Taking a Systems Approach to Student Ministry


So I barely ever do ministry blogs on here….figure it’s time for one, right?

As of lately in my ministry, I have become aware of the need to focus not solely on pastoral issues, sermons, problems, etc, but on creating systems in and through which students can (hopefully) grow and mature.

I’ve been reading a book called Sustainable Youth Ministry, which says in essence, that this is the focus the student pastor needs to take. Step back from the pastoral issues, or sermons and lessons, 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?

Mark Devries says this:

In this chapter and the three that follow, I 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.

(Sustainable Youth Ministry: Why Most Youth Ministry Doesn’t Last and What Your Church Can Do About It, 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).

What structures can you put into place to begin this process? Devries suggests 5:

  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
  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.

In later chapters, Devries encourages pastors to set these systems into place, and wait. Longevity is the key, he says. He goes on to say:

Longevity simply works—on all kinds of levels. It forces us to face up to the patterns within ourselves that keep our youth ministries less than effective. It forces us to continue relating to people who have let us down. In a world of disposable relationships, longevity creates a durable Christian community that keeps on loving in spite of disappointments, failures and manipulation. Longevity gives us the chance to learn from our mistakes and to do our part to build it better the next time around. But longevity isn’t easy.

My first five or six years at my current church almost killed me. But as I passed the seven-year threshold, something happened. I started to observe movement I didn’t initiate; I began to see our ministry carried along by a momentum that had been slowly, imperceptibly building for years. (p 125)

Devries does on to say that incremental change is good. Each year, tweak and make the systems better. Critique things, make necessary changes. But overall, the longevity, the waiting, produces change.

Put systems into place, and wait for the change. It doesn’t happen over night!