*Disclaimer: This post will focus on student ministries, but the leadership development model presented translates to other areas of ministries as well.*
Pandemic or not, one of the ongoing struggles for many rural ministries is knowing what to do with and for the children and youth. We love having young people in our churches and we want to offer ongoing discipleship opportunities for them (or at least we should. If students are not valued by your congregation, please see Jesus’ words in Luke 9: 46-48 or Mark 9: 33-37, or Matthew 18:1-6). In Rural churches, we face many challenges to student ministries and often give up.
Please hear this truth: no matter what your budget, age, or size of your congregation, you can do whatever the Lord calls you to do for His glory. As with anything, pray, pray, pray, and trust God’s direction and provision. If God has called your church to offer ongoing discipleship ministries for and with children or youth, then let’s figure out how to do that in faithfulness to God’s call.
Before you start, ask yourselves these questions: What are your gifts for this ministry? What resources or assets has God already provided in your congregation or community? What are you lacking? Who will take the lead and who will offer support? How long are you willing to work at this?
I ask that last question because it is one most people don’t think about, and it plays a role in the sustainability of your ministry. One person doesn’t have to be willing to take on leadership of student ministries indefinitely, or even longer than a year, if you are able to plan for this change.
For a long time the average tenure of a youth pastor (rural or not) has been around 3 years. When that staff person leaves, what happens to the ministry? Every church that ever hired me as a youth pastor, hired me to rebuild their youth ministry. Even if they have had one or two dedicated volunteers, I never inherited a totally healthy and sustainable youth ministry. Friends, it takes three years to rebuild under healthy church conditions. This cycle doesn’t work, so I propose a different, more sustainable cycle to you.
Students need to know that their church family values them and supports them. If your leader is at risk for walking away suddenly, then students are left hanging and feeling devalued. On the other hand, if a plan of succession is in place where a co-leader steps into a primary leader’s position while a new volunteer joins the team, students don’t feel left as much as they feel supported; not just by one leader but by the whole congregation because you planned for them.
The primary leader is then always known and trusted by the students in advance while the extra volunteer/apprentice position is the one that needs to be filled. Better yet, if you are able, add a third volunteer so that the leader and apprentice are always known while an extra volunteer position waits to be filled. Depending on the number of students you have and type of ministry you’re running, that third spot may be a team of volunteers from which one will be raised up into the apprentice position when needed.
This allows ministry to continue instead of stopping and restarting between leader dropouts and new recruits. It also allows leaders to be trained up instead of jumping in blind. There is no need to “reinvent the wheel” every time your leader changes.
If you have a paid staff person, this changes the dynamic just a little, and it may change the way you understand their role and position. You still keep these three or more volunteers, while the staff leader provides training, resources, planning, communication, and coordination. You might even have multiple sets of these two or three volunteer teams like in different Sunday school classes for example. This ensures that both teachers in one class don’t step down at the same time. The staff person could be hired from among the volunteers or from outside the congregation, but either way, the volunteers are the glue that holds the ministry together regardless of staff changes.
This is also a great way to raise up leaders from among your older students. They can serve in these positions during their high school years with adults serving as mentors along side them. You never know when one might answer a call to vocational ministry because of this opportunity. That’s how I got my start!
On another, but related, note, if you have a leader or team of leaders who would like to get some solid theological and practical ministry training, I recommend that you look into the three year cohort program offered by Ministry Leadership Initiative.
Their program is transforming volunteer and staff led student ministries for many churches and they are now offering financial assistance to get this program to more rural churches. The cohort program runs from August to May. It is a three year program for which participants earn 24 hours of college credits in theology and practical ministry. The cohort meets monthly and is now primarily online, so it is more accessible for busy volunteer leaders.
Consider sending one of your adult leaders who is committed to training up future leaders, or get ready to send a high school graduate who is answering a call to ministry.