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Relationships over programs
It's not a new thought. But it's something that I think we too often take for granted. Relationships over programs.
I've heard it more times than I can count. I've said it more times than I can count. Youth ministry is about relationships. Our ministries are built on the idea of developing relationships.
But let's be honest, there are times when we get caught in the details of our programs and miss hitting the target of relationships. Whether it's leading during a retreat or mission trip, or just losing track of students while running our weekly gatherings. It's easy to do. And if we're not careful, our focus can shift from relationships to programs.
Coming into 2020, we had just started welcoming some new volunteers, a bunch of new students, and launching a reboot of our overall student ministry. I was about 10 months into my new role, still meeting everyone and still getting to know students and folks from the church, when Covid-19 hit and our governor shut everything down. At this point, all I really had in the way of connecting with students was our programming. Like everyone else, we jumped into the online medium, hoping to maintain our students with our weekly programming. And like so many, we were initially pleased.
For the first couple of weeks, it was a novel experience. I can remember at the time thinking, "Oh, this won't be too bad. We'll be back to normal in just a few short weeks, and everything will be great." Well, that was when we thought we'd be back to normal by Easter.
Easter came and went. Spring came and went. Summer was now in full bloom, and we were still not meeting in person. In fact, things were worse. Everything had shut down.
Students completed the school year online. All summer activities were canceled. And we were losing our students. Like I said, I was still the new guy. Most of my leaders/volunteers were new. We were just starting to establish and build relationships with our students,;how were we ever going to survive this season?
By the end of May, I was spent. We were trying all sorts of ideas; Live Facebook streaming, Zoom meet ups, recorded content posted to YouTube and live Instagram posts. We amped up our social media efforts, utilizing a number of great resources from our friends over at Download Youth Ministry. We even started a Tik Tok account. Once summer had officially begun, we tried meeting at different times/days during the week, hoping to get students to connect with us. In late June, the church began hosting outdoor services, so we set up a 'drop-by table" and invited students to "drop by" and say hi! But in spite of our efforts, we felt like we were still losing our students.
I took some time to consider the situation and I remembered what I had always known, student ministry is about the relationships. Right. "But I'm still too new; I don't have a lot of relationships with our students yet." At least that's was what I thought.
But as I thought about it, I did have some new relationships with a handful of students. And a few of my leaders/volunteers had new relationships with a few students. Then the thought hit me; it was time to go old school.
The online thing wasn't working for us. In order to connect with our students we were going to have to do something different. So I rallied my leaders/volunteers, and I launched our Old School initiative. (Though, it wasn't that formal.)
We switched our focus from hoping to reach students through social media and an online presence, to actually reaching out to our students individually. We divided up our mailing list by High School and Middle School, and asked all of our leaders/volunteers to begin reaching out to students on their lists, not through social media, but through the mail with notes and cards. Then we said, follow up that note or card with a text message, then a phone call. Then we asked that they make the commitment to continue connecting with those students throughout the rest of the summer.
On top of that, I made a list of students, divided them in to manageable groups of 5 or 6 a week, and I sent them a personal, hand-written note with an invitation to connect. Some students responded and eventually I was able to call or meet face to face with them.
We also started mailing out birthday cares or celebration cards as we learned about personal milestone. We did our best to stay connected with our students in a way that was personal and relationship focused.
we took the next step in our relationship building hopes and we launched our small groups.
As the fall came around, we were still very limited in what we were able to do. We attempted to go back online with a modified weekly program, but learned pretty quickly that our students weren't too excited about meeting online. So we took the next step in our relationship building hopes and we launched our in-person small groups.
Schools were working to get back to in-person school days, and area guidelines allowed for groups of 10 and under to meet in-person. So that's what we did. In October, we launched our first in-person small groups based on those original contact lists, with the leaders who were reaching out to those students becoming the leaders of that small group. We started small, 4 groups; 2 middle school, 2 high school, guys and girls respectively. Two weeks in, and we noticed a huge difference! Relationships really do matter!
Our small groups were great! Students were excited to be back. Our leaders were sharing stories of connecting and getting to know the students. And the parents, were delighted. Then the bottom fell out. A spike in local covid cases shut us down again.
So, we went back to the intentional contact through note cards, text messages, and phone calls. We managed to get through the holidays, and the first two months of 2021. Then, just now this March, we were able to get back to our in-person small groups.
It's super important that we are taking the time to get to know our students; to establish and build a relationship with them.
So here's what I've learned. Relationships really do matter!
It's super important that we are taking the time to get to know our students; to establish and build a relationship with them (or at least as many as we can.) I am so blessed to have a great team of volunteers who were (and are) willing to step into a students world in order to know them.
Now, as restrictions are being lifted, and the hope of things returning to a new normal becomes more and more a reality, I am asking the very serious question of Programs or Relationships? Sure, there will always be the need for some kind of programming. But this season has left us with a new reality; that what we do with students isn't about how fun and exciting we can make our programs, but how we take the time to establish and grow relationships with our students.
As my team and I begin to plan for the future, I think we're going to be looking for more ways that we can focus on relationships. What programs, events, or activities promote the opportunity to build relationships? What of our current or past ministry is no longer effective when it comes to building relationships? What do we need to start, continue, or stop, so that we keep the emphasis on relationships and not programs? And maybe most importantly, how do we keep ourselves from falling back into the trap of over-programming?
Personally, I don't want to see the, "what we use to do" ever come back. At least not in the "we've always done it this way." Students want to be known. Yes, they want to have fun. But over and over again, what I see in students is they want know that there is someone how truly cares about them, and the things that are important to them. When we are that someone, the doors are open for an exciting journey of evangelism, worship, fellowship, discipleship, and ministry! And that is what I hope for for my students.
Jay Higham is a veteran youth worker of over 30 years; having worked with students in the local church and Christian camping settings. Jay is currently serving as the director of family ministry at a church, located in West Virginia. Jay has been married to Amy for over 25 years. Together, they are raising 5 kids, (4 boys and 1 girl). Jay is an aspiring author, blogger, speaker, vlogger, and social media junkie. He is passionate about student ministry, family ministry, and training youth workers to love and serve their students with passion and excellence.