This fall we had to implement a whole new style of programming for our student ministry. In years past we had gone the traditional route of meeting on Sundays and midweek. But as our state, like the rest of the world, grappled with how to handle the pandemic, it quickly became clear that our traditional methods would not be able to continue.

So we took a risk. After sifting through no less than 10 different plans, we finally settled on one we believed would work. We switched from meeting on-site to meeting as small groups in houses throughout our community, calling them Home Groups. We believed this would be something that would continue to champion our values and mission, and after much prayer we initiated this new phase. And honestly, it’s worked. We have seen steady numbers, consistent attendance, and a deepening of discipleship-oriented relationships.

In order to do this and do it well, we had multiple steps to consider. These steps weren’t all handled the best, and in hindsight some of these are things I wish I had done. The reason I want to share this now is because as we are entering cold and flu season, there is an increased chance of programming changing for many of us. So here are some steps to help you think through program changes.

Prayer, lots of prayer.

This may seem pretty obvious, but the truth is sometimes we can get stuck in planning mode. We run ahead when we believe we have found the perfect plan without seeking God’s wisdom and direction. And perhaps you did find the perfect plan, but did you stop to thank God? The reason I want to remind us to pray is because so often during this new stage of ministry in a pandemic, we can get hyper-focused on just getting ideas and content out as quickly as possible, and we don’t stop to consult with our God. Prayer is needed (perhaps even more so now than ever before), and without prayer even our greatest plans will not succeed. So remember to go before the throne often.

Over communication.

This is one I wish I had done better at. Looking back we communicated well with most of our church staff and with our volunteers, but I really wish we had done better at communicating with parents. I can make all the excuses I want like “we put up videos on social media,” or “we sent out emails,” and “it was in the newsletter.” But the reality is our people are so inundated with communication right now, we need to be able to find ways to clearly communicate with them. In looking back, one thing I would have done is host a parent forum of some type to articulate our plan and allow for questions. This would have helped to head off all the follow-up conversations I have been having two months into our new programming style. I also would have been clear and direct in explaining our decision(s) for why we chose this model. One of the reasons we moved to Home Groups was to help with mitigation should someone come down with COVID. I didn’t share this in the beginning, but in many follow-up conversations when I do share this, it helps parents understand and feel more at ease. So commit to communicating well with everyone in order to have a more seamless approach to however your ministry will look.

Team and parent buy-in.

This is huge and goes hand-in-hand with my prior point. If you are going to change how things look for your ministry, you need buy-in. When we shared what we were doing with our new fall plan with our leaders, we lost some because of the changes. We also had to answer a lot of questions from our team, which actually helped us shape how we were looking to implement it. By bringing our team into the conversation and listening to them, the majority of our group stayed with us and has excelled at our new model. The team’s buy-in has actually helped our Home Groups to grow and flourish.

With parents, I cannot express enough how important it is to have buy-in from them. I have talked with numerous parents over the past few months and as I explain the “why” behind what we are doing and the results we are seeing, parents begin to get excited and ask how they can help. This is where over-communicating is key, and will allow parents to know and understand, and then jump on board. Having parents who support your program and the changes to it will help it succeed.

Leadership approval.

This is one that sometimes we may forget in the rush to get things changed. Make sure that leadership knows what you are doing and approves of it. That will help with making sure that communication is consistent across the board, and that they support what you are doing. It can be easy to just implement a change, but if it doesn’t align with what church leadership is desiring as a whole, you may have to walk your plan back. And nothing deflates a program like multiple changes or things being undone. So bring leadership in, and make sure they are onboard with what you desire to implement.

Consistency and stability.

Consistency is something that people today are lacking. Students are facing constant change with how school is being done. Colleges are changing protocols and rules left and right. Families are trying to adapt to new ways of working from home and doing school at the same time. States are changing regulations all the time. Change is happening constantly and families are desperate for consistency and stability. So when you implement changes, look to have them be consistent for the long haul. Don’t change things weekly, don’t randomly insert a change of plans. Instead, look to provide a stable and consistent change that will help families and your program.

I would also encourage you to make sure that whatever you are implementing matches what the rest of the church is doing. For example, if you are not requiring masks for youth group but the church is for all other functions, this will simply add to confusion for families and the church. So make sure what you are implementing matches the overall plan and function of the church. We want to provide stability and consistency from all levels of our churches so our people know what to expect. This will also help to strengthen the church rather than add another area for there to be division.

Allow for flexibility.

I know this almost seems to go against what I was just saying about consistency and stability, but hear me out. We switched to a Home Group model of ministry in which our groups play games, fellowship, watch a teaching video, and then discuss it. We have afforded our leaders flexibility in how their group functions and in how they engage with the video. Some groups hate games, so instead they fellowship and share a meal. Some groups never use the study questions we provide because they know their group so well that they use their own questions. Other groups have asked if they could go out for ice cream afterward with parent approval. Allowing for this type of flexibility not only allows for there to be ongoing discipleship, but it also strengthens the group as a whole. This type of flexibility doesn’t change what we are doing but instead allows for groups to grow and for students to witness faith in action.

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