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Program Flow: Who’s Reacting to Whom?

Guest Post by Mark Friestad

When it comes to managing the behavior of the preteens in your group, it’s helpful to think of the relationship between you and them as a dance: one person leads and the other follows. Here’s a rule of thumb: you always want preteens reacting to you, not the other way around.

By definition, that’s what leading is – setting the pace and the tone for others to follow. Keep this in mind when creating programming. If you don’t lead by staying a step ahead of your preteens, the tail will start wagging the dog. Then you’re forced into a posture of regaining control. And many of those attempts can come across as heavy-handed, (“Shhhhhhh!” or “I’m waiting…”) reinforcing the sense that our programs are “like school”, where we’re the grown-ups, they’re the kids, and their job is to obey. Not good.

Instead, you can promote great program flow and prevent behavioral disruptions by doing two simple things: having a plan, and sticking to it.

As you plan out a weekend or midweek program, think ahead. How much sitting still are you expecting? When will preteens be wanting and needing to move around? When will it make sense to have some stillness? Does your first activity communicate well who you are, so newcomers will be glad they came? Does your final activity launch preteen out in the mindset you want?

Secondly, stick to the plan. I used to think that doing the same program elements in the same order every week was boring and showed unoriginal thinking on my part. But when you’re managing a large group of preteens, regularity is a strength. It allows your core students to execute the program with almost no external control. This in turn helps newcomers, who take their cues from the others, quickly internalizing “this is what we do.”

For instance, near the start of each week’s program, our preteens spend some time checking in with their small groups. As this happens, a countdown displays on screen. When that hits zero, a piece of music starts (same music each week) and preteens know it’s time to set up chairs for large group. Guess what’s happened on weeks when I’ve changed the order, where chair set-up doesn’t immediately follow small group check-in time? You guessed it – by the time that countdown hits zero, a number of preteens are heading over to grab chairs and set them up. And then I have to reign them back in: “No – wait – we’re doing something different today!”

Now, that doesn’t mean you can never change things up. It just means you need to telegraph the change well ahead of it happening. That way, when the out-of-the-ordinary element occurs, preteens are still in “following” mode – reacting to you, rather than you reacting to them.

And, tight programming doesn’t mean you never give preteens time to hang out, or play, or just do whatever.  It’s just that those things are intentionally structured. To them, it may seem like “free time”. But to you, it’s strategic. It has a starting and ending point. And when it’s over, they are quickly on to the next activity – because you’re a step ahead.

Finally, watch your transitions! How much downtime is there when you move from one element to the next? Because downtime is your enemy. If preteens don’t know what to do, because leaders are hemming and hawing or not ready for what comes next (in other words, they are not leading), students will figure out something to do. And it’s not usually what you had in mind!

Mark Friestad is the preteen pastor at North Coast Calvary Chapel in Carlsbad, CA. He’s got the coolest job in the world because he gets to lead a preteen ministry, Surge, full-time. You can reach him at friestad@northcoastcalvary.org.

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Over twelve years ago Nick Diliberto lauched a preteen ministry with a handful of volunteers and about 25 kids. Over the years it grew to over 100 kids and has impacted hundreds of young people's lives. Nick is the driving force behind PreteenMinistry.net, Children's Director at La Jolla Presbyterian Church, workshop speaker and author of an ongoing preteen column in Children's Ministry Magazine.