“Where do I start?” It’s a question a lot of youth workers ask, especially when they’re trying to figure out how to start a youth ministry in a small church. Where do you begin if you’re attempting to launch a new program for teenagers, especially in a smaller congregation?
Here’s my advice for how to start a youth ministry in a small church:
Start with prayer.
That may seem like the biggest cliché ever, and you may even be tempted to skip this point altogether. But it’s a truth I can’t stress enough: You need to start with prayer. Before you do anything else, before you call any meetings, plan any events or think of themes for youth services, you need to pray. If your work as a youth leader isn’t born out of prayer, it will be in vain. Here are some things you can pray for as you start a youth ministry:
- Get a list of all the teens in your youth ministry and pray for each of them. Pray that you will see them as God sees them and that he will fill your heart with love for them. Pray for their parents, that they will love their teens and be an example for them, especially in faith-related things.
- Pray for all your leaders and volunteers. Pray for wisdom for them, for love for the teens. Pray for their families, that they won’t suffer.
- Pray for your (senior) pastor and the church leadership. Ask God to give you a servant’s heart that is willing to serve those placed above you.
- Ask God to give you insight into what the youth ministry needs, where it’s at, and what the biggest issues are. Pray that your ears and your heart will be open to all signals.
- Pray for yourself, that God will keep you close. Pray for strength, wisdom, and humility to lead and serve well.
Start with listening.
If you’re new to the job, even if it’s in your own church, start with asking loads of questions and then listen. Talk to all volunteers as soon as possible, schedule “dates” with key leaders or decision-makers. Ask the senior pastor or elders if there are known issues. Have there been genuine complaints from parents? Set up a meeting with them and listen to their concerns. In the first three months of your job, you should focus on getting the bigger picture, on identifying the key issues. The good news is that you can get away with asking “dumb questions” too during those first two or three months. After that, people expect you to have the answers. So take that initial time to ask everyone’s opinion. And it’s important for you to truly have an open mind about this and not jump to conclusions too soon. Take the time to gather information and then analyze it; that will pay off later on.
Start with quick wins.
If you want to make a good impression from the start, thereby earning credit you’ll need later on when tough decisions must be made, look for some quick wins. These are issues that are a big frustration but easily solved. When I started out as a youth worker in my last church, there was some conflict over the teen small groups. A girl wanted to change groups because all her friends were in another group, but she wasn’t allowed to. One of my first decisions was to allow her to change groups. I didn’t do it just because it would win me points (which it did, by the way, with her and her parents and with the small group she went to), but because I wanted to communicate that people matter more to me than the rules. What quick wins can you identify? Maybe it’s the youth room that’s been a mess for ages and needs to be cleaned up. Maybe it’s an event that had been canceled but that everyone wants back. Maybe people are complaining they never know what’s going on in the youth ministry and all you need to do is start a monthly newsletter. Look for something you can fix easily to earn some much-needed goodwill.
Start with a plan.
I know it’s easy to focus purely on the operational side of ministry, especially when you’re figuring out how to start a youth ministry at a small church. Events need to be planned, services need to be organized, small groups need to be led. But if you allow yourself to get sucked in to all these operational tasks without taking the time to make a plan, you’ll end up going nowhere. Here are some initial suggestions:
- Does your youth ministry have a mission statement? If so, do leaders and volunteers know it? Does it function? If not, this is your first priority.
- Is there any kind of strategic plan for the next five years or so? Is there a vision for the future? Are any kind of goals written down?
- Is there a teaching plan? How are the subjects and themes for small groups, youth services, and retreats chosen?
Start with communicating.
Radio silence is deadly to youth ministry. People need to know that someone is leading, so start communicating soon to all who have a stake in youth ministry: teens, parents, leaders, volunteers, board members or elders, senior pastor, etc. If you’re new to the church, introduce yourself in a letter to all the volunteers, the parents, and maybe even the kids. Ask to be introduced in a Sunday service, if possible, so people will know your face. Set up a specific work-related email account and spread the word. Communicate what you’ll be doing for the first weeks. If you plan to visit all volunteers, for instance, put this in a letter so they know you’ll contact them (which you then must do so people won’t feel cheated … don’t forget anyone!). Let the board know what you’re doing so they know you’re up and at it. And don’t forget that a big part of communication in those first months is about managing expectations.
For the veterans among you, do you have other advice for how to start a youth ministry in a small church?