I was hired ten days before running my first youth group as a “professional.” I had met only a few of the youth and none of the volunteers. All I knew was that a bunch of kids, and probably even a few parents, would be at the church on Sunday night wondering who had been hired. And the recent, rocky history of the ministry would ensure that my audience was evaluating me very carefully. Suffice it to say, staff-changes and attempts at new styles of ministry left many youth and parents unsatisfied. Two of the three youth staff left for different and complex reasons. The only reason my this first “professional” youth group meeting was a success was because of that third hold-out. Meghan formed a schedule for the night, recruited the volunteers, served as the “face” of the ministry. She told me that all I had to do was prepare a lesson and teach it. My first step into professional youth ministry was a resounding success because of Meghan.
Every new youth pastor—whether they’re new to your church or new to ministry altogether—needs at least one Meghan, probably more. I like to call these people Launching Partners. They help the new youth pastor learn the ins and outs and the players of your particular church. There are specific things that Launching Partners should share in the first three months of the youth pastor’s tenure to create lots of little successes at the start of the new youth pastors’ ministry.
The interview process can be odd in church-world. On the one hand, you have the candidate for youth pastor who, for whatever reason, is looking for a job and considering your church. They wants to show that he can be liked and respected by teenagers as well as parents. On the other hand, every youth ministry has a past. For most churches, that past predates the person who is being replaced by your new hire. And it is likely that your new hire did not get the full story during the interview process. Just like candidates want to put on their best appearance while interviewing for a job, churches also want to present themselves as attractive places to work. So more than likely your new youth pastor doesn’t realize that the ministry is still recovering from three years ago when a youth volunteer (who is still volunteering) alienated a group of five boys (who haven’t graduated high school yet) because they wouldn’t take off their hats during prayer before a meal. Someone needs to tell him. And do it soon.
These conversations will feel like a balancing act. Some names need to be said, but not all names should be. It is good to let your new hire form most of their own first impressions as they meet people and experiences your church, but you don’t want them falling into a pit that could have been avoided. In this way, it can be hard to know if you are sharing too much, or too little. So while I trust your wisdom in your particular circumstances over my complete ignorance of your church, here are some possible topics that can get you started.
Recent Successes and Failures
If you’ve seen increased participation in an annual event over the last three years, your new minister should know all about it so they can immediately start thinking about how to leverage that success into something even greater. Similarly, if a weekly ministry has been struggling to get momentum and becoming a drain on energy, time, and money with little to no pay-off; they need to know that as well. They may have some ideas of how to revamp it, or may need to start figuring out how to finish it graciously (Truth be told, it may be a lot easier to end that program when your old minister leaves, citing the staff void as the reason, instead of making your new hire risk being seen as the one who “took away my favorite part of this church”). Either way, they need to hear what has been working and what hasn’t been. Maybe you’ll be invited into further conversations about how to build on, fix or dismiss aspects of the ministry, and maybe you won’t; and that’s okay. Your job in this conversation is to inform, not direct.
Remember that your new hire is meeting everyone for the first time. And just like the interview process, everyone is still trying hard to be perceived well. Your new hire may be approached by well-meaning but ill-suited potential volunteers seeking to get involved. Sometimes those very same people used to be involved but are no longer for a very good reason. Also, you may have current volunteers who need a break from their ministry role but for various reasons don’t want to say so to their brand new leader. How are they to know when everyone is trying to make a good first impression? And who would reasonably be expected to turn down an offer of help the new minister in the first month on the job?
The Unspoken Expectations
Unspoken expectations need to be spoken. I once worked with the children’s ministry coordinator to put on a Father-Daughter Dance for girls sixth grade and under (our Children’s Ministry). A parent didn’t like the age restriction and thought that the event should be marketed to the entire congregation. We talked about this for nearly forty-five minutes. She made a great case for the benefits of multigenerational events, and did not want anyone to feel excluded. I attempted to explain that this was supposed to be a simple event that fit in with the rest of our children’s summer program, and assured her that of course we wouldn’t turn away any older girls if they wanted to come, but it wouldn’t be aimed at them. It wasn’t until the very end that I realized that the church used to, many years prior, hold regular father-daughter dances for the entire congregation. So when this mom heard “Father-Daughter Dance,” she immediately and reasonably expected the same thing the church had done in the past.
It is also likely that your church has certain annual events that people simply expect to happen. Maybe it is big like a summer mission trip, or a bit smaller like a youth run car wash to thank and honor the men of the congregation on Father’s Day. It might not be an event at all. Perhaps your former youth minister managed to attend every Friday football game, or made sure to be pop in on the adult Sunday school classes from time-to-time. Whatever it is, there is something that your church has loved and expects from the new hire. Whether these expectations are realistic or not, doesn’t matter. Your new minister needs to know what they are in for.
Your Church Culture
There is something, or perhaps several things, that make your church distinct from the ones down the street. A lot of that may have to do with your denomination or your head pastor’s personality, but a lot of it is that hard-to-define thing called culture. Some churches feel like enormous families. Others seem to be populated entirely by seminarians. And still others make it their main thing to be the hands and feet of Jesus through service projects, ongoing food drives, and mission opportunities. Your culture affects how often most families attend Sunday morning service, whether or not your members are comfortable praying out loud, if it is easier to ask parents to help by giving money or time, how the youth ministry is generally viewed by the wider congregation, what sort of time commitments you can expect from your youth and their parents, and a myriad of other things. Your new hire can spend several months figuring all this out. Or, you can fill them in and let them get to work with a solid cultural understanding. I made a misstep my first summer at a church because I didn’t know that the church families were used to easing off of church activities during the summer. So I scheduled all sorts of events with minimal attendance where the wiser decision would have been to use my time and energy meeting with kids over milkshakes. Additionally, I underestimated the significant time commitment that fall sports required in August. So that senior high beach camping trip never happened. That summer was full of failures that could have been avoided.
At Risk Situations
You have students who, for whatever reason, need extra care. Difficult home lives, eating disorders, addictions, tension between students in the youth group are all possible. This is likely the conversation that makes Launching Partners most unsure about how much to share. You’ve always been careful to be confidential with these matters, and it feels odd to share such information with the new minister. My advice is to share with your new hire the same information your previous youth pastor knew. Of course they aren’t the same person, but they are in the same role and carrying the same responsibilities. Additionally, he’s one of the people in the chain of leadership of the church. But most importantly, they are another ally to help these teens and their families.
Welcoming a new youth worker can be hard, but helping them start well can ease tension, create connections, and help the whole community move into a new chapter.