This past year the churches in my community have gone through a lot of turnover. Pastors have left or been terminated, directors have resigned, and leaders have changed their focus of ministry. I have seen times of extreme pressure placed on leaders, and other staff have to have hard talks with families and leaders about the changes that will occur. Just as this happened in my city, it also happened in my church. Times of transition in student ministry can be challenging and demanding, but there are few things that can help us survive.
Serving at a church with two youth pastor is a huge blessing that I am very grateful for. It also presents an almost ideal transition as it affects students; although very unique for me as I was tasked with carrying the ministry until the new hire was on board. Prior to the change, the other youth pastor and I worked side by side on the big things like retreats, vision, and leading volunteers, but also worked independently on projects and weekly student gatherings. This was one of the reasons transition hit me so hard. There were immediate challenges with relationships, leadership, planning, and even friendships. Everything seemed like a hurricane ripped through the ministry, at least for a time. Leaders were faced with loyalty questions and students were challenged to be courageous, to not embrace abandonment or be bitter at the church or even God, and to move forward.
Perhaps you are in a time of transition like mine, where you stay in your role while others change. Or maybe you’re the leader who is changing. No matter the case, I think one thing will always be true during transition: Loving students becomes the number one priority to spend your time on. This became true day after day as I was fielding phone calls from parents, questions from leaders, and even confusion from our church staff. People had to become priority even over the details of the rapidly approaching services or events.
There were a few ideas that really helped me survive my challenging transition time:
Support those who have stepped out—It’s easy to slice-and-dice someone who is no longer a part of the ministry you lead. Instead of dragging them through the mud, support the decisions that have been made and hold that person up in respect. Lead with an attitude of trust, either for the person who has left or the leadership you are following who made the call. If you can’t do that, it may be time for some hard conversations with your church leadership.
Be honest—Often times during transition the hidden truth can rear its ugly head with moral failures or bad choices. But, thankfully, leaders don’t always leave because of failure; perhaps God is changing their vision, their role is different, or they are focusing on something new. No matter the cause, it is important to be honest with students and families. Many families jump to the reason for leaving being a moral failure when no such thing is there. No matter how difficult to communicate, and even if there were bad decisions present, be clear, direct, and loving with the truth of the situation. You may want to even prepare how you would answer questions that will likely be brought up, and point people to Jesus as you work through it together.
Invest in students—Transition presents an opportunity to spend more time with students. It is not only the time they need to process a loss, it is the time they need to be reminded that God’s love is unending and always available, despite the end of their spiritual leader at their church.
If you are in a time of transition pray, take a deep breath, and keep your head up. It can be a challenging time that effects every part of our lives, but we are not alone in it. Taking time to be with Jesus and making others a priority can help guide us during this challenge of church leadership.