Youth Ministry and Pandemic Hospitality

Over the past few months we, a large, suburban, mainline church in the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex, have been participating in the balancing act of how to do ministry well online, while also meeting safely in person. Knowing that as we enter into summer, there may be many of you who find yourself at the beginning of this process. Since this is a first pandemic for all of us, my hope is that in sharing my experiences in what has worked (and not worked) you might find inspiration, or just have the solidarity in knowing that you are not alone in this.

I promise to not pull and bait and switch like on recipe sites, but I feel like it might be important to note that since March 1st of last year I have : gotten married, completed my seminary career, moved across the country, and began working in a youth ministry setting for the first time in four years… all within the first 3 months of this pandemic. To say that I have this all figured out would be a far-fetched lie. I have, however, had the “opportunity” to be in a church that has chosen to take precautions that my state has decided to pull back from. Within that balance we have had to learn how to move towards opening in a way that is safe for our context, while also honoring our congregants and neighbors in such a way that we feel is safe and hospitable. It is through this journey that I hope to unpack in such a way that might be helpful to other youth workers navigating similar waters.

Relationship

We all know that relationships are the foundation of what we do. However, because of the complexity of staff, congregation, committees, zoom, and contextual differences- relationships might be feeling a little off kilter. As tempting as it might be, phased opening is not a solo sport. Get a team around you if you don’t already. Within my first few months on the job, I added youth to an already existing youth council (previously only adults) and that has been huge in listening on how to go forward. Listening and trusting those relationships. Build a team of people who might feel differently about what re-opening might look like, or what might be safe. Do your best to create a space in which people feel comfortable compromising. Don’t take all of the weight of decision making. As always, getting buy-in will make your job easier for future you.

Phased Scale

Something that has been incredibly helpful for our staff has been a scale that we created alongside an area doctor that helped us to navigate how and when to begin reopening. I have included it below.

Covid Event Risk Assessment Chart

At the beginning we limited ourselves to 1 red event every two weeks (so that in the case of an exposure at back to back events, we would have a team of leadership able to step in.) We are also lucky enough to have a staff large enough to create two worship teams who did not “cross contaminate” with one another so that if someone unknowingly exposed another, we did not risk exposing the entire staff. To be honest, we were very careful while in person on Sunday mornings, and made sure to not be around one another so closely that we would be considered a CDC exposure. We also are limiting all in-person activities and events to an hour or less if indoors, and up to three hours if outside and distanced.

Youth Activities

Regular Programs
When it came to youth activities, we phased our openings in a way that I felt most safe (since I don’t have children, I tended to lean a little more strict than parents with kids already going to school in-person.)

We held the following Sunday night large group schedule:
1st Sundays : In-person game night (Bingo, Murder Mystery, Gaga Ball ets)
2nd Sundays : Virtual Service Learning (Justice oriented gardening, denominational history around race, etc.)
3rd Sundays : In person Youth Led worship
4th Sundays : Virtual Movie Night with discussion follow up

The thought behind this programming was that any of the virtual options could be moved in person/outdoor if the weather was permitting. Post Easter we are shifting to an all in-person programing and will continue this flow up to Summer. At all activities, there is protocol around sanitizing, mask wearing, and distancing.

We have also shifted to having Youth Bible study in person due to the availability to meet in our Fellowship Hall, which I felt comfortable meeting with 10 students in a large room. All of our events and activities continue to require masks and distancing whether in person or outdoors.

Summer Trips
Our group currently has two mission trips planned. Each are less than 45 minutes away, and partnering with churches from our area. At the moment, we are feeling comfortable traveling in vans if youth continue to wear a mask while keeping windows down when possible, and not sitting directly next to someone not in your “bubble” or family. Everyone attending is asked to self isolate for 5–10 days before the trip, or provide a negative COVID test that has been taken up to 72 hours before gathering. Anyone who shows symptoms or has a fever for more than an hour may be asked to return home. All participants will sign a covenant that asks that they let the camp director know if they show symptoms/test positive up to 48 hours after returning home from camp/the trip. Campers will sleep based upon their work team so that it lowers the risk of exposure, and will keep within their group for the entire week.

At the end of the day

Keep doing what you’re doing. (We’re all guessing our way through this anyway.) You’re doing fine. Don’t put the weight of the world on your shoulders. Have your young people help you send out texts checking on their peers. Write hand written notes. Just be available. I have tried all kinds of innovate and creative ways for them to gather safely, and at the end of the day, they just want to know that they are loved and enough. Isn’t that all any of us want?

You are loved.
You are enough.
We will get through this together.

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AshleyBrooke

Princeton Theological Seminary, MDiv/MACEF 2020 Aspiring advocate, learner, and United Methodist. she/her/hers