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It was the day my students exploded.
One of my most faithful and exuberant leaders announced that she was leaving. Her announcement was like letting a skunk loose in the center of a middle school dance. It stunk, and so did the rest of our team as we tried to help students understand that everything was going to be okay.
When the time came, we cried, ate cake, and did a sendoff. But none of it really addressed the loss that our team and students were feeling. Since then, I have tried to do a better job of preparing both students and staff for transitions that impact our ministry.
The Ever-Changing Ministry
As much as we are inclined to seek stability and predictability, we must be prepared for the inevitable. Essentially all ministry is transitional; once I realized that, I was able to get better at preparing people for it. In light of Sticky Faith research and curriculum, I have found it even more important to think about both student and leader transitions.
The culture of any youth ministry changes from year to year based on natural student transitions. When it comes to personnel, whether it’s the head of staff or the part-time intern, a successful change in leadership preserves both students’ and parents’ trust and allows them to adapt to new challenges with imagination and maybe even enthusiasm.
Four Strategies to Mitigate Pain and Loss in Transition
I recently had a conversation with a youth leader who was preparing to leave his position. Though it was under good circumstances, the senior pastor asked him to leave within three weeks of the announcement in order to make the goodbye “less painful,” even though the leader did not have another job and there was no plan in place to replace him. This pastor did not seem to be taking into account the relationships that the youth leader had built over time. Rushing the youth leader out the door may actually end up leading to more confusion and hurt.
Effective transition requires authentic communication about the transition and an honest look at the needs of both the leader and the students. This approach preserves trust for all involved. The Center for Strategic Planning has a great list of messages to communicate in times of change. The list includes communication about important questions like:
- Why change?
- What will happen if we don’t change?
- What will it be like to change?
- What will not change?
I would add to that list a few statements about the individual who is leaving: How will this affect my relationship with them? How can I best support them?
Here are four ideas we can focus on to help mitigate the pain of transition:
1. Help students grieve the loss without languishing in it.
Failing to acknowledge and sit with people in their grief—however great or small—will inhibit your ability to help them up. Grieving real loss is an adaptive process. Adapting means accepting the loss, defining and solving real and felt problems, and emerging from the loss by looking for the next opportunity together.[[Heifetz, Ronald A. 1994. Leadership Without Easy Answers. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. 236]]
In our case, the leader to whom we said goodbye led a small group with students who had grown close not just to the leader, but to each other. Her leaving was difficult on that group, but we made it unbearable by simply selecting a replacement leader and announcing it to the girls. As a result, the girls shut down and disengaged. We never really allowed them the freedom to use that group as a means of grieving; instead, we carried on as though the curriculum was more important than their leader. We all lost.
2. Acknowledge the impact of leadership, with the focus on the impact (not just the leader).
The impact of relational ministry needs to “provide the context for understanding and participating in discipleship,”[[Root, Andrew. 2007 Revisiting Relational Youth Ministry: From a Strategy of Influence to a Theology of Incarnation. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books. 206]] according to youth ministry theologian Andy Root. Root explains that relationships are the tangible place where adolescents live and practice their faith. The authenticity of those relationships, not the giftedness of the leader, provides the context of discipleship. Living that out in word and in action allows the space for students to explore the shift in relationship. As we come alongside them through relational transitions, pointing to the work of Christ in us all sets us on solid ground.
3. Continue YOUR ministry, not that of the previous leader.
When the removal of leadership gifts leaves a vacuum, it is very tempting to step in and fill that hole. DON’T.
God has given you specific gifts for this ministry and you need to stay true to those gifts.[[Heifetz, 271.]] Allow God either to fill the void or to leave it empty. This is most important when we try to fill a relational hole.
Several years ago, I followed a friend as the leader of a youth ministry. I wanted to continue some of the things that he had done, and so I co-opted some tools that he had been using. For example, I repeated a phrase that he had often spoken to end prayers. A couple of months after he left, I got a call from my friend saying that a frustrated student had contacted him about my attempts at imitation. Needless to say, I stopped using his words.
4. Build a network of adults around every student.
One of the things we have taught in our ministry team is that while caring for students, we also live out our faith in front of and with students. That includes living out faith through the inevitable transitions in our own lives as adults.
We need to build a network of adults around students because of the nature of adult life. People change jobs, get married, or any number of other factors that may result in having to say goodbye. As Sticky Faith research pointed out, the task of connecting five adults to one student is really an invitation for that student to be in relationship with many adults.[[Powell, Kara E. and Chap Clark. 2011. Sticky Faith. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan. 101]] One of the ways a ministry can strategically support this is to give opportunities for adults who are not regularly part of your ministry to come and tell their faith stories to students. Whether that is during large group meeting, a retreat, an event, or a small group, it’s important for students to begin to listen to the faith stories of other adults. When we did this as a series, it was amazing to see the relationships of those adults and students grow as a result of sheer exposure.
Preparing Seniors for Their Own Transition
Just as important as it is to help our leaders transition, it is perhaps even more important to prepare our students to leave our ministries. Here are a few strategies we can employ:
- Communicate with students about the transition to life after high school before and after they transition.
- Help students anticipate that change. Find opportunities for students to talk about the stresses and joys of the coming transition.
- Take opportunities to discuss the importance of their faith now, and help them develop a plan for pursuing faith and people of faith when they leave the ministry.
- Continue your ministry with them. Just because they are gone does not mean that you get to stop your relationship. Continue to reach out and encourage other adults to do the same.
- Most importantly, live your life and faith with them. Celebrate with enthusiasm the things that need celebrating, and allow for grief over the things that need grieving.
In our ministry we’ve hosted a small group for seniors that meets throughout the year to prepare for and talk about the transition. We provide a space and a context for those seniors to have honest conversations. We’ve also invited college students to speak to the group about their experiences after leaving the youth ministry, sometimes over Skype. This ends up serving a dual purpose of reconnecting with the college students as well as the seniors in the room.
Paying attention to these transitional moments in the lives of students and leaders takes some initiative and intention on your part. Here are some questions that you might ask of yourself and of your staff:
- Think about the last few staff or volunteer transitions your ministry has experienced. What went well? What could have gone better?
- What is your current practice of transitioning students out of high school? Do your leaders know this practice well enough to articulate it? How effective has it been?
- Given your ministry’s existing needs and resources, what part of your transition practice would be the most important to build upon? What would success in that area look like?
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