Taking a Systems Approach to Student Ministry

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Mark Devries says in his book, Sustainable Youth Ministry, that far too often, churches place the focus of youth ministries on finding the “super star” youth pastor who will fix all the problems of their youth ministry:

Too many churches are looking for a dynamic, top notch, committed, magnetic, relational, creative [etc] … 22 year old who can present powerful, life-changing messages and will gratefully work for $23,000 a year (p 44)

This one person is hired and expected to grow the ministry, to attract young families, to in essence, fix all woes.

Devries’ thesis in this book is that the focus is placed on the person or the problems, when it should instead be placed on maintainable systems.

In other words, Devries encourages us to step back from the super star stud, from the issues, and first ask: am I creating a system in and through which students can grow? Am I fostering a system where leaders can increasingly plug in and lead? Devries says: if these systems are not put in place first, any hip youth pastor will burn out; all fixes will be botched; and all forward movements will be brought back to square one. In essence, youth ministries that focus on what Devries calls “content issues” (who can be the dynamic leader, what cool things can we put in place to draw students) will always be patch-work ministries.

Mark Devries explains:

I [want to] invite you into seeing (and doing) youth ministry with a systems perspective. More and more, we are discovering that sustainable youth ministries are led by systems leaders. The day of the camp counselor youth minister who focuses only on students is over.

Sustainable youth ministries make the leap from a short-term, patchwork ministry to ones based on established systems that last long after the current leadership team has moved on. (p. 53)

Devries goes on to explain that there are two ways to do youth ministry (really any ministry!!): you can focus on content problems, or focus on sustainable systems.

He explains:

As I have tried to get my head around the power of a systems approach to initiating strategic change, family systems theory has been immensely helpful, particularly in its distinction between “content issues” and “system issues.”

A content issue involves a specific topic, usually a topic of conflict. In youth ministry, typical content issues can be anything from a problem with cliques to a problem with the seventh-grade curriculum. System issues, on the other hand, are those processes that take place beneath, around and within the particular topics of concern, things like trust among the leadership, clarity of expectations for staff and volunteers, or ownership of the ministry beyond the staff.

Trying to initiate change while staying solely focused on content issues is like sprinting up and down the aisle of a speeding jet, believing that the sheer force of effort will speed up the plane. Too many youth workers are wearing themselves out, completely unaware of the fact that they are a part of a system that is carrying them (and their ministries) in a direction that may be completely independent of their exhausting labor. (p 53-54)

Put another way, reactionary planning will exhaust the ministry and the leaders. Focusing on processes that initiate students on the path of discipleship are best.

[D]ramatic, sustainable change happens in youth ministries only when we take our focus off the ‘presenting issues’—the obvious concerns that seem to be creating so much anxiousness—and put our focus on the system patterns that keep us locked into unproductive ways of doing things (p 54).

Notice Devries says to focus on the systems that keep us locked into “unproductive ways of doing things”. Very often we focus on what is deficient in the youth pastor, the unsatisfactory teachings, the gossip between students. Devries says to step back and ask: is this system serving us best? Is this manner of doing things most effective? Are all the moving parts serving one another best? These are big picture questions, and not instead: what did Jenny say about Sally at youth group?

Devries encourages youth pastors to focus on 5 things in building an effective ministry:

  1. Directories: lists of students and volunteers, who’s going, who’s not etc
  2. Annual events calendar: “There’s no reason for a youth ministry not to have its major-events calendar mapped out at least a year in advance, except laziness. Every September, parents should be able to plan around events, including trips, for the upcoming summer (nine months away). Too many youth ministers complain about the lack of committed volunteers and youth who don’t sign up for programs, when those programs are announced less than six weeks before they happen. It’s almost impossible to recruit volunteers to take load-bearing responsibility for programs less than six weeks away” (p 61)
  3. Job descriptions: Who’s who and what’s what of leadership and volunteers
  4. Recruitment list: who is a potential volunteer/leader?
  5. Curriculum Template: “We call the final control document a curriculum template, a six- or seven-year game plan of how the teachings in the youth ministry will be structured” (p 62)

Beyond this, Devries suggests having a vision, mission, and values statement through which to evaluate calendar, events, teaching, etc.

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