Recently I attended a conference on children and youth formation practices. It was a joy to meet with other formation ministers from around the country and to hear about all of the excellent and creative work being done in other church settings. But I was also struck by the stories of struggle and confusion among church leaders in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. After a long stretch of constant pandemic adaptation, it’s clear that many church leaders are working to discern what comes next in our formation programs. Do we just return to our 2019 configurations, or do we do something else?
If you’re feeling stuck in your own ministry, here are a few tips for thinking about how to set goals this year and how to take the next step in your formation ministry.
1. Start with Conversation
We know that churches are built on relationships. Having great ideas isn’t enough by itself. Creating successful parish programs starts with cultivating a broad sense of buy-in across the parish. And buy-in starts with conversation.
I once worked at a church that exhibited deep anxiety about the future of the youth program. There was a sense that if we could just find the right curriculum or create the right event calendar, the kids would finally come flooding back. After many stops and starts, it finally clicked for me that I was not ever going to find a silver bullet program that would instantly draw kids and win approval from the involved adults. What I needed to do was dig into the sources of anxiety about our program and begin conversations about the way forward.
I have discovered that parents, volunteers, and vestry members are often eager to dream with formation leaders about what the church’s formation programs could look like. Whether you’re just starting or are trying to evolve your activities, the key is to invite lots of people into the conversation and demonstrate that Christian formation is the work of the whole community.
2. Don’t Get Hung Up on “Should”
Anybody who works in churches knows that old familiar feeling: “We should be doing more of ______.” Our formation ministries always evolve according to our context, so it’s a trap to get hung up on all the things you “should” be doing but aren’t.
In the first months of my time as a youth minister, I tried an event that had been very successful in my own high school youth group. When it flopped, I interpreted it as a personal failure. In reality, it wasn’t the right sort of activity for my new church context.
I have wasted a bunch of effort over the years trying and failing to implement certain amazing ideas I’ve gotten from other people in other contexts before realizing that, for one reason or another, it’s not feasible in my own church. You know your church; release yourself from the need to copy the successes you see elsewhere.
3. Remember That Everything You Do in Church Is Formation
One common mistake in church life is to think that formation only starts when the teacher begins the lesson. In reality, formation starts the moment a person walks through the church door. When I think back to my own childhood experience in Sunday School, I can remember very few of the lessons we did, but I remember quite a bit about what the rooms felt like, the way the adults communicated with us kids, and the warm feelings I felt when I stepped inside the church. Even though I don’t remember the content of those early Bible lessons, I remember that my church felt like a beloved, fun, and safe place.
Long before kids ever start thinking about logical proofs for God, they are forming opinions and feelings about the church and church community. What does it feel like being there? Are the adults kind, attentive, and trustworthy? What are the things that adults in the church seem concerned with? The answers to these and other similar questions are what children will begin associating with faith. For those reasons, we need to spend as much time thinking about the environment we create as we do about the content we offer.
Finally, it can’t be said often enough: In children, youth, and adult formation, we are playing the long game. Be patient with yourself and others. This is God’s work into which we are invited. Nothing could be better or more important.