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Wednesday, September 05, 2007

New Youth Group- Ask the Matriarch

Greetings to you! I hope that this finds you well. In the weeks ahead we have questions about boundaries and sermons. Do you have a question? E-mail it to

On to this week's question.

I just received a call this morning that my youth group leader (lay volunteer) needs to resign to devote more attention to other areas of her life. I can thoroughly understand and sympathize with her, as she's been the leader now for about 10 years, is a teacher in the local school, and has two teens and one in college.

I'm in a small four-point rural parish; our youth numbers are small, and cover three school districts. This past year we had a good, active group--doing something about once a month--but it sort of fell apart as the end of the school year approached. We have good participation amongst our junior high/confirmation age group (a total of 10 youth), but only two high-schoolers attend with any regularity (out of about 14 potential folk). What's a relatively new pastor to do? I've been here just over a year, and one of the key areas of my call is youth work (the others are visitation with the elderly and homebound and worship leadership). I'm already spread pretty thin, so I don't want to mess this up for lack of time and energy. I did think about restructuring and forming a parent/youth board to oversee and make decisions and implement programming, but I don't know....

From PPB:
Wow. You do have your hands full. I think a parent-youth board is a great idea. I also think that it's important for you (as well as the parents/judicatory members) to be realistic about what is feasible in your particular setting.

First, youth ministry is a ministry, not a club. So if you are ministering to the kids---getting to know them, going to the occasional school play or basketball game--THAT is ministry. Plugging them into the broader life of the church is important---serving as readers and liturgists, taking their turn in the nursery, participating in committees, etc. ---that's all key to reminding them that they are both valued and respected.

It may be that you need to re imagine youth "group" for your church(es) and area(s). Can you do an ecumenical youth group in one or more of your churches--team up with the Lutherans or Presbyterians for monthly events? Can you let yourself off the hook for monthly stuff and instead plan quarterly events that are "bigger"--retreats, mission weekends, lock-ins? If you're feeling stressed and pulled in many directions, the kids probably are, too. Just because they go to smaller schools doesn't mean they are less pulled than kids in suburbia are (when there are only 250 kids in a high school, imagine the pressure to be in a sport or play or choir---just to get the minimum bodies needed to pull something off).

I think one thing that the church can model in such a setting is that more isn't necessarily better, and quality and particularity matter.

From Singing Owl:
I sympathize. I’m also in a small parish and my youth leaders are lay people. It is a challenge! I’m pondering the implications that one of the key areas of your call is youth work. Not everyone can say this! If that is the case, are there other areas of church work that you can delegate to lay people so that you can focus more on this area of gifting? I once told our deacon board that if I had no one to disciple the children and youth that I would turn the Sunday morning service into a youth service. They were a bit shocked, but I was trying to make the point that youth should be a major priority. If the church loses the younger ones, the church dies, and I had already been in one church where that happened. Visiting the elderly is not unimportant, but they likely have a more formed faith (we hope) than the youth.

I like your idea of forming a parent-youth board. Perhaps that would help them take some ownership. How about meeting over pizza with as many of the older teens as possible and brainstorming—finding out why they don’t come, what would encourage that to change, and so on. Get them talking, and I expect they will tell you the truth. One other thought—are those two older teens people who could help with the younger ones? That sometimes works well and sometimes is a disaster, depending on the kids. Are there any 20-somethings that could help as well?

And from Abi:
Dear Spread too thin...I am not sure what you mean about your "call" includes the youth work? Are you saying that is one of your responsibilities along with the other areas as assigned? I think given you got three school districts, four churches, two sets of age groups, that's a task unto itself. Sounds like juggling balls. It sounds like it calls for a Superwoman. Your idea of a parent/youth board to oversee and make decisions and implement programming sounds like a good start. Talk to the present youth group leader, get her ideas, thoughts of what might need to be done and what kind of leader it needs. Talk to the youth themselves. If you have a nominating committee that selects persons to be the leaders, Utilize them. If your council or board has a say, get them involved. This in some ways goes back to last week's question and answer, that our job is to equip the laity, and if we are doing all the work, we are not equipping the laity. So that even if one of the key areas of your call is youth work, you are to be equipping those working with the youth.

