorities and vision in a clear way for others to understand. Mine is designed to cultivate students, leaders, and families who can lead out and do what Jesus has shaped them to do–make disciples.

Identify the priorities and passions of your students 

I say this with a grain of salt, because we all know there are those students whose priorities aren’t the best or won’t match up. For instance, if they want to just play video games for all of youth group, that isn’t a good priority. But you can leverage that if your priority is community and encourage them to host a community gathering for their friends at church to come and play video games together. Perhaps they can even turn it into an evangelism tool. But in allowing students to share their passions and heart for the ministry, you are creating buy-in and people who will work with you as you bring them alongside.

Know and honor your time

So many student ministries communicate a start and stop time that is anything but solidified. We say we will end at 8 p.m., but really that means 8:30 because we talk too long. We say we start at 10:30 a.m. but that’s not true because we have told students to come earlier to hang out, or we show up late. By honoring your time and keeping it consistent, you will help parents and students to catch on to your vision, and they will know it is something they can rely on and trust. And by having a set time, you can now build a schedule that is clear, continual, and reliable.

Below is a copy of my vision, purpose for programming, philosophy of ministry, and a schedule for both a Sunday morning program and a Wednesday evening program. I hope they serve as a resource and framework to help you craft you own, and I would love to talk through your questions or schedules.

Vision: To embody the “Live, Love, Lead” mission of our church by cultivating disciples who make disciples and reach their spheres of influence.

  • Purpose of Sunday: Community, discipleship, and fun. This is our Christian education piece.
  • Purpose of Wednesday: Fun, outreach, community. This is the part of our program where anyone, regardless of spiritual understanding, can come and participate.

Philosophy of Ministry:

  • Revolves around student leadership and ownership
  • Developing of leaders
  • Developing of parents and families
  • The Gospel is the key to all we do

Sunday morning schedule (1.25 hours):

10 minutes of community and fellowship

5 minutes of announcements

10 minutes of game time

20-25 minutes of teaching

15-25 minutes of round table discussion

Wednesday evening schedule (2 hours):

15 minutes before the evening for a leader meeting

15 minutes of community and fellowship

20 minutes of game time

5 minutes to move to teaching location

5 minutes of announcements

20-30 minutes of teaching

40-45  minutes of small group time

5 Quick Tips to Elevate Your Environment

Have you ever been a part of a student ministry where there environment just feels…bleh? Whether it is because you can’t renovate due to lack of funds, or the functionality is limited because the room is multipurpose, or you feel like you have tried everything and the students still don’t enjoy coming, making student ministry welcoming and fun can be difficult.

In my time in youth ministry I have tried many different tactics, gimmicks, and cool options to get students into the doors and excited about what we are doing. And if I were being honest these can look different depending on context, church style, budget, and a host of other items. But putting all of those differences aside, I believe there are 5 quick things that any youth worker can do to help elevate their environment.

Know your students

As you are serving in your ministry, whether you are new or years into your position, it can become easy to see the program and miss the relationships. More than ever our students desire authentic relationships and honest communication. So get to know your students’ names, find out where they go to school, meet up for coffee or ice cream, host random get-togethers. If you have a group of 5 or 1,000 you can still do this. It may look different but as you get to know students they get to know you and become excited to come and be a part of what is happening.

Be authentic

I think it is easy for us as youth workers to try to imitate others because we see their success, or their model, or their style of teaching and think we should do it. Simply put: just because someone else has a successful ministry doesn’t mean that yours isn’t nor does it mean you should model your ministry after theirs. We aren’t called to follow men or women, but God. God has placed you in your church to be a shepherd to your students, so be that. Be the you God created you to be. Show them your family, let them know your passions, show them your walk with Jesus, show them when you hurt and struggle. As you are authentic with your students, they in turn will become authentic and real with you. In this way you will begin to cultivate a culture of disciple-making in your ministry by leading out.

Use music to your advantage

Music is a huge deal for environment in any setting, but specifically in student ministry. When you walk into a quiet room with your friends, no one wants to talk because they feel like they are breaking some sort of social protocol. By using music you can bring excitement and energy into the space, and students are drawn to that. What you choose for music is up to you but in our ministry, I like to use a mixture of Christian and secular that has been screened and doesn’t contain profanity or references to drugs, alcohol, or sex. I actually have created multiple playlists in Spotify that allow for me to use different types of music depending on the setting, which all goes back to knowing your students and the culture you are looking to curate.

Use food

Food is such a simple resource when you think about it because what student is ever full? I know my students could eat every hour of every day, and never be satisfied. When I first started at my current position we had no food on Sunday mornings because the church had donuts in the lobby. But our students believed they couldn’t have them (probably due to the fact they tried to take a half dozen instead of one) and would always be late to the program because they were waiting for the adults to go to service so they could grab the remaining donuts. So we looked for a simple fix: we added donuts, hot chocolate, and water to our program and all of sudden we have students showing up on time or early, eating, and enjoying fellowship. Our community grew through one simple act: getting donuts. Now this may look different for you. Maybe you don’t have the funds or maybe your kids are health conscious and want water and broccoli. The point is this: try it and see what happens. If you need funds ask your senior pastor if they have any to contribute, or ask parents to give, or ask the local donut shop if they would cut you a deal. Try it and see.

Have fun

Sounds simple right? That’s because it is, but it is also really difficult because sometimes we get caught up in running the program and miss having fun. When was the last time you participated in the group game? When did you last sit down and play spoons with a small group? When did you last laugh with your students? When was the last time you engaged in a snowball fight or sledding activity? I am not talking about running the event but sharing life and having fun with your students. If you as the leader aren’t having fun and leading a joy-filled life, why should they? If you aren’t setting the example, they won’t follow. Be the leader you wanted, be the leader they need, and be willing to let your hair down a little. Have fun, don’t be immature or get yourself fired, but enjoy your job and your students.

I hope these tips encourage you and help you in thinking of ways to engage your students more. They aren’t foolproof, but they aren’t meant to be. They are meant to help you think through new, creative, and in many ways simple ideas on how to get your students engaged regardless of environment, church denomination, cultural area, or place you live. Love your students well, be willing to adapt, and always trust in Christ to lead and guide you as you lead and guide your students.