Working in ministry is all about caring for people around us. We tend to treat this as a mind-reading game; we see what happened last week at youth group and adjust from there. We assume that whatever we are planning is what our students need. We assume that the trends that are happening in the bigger youth ministry-verse will easily transfer to our context. Or we generalize that what we learned when we were in high school ministries is still relevant today. But, often, this might not be the case. How are we supposed to figure out what our student ministries need? The easiest way to find out is to ask our students for their feedback.
When we ask our students what they are interested in talking about or doing or how events have gone, students will feel more invested in your youth ministry. Students will feel a sense of ownership over the space because their voices are being heard. This also builds a new sense of trust with you; students will know that they are truly being cared for in your space and be able to open up more.
Now, this doesn’t mean that you go and ask for every student’s idea every Wednesday night. To hear from students well, you will want to have a focus group of students. This can be your student leadership team or student council. These groups should be made up of students that show a wide variety of perspectives.
In your group setting, set some expectations; share how this is a space where you want to be open and honest and hear their thoughts and ideas. Let them know that they advocate for your youth ministry and explain how everyone’s opinion is valid. During these meetings, take some time to reflect on how things have gone and get their thoughts and ideas on future events.
Reflecting on the past can help you plan for the future (no shame in saving up a curriculum to redo later!). Some basic questions to reflect on are: what went well, what didn’t go well, what could be improved, and would you like us to talk about this again / do this event again.
Get their insight on future events! When planning, present them with an idea – ask them their thoughts on it and if it would be valuable or fun for them. Then, allow them space to brainstorm off of that; they may have ideas to improve your topic or step up your event. If it isn’t something they are interested in, move on and think of another idea!
I know what you’re thinking, “I’m the person who is paid to do this. I should be the one doing most of the planning”. I hear you and see where you’re coming from. There are certain things that we as youth leaders need to stick to (no, we can’t do lock-ins every weekend or only play games every week). Make sure that you know what those boundaries are and if students push on them, explain why those boundaries are in place. You are still the adult and can make the final decision on plans.
Hearing others’ opinions on your ideas can be very vulnerable – it can be nerve-wracking, especially with high school students! When they let you know that something doesn’t go well, it can feel devastating – especially if you put a lot of work into it. In those moments, treat it as a learning opportunity for everyone. Let them know that you appreciate their honesty and remind them that you aren’t perfect and will make mistakes. By being open about making mistakes and showing them how to healthily move on, you’re giving them permission to mess up and teaching them that leaders aren’t perfect, and that’s okay.
Overall, creating a space with open and honest dialogue between your students and yourself will open up a wide variety of new opportunities for your ministry. By being open and vulnerable, our students can do the same in the spaces we create, allowing for students to be more open to the way God is at work in their lives.
Kayla Feil is the Director of Children, Youth and Family Ministry at Faith Lutheran Church in Glen Ellyn, IL. Along with her role, she is currently attending Luther Seminary to get her MA in Children, Youth and Family Ministry. When she isn’t at church or writing papers, you can find her practicing yoga, running, or adventuring around Chicago!