My own thoughts? It’s been a while since I’ve been in that position, but I remember really being challenged and excited by a book called Family-Based Youth Ministry: Reaching the Been-There, Done-That Generation by Mark Devries.

Anyone else have texts or ideas that help present a new paradigm that might be helpful?

Happy commenting!

Listing Straight


  1. Mark Yaconnelli's book: Contemplative Youth Ministry. He has some excellent insights. This is NOT a "here are 18 great ideas guarenteed to increase youth participation". He talks about the anxiety of parents/leaders dealing with youth; the anxiety of youth dealing with parents/leaders; the role of letting go; and he also incorporates a discernment process. These are what I remember off the top of my head. I used many of the ideas from this book when I was training our mentors for the confirmation program.

  2. I would affirm Yaconnelli all the way. He approaches youth ministry from a wholistic, spirituality point of view, which resonates with me much more deeply than "How can we get kids to come to the bowling night?" mentality that resounds here.

    Lest I sound like I know what I'm talking about, let me say again that youth ministry is my albatross. It is the one thing that I think the most people here are disappointed in how I have handled. It is such a struggle.

    I will be watching the rest of the comments closely for more wisdom!

  3. Check out It is a program from the Youth and Family Institute that works well in small and/or rural places as well as small or big urban places. It trains your youth to be the front line youth ministers of the parish. They already talk to each other more then they will ever talk to you. So, we might as well give them some pastoral care skills.

    Lyle Griner is the national coordinator and my wife and I are facilitators.

    God's Peace,

  4. What a great question. Like Cheesehead I'm looking forward to the wisdom that this community always brings forth. My experience in my home church and internship churches has always been with medium and larger-sized parishes. It's very different in small communities, small churches.

    Thanks for the Yaconnelli suggestion. I just ordered the book.

  5. Ditto the Yaconelli suggestion--it is probably the best church-related book I've read this year. I read it twice.
    As one whose "job description" (what pastor has a realistic one, though?) includes youth ministry, I can say this: team up with other churches. The suggestion to work with an ecumenical partner is a good one. Have town-wide youth events--more kids are likely to be involved AND they reach across our rather artificial parish boundaries to create Christian relationships outside of school. Plus then you can work with more people. and then use the discernment process Yaconelli outlines--it's hard at first, but it can really work. Especially talking about "call" rather than "I'm desperate for some help here!"
    And then...evaluate how much time you are really spending on your key areas and figure out where you need more lay leadership, because especially in youth ministry, doing it all yourself is the fast track to doing it for only a year or two.

  6. I'm in a position very similar to the person requesting advice: smaller church in rural setting, not many senior high youth, etc. Like a few of the Matriarchs, I'm going to assume and thus affirm that when the asker says that youth ministry is part of his/her "call," s/he means gifts rather than job description.

    Anyway, this past year was my first real attempt to organize some semblance of a senior high ministry, with mixed results. I tried a monthly after-worship discussion group over brown-bag lunches, and then a few other evening activities at various points of the year. Half the time, the discussion group was cancelled for lack of attendance. As it turns out, one can't just assume that the kids will be in worship to begin with.

    Anyway, I'm trying the discussion group again with a potentially stronger base and other more regular monthly evening activities. I like people's suggestions of finding an ecumenical partner. I can think of one other church in our area that may be struggling with this, so it might be a natural fit.

    In a smaller setting with scant participation, I'm much more skeptical of a "youth board" than others here. Why organize a big bureaucratic thing to make decisions for a group that barely exists? It seems a little backwards. Starting with hearing more from the kids who'd be involved in such a ministry makes more sense, and as time goes on maybe a "board" can develop.

    Finally, I'm thankful for the Yacconelli suggestion. I've seen it, but have never picked it up. Another worthwhile read might be The Godbearing Life, although the authors escape me at the moment. It suggests much more of a personal mentoring style of ministry rather than a "youth group" style.

