Students and Youth Ministry Ownership

Tim has a great post on helping students take ownership of their youth ministry. I have some comments to make, and I thought rather than take up several paragraphs in his comment box I’d just post them here. Some background first, anyone who has been reading this blog regularly knows that we have just gone through some changes in our “main event” on Wednesday nights at the ministry I pastor. So this is something important to me, something that I’ve been thinking about, and something I think we (ie, the youth ministry blogosphere) needs to discuss.

First, I agree very much with time in his three steps. Students will have no interest in ministry if they don’t have relationships. It’s extremely important for us as youth workers to be diligent in developing those relationships. However, as I’m sure Tim would agree, we can’t develop them expressly for the purpose of getting these teens to work in our youth ministries. That is called using people. Which I think happens all too often in youth ministry when we begin discussing “ownership.” Too often what a youth pastor wants when she says “ownership” is actually “free labor.” We need to be cautious and check our motivations for wanting students to have ownership. The other two steps that Tim lists out are good as well. I remember Chris Seavey, in my undergraduate work, having two similar steps that he recommended. Something like having them join you in basic stuff (setting up chairs, sound tests, that kind of thing), then joining you in more “advanced” things (leading games or worship, being in charge of a section of an event), and then release them to do those things on their own.

Second, Tim mentions that jumping to #3 doesn’t work, and he’s absolutely right. We can’t just drop something in a students’ lap and expect them to want to own it, much less do well at owning it. It’s a process, and as all things in ministry (and life) it takes time. Now, I’m an impatient person, so I’d much prefer if we could just be like…”Okay, here ya go. Run with that.” Sometimes there are students in a youth ministry who are ready for that. If so, they are normally ready because they have had time to get ready, and people have worked with them to help them to that point.

Third, I’d like to add something to what Tim has said. He mentions this at the beginning of his post, but I think it deserves more attention. We need to make sure we are defining what we mean by ownership. We need to have tangible things of which students can take ownership. I think these “things,” whatever they are, need to be verbally defined as well as logically a unit over which someone could have ownership. Case-in-point, at our Wednesday night event we have a prayer room each week. This is something we’ve started very recently. The point of this prayer room is to allow students to, at any point in the night, take some time to just sit silently with God. At present the setup for the room is fairly basic. Over time my hope is that students will step forward and own that part of our Wednesday night gathering. I have verbally explained this, and it is a logical unit that students can wrap their minds around (as opposed to the intangible idea of “ownership of the youth group”). Another example, we do a time of Scripture reading on Wednesday nights. Again, my hope is that over time (and this is actually already beginning to happen) students will step forward and read the scripture passage for the week. Over the long-term I hope to involve students in selecting the passages to be read, and my real hope is that eventually I can step out of the teaching to some extent and allow students that role.

In fact, we have designed our Wednesday night program to include a number of logical units that we hope will eventually be “owned” by students. Scripture reading, explanation of the reading (ie, teaching), activity (to reinforce the topic), prayer time, discussion time. Before those things we have a time to hang out where students can play video games or use the prayer room, play card games or board games, or just hang out and munch on some snacks. Potentially each of these logical units could be owned by a student or group of students (taking care of setting up snacks and making sure there are enough, choosing and running the games for a given week, etc).

I’m not saying that the way we have chosen to configure our mid-week gathering is the perfect way. But I do think it incorporates something very important in helping students take ownership of a youth ministry. That “something” is allowing them to see, in very tangible ways, the things of which we are asking them to take ownership. Certainly, this needs to come after relationship building, as Tim has correctly pointed out. I do think it needs to come eventually though, and we need to be explicit in our expectations. Maybe this is one of those things to file under openness and authenticity.

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