There is a medical term related to children called “Failure to Thrive.”
At least I think there is. I don’t know if you know this, but I’m not a doctor (though I promise I’m a youth pastor)! I’ve heard my wife talk about it and it has a Wikipedia entry so I’m pretty sure it’s real. It has to do with how a child develops. A healthy child will get the food it needs, starting as an infant through nursing or a bottle, and it will gain weight week by week. But some children don’t grow properly, and it has to do with whether they are able to get the nutrients they need. The crucial indicator is that the newborn must get fed early on, so that they can thrive later. I have found this to be true with students as well.
It is essential that a student entering our ministry (for instance, as a freshman) make a strong connection with either a good friend or a small group leader/mentor in the first year, or the chances that they will stick around by their junior or senior year diminishes greatly.
The reason I know this is because I’ve seen students thrive and fail to thrive. There are, of course, the dream students out there, the ones that arrive as freshmen eager to participate in every possible activity, whether they make a connection with someone or not. Thank God for the dream students! But most are not. Most students arrive in our ministries with a bit of skepticism. They show up asking the question: is this experience worth my time? And most importantly they ask: is there someone here worth investing my time in?
A while back, I had a group of guys that came in as freshmen, and I sensed their skepticism more than others. Depending on the culture of your youth ministry, guys can be a harder sell than girls when it comes to encouraging youth group participation. But these guys were also on the “cooler” end of the “cool to nerdy” spectrum and so I could tell they were looking around the room to determine if there was someone like them that made them feel at ease. I tried hard to find a leader who could be that person. I took that leader out to lunch and encouraged him to be very proactive about engaging with the students, that he should try to take them out for a meal or have a group outing somewhere. He said he would, but as far as I know, he never really followed through.
When junior year rolled around, none of those guys showed up for youth group anymore. Zero. We failed to capture them in their first two years and so by year three, they bailed—understandably! I don’t blame them as much as I blame our efforts to effectively engage them and help them thrive in our setting. So what exactly do I mean? And how can we make sure this happens?
1) Bridge the 8th-to-9th gap
Recently, I had a student graduate from high school and stick around to serve in our student ministry. He asked me if he could lead 8th graders for a year, then move up with them the following year, which he’s now done. We’ve kept those students he moved up with more than in any previous year. It’s such a crucial transition, so finding a leader to bridge that gap will help a lot.
2) Engage parents
I wish I had reached out to a few of the parents of my disappeared juniors before we lost them. I would have expressed my desire to engage with them, and asked them if they had any insights about how we could serve them. Waiting until they were “lost” was too late.
3) Take action if the leaders are dropping the ball
In this specific situation, I think my leader wasn’t a good fit as a high school youth group volunteer. I probably should have done a better job of recognizing that and perhaps even encouraging him to move on so that these students could have found a leader who could engage them.
Part of our job as the leader of the ministry is to take bold action if a particular leader is failing to thrive him or herself. Each and every student is too important not to take this seriously.