  7. Okay, just thought I would throw my 2 cents in here as a 'youth' well young adult anyway. Our youth congregation is large, 70ish (13-17, and another 30ish from 18-25. In the last year though we haven't experienced much growth in numbers but we have rally grown in depth of biblical knowledge and extension, rather than being an entertainment centre.

    I want to bring up a couple of points

    1) Its about growing depth not numbers. You grow depth by valuing youth as members of the body of christ. If you want to merely entertain them and keep them occupied , yes have basketball games, however if you want to grow their relationship with Christ I suggest diversifying

    2) Youth Alpha could work really well. (google that) It will give you a really good assement of where your youth are at , and is also a great opportunity to combine with another church

    3) The point of youth ministry is not to make leaders, it is to make followers of Christ, who will glorify him and help others come to Christ. Too often kids in small churches feel like because they come from a small church they are under some obligation to 'become the leader' if this isn't where their gifting is , why try to make them one! We should be trying to help them discover their true identity in Christ whether that is a teacher, hospitatility person, sound desk person, prophet, administration person, person who cleans the dishes, or community worker ...... I hope you get my drift.

  8. Thank you everyone for your comments- it seems as though the hunger for new paradigm is fairly universal.

    Good luck with your reading-

  9. mark devries's family based youth ministry is a great resource for helping to organize and put language to a full inclusion to youth ministry for the church. yaconelli's contemplative youth min resource puts forth a new voice of breaking down the over programmed youth into a more relational and intimate community.

    you might want to read 'presence centered youth ministry' to give some language to help explain to people in the church that just being with them is enough.

  10. Ditto on Yaconelli. Also read "Hurt" by Chap Clark which is a good and thoughtful book about the ways that youth are growing up with hurts we never dreamed of... even those of you who are in your 20s. (She sayeth wisely in her 50s)...

    Partnering with a nondenominational group is great because they NEED SPACE to meet! YoungLife, Wyldlife (for middle schoolers) are good programs. Fellowship of Christian Athletes has a high school program but (if your kids are like mine) not all are interested in sports.

    I'll also put in a plug for Chrysalis, the teen component for The Walk to Emmaus and Cursillo communities. They are for ages 15 and up. Good stuff. It was life-changing for our older daughter.


  11. Thank you for all the good comments, observations, and suggestions. I'll be visiting in short order. To respond to a couple of comments in particular:
    "call" is really a reference both to giftedness and to the specific areas of concentration you agree upon with the congregation(s) that issue a call to serve in our polity (ELCA)--so while I feel called to serve and empower youth as part of my gifts and talents, it is also a major component of ministry focus as mutually defined by the committee and moi.

    Coffee Pastor mentioned The Godbearing Life--very good book, authors are Kenda Creasy Dean and Ron Foster. Another book I like is "When Kumbaya Is Not Enough: A Practical Theology for Youth Ministry" by Dean Borgman. Also worth checking is "Choosing Church" by Carol Lytch.

    I like the idea of less frequent and more substantial meetings because I see most of the group anyway during weekly confirmation meetings, and yes, they are stretched and smothered at school. For example, the entire 8th grade class is 24 people in the largest district.

    And yes, an "official" board could be too cumbersome. My main concern is having a group of parents that will step up to the plate and help.

    Our youth are already pretty involved in worship and other aspects of ministry. All 10 confirmation students attended a week of "Hands and Feet Service Camp" at our local ELCA Bible camp this summer, and they want to go back next year. We also did a lot of community service, and they're leading a Camp Sunday service at the end of this month.

    Ecumenical is hard because there's not much diversity in this area. We're already partnering with other ELCA congregations for a bi-weekly lunch where the students can walk across the street from school and share some time with each other.

    I agree that youth group is not just entertainment but is about faith formation. Do any of the rest of you find it hard to involve the youth whose parents don't attend regularly? I note a direct correlation between parent involvement and youth involvement.

    Again, thanks for all the good ideas and feedback. Grace and peace!

  12. Praire Pastor, it sounds like you're already doing quite a bit!


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