The smoke starts to clear. The sun starts to come up. The walls are littered with newsprint covered with undecipherable scribbles. Hundreds of empty coffee cups line the counters and windowsills. People with aching joints and bloodshot eyes gather their coats to head for home. The youth ministry plan-to-end-all-plans is done.

Two years later, the same group is together again. The youth ministry isn’t functioning as well as hoped and the group is trying to determine if a mistake was made at some point in the intricate planning process. There is no clear understanding regarding their decision-making process years earlier, but there is one thing that they know for certain…they don’t want to ever go through that painful process again!!

First of all, it needs to be said that if you are in this situation your group needs to be commended. Not because your well thought-out plan seems to be unraveling, but because you were intentional enough to develop a program plan in the first place. So many congregations take a “we’ll do what feels right at the time” approach to youth ministry. The evidence exists that intentionality helps with ministry efforts–pat yourself on the back for being purposeful in the first place!

Having said that, what are the questions this group of intrepid folk need to ask to get to the truth of the present situation? How will they determine if they need to tweak what they have, start from scratch, or just wait things out? Knowing what to look for can help make the process as painless as possible.

Look at the assumptions that guided the original process.

Good ideas can often ruin a process. I know that sounds strange, but there are times when someone presents a good idea when going through a planning process and because of certain group dynamics, it becomes the centerpiece of a plan. The idea wasn’t the problem, it was that it was weighed too strongly and excluded other components from consideration in the plan. At other times there are individuals who strongly advocate for a certain direction for the plan. If the group is made up of folks who don’t like conflict, the “squeaky wheel gets the oil,” as they say–so a plan is developed that is more about keeping the peace than about coming up with a competent plan. See if you believe the process was managed well and the ideas were well thought out.

There are lots of other ways that group dynamics and perceptions can derail a good plan, but here are some key questions that really need to be asked in any valid review of a youth ministry plan:

What are the assumptions of the purpose of youth ministry?

I realize that there are youth ministry books out there that present the youth ministry of a church as having all of the same purposes as the church as a whole. I tend to disagree with such a perception–and I believe it can leave the youth ministry plan with too wide a target at which to aim. While the youth ministry at a church can incorporate most of the aspects of a total congregational purpose, it is really only one component of the total ministry of a congregation. So, while a youth ministry might have a worship experience on a retreat, it doesn’t have the primary purpose of Word and Sacrament ministry. Your youth ministry leadership team needs to understand the central purpose at which they aim–but as with all components of a congregation’s ministries, the central purpose cannot (or should not) go outside of the overall purpose for which the church exists. So, despite the fact that some parents may tell you otherwise; congregational youth ministry does not exist as a “place for kids to go to keep out of trouble” or because “kids are the church of tomorrow so we need to appeal to them today” or some other over-simplification of what we’re doing. Those of us working in youth ministry shouldn’t be using our resources to achieve purposes that dont fit Christ’s overall expectations for His church. Check your plan’s assumptions–were they valid and biblically directed?

What were the hoped-for goals that were driving the plan?

A simple question to ask–did your plan articulate a “hoped-for outcome?” Did your team ask “how do we want youth to be different after participating in our program” or a similar question? While we know that we can’t ever look into the heart of individuals and accurately assess the degree to which the Spirit is working in their lives, we do need to articulate a hoped-for reality and aim our programming to get at those goals. I tend to see youth ministry as primarily religious (“how then shall we live?”) education aimed at helping to make more capable and active disciples. If that were your purpose, you would identify goals that would help to bring the participants further in their abilities to serve as disciples. That would allow you to identify some behavior you would look for that might give an indication of what is happening in the hearts of the participants.

Determine what is actually going wrong.

I know that this sounds like a “duh!” but people often don’t realize that comprehensive program plans in youth ministry can often take three to five years to come to fruition. Are you observing things happening that indicate that the plan itself is flawed, or are you just seeing the natural stages of the development process.

John Maxwell identifies eight stages of “evolutionary change” which might well apply to the implementation of a new youth ministry program plan. They are:

Step 1: Ignorance.No unified direction or sense of priorities is felt among the followers. They are “in the dark.”

Step 2: Information.General information is given to the people. Initially the ideas for change are not embraced.

Step 3: Infusion.The penetration of new ideas into the status quo may cause confrontations with apathy, prejudice, and tradition. The general tendency is to focus on the problems.

Step 4: Individual Change.The “early adopters” begin to see the benefits of the proposed change and embrace them. Personal convictions replace complacency.

Step 5: Organizational Change.Two sides of the issue are being discussed. Less defensiveness and more openness concerning proposed changes can be observed. The momentum shifts from anti-change to pro-change.

Step 6: Awkward Application.Some failures and some successes are experienced as the change is implemented. The learning process is rapid.

Step 7: Integration.Awkwardness begins to decrease and the acceptance level increases. A growing sense of accomplishments and a secondary wave of results and successes occur.

Step 8: Innovation.Significant results create confidence and a willingness to take risks. The result is a willingness to change more rapidly and boldly.

I know this is designed to explain change, but it also works for new program plans. Perhaps your new plan is just at “Step 3” and you just need to plow through. Stepping back and assessing what the base problems are (not just the surface indicators) should help you determine if the plan is kaput or just ramping up.

Has the environment changed significantly since the plan was designed?

Youth ministry is such a difficult ministry area to plan for because of the changes that happen so frequently. Just when you think you have things planned and implemented well, you have nine powerful, involved, and committed seniors graduate out of the group and you welcome in 16 new confirmands into your group of 50 active youth. That represents a 50% turnover in membership. The new members don’t yet understand the plan for the group, weren’t part of the planning process, and don’t even know if they want to be involved. Your environment has just changed around you and your plan was developed for a different group.

In addition to the change of membership, add these possible environmental upsets: a beloved pastor leaves the congregation, two of your key youth volunteers get a divorce, a member of the youth group is killed in a car accident, two youth bring alcohol to a retreat, etc. All of these changes and many others, can dramatically change the perceived priorities of the group. It is the job of the leadership to determine if these changes point to the need for a new plan, or if the plan is merely suffering some minor setbacks while the new environmental changes get worked through. It is a tough call to mak– the more you know the nuances of the group, the degree of the change, and the validity of the plan, the more capable you are to make an accurate assessment.

Has the plan been effectively implemented?

This is tough to analyze, but it has to be done. There are times when we develop a plan and then continue doing what we were doing before the plan was developed. Perhaps there is a retreat that “always” happens, so we devote resources to getting it implemented in the same way it always has been even if it doesn’t fit our new plan. Maybe the leadership is just too weak in certain areas to implement the plan well. The plan may call for an increased understanding of biblical truths among the youth–and the reality may be that the leaders need to better understand Scripture themselves before they can design experiences to help the youth learn.

Since the leaders are often too close to the implementation process to accurately assess how well the plan is being implemented, this is a good time to provide an opportunity for the youth to respond. Have the group look closely at the plan. Explain the leadership’s answers to the first of these four questions and ask the youth to respond to the final three. You may be surprised at the wonderful insights these youth have into what is happening in their group. Take what they say as an invaluable resource in the process of refining your ministry with them.

Finally, always keep in mind that “effectiveness” of a congregation’s youth ministry doesn’t rise or fall based solely on some plan developed in some fellowship hall. The Holy Spirit guides the work of His people. Lives are influenced for His purpose through ways that we don’t even understand. The work of good people of God seeking to do His will avails much!