After months of prayer and discernment, my family and I moved to begin a new ministry position in September of 2021. Like many other youth ministries, ours has been heavily impacted by COVID-19. Things got off to a good start as I began to meet with students and leaders. But a few weeks in, I planned an event that didn’t have the turnout I was hoping for… only one student showed up! I had wanted so much to build a sense of community and belonging for our students, to help them feel a part of our church. When this one student turned up, I felt embarrassed and a little frustrated, even doubting my own leadership.
Whether you have had something similar happen or not, leading our ministries at the end of COVID has its challenges. So how can we cast vision, create momentum, and rebuild ministry after the effects of these last two years?
Remember God’s sovereignty. God has directed your steps into the ministry situation you find yourself in. Solomon writes in Proverbs 16:9: “The heart of man plans his way, but the Lord establishes his steps.” In a divine and mysterious connection with human responsibility, God has meticulously planned each day of your life and ministry for his glory and for your good.
When I was considering leaving my previous situation, mentors in my life reminded me that the struggles and difficulties of pastoral ministry are unavoidable. I respectfully agreed with them, but on the inside, I convinced myself if I could just find a church that met a leadership criteria I had, everything would be fine. My new church has met that criteria, but building a ministry back up from COVID has still had its challenges. When you experience the inevitable challenges of pastoral ministry without a robust understanding of God’s sovereignty, you might doubt God’s calling to your current ministry.
We don’t have to live consumed by “what-if’s” or worry that we messed up God’s plan. Chance plays no role in a universe ruled by God’s sovereignty. If God pursued us and died for us when we were his enemies, we can trust him to sustain us and lead us in love and wisdom now that we are his beloved sons and daughters. The gospel – the good news that God forgives and accepts sinners through faith in Christ – proves God is faithful to keep his promises and never lead us astray. Whatever situation you find yourself in, know that God providentially led you there in his kindness and wisdom.
Play the long game. A few months into my new position, I realized I had overestimated the progress we could make in a short time. I’m not saying we haven’t seen any progress, but lasting fruit takes time to grow. Mark Dever puts it like this: “It would be wise for many of us to lower our expectations and extend our time horizons. Accomplishing healthy change in churches for the glory of God and the clarity of the gospel does not happen in the first year after the new pastor arrives. God is working for eternity, and he has been working from eternity. He’s not in a hurry, and we shouldn’t be either.” Be patient in your attempts to lead your ministry coming out of COVID.
Lead with vision. Why do we exist as a youth ministry? What could or should our ministry to teenagers look like in the future? What do we value as a team? Get together with your leadership team and spend time answering those questions, and develop short term and long term goals based off of your vision.
Here are a few more questions you can ask to gauge the current state of your ministry and the spiritual maturity of your students:
How are we equipping and teaching students to grow in doctrinal clarity and biblical literacy?
Are students equipped and actively sharing their faith? How do we know?
How are we identifying, training, and releasing students to lead and take ownership of the ministry?
Are students known and cared for, and are they in a relationship with an adult leader and other students? Where are the gaps?
Our vision shouldn’t be driven by numbers. The size of our ministry alone is neither an accurate nor a helpful way to evaluate the fruit of our ministries because it is God who gives growth. However, we should work and pray to reach lost students.
Whatever vision you might have, center it around the main objective: Teaching students the whole counsel of God, pointing them to Jesus by investing your life in them, and mobilizing them for mission.
Invest in the students you have. The central focus of Jesus’ ministry was equipping his disciples. Covid shrunk the size of many ministries and in our efforts to build it back up, we can neglect the students we have currently. Helping students to feel known and cared for will play a huge role in their staying connected to the church during and after their youth ministry years. Gospel-centered relational discipleship is the primary calling of every youth minister and that can happen in any ministry regardless of the size. Empowering a team of students to take ownership and lead the ministry is especially critical in building our ministries back up at the end of the pandemic.
Still, this doesn’t mean we neglect those who have become uninvolved throughout the pandemic. Hebrews 13:17 says: “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account.” The implications of that verse are clear: We will have to give an account to God for those under our care, so we can’t choose to care for some students and avoid others. Caring for those who have fallen away during COVID can feel pointless and frustrating. Yet we can’t underestimate how God can work through persistent and persevering love.
Pray fervently. Often I don’t pray because I simply forget that God can do far more through me than I can on my own, which reveals I have too much faith in myself and not enough faith in him. Pray for your students, their families, and the local schools by name. Pleading with God to use us is the only hope we have of leading a fruitful ministry. As one pastor has said, “The more you are aware theologically of what you are trying to do, the more you are aware that the Word has to do it all.”
The one student who showed up to that fateful event last fall told me, “Matt, I thought my friends would be here and I’m the only one that showed up. Let’s go get food and watch Sunday night football!” So, that’s what we did. We ended up picking up another student on the way and we had a great time.
God was at work that night, though not in a way that I expected or wanted at first. That impromptu contact work turned into a night of fun and relationship building with students who are the blossoming leaders of our ministry.
As you strive to faithfully lead your students at the end of COVID, God is at work. God will accomplish his purposes in and through your ministry, so you can trust him with the results.
 Paul Alexander and Mark Dever. “Preach, Pray, Love, and Stay,” 9Marks Journal.
 S. Craig Sanders. “The Reformation of FBC Durham,” Southern Seminary Magazine, Spring 2017. https://equip.sbts.edu/publications/magazine/magazine-issue/spring-2017-vol-85-no-1/reformation-fbc-durham/.