Friday, May 8, 2009

"Make a New Plan, Stan"

It's the time of year for many of us in church work to shift gears. Youth ministry types tend to follow the academic calendar (Labor Day -- Memorial Day) in their regularly occurring activities. Sunday school, Confirmation, Youth Group, and Bible studies all happen regularly - usually weekly - during the school year.

Summer is a completely different animal.

We're not any less busy...we're just a different kind of busy. Weekly routines and rituals give way to mission trips, special event weeks, and planning sessions. Relational ministry opportunities are more prevalent because of kids' flexible (read: unpredictable) schedules...and regularly scheduled programs are a little trickier for the same reason. Youth workers also take time in the summer to recharge their batteries; either in the form of planned vacation time or ambiguously determined "comp time".

But what about the planning?

Very few youth workers are trained to efficiently and effectively cast a long-range (9-12 months) plan for ministry. We'll force ourselves to create events a few weeks in advance so it will appear in the church's monthly newsletter, but the descriptions are nondescript so we don't lock ourselves in to something too far in advance. We plan youth group a few days ahead of time...and we're even better at pulling something out of an orifice-of-choice on the spot. We might even think far enough ahead to put a 6-week topical series together...but even that is subject to change if a kid shows up a Bible study and they just failed a math test or broke up with their boyfriend. We are masters of tending to the here-and-now.

Not only are many of us not trained how to do long-range planning, but it goes against our very nature to think 12 (or even 6) months in advance. We're wired to think, act, speak, and react to situations in-the-moment. We're the ones who are supposed to have a fun game, relevant pop culture analogy, or quirky movie quote at the ready. We're good at those things, which is why we get paid the big bucks.

Manifesting a curriculum plan for 7th & 8th grade faith formation doesn't come so easily.

Here are the 10 things I try to do when coming up with a plan for the year ahead:

  1. Ask and Listen. Solicit the opinions of a small sample of youth, parents, and adult leaders. Don't ask specific questions. Offer carefully crafted, guided questions that allow the person to think creatively and expansively about ministry. Emailed surveys tend to work best for me.
  2. Be Still and Shut Up. Take time to pray and reflect on what happened in the past year. Don't plan anything new. Just think about what worked and didn't work...and WHY.
  3. Location, Location, Location. Going off-site, preferably a place with no distractions, can help give a fresh perspective on ministry. Camps, parks, or other churches in town are great.
  4. Think Seasonally. Lots of natural themes and topics arise at different points in the year. How does your ministry plan reflect what's going on in the world...holidays, weather patterns, etc.
  5. Coordinate Calendars. You'll never find a perfect day / time for your groups to meet...but make sure you're avoiding the big things. If you have a ton of musicians in a particular youth group, don't plan a spring retreat during Solo & Ensemble Contest. Don't have a lock-in the weekend of Prom.
  6. Put Something on Paper. By this point, I usually have enough ideas to start writing (in pencil) on a calendar. (However, this year, I'll probably just use a Google Calendar to do all the planning...mainly for ease of sharing and transferring data to what will become the final copy of the schedule.)
  7. Share. Allow people you surveyed to see your draft copy of the program year. Assure them that it's still a work-in-progress. Ask for feedback on what you've come up with.
  8. Walk Away. Let your plan simmer for a few days or weeks. I try to get the rough draft of the schedule done before I'm out of the office for a week. That way, I'm not tempted to tinker with it right away.
  9. Revisit. Gather the feedback and take another look at the schedule. Are there things you overlooked? Does something just not make sense? Carefully analyze the plan. What would your most critical parent / youth / staff member say about it? Does that criticism have validity? Are there any potential time bombs that you can be proactive about ahead of time?
  10. Tweak. Embrace the natural ebb and flow of the year. Just because you made a plan doesn't mean you can't make a few changes. Your group will grow and change throughout the year; so will you. You might get to next February and realize that the event you planned six months earlier just won't work. I try to not cancel these events, but instead, replace them with something better / more relevant.

This is how I do it. It's not necessarily a comprehensive list, but it's what has worked for me. We'll see what happens this year.

How do you craft a long-range ministry plan?