Just a note: this is not a blog about the Enneagram. But, this opening analogy is helpful. 

If you’ve heard or studied anything about the Enneagram, you already know the way you learn your type is to identify your core motivation. I use this analogy often when talking about Ministry Architects because if Ministry Architects, as an organization, has a core motivation, it’s sustainability. Sustainability is why we’re all about creating healthy systems and innovative change for the future of the church. We believe these two approaches will help sustain the church long into the future. 

It’s also why when a pastor friend of mine – who lives hundreds of miles away – called me up and asked if I would serve as an interim youth minister, I knew I could. Because? At the heart of the ask was the opportunity to create healthy systems and innovative change. . . for the future of this ministry. And, as a Ministry Architect, it’s what we’re all about!

So I said yes. I said yes to serving as a virtual youth minister, working from my home – a whole different time zone away – as students gathered, leaders connected, and the church met together, without me.

And if that doesn’t sound “right” to you – you’re not the first to look at me a bit funny. My friends and family did, too. Leading a youth ministry virtually is a very different idea. As someone who has served on church staffs for years, I deeply love and greatly value working directly with students, parents, volunteers, and – essentially – people, in person. But that wasn’t the ask.

The ask was for a specific purpose during a specific season: to serve this church during a time of transition so that it might assess what kind of leader to hire, long-term. And, since this is the kind of season ALL churches will enter one day, I thought I’d share 5 things you need to lead a youth ministry, virtually.

Note: the role described here is designed for when a church is meeting in-person but the staff leader is not. To learn about leading youth ministry virtually, check out this page of tech resources and these best-of-the-best links for youth ministry.

Thing #1: You Need People

For this to work, you need people who can be present. The role of a virtual youth minister is to handle the paperwork of the ministry (the prepping of games & lessons, the ordering of supplies, the organizing of the team, being liaison to the staff and board) while the peoplework of ministry is handled by the volunteer team. The role of the youth leaders is to carry out the plans and connect and care for the students.

Sustainability check: if you don’t have people willing to be present with / teach / care for your students when there’s a virtual youth minister, you don’t have people willing to be present with / teach / care for your students, period. There’s a difference between a congregation who says they value and want a youth ministry and a community that says it values and wants youth. A transition that requires a bit more buy-in from folks quickly reveals which kind of church a congregation is.

Thing #2: You Need A Plan

Youth ministers can be known for “flying by the seat of our pants” and coming up with plans the day of (or a half-hour before) we’re with students. As long as there’s a goofy question for an icebreaker, space to run and play a game, and a Bible to read from and ask, “What do you think?”, most any youth minister can fill at least an hour or two.

But, when you’re a virtual youth minister and you’re not there, people need that icebreaker, game, and lesson before the day they see students. For this role, I crafted a semester’s worth of lessons, games, and icebreakers before meeting with team members. By doing this, they not only knew exactly what they were saying yes to, they had time to get excited and were able to plan accordingly so they could engage fully.

Sustainability check: if programming plans are currently shared with volunteers on short notice, you’re running the risk of disengagement, burnout, and frustration from volunteer leaders. Giving teammates the opportunity to prepare and arrive ready to partner with you changes the way they see their roles and experience being valued, and that impacts the strength of your team. 

Thing #3: You Need Passion

Why does everyone love the youth minister? 

  • “Because she’s so fun!” 
  • “Because he always shows up.” 
  • “Because I always know I’m listened to.”

Having a dedicated staff member focused solely on connecting with students and supporting the youth ministry means there’s at least one person in your church who will know the teens. This leader will have a window into understanding current issues happening in students’ daily lives and be able to advocate from a space of what students actually need based on their real life stories, not a general guess from a distant adult.

Essentially, with a staff person, you have passion present for this people group. With a virtual staffer? The passion must come from someone else. Because you definitely still need it. It takes energy to play the games, not just show up and share rules. It takes an invested interest in what a kid is saying to pivot small group conversations when the questions aren’t the right ones for the night. And it takes a commitment to be present week after week so that students experience consistency and can build trust with the church. 

Sustainability check: it’s no secret that youth group is just one of many options for students, not a guarantee in their week. Approaching planning with passion – and not just a copy + paste approach – increases the odds students will choose church because they’re experiencing something worth showing up for week after week. If you want help assessing this checkpoint further, check out  3 Questions To Ask Before Planning Your Next Youth Ministry Event by lead consultant Anthony Prince.

Thing #4: You Need to be okay with Not Perfect

Anyone else struggle with control issues? I like to think when I’m in the room, I’m able to help (read: control) more. I’m able to be the one who steps in when a student is struggling or change up a teaching if a different need arises than what fits the original plan. But virtual youth ministers aren’t in the room. Which means, I have no control over what happens once I deliver a plan, order the supplies, and provide the best details I can to the team.

And that’s okay. It has to be. In fact, it should be okay whether you or I are in the room or not. 

The best advice I’ve ever received when serving in ministry is, “prepare well and love ‘em to Jesus.” To leave Jesus out of this work and think it all hinges upon our presence and perfect plans is awfully arrogant. The team members in the room? They can do this. The lesson you prepared? It might not be the lesson they need. The student who is struggling? They may have struggled whether you were there or not. Students, families, and volunteers don’t need perfect – they just need plenty of support.

The apostle Paul was one of the best to show us that letters from prison can impact discipleship just as much as showing up, face-to-face. His guidance from afar guided in-person leaders and still shapes the church today. So learn to be okay if you’re not there and plans don’t go according to plan. And teach your team this okayness, too. 

Sustainability check: if week after week, your ministry team is encountering the same frustrations or the same student is struggling to engage, these are opportunities to see what kind of additional support the ministry needs – and you can provide. Beyond regular team meetings, be sure to leave room for outside-the-box options when the plan in place isn’t working. If you’re stuck in doing things just one way, that limits the reach, longevity, and impact of the ministry.

Thing #5: You Need Purpose

Working remotely in ministry is not for everyone. This type of role requires the skills of organization, time management, clear communication, and detail-oriented preparation. It’s important to remember: everything you’re doing as a virtual youth minister, you’d be doing if you weren’t virtual! An in-person staff member preps lessons, coordinates teams, organizes supplies, meets with leadership, plans programming, etc. They’re just on church grounds when they do it. 

By being a virtual youth minister, you’re still answering the call of being a disciple who helps make disciples. You’re equipping others with tools to reach and teach students rather than being the direct voice youth hear. You’re using your time to prep and plan so that they can use their time to connect and care. It’s a different piece of the Kingdom-building work we get to be about – but it’s still a piece. And it has purpose.  

Sustainability check: paperwork doesn’t make much sense without peoplework. They go together – and need to. Be sure to build in people time for your heart, too. When you connect in conversation with the church you’re serving, be sure to ask questions about students, families, and others in the community. Don’t just make business calls. Your heart needs more buy-in than just “how’d it go” if this role is to be sustainable. Hear stories, learn names, and be sure you’re present, too, in your own local community.

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