Health Caution: Long and boring. If you’re interested in writing a youth work strategy, don’t know where to start but really don’t want to read though the 2-hour-knocked-out-nonsense below then get in touch at email@example.com 🙂
Writing youth project strategy can be flippin hard work! I’ve been involved with writing about a dozen now and they’re all remarkably different. I don’t know what the best, most formal or most recognisable way into it is but I’ll have a stab here.
Remember that you as the youth pastor control the flow, but you need input from young people, volunteers, parents, teachers and church leaders to make a strategy viable. Otherwise you’ve got a cool document that hardly anyone will read and even less will follow.
What you’re looking for in a good strategy document is an easy, quotable and motivational top sheet backed up with a larger document that has a smooth flow from data, to values, to the whats and hows and whens. It should always end though, with a sense of openness and accountability.
There tends to be four main stages in putting together a strategy for youth work:
1. Research & Observation (with Results)
2. Values, Aims, Mission and Purposes
3. Implementation and Timelines
4. Review, Success Measures and Accountability
Each of these four stages needs to be structured enough so to be able to see clearly what’s happening, make changes and celebrate measurable positive change, but also organic and flexible enough to leave room for the motion of the Holy Spirit and the general messiness of people’s lives. And obviously each stage needs a good soaking in and checking against the Bible.
“Writing youth project strategy can be flippin hard work!”
This works like the classic hourglass… at the top you gather as much information as is possible without prejudice, you then zoom in at the middle by finding a simple communicable structure to process that data. Finally you spread out again at the end by implementation in the real world. A good strategy, like a good hourglass, doesn’t exclude or force change upon anything within it – it just slows things down enough to be viewed and processed properly.
Before digging into this any further, we must remember what the sand in inside the hourglass is: it is real people with real lives living in real rebellion or real relationship with God. As much as we sink into the often analytical world of strategy, we must never make the mistake of processing people as simply objects or numbers.
1. Research and Observation (with Results)
This all starts as you’d expect, by gathering data. I will do (and have already done a really basically here) more posts on how to do this. What we’re basically talking about is lots of interviews, group sessions, community survey projects and opinion gathering and observation noting while looking closely and honestly at what resources you have and what might become available. Good stewardship!
A good basic template is SWOT: Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats. Strengths and Weaknesses are what in your internal preexisting project, place or resources are good and need to be kept or bad and need to be rejected/changed. Opportunities and Threats are external – out of your control – things could help or hinder the strengths of weaknesses with some thought or lack of.
It’s important to go broad and deep here, especially talking with lots of different people. This has the very important added benefits of making connections and making sure people feel heard. If they are not at this stage you can guarantee you won’t get them on board later!
“Remember: This is real people with real lives living in real rebellion or real relationship with God.”
It’s important to write up your findings; not in too much indecipherable detail, but in ways that naturally lead you to your values, aims and implementation. It’s far easier to answer the question ‘why didn’t you open a bigger youth group?’ when you’ve got data that says ‘we’ve got no volunteers!’
2. Values, Aims, Mission and Purposes
It’s likely that your data should start to reveal patterns. Maybe you’re in an area with open links with schools and you have able Christian teachers in your church? So developing schools’ mission might be right up your street! Or perhaps you’ve got a youth group that’s already thriving, but growing older and you’ve got no other volunteers stepping up? In which case you’ve probably got a training ground for young leaders and a youth mentoring project.
The big discussion here is what has you data told you that 1. you care about and 2. God is resourcing you for. What keeps coming up, what is available, what are the big needs in your area, what can you uniquely offer? These form your values. Values are what you care about, not what you are going to do about it. Your values are passive ‘we care about this’ or ‘we believe God has called us to that’ statements.
I usually have between 10 – 30 short value statements if that is of any use?
The next step is your aims. Still staying away from the specifics or implementation you start to group values together somewhat and change them to active language. For instance, if you have these three values:
– ‘We care about the increased homelessness of young people on our streets’
– ‘We’re passionate about young people taking a stand against injustice’
– ‘Our heart breaks for the lack of specific community support for poor young people’
Then bringing them together an aim might be:
– ‘We aim to equip our young people to bring support and care to other young people more needy than themselves’
“You should end up with less aims than values.”
Easy see? You should probably end up with far less aims than values. It’s worth saying that you will feel guilty if certain things don’t come up – don’t! Ephesians 2:10 is very clear that God has prepared good works for each of us to do, without treading on each others toes or suffering burnout. As long as ‘worship Jesus’ and ‘preach the Gospel’ is clearly in there somewhere!
Your aims should then be simplified and run together into a few short paragraphs, or even just one. This is your mission, what you are striving to thrive at! It’s not forsaking all other tasks, but it is an aim driven, value soaked war-song that comes straight from the information you gathered and meeting head on the needs you discovered. It’s specific, it’s personal and it’s powerful.
This is a great midway checkup to see how you’re doing. Purpose is the why to mission’s what. Why is it you believe that you are here to do this? Are you in line with the Bible and with your governing body (church/charity)?
The Rick Warren Purpose Driven stuff says we should derive all we do from 5 areas, namely worship, mission, ministry, prayer and fellowship. It’s a reasonably good check list. Purpose for me is where we have dialogue with the Bible and the governing body that brings explicit language in from both. Write a couple of small paragraphs on this too – or work it into your mission statement.
“Your mission should be specific, personal and powerful.”
3. Implementation and Timelines
Now for the fun bit! You know your resources and what you do well, you know what to look out for, you’ve got a handle on your values and passions, you know actively what you’re aiming to accomplish, you have a clear mission and purpose – so what are you going to do? Let’s mix the ingredients!
