Student Ministry: What We’ve Learned & How To plan For The Fall

With uncertainty surrounding the upcoming fall semester, church leaders are navigating what it looks like to prioritize the safety of their students and families while also maintaining a highly effective ministry. They’re faced with unprecedented challenges and decisions throughout this process with social distancing mandates, so I brought together a panel of leaders to discuss what family and student ministry will look like this fall. The panel included:

Levi Yancy - Student Pastor- Grace Point Church

Justin Wilke - Kids Director - Grace Church Reno 

Ben Windle - Life Strategist/Author/Pastor

Elle Campbell - Founder of Stuff You Can Use & Host of the podcast

Summer Wins For Student & Family Ministries

  • Implementing regular home visits. This has proven to be a delight and relief for the parents, students, small group leaders, and volunteers. Home visits have looked different while practicing social distancing, but investing in interaction and connection has paid off. Some ministry leaders are sitting on the lawn with their students just to talk and see how they’re doing or bringing them food as a surprise. Home visits have been a great way to steward the connection with students.

  • Creative ways to solve problems. When facing unprecedented situations, it’s inevitable for leaders to get creative, try new things, and develop new solutions. This has been one of the major silver linings to come from the pandemic. Our panelists highlighted the importance of focusing on these positive outcomes to maintain a joyful attitude as the pandemic continues.

  • Refocusing on the mission of ministry. During the summer, some churches find it helpful to refocus on their mission and what they believe in, reminding themselves that the church is not solely a building. Our calling is to go out into the world to meet the needs of our community. This season has been a strong reminder to refocus on God's calling for his people.

4 Unique Changes In Fall Plans

  1. The methodology of the teaching calendar. Planning and strategizing for fall teaching topics is still possible but must be considered with care. You can most likely continue with your planned curriculum but be sure to tie in relevant context. For instance, leaders may have planned to focus on the book of Job. You can still stick to your teaching schedule but tweak your messaging to relate to what your students are facing in this time. The upside is that church leaders most likely will not have to fully uproot what they’ve planned.

  2. Reimagining fall events. Significant events that are typically in-person in the fall may need to shift to being online fully or partially. Many leaders mentioned planning events like Netflix parties, Drive-up events, and Zoom scavenger hunts. Now that mission trips are being canceled for the fall, and it’s a great way to find opportunities to serve closer to home.

    There has been an overall drop in attendance at in-person events since the onset of COVID-19. Remember not to focus on numbers in unusual times. Your impact should be about the lives you impact with experiences, not your attendance numbers.

  3. Plan for uncertainty and embrace it. Taking time to embrace uncertainty during the rapidly changing environment also helps leaders remain agile without feeling guilty. With things changing so quickly, leaders may have a solid plan one moment and then need to shift the next moment. But, leaders can be encouraged knowing that no one has it all figured out they should extend themselves grace during such challenging times.

  4. Planning for sustainability - Some leaders have focused on making it through the fast summer season. Still, now they may face what it looks like to continue leading effectively without burning out. This is why it’s essential to take time to plan for sustainability in leading student and family ministries. With no certain end to the pandemic, it's important to take care of yourself in order to maintain the strength and stability to serve others well.

Shifts & Trends In The Fall Ministry Calendar 

  • Some leaders have taken a break in the Summer and others have been holding worship events inside their buildings and meeting in smaller groups. It's up to each church and ministry to consider what’s going to be best for their students and parents in this season.

  • Many ministries are incorporating pre-recordings, Zoom small group meetings, Zoom breakout sessions, etc. for the fall semester curriculum. One panelist mentioned creating small pre-recorded pieces of content or activity instructions that parents can use with students throughout the week. Rather than only having God conversations on Sundays, student leaders are providing resources to equip parents to talk with their kids about the Bible on a daily basis. 

    With so many parents taking on the role of teacher and Sunday School teacher, it's a great time to ask them about picking up volunteer positions. Parents have had time to build confidence and may be looking for ways to help their community, so now is a great time to reach out.

  • To keep parents connected to Church and each other, some churches are hosting a parents' rest event where they can come to the church and watch a movie or just sit and talk. This creates a way to care for parents during COVID-19 who have been homeschooling and balancing work and parenting. 

  • Some churches are re-envisioning kids camp after rescheduling to the fall rather than having it during the summer. 

  • In this time, it's critical to prepare contingency plans for every event since things are changing so rapidly. For some leaders, that means planning an in-person event while also creating a contingency plan for the event being moved to online with interactive opportunities at home.

Meet Students Where They Are

Church leaders have found it helpful to meet students where they are and be even more intentional and creative in caring for them during a time when they are not able to meet in-person. With everything being moved online, it’s vital for student and family ministry leaders to acknowledge the fact that their students’ online viewing habits may have shifted because online materials and videos have become diluted over time. Also, Zoom fatigue is becoming more common as we spend more time on virtual events. 

