by Elizabeth Hood
It is difficult to even put into words the emotions and experiences of this past year, as we survived this pandemic and our rapidly changing world. As we emerge out of this time it is hard to even know what the long-term effects will be, but life certainly changed and gave us time to shift our perspective. I think this time has been a gift and opened our lives up to reflect, change and perhaps reshape our ministry in exciting new ways.
When things slowed down last year, or for some came to a crashing halt, it gave us time to stop for once and reflect on why we do things a certain way or why we are even doing it at all. Maybe you just kept going because you had to to support your community and only now are you able to stop to reflect. Either way, it is so easy to get distracted along the way and forget why you are even doing things that way and have been for the last 10+ years. We all have youth ministry traditions we don’t even know why they started anymore!
Ministry can become so transactional: Youth show up for pizza, consume the pizza hang with friends and leave. Children show up for Sunday school, have a lesson and get sent home with crafts. We all dream of a more meaningful time and space for children and youth to pray, reflect and grow closer to Jesus but often get lost in the busyness. I think this time of reentry could be our chance to create something different and emerge on the other side of this pandemic having recreated our ministry into something that will blossom and grow for years to come.
For me, midway through a year of Zoom youth group, confirmation and Sunday school, I began to feel like I wasn’t doing enough—that I wasn’t able to truly do my job. I felt no amount of Zoom gatherings was enough and that I was wasting everyone’s time. The youth were becoming less engaged, and everyone was tired. It was all just too much. There is no guidebook or manual for how to survive a pandemic, while keeping up a thriving youth ministry, all online. On one of my most frustrated days, I turned to the ELCA Youth Ministry Network Facebook page and posed this question: What are we called to do to support these families when we can’t give or offer them anything tangible? I received so many wonderful answers, but the answer that stuck with me was Rozella Haydée White, who said, “Emotional support. Prayers. Just letting people know you’re there. We have the opportunity to really practice presence without asking or expecting people to do anything.”
I said, “This. Yes. Thank you. I’m crying reading this. It’s such a release to hear. We have to let go of what we thought our job was and just be in the here and now.”
Hearing those words and being given permission to just be was everything I needed to hear. We only needed to do what we have always been called to do, just be present.
That is enough. You are enough.
This year has affected everyone so differently, and as we start emerge, it is going to take time. Our children’s, youth’s and families’ emotions are going to be spilling out everywhere. Grief will come in unexpected ways, and the world won’t ever look just the same. And I am glad about that. I read a quote that said, “Things aren’t going to back to normal. If we return to normal, we will have missed the point. Normal wasn’t working. Let’s make things better.” This has really impacted me. This is our chance to make things better. Wipe the slate clean, start again, rebuild a more inclusive and presence-centered ministry.
How do we reemerge and support children, youth and families after an unprecedented year of isolation, fear, pain and sadness? It will take time to feel safe around each other again. For some, it will come easily, and for others, it may take a long time. Creating safe space, both physically and emotionally, is more important now than ever!
One way I tried to be present in the lives of my youth was doing a monthly text check-in with each youth individually. I text them as a group each week, but in my personal text, I would ask a different question each time to try to spark a conversation. Most of the time, it worked because I took the time to text them individually. I also wrote cards and notes to every family on my roster, which can feel overwhelming, but I gave myself permission to just say hi. I wrote almost the same thing on every card.
I know this year has been tough. You are doing a great job. Keep going. I am praying for you! I can’t tell you how much people needed to hear that, I often got emails or phone calls in reply from people nearly in tears. Parents are so tired. Youth are so tired. We are all so tired. So I think it is our job to offer peace and comfort in these days. Just let them know you are here for them.
It isn’t important to rush back into all your programs. What if you took it slowly giving time and space for families just to gather? This summer we are doing weekly youth group around the fire, with no agenda but to be together. We check in on each person one by one and just listen. I asked the youth one night if they wanted to do something else, that I could plan physically distanced activities. They said no, it’s too much. They just want to be together and talk, and so that’s what we do. I often share the Gospel lesson for the upcoming week and talk about what that means in our world today with current events and ask them simple questions. But most of the time I just sit, talk and listen to them. That is enough.
In Sunday school this year, I asked parents early on what they were most concerned about their children missing in school, and they said it was the social and emotional care they would be missing out on. So, in Sunday school we tended to that. We started with hellos and check-ins on Zoom. Most children were eating breakfast, so we asked what they were eating. Then we started a tradition each week of “I am” statements. I would ask children to tell me ideas of what they are—I am brave, I am kind, I am loved, I am a helper, I am friendly and so on. After each child shared one, we all repeated them! Each week they got more creative. The littlest ones caught on and started jumping in with new ideas, and they were reminded that they were connected to one another and that they were loved. It was truly holy time. What would it look like if we did this even when we start gathering together in person? Sure, we read Sunday school stories too, but at the end of the day, as I remind my Sunday school teachers every year, my only goal is that the children know that they are loved unconditionally by God. Sunday School isn’t about the lesson, the craft or even the snack—it is about love.
Listening and loving children and youth is enough. Doing that will help them feel safe and welcome again. Love has no agenda, no ulterior motive. Children, youth and families are going to need space to grieve all the things we missed out on and lost this year—space to heal and learn to be together again. We can be a safe place for that grief to land. When we remove the transactional interaction to our programing and just offer space and relationships, it is freeing for both parties!
I think we are being given a time of grace, to try something new to not go back to the ways tings have always been, to reflect on why we are called to ministry and what is at the heart of that—relationships and God’s love. It is simple but we tend to make it much more complicated but I hope that this year of slowing down and this time of reemergence has taught us that simple can work, relationships can be enough and to take time to see what grows. It would be easy to fall back into a transactional way of ministry, but let’s build something better.
As our communities reemerge, heal and are able to gather together, let’s offer listening, space to grieve, real connection to each other and God and love above everything else. We can choose to think of this time as a gift of grace to reshape ministries, programs and relationships in a new and better way that grows from a place of healing and love. If this time taught us anything, let it be that you are enough, your ministry is one of presence and that you are being given a gift of grace to start over or try something new. So let’s do it and get really creative! Listen and learn from your children, youth and families about how they are hurting, grieving and celebrating, and what they need most in these days. I hope and pray that in this time you will be reminded how important you are and how much hope and love you bring into your church communities.
Elizabeth Hood is the Director of Children, Youth, and Family Ministry at Grace Lutheran Church in Palo Alto, California.