This has always been the easiest, funnest and most creative part. The question is how are you going to do what’s in your mission and aims? What changes are you going to make to your project(s) or what new project(s) are you going to start?
It may be worth looking at a few youth ministry models to get some ideas and see what best fits with where you’re at – and to make sure you’re not falling into any pitfalls like segregating young people away from the rest of the church.
Here’s some good questions to consider when starting new / changing existing projects:
– Are you (or someone you are connecting with) leading young people on a journey that includes ministry, mission, fellowship, prayer and worship?
– Are you developing room for young people to grow as servants and leaders or each other?
– Are you seeking to integrate them into the lives of the church community?
– Are you starting with people or obsessing over places?
– Are you thinking about where young people are or scheming over where you want them to come?
– Are you starting with the faithful core or pandering to the fledgling fringe?
With these in mind, there are no limits to what you could do. I’ve run everything from a quirky sport related alpha courses, to tea drinking clubs, to regular night time walks, to high street youth cafes, to camps, to mentoring programs, to fire building workshops. Go for whatever works with your strategy so far!
Mostly these ideas will come directly from the discussion’s you’ve already had. Try as you might to avoid them, lots of ideas will have already floated around your conversations and obvious things will have surfaced. Other than that I can’t really help you! There are no real rules with this – have fun and come up with something cool.
A good reminder here is that you don’t drop what you’ve learned in the first half of the process. I’ve seen a couple of groups that I’ve walked through these parts come up with ideas completely off kilter from their findings… it was just a pet project they really wanted to do which they tried (and failed) to shoehorn in.
“Set realistic goals that allow you space and time to gather resources.”
Remember when writing up project ideas to be broad enough so there is room for volunteers to adapt and take ownership, but specific enough to show how they flow from your values and aims and how they are meeting needs and maximising on your strengths while stewarding resources.
At this point – if you so wanted – you could write a neat and tidy ‘Vision Casting Statement’ drawn from the needs, values, aims, mission, purpose and implementation parts so far. This is a great thing to go on a top sheet, communicate to a church and bob in a wee little frame for the youth office!
It’s important to set realistic goals that allow you space and time to gather resources to start things out and build momentum. If you’re planning on starting a funnel model set of projects for instance, then you’ll need tie to build credibility with the crowds you haven’t met yet and you’ll need time to develop something worthwhile for them to come to.
I usually have a three year strategy that gets tweaked in a big way annually and revisited somewhat every 6 months, so all my implementation is healthily spread out within that kind of time-frame.
Remember to leave room not just for implementation, but also for selling the strategy to trustees, congregations, parents and young people – and also for recruiting and training volunteers, and supervising them properly – and finally for collecting and stewarding resources.
4. Review, Success Measures and Accountability
Many in the United States of America Marine Corps have adopted the motto, ‘Improvise, Adapt and Overcome.’ This is at the heart of review and accountability.
For a strategy to still be successful in ten years time it must adapt constantly to overcome problems and changes that culture and the projects will face. A process for accountability and review needs to be in place.
John Losey, who wrote the immensely helpful ‘Experiential Youth Ministry’ handbooks talks about strategy as a praxis in three parts; theory, action and reflection. Reflection he breaks up further into ‘reflect -> re-view -> inform -> apply. I.e. You reflect on the success of a project, you review it and make changes, you communicate this to others then implement them. Then you do it all over again! He calls it “The Amazing Learning Loop of Depth”, which I always misread as the Amazing Loop of Death, but never-mind.
We need to set a time to go over what we’ve decided strategically and tweak and adapt and improvise. Usually I do this every 6 months, then go over the basics of the research values and aims every year.
To do this properly, we need to decide how we’re going to measure success. This is always a trixy little topic in youth-work circles as we’ve all heard that ‘its not about numbers’ so much that we’re even getting afraid of doing headcounts – awkward when you start loosing young people on trips to the zoo!
How you measure success will depend on your aims and mission. If it’s your mission to make connections with a school and establish a Christian Union there then success will depend on whether or not you made significant headway with that in the time allotted. If your mission is to see each of your young people bring a friend to Jesus than success will be based on how you’ve taught, supported and worked with them on that… not on their success at doing so. If your mission is to start a crowd event, then keeping a check on numbers (and particularly returning numbers) will be important.
The main thing to say here is do write down specifically what you want to achieve so that you can check it specifically at review time. Even if it is just ‘seeing young people grow deeper as disciples’ – then you will be able to list the fruit and evidence of this happening.
Not being successful is not a problem necessarily, its just motivation to make some changes and keep moving forward. Improvise, adapt and overcome!
Final section is to make sure this document is accountable and available. It should at least be available to be read by church members, leaders, parents, team and young people. However, to get other objective thoughts, send it to people you trust outside your circles to get their feedback. Other youth leaders, pastors and friends who might have spotted something from being outside the circles and discussions that you all missed by being immersed in them – wood for trees jumps to mind!
I sat down with a couple of books and a bunch of old notes and started writing about two hours ago. It might be that no-one ever reads this and it might be that plenty more (and more accessible) articles and books do a better job. John Losey jumps to mind again!
Maybe though there is some helpful stuff in here – at least it’s come from practice and I’ve seen it work.
If you go this far… well done! And God bless you loads. Also – if you got this far you’re probably thinking about writing a youth strategy yourself (or you just have nothing better to do… sorry!). If so, get in touch. I’m sure I’ll be more use in person and contextual having a chat than trying to squeeze ten years worth of thoughts into a general 2500 word post! I’m always happy to chat with youthworkers and people passionate about young people! firstname.lastname@example.org