Check out this ad from 1991 for Radio Shack (yes kids, that's where we went to get gadgets in the Dark Ages). Look at how everything in how we communicate, play, and share electronically has changed. What was once cutting edge is now on display in museums. One thing we cannot escape is that the way we do ministry is going to change. Twenty years ago in student ministry it was fueled by caffeine overnight trips, Red Rover, Chubby Bunny, and lock-ins. The way we connect with and invest in students has changed because times have changed, we've become more aware of the importance of safety, and we've recognized that lasting fruit happens when it's intentionally pursued.
Making any change in student ministry needs to be something carefully thought out. I'm indebted to John Kotter from Harvard Business School for his work on leading change. His Eight Steps have proven invaluable to me over the years, and have formed the basis for how I lead change processes in student ministry. I've adapted some of his list, but here are some ways to go about leading change in your student ministry.
Have a "Dream Picture" - Kotter calls this a "strategic vision," which I've amended slightly. In the Dream Picture, you start with the end game at graduation by asking 3 questions: What do we want our students to know? What do we want them to love? What do we want them to do? These three questions help define what would be the Dream, an ideal student who graduates from our student ministry. Knowledge involves the forming of a biblical worldview, Love involves a growing and deepening faith, and Do involves missions and service within and outside the church.
Build a Team - I'm intentional about who I bring in to help serve in our student ministry, because I want people who are team players, committed to serving, faithful in their church involvement, and who want to see great things happen. It's important to bring these people in to the Dream Picture and help them construct it. I often ask parents, grandparents, and young couples to serve in our student ministry so that we get a variety of perspectives. Also I think it's important to include in that team students who have proven themselves and have the maturity to get the big picture.
Identify Roadblocks - When I first got to Westside, I made it very clear that we were going to make things intentional and we were going to have a plan. And that might include removing some things that didn't fit the plan. With your Team, work to identify any roadblocks in your ministry strategy, calendar, or philosophy that don't help you achieve the Dream Picture. It doesn't mean you make any change yet, it just means you've identified some areas to work through.
Communicate Clearly with Parents - One of the biggest regrets I've had is that I wasn't more intentional about communicating change processes to parents. But they are the stakeholders in your ministry, not your students. They are the ones who trust you with their students. So anytime you make any change, you need to be clear in your communication. You also need to make sure that communication is two-way. Just giving information won't help win the change process, they need the opportunity to ask questions and give feedback. Sometimes they'll stop you from stepping on land mines!
Be Ready for Pushback - Some of the things that you and your Team will identify as Roadblocks to the Dream Picture may be things your students love and are attached to. To prepare for this, you need to make sure you have talking points for your Team, trusted students you can enlist to help communicate, and some thick skin for any criticism you might get.
Replace Losses with Gains - Whenever you remove a roadblock, it's going to be a loss for someone. The change process can go smoother when you are able to build in some wins/gains for students. One thing I said early on was no lock-ins, which is met with resistance every time I answer the question with the same answer. In order to replace that perceived loss, we build in late-night activities and I've asked those most resistant to removing lock-ins to help in the decision-making process.
Work Slowly unless it's an Emergency - Leading any change process can be costly if it's done too quickly. Student ministry is no exception. I've followed a "1 Year" rule, that no roadblock will be removed for at least a year. This enables a new crop of students to come up who aren't emotionally attached, a chance for those who are to graduate, and a chance to work with the Team to develop the process and strategy. The exception is when it's a big deal that needs to be dealt with quickly. I've only done this twice. The first was create a process of financial management because our snack bar was unchecked. The second was to remove from our student ministry library the NOOMA videos by Rob Bell because of some heretical views he had taken towards salvation.
Enlist your senior pastor and children's minister - The two biggest allies for a student minister are the lead pastor and the children's minister. One is your mouthpiece to the entire church, the other is your feeder for your ministry. Any significant change process you do needs to be something they are both aware of and on board with. It's good to have your lead pastor in the discussion because you want to make sure your ministry strategy and philosophy is lining up with his direction for the church, and so your children's minister can help you lead the transition to student ministry.
Cheer for Change - One major change I did recently was move our camp, from one 4 hours away to one 30 minutes away. Every chance I got I took time to hype up what the new camp had to offer, how much bigger it was, and how many more friendships our students could make. I also took time to talk to a number of parents about it who quickly became cheerleaders for it. And the message was always communicated in a way that reinforced how this change was for the best and how it helped us achieve our Dream Picture.
What ways have you worked to make change in your student ministry that you'd like to share?
Scott M. Douglas
A blog about leadership and the lasting legacy of family ministry.