As I travel across the country leading teen retreats and activities, adult workshops, and assisting camping programs, I am blessed to talk with many clergy and laity about our Church’s youth ministry efforts Church-wide as well as locally. During our conversations people always bring up the obstacles they face. Here are some common challenges people encounter along with some possible solutions that some areas have used to overcome them. Obstacle: We don’t have enough kids to have a youth program.
A. Work with the other Orthodox parishes in your area. More and more youth ministry activities are being organized on a regional level (by deanery, geographic region, or pan-Orthodox). This gets more teens together. When events are held at different locations in the region it distributes the work among people in various parishes, thereby preventing anyone person or group from having to shoulder too much responsibility of work.
B. Participate in activities in other areas. Some youth ministry leaders have helped youth ministry leaders and young people travel as far as 600 miles to take part in a retreat or service project. These people then use their experience to start something closer to home.
C. If there are only a few teenagers in your parish do something with just them. Take them to a nursing home, visit a homebound person, go to a movie, sports game, or whatever. Use the resources in your area.
Obstacle: Our kids aren’t interested in “that kind of stuff”
Possible solution: Just get them there! Insist that they try it at least once.
We need to remember what we, as the Church, have to offer. In a world of increasing violence, indifference and despair, only the Church tells young people that they are so loved that God sent His Son to die for them so that they can be with Him forever. Only the Church offers a place that youth can go to be truly themselves, and be able to honestly share their concerns and fears with other peers and adults. It is only in the Church where young people can experience and learn about the “real life” in Christ.
It is true that most teens have serious misgivings about “retreats”, “youth groups,” “lock-ins, ” “service projects,” and “gatherings.” At almost every event I lead, there are at least one or two participants who are there only because their parents made them go. However, when they experience the bond that comes from being with other Orthodox people their age, talking about things that concern them, and having a good time, they almost always want to know when the next event is. Usually, they’re disappointed that they’ll have to wait so long!
Obstacle: Parents don’t seem to care whether or not their kids are involved.
With the blessing of your parish priest approach these parents and personally ask if you could meet with them to discuss the parish’s youth ministry efforts, the goals of those efforts and how you might be able to enlist their support. Maybe the parents will bring a concern to your attention that you haven’t yet thought of.
Obstacle: I’m just not good at working with teenagers.
A. Many people who say they aren’t good with teenagers are actually just afraid of trying. Remember, you were a teenager once. Young people simply need someone who cares about what they are going through, and is willing to spend time and be honest with them.
B. You may be right. God created each of us with different gifts. Your gifts might best be used in another area of parish ministry.
Obstacle: Our parish doesn’t have any money for youth ministry.
A. Re-prioritize, show commitment, and make youth ministry a line item (however small) in your parish budget. Be sure to spend all of it!.
B. Have the teens raise the money for activities. The youth in many parishes hold car washes, bake sales, coffee hours, submarine sandwich sales, parish-wide garage sales and spaghetti dinners as fund raisers. Other parish groups make and sell Christmas ornaments, or decoupage icons to raise money.
C. Talk to the parents. As I travel I find parents are very willing to pay for their child to participate in activities or events that so clearly benefit them
Obstacle: We don’t know what to do! Where do you start?
A. Learn the names of the youth in your parish. Say, “hi!” and start talking with them.
B. Provide young people with regular opportunities to get together, discuss common concerns, and have fun together.
Throughout the Church I have found that the most “successful” (if you can use that word when talking about youth ministry) efforts are those that have a consistent and dependable schedule each year. A summer camping program, a fall “lock-in” or retreat, a winter fellowship gathering, and a spring service project are four events that any area can plan and hold. This simple schedule will provide the content and stability that can attract more and more youth each year.
Obstacle: The priest is too busy, I’m burning out, and no one else wants to step in.
Possible solution: Follow these four steps:
1. Outline: Briefly outline what is involved in running your youth program. (Types of events and activities along with how often and when they usually take place.)
2. Write it out: Write out brief, but detailed, descriptions of what is required for each aspect of the program.
3. Identify: Identify people who might be good at each aspect of the program. Ask the teens, and discuss it with your parish priest and others in the parish.
4. Ask: Approach the identified people, present them with the written task description, and ask them to try it for the next event, the next six months, this year, or another defined period of time.
While obstacles do arise, we must not forget that the recipe for a youth program is actually very simple. First, identify the youth in your parish. Next, find dedicated adults who are grounded in the faith of the Church and who are willing to spend time with them. Now, offer regular opportunities for the youth to gather, to build spiritual friendships, and to serve others. In addition, provide opportunities for them to discuss their faith and their daily lives with their peers and adults who care.
Just remember, involve the teenagers in the process and don’t fall into the trap of making them just another parish workforce!
With a little thought, planning, cooperation, and a whole lot of patience, you can have a dynamic youth program.