Five Shifts for Online Ministry with Young People:… | UMC YoungPeople
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September 2020

Five Shifts for Online Ministry with Young People: The September 2020 Edition

By Eddie Erwin

By Eddie Erwin & Jeremy Steele

We have learned a lot in the past several months. During the pandemic-fueled shift into online ministry with young people, we have made a lot of mistakes and celebrated some victories as well. Now, several months in, five key shifts have emerged that every youth ministry needs to consider. (We also fully expect to have a whole new batch of lessons learned before the end of the year!)

1. Set Better Boundaries

With new environments and constantly changing rules for using our spaces, we must redefine our ministry boundaries. A lot of us are still online, both for our ministries and our “office” hours. Doing everything from home makes it easy to work all the time and easy for other people to expect you to be available all the time.

Youth workers need to develop better, clearer boundaries for work hours that include sabbath time, real rest, and spiritual fulfillment. Those boundaries need to be communicated clearly to supervisors and parents so that it is not surprising when you hold to the boundaries by not responding to emails or answering the phone. Whether you are a volunteer or hourly or salaried worker, strive to create a rhythm for your ministry that establishes boundaries that will enhance your ministry.

2. Develop New Systems

Systems = People + Technology + Process. Many of our systems for ministry with young people are simple evolutions of the ministry we grew up with while the Earth’s crust was still cooling (jk). Few of those models are extremely fruitful for “Generation Z,” and this move to technologically fueled ministry has exposed that dynamic. Remember that systems get put into place to create a desired result. So, pay attention to the kinds of ministry opportunities for transformational discipleship that you want to help create and put some energy there!

There is not a future where the technology disappears. It’s time to reevaluate how we have been doing ministry and reimagine what expressions of ministry look like in the future, including virtual, hybrid, and in-person expressions. That means pulling out each of the pieces of our systems and ministry models, one at a time, if necessary, to examine them in the clear light of a new day.

One of the first pieces you need to consider regarding technology as a newly essential part of your system is your Safe Sanctuaries® policy. These policies are often the best examples of the way technology has exposed our need for new systems. For example, what does the ‘two-adult rule’ mean on Zoom? What are the ground rules around private chats, direct messages, and texting? Is there an alarm that goes off when an adult fires up Snapchat to use as part of ministry? It’s time to develop new systems and revise the old ones. “Safe Sanctuaries: Supporting a Shift to Online Ministry Meetings” offers eleven specific tips to think about regarding Safe Sanctuaries® online.

3. Redefine Relationships

Sunday school, small groups, leadership teams, volunteers, parents, Bible study, fellowship, confirmation, retreats, staff, and so on have served as traditional cornerstones of relational ministry. We all need relationship, and the people that make up the groups just listed still need relationships as part of ministry. The relationships that we create with and for our young people are as crucial as ever. Physical distancing doesn’t have to eliminate our incarnational ministry, but it has revealed how limited our approach to relational ministry has been.

Everyone forms relationships differently. For some, the free-wheeling world of a youth room buzzing with people is the best possible situation for connecting with others. For a long time, our ministry has been primed for those people. Now, many of those people are finding relationships difficult, while the students who preferred to be chatting in Minecraft® or other online, interpersonal apps or platforms are feeling more connected than ever. We need to look at how we form relationships and consider how we connect with ALL people.

4. Ask 'Why?'

Now is the perfect time to ask “why” throughout your ministry. Make sure that you and your ministry partners completely understand and appreciate all aspects of your disciple-making efforts. This may mean examining your own calling, wading through your weekly events, reflecting on retreats, and being mindful of missions. Many of your events and programs haven’t happened for a while, and that may be a good thing. It may be a good time to sunset ministries that you inherited or ones that you have kept around because, “we’ve always done it this way.”

This could also be a great season to innovate, try new things, and experiment, always framing your efforts with the question, “Why do we do this?” This season of the COVID-19 response has provided a large cushion of grace and understanding for youth workers who innovate and try new ways of generating meaningful discipleship. For a while, you may try not gathering at all online because it doesn’t fit your why, but focus on smaller connections with hyper-localized pods of two to four students. You might let go of the focus on a teacher or singing or any number of things because they don’t give the answer you are looking for when you ask, “Why?”

5. Mend Your Metrics

We count numbers because numbers represent people, but counting the RIGHT NUMBERS is more consequential at this point. There is a healthy tension between being unmotivated and ill-informed and being dangerously distracted from making disciples. The same way we counted numbers at the beginning of the year is not how we need to count the numbers these days or for the foreseeable future.

A healthy metric system includes both quantitative data (How many kids came to X or how many parents opened the newsletter email?) with qualitative metrics (What responses did we have to the question, “How is your spiritual life?” at last week’s small group. and how have those answers changed over time because of involvement in our ministry?). You need to be constantly collecting both types of data and paying attention to trends within your ministry, from students to parents to volunteers. Are you beginning to hear more stories of kids taking initiative in their faith? Are you seeing students reach out and care for one another online? How does that match with attendance or video view counts?

Lastly, make space for grace — for yourself, your family, your pastor, your parents, and especially your students!

Husband to Emily, Dad to Quint, Kate, and Corbin; youth advocate, outdoor enthusiast. Eddie Erwin is the Director of Youth and Young Adult Ministries at The Texas Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church with a long history of local church youth ministry.