Seeing Your Student Ministry with New Eyes
By Helen Gibson
As summer fades into fall and students head back into the classroom, the hosts of the Lifeway Student Ministry Podcast have a challenge for student pastors.
Ben Trueblood and John-Paul Basham want student pastors to treat the first 90 days of this new season as if it were their first 90 days in ministry at their church.
“What would it look like for you — knowing what you know now, learning what you’ve learned in ministry to this point — to approach this fall like it was your first fall back at that church?” Trueblood asked at the beginning of a recent podcast episode titled “The First 90 Days.”
Trueblood and Basham used a popular leadership book of the same name by Michael D. Watkins to come up with the basis for this challenge. And it is one that can be just as useful for a new student pastor as it can be for a student pastor who’s worked at the same church for many years.
“Here’s the promise, or the deliverable, that we hope comes from doing this, is that you will see things with fresh eyes that may need to be adjusted or changed that you didn’t see before,” Trueblood said.
“Maybe this fall will be more effective for you, more impactful for you, because of a new passion or a renewed fervor instead of just copying and pasting what was done last fall.”
Step 1: (Re)adjust Your Mindset
One of the first things a student pastor should do to approach the next 90 days like it’s their first is to make sure they have the right mindset, Trueblood said.
“This is especially true for those of you who have been at that church for a long time,” he said. “You need to get mentally right to kind of forget the ‘copy, paste’ [mindset] and to approach it with brand new eyes, looking for things that you would change if you were following yourself in that ministry right now.”
Basham said this is something he has personal experience with. A few years ago, after being promoted to lead student pastor in a church he’d already been serving in for five years, Trueblood suggested Basham read The First 90 Days.
As he did, Basham said he started trying to look at the ministry he was leading with a fresh lens — a process he said was challenging because he’d already been a part of the ministry for so long.
“It was incredibly healthy because there’s always something that can be done better,” Basham said. “There’s always something that can be dug into a little bit deeper. There’s always something you can spend a little more time on. What I found was, as I started to make a list of things I could potentially pour more energy into, more opportunities started opening up.”
Trueblood added that adjusting one’s mindset is important for those who are new to ministry in a particular church, as well.
“For those of you who are transitioning and this is your first fall somewhere, the mindset shift is a little bit different for you but still vastly important,” Trueblood said.
“And that’s to remember you are no longer at the place you left; this church is different. These people are different, and you need to keep what you learned but know that doing things exactly the same way you did at the other place is not necessarily going to be exactly what these people need right now.”
Step 2: Accelerate Your Learning
Adjusting your mindset requires you to spend time thinking critically about the ministry for yourself, but it also requires you to take time to hear from others, Trueblood said.
“Don’t miss the opportunity to get with people in the ministry as well — leaders, students, parents, other staff members — and get them to help you with this phase two of accelerating your learning because the more you learn from outside of yourself, the better off you’ll be and the more quickly you’ll be able to move through these next phases,” he said.
Trueblood and Basham suggest sitting down with the people involved in the ministry for honest conversations about what they think could be better. And if you have a hard time dealing with constructive criticism, they suggest approaching this conversation in a structured way.
“If you’re a person who knows, man, I have historically not taken criticism very well — even constructive criticism — then build the conversation the way you need it to go for your own psyche, your own heart,” Basham said.
Ask your volunteers, parents, or students what they think the current strengths of the ministry are first, Basham said.
Then, ask what weaknesses they see in the ministry. But be clear about what you’re asking for, Basham said. Don’t just ask for a blanket statement, but instead ask if they see anything that could be improved in a specific area, such as small groups, discipleship programs, summer camp, or Wednesday night activities.
“Give them some specific things to speak to, or they may not be ready to answer,” Basham said.
Step 3: Make a Strategy Around What You’ve Learned
Once you’ve heard other people’s thoughts on what could be changed to make your ministry more effective, you need to take action. This means creating and moving forward with a new strategy for ministry that meets students where they are.
Implementing a new strategy gives a ministry’s students and volunteers a sense of ownership, Trueblood said.
“When you bring the strategy to them, this gives you an opportunity to say and show, ‘I’ve taken your feedback and here’s the strategy we’re implementing to strategically address some of the feedback you’ve given.’”
Trueblood added that while a church’s mission doesn’t change, its strategy — or the way to go about achieving that mission — should develop over time.
“The reality is our mission doesn’t change, but our strategy should adapt as things change in the ministry,” Trueblood said.
Step 4: Implement Early Wins
As you embark on your new strategy for ministry, you should try to highlight some “early wins,” or successes that show the new strategy is working.
Trueblood said you can do this by attaching a “measurable metric” or goal to your new strategy, so people can soon start to see evidence of success, which will help encourage and inspire them.
“You’re earning the trust of your people with this early win,” Basham said. “You’re regaining loyalty. You’re showing initiative. From time to time, even long-standing leaders need to regain and rebuild some trust.”
This is important because it helps set the tone for what’s to come.
“You’re going to have losses along the way,” Trueblood added. “There are going to be things in your ministry that don’t go well — that don’t go the way you thought they would or could have gone — but when you set up these early wins, it helps you go through those times when it doesn’t go the way you thought it would.”
For student pastors who are new to a church, an early win shouldn’t be an extreme change, Basham said. It can be as simple as scheduling more volunteer training in response to the feedback you’ve been.
However, he said, student pastors who’ve been at the same church for a while can make bigger changes, such as changing an unpopular small group model or camp location.
Doing things like this, said Trueblood, helps people see you’re still engaged in the ministry.
Step 5: Build the Dream Team
Finally, Trueblood and Basham said it’s important to take a careful look at who’s on your team and make changes as necessary.
“Do people need to adjust their current roles?” Trueblood asked. “Do you have people in places that they need to be? Are there any mismatches with giftedness and the role that they’re serving in the ministry? And then, who else do I need to recruit and get onboard in this ministry, alongside what kind of training do we need to do in order to make this team the dream team?”
Student pastors shouldn’t only make sure they have the right people on their team of volunteers, Trueblood and Basham said; they should also make sure they’re developing and training those volunteers, as well as celebrating them and giving them credit when the ministry is successful.
“Let them feel the victory of the win,” Basham said. “I think that is very much a developmental tool for those leaders to keep them impassioned about what’s going on.”
Whether or not you take on the 90-day challenge again, Trueblood said this last step is a good one to regularly come back to, making sure you’re continuing to evaluate and develop your team of volunteers.
“If you take this team-building approach every semester — every big transition season — then it is going to do wonders for the ministry you lead because your people need training,” Trueblood said. “They need to approach this season with a fresh view, just like you do.”
Helen is a freelance writer in Nashville, Tennessee.