Another way to meet students where they are is by implementing as many touch-points as possible throughout the week. It provides them with more opportunities to engage with others as well as view and read materials throughout the week. A few practical ways to do this include:

  • Restructure online materials and content. View online materials and content from a 7-day perspective rather than one single-day event. Leaders can even take their message and break it into smaller segments and post them throughout the week. Have activities, journal time, and online small group chats scheduled throughout the week to mix up the activities and improve engagement.

    Take the sermon plan and break it into smaller sections and post them throughout the week. This not only offers more opportunity for students to seek God, but it also combats their Zoom fatigue and shortened attention span.

  • Take time to continuously invest in yourself. As leaders, if you aren’t filled with a new and fresh perspective then the materials and content that you put out will reflect that as well. Remember to take breaks, do activities that energize you, and take a big-picture perspective, remembering that this season is new for everyone, and more importantly, this season is temporary.

  • Assess the temperature of your students and families. Seek out the moments when your students and families need you to be in the pastoral care mode so you can walk at their pace. Intentionally seek out ways to check on your students and families by scheduling 1:1 conversations simply to check in, sending out surveys, and asking for feedback often.

  • Find the balance between content and connection. Right now, it’s easy for leaders to lean more towards content creation rather than connection. Although both are important, during a global pandemic it’s essential to foster genuine connection with your students, so they know they are truly loved and cared for. Remember, right now people are overloaded with content and craving connection.

  • Batch weekly content. Set aside specific days and times to plan out and schedule content for the week to ensure you're not overly consumed with content.

5 Ways To Care For Volunteers

  1. Reach out to volunteers to provide support and to maintain connections with them. Take a practical approach: ask what you can do to meet their needs.

  2. One panel mentioned that their church is not fully open, but the leaders are intentional about having weekly events or creating a space for volunteers and staff to watch service and worship together. It’s common for volunteers to crave connections with each other right now, and as leaders, it’s vital to create a way to foster those relationships.

  3. Incorporate online Zoom meetings once per month. This time can be to catch up with volunteers and also pray with them. It offers yet another space for volunteers to connect, ask questions, and stay in touch.

  4. Recruit new volunteers. Although it is common to second guess whether or not it’s a good time to recruit, you may find that an easy way to recruit right now is by having current volunteers suggest their friends or committed people at the church who may be interested. 

    You might even find that people are more willing to volunteer during this time without as many in-person commitments and when they might be seeking connection as well. Many people who haven't been impacted as much by COVID-19 are more inclined than ever to help out but don't know where to start, so now is an excellent time to put feelers out.

  5. Find ways to invest in volunteers by considering that they are not motivated by a function or a task. They are however motivated by a ‘why.’ Finding new ways to encourage them and remind them of God’s purpose and the ministry’s mission throughout these challenging times can be very helpful for them. 

Words Of Wisdom For Leaders

  • Recognize that these unprecedented times force us to reevaluate the way we do church. It pushes us to not only be effective as a church through worship services, conferences, and events but also form meaningful connections and serve each other when we aren’t able to be together. 

  • Incorporate resources for families to use with their children at home to help walk with their kids along their spiritual journey.

  • Lead from a place of empathy with our students and families. Determine what our students need and understand that everyone’s needs will look a little different.

    • Not everyone is affected by the pandemic the same way. Be creative about solving problems and meeting needs rather than assuming them. 

  • Follow and engage with other leaders on social media. Engaging with other leaders can promote collaboration amongst different leaders. It can be encouraging and exciting to learn from others and bounce ideas off of one another. 

  • No one has all of the answers, nor do they know exactly what to do next. Be intentional and quick to show yourself grace in the process of facing so many changes. Also, remind yourself that it may not look the way you thought it would.

  • View this time as an opportunity to care for yourself. Take some time and evaluate this season of life and make it a point to go deeper in refreshing your soul as a leader so you’re filled and fully refreshed to help fill others. 

  • Spend time with God daily. See it as an opportunity to slow down, rest, and commune with Christ.

Lessons Learned During COVID-19

  • It’s going to be a slow journey to get people re-engaged at the level they were prior to COVID-19. Remember, if you set a goal, and you don’t hit it, it’s ok. Manage your expectations throughout this and remember that it’s a process. 

  • Examine the tone, posture, and narrative that you’re communicating with your students and families. You may naturally want to deliver a message that everything’s okay, but be sure to take time to address the reality that many people are experiencing a certain level of grief. That process looks different for everyone. This means the people you’re serving and leading aren’t a problem to solve; they are in need of support and care. Using this approach requires leaders to address what their community may be experiencing emotionally.

  • Take care of yourself to prevent burnout. It’s common for leaders to feel the pressure to be everything to everyone you serve; however, leaders must care for their mental, spiritual, and emotional health during this time.

Right now, there is no clarity on what the future of school and student ministry will look like. As a leader, it's smart to plan tentatively during this time and keep the purpose of your ministry top of mind. What important lessons has God taught you during this season?