When COVID-19 struck last March, like so many others, my congregation immediately shifted to online ministry. Within a week of shutting our doors, my team had reconfigured our junior high and high school ministry for the virtual world.
Families initially responded with gratitude, thankful we were still providing content for their teenagers. But before long, it became apparent that if we wanted to actually engage our young people in meaningful ways, it wasn’t enough to merely transfer what we had been doing in person to an online space. Instead, we had to continue to innovate.
Almost a year into this pandemic, we’ve learned that innovation is rarely, if ever, a one-time thing. Actually it’s an ongoing process. With that in mind, here are 5 tips for innovating in the midst of change that we’ve learned during this pandemic.
1. Listen, listen, listen
We weren’t even two weeks into the pandemic when my team first heard the phrase “Zoom fatigue.” At that point, I felt it too. I was online all day, every day. By the time we got to our weekly youth group gatherings, I knew our young people were “zoomed out,” because I was too. Yet we also knew that Zooming was our safest option—the means that allowed the most young people to continue to participate in our ministry. So, rather than simply ignore the Zoom fatigue, we listened. We asked teenagers why they felt the way they did. We asked parents about their concerns regarding Zoom youth group. Doing so allowed us to empathize with young people and their families, which in turn helped us avoid defensiveness amid parents’ questions and even criticism. Understanding families’ “new normals” also motivated us to continue trying new things in order to best meet our teenagers right where they were at.
2. Keep dreaming big
One of my biggest takeaways from participating in the Sticky Faith Innovation research project was to dream big. Every time my team thought we’d stumbled on something we wanted to experiment with, our coaches would challenge us, “How might you dream even bigger?” This prompt has continued to serve my team well as we’ve been forced to keep innovating this year. Each time someone has said, “I wish we could…” we’ve responded with, “Why can’t we?” or “How can we do that given our current reality and constraints?” Rather than wallow in our limitations, we’ve continued to imagine what could be—which has led to some truly creative solutions.
3. Let your constraints foster creativity
Like I mentioned earlier, when we tried to replicate in-person ministry online, it didn’t work particularly well for anyone. As time passed, we began embracing the constraints of Zoom (in the same way that an artist has to work within the edges of her canvas), which allowed us to actually become more creative. Today, our youth ministry—especially for our middle schoolers—looks very different than it did pre-pandemic. We’ve embraced the constraints of Zoom to create a ministry that I couldn’t have pictured a year ago … because this world simply didn’t exist then.
Another one of my key takeaways from the Sticky Faith Innovation research project was the beauty of experimentation. It’s served my ministry particularly well during this season of change. Every time we’ve tried something new, we’ve let parents know, “We’re going to be experimenting with this for the next several weeks.” This language has helped parents (and teenagers) know we’re trying something so new that it might even fail. That’s okay. If it doesn’t work, we’ll try something different. This mentality has made people more open to trying new things, even during a season that’s already full of change.
5. Evaluate and collaborate
Throughout this season of constant innovation and experimentation, we’ve been proactive about asking for feedback from leaders, young people, and parents. We want to know what’s working and what’s not. We’ve tried to lay aside our egos in order to serve our families well, and our willingness to do so has led to an unusual level of collaboration that has benefited everyone and has again resulted in some truly creative ministry solutions.
Pre-pandemic, I didn’t think it was possible to innovate continually. I thought that too much change would burn out leaders and turn people away from our ministry. I feared that innovating in the midst of change was a recipe for disaster.
Mid-pandemic, I totally disagree with my former self.
Far from burning leaders out, innovating in the midst of change has breathed life into my leaders and me. Rather than turning people away from our ministry, it has brought us new faces.
Perhaps most importantly, instead of leading to disaster, innovating in the midst of change has enabled my ministry not merely to survive during a pandemic, but in many ways, to thrive throughout it. While challenging, it’s allowed us to respond to our changing world and continually pivot in order to better meet the needs of the families we serve.
Thanks to Sticky Faith Innovation, my ministry today looks nothing like I thought it would a year ago. It’s better.
My hunch is, my ministry today also looks nothing like it will a year from now. That would have freaked my pre-pandemic self out. But now, I trust the Sticky Faith Innovation process, and I have the confidence to say that whatever my ministry looks like a year from now, it will be good.
Because Sticky Faith Innovation has taught me how to embrace change and innovate in the midst of it. It’s given me the confidence to keep experimenting and reimagining a youth ministry where more and more teenagers (and their families) understand that they are known and loved by God.
I’m sure Sticky Faith Innovation can do the same for you.
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