There’s this awesome scene in “The Big Bang Theory” (season 6, episode 6) in which key characters, Leonard and Sheldon, each are having relationship trouble.
Sheldon can’t get Stephen Hawking to return to their Words with Friends game, and Leonard totally has messed up with his girlfriend by rewriting her college paper without her knowledge. In an effort to figure out solutions to their problems, they attempt a conversation, and it just doesn’t work. Leonard brings out the chess play clock to systemize their communication. Their mouths are moving, but their ears are on a coffee break. It’s a lesson in futility for both of them and leave frustrated. Does this sound like some of the conversations you’ve had in your church—lots of words are used, but nobody’s listening?
In the early years of the profession of youth ministry, it was OK for the youth worker to be cool and relational. As long as he or she could play guitar, all was good. Lots could be forgiven if the youth pastor was a veritable Pied Piper of students, attracting them like ants to a picnic. People answered poor planning with, “Well, the kids love him; so…” Fast-forward through the years: Demands have increased for better organizational skills. Parents and leaders want to know what they want to know when they want to know it.
When everyone involved in a church youth ministry doesn’t know what’s happening with the program, people form their own opinions and ideas. Unmet expectations give way to complaining. When the plan isn’t communicated correctly, all the great relational ministry goes out the window. When a youth leader is a poor communicator or has less-than-strategic information systems, trouble erupts.
So, the point? There are two parts to a good communication strategy in student ministry: listening (information in) and transmission (information out).
Listening: Information In
We often think communication is all about getting the information out to our audiences. Youth workers are adept at thinking this way. We’ve got a lock-in coming up, and we’re busy making fliers or creating cute Instagram posts; but savvy communication begins in a different place. We have to consider the messages we send when we’re having a conversation with others, and we have to become skilled at how we handle the information that comes toward us. Check out these three simple information-in strategies.
We can reshape a potentially confrontational conversation simply by choosing a different (and really small) word. This bit of wisdom comes from one of my previous bosses, Pastor Jack. He said, “Stephanie, when people come to share something with you about the ministry, you get defensive. You say you’re sorry, then the next word out of your mouth is ‘but.’ It makes you sound so defensive.” What he was trying to get inside my head is that I immediately put up a wall. That wall stopped anything from being heard in either direction. I wasn’t really listening to people in those situations, and when I became defensive, the person stopped listening to me, as well. “I’m sorry, and…” would kick off a much more productive conversation. “I’m sorry, and I’ll check into that.” “I’m sorry that happened to you. How can I help?” “I’m sorry, and I hope you forgive me.” The and in these responses makes all the difference in the world, diffusing a potentially explosive conversation. People feel heard, and you keep yourself out of trouble.
Create an Intake System
Better communication intake begins by being in control (somewhat) of the way information comes to us. Every minister knows there’s approximately a 95 percent chance that anything a church member says on Sunday never will make it into action Monday morning. Too much is happening with lots of moving parts in the morