How to Change Without Blowing Up Your Youth Ministry

This fall, in our SrHi group, we are making some changes.  We’re moving away from group games, allowing students to choose to be in small groups or not, and basing our groups around curriculum instead of gender/ages.  Not sweeping changes, but change none the less.  Here are some of the steps we’ve taken to enter into this process:

1. Planning with key leaders – You hear this all the time in books and articles, but it can be a challenge to pull off well.  Who should we bring into the process?  I’ve learned to ask the people who really care, regardless of their position in the ministry.  I ask my volunteer leaders who care the most, I ask my older students who are invested in the ministry, I ask parents who are supportive and see the importance of youth group, and I ask other leaders outside my church who personally love youth ministry.  I don’t ask anyone who either doesn’t really care about the ministry, or who has little interest in strategic thought.  Some of my best leaders simply want to love kids, and don’t really care how we get it done.  I’ve learned not to burden them with the process.  So, I look at a person’s passion for the issue more than their position.

2. Promise Nothing – What I’ve learned over the years is to ask lots of questions, listen, take notes, and make no promises during this phase.  Too often, we want to encourage people, so we imply that their idea will be the one we use, and then they are disappointed later.  Listen a lot, promise nothing.  Give yourself time to sit down, and prayerfully take everyone’s ideas in.

3. Find the core values – As you have everyone give input, they will have a variety of ideas.  But what are the common values behind them.  Take everyone’s ideas, even if they seem far-fetched or impossible.  Then, later, look for the driving values behind the ideas.  Which core values are coming up over and over from different sources?  These are the values your new plan needs to address.

4. Look for the both/and – Too often, we can fall into an either/or mentality with these decisions.  Is there a way to take the core values you’ve found, and fit them all in?  It will probably mean the plan you would devise on your own may not come to fruition, but the plan you end up with will be more productive because if reflects the majority of the group, not just your values.

5. Explain it well – How you communicate the plan is crucial.  Roll it out to a few people at a time, with a clear plan on who hears about it when.  Ask for feedback.  Don’t be defensive.  The plan is not God’s inspired word, it’s just a program.  Hold it loosely, and listen to criticism.  Yes, you’ve invested hours in it, stressed about it, and thought it through.  But don’t be defensive when someone pokes holes in it.  Be gracious, and continue reworking it.  Then, choose who will hear it first, who will be second, etc.  Be intentional about the methods you use, and when (meetings, letters, social media, etc.)  Do NOT do an information blitz.  You will have too much explaining to do at once, and you will overload yourself.  Do it a little at a time, on a calendar, with a plan.  It’s much more manageable that way, and by the time you bring it to the largest group, you will have it even more fine tuned.

6. Have a plan for pushback – According to Dr. Scott Cormode of Fuller, people don’t fear change, they fear loss.  Your new plan means people will lose something.  Some of it will be actual loss, some of it will be perceived loss due to misunderstanding.  Identify ahead of time what the real loss is, and be ready to love people through it. Celebrate where things have been, what God has done, and how He has used those times and opportunities.  Don’t tear down the past to make the future look better.  Instead, link the new to the old, and show how it is a continuation of what God has been doing, show the core values still being honored, and encourage people about the coming days.  Be patient with those who are afraid.  They will make over the top statemnents (everyone is upset, no one likes the plan, etc.)  Gently ask for specifics, and share the stories of other people who are excited about the changes.  Invite the people who are afraid, into the process and offer them a voice.

7. See it through – Change will bring resistance.  We hate to see our kids or leaders upset.  Don’t back down just because people are struggling.  Be open to altering your plans, making corrections, improving along the way.  But overall, give the changes and the new plan time to take root.  Stay with it to see success.  We have committed the school year to our changes, at the very shortest.  We are not measuring how successful it is, until the end of the year.  We know it will take nine months to test our ideas, and see if they work or not.  So, we are committed to staying the course.

What would you add to this list?  What else have you learned?  I’d love to hear from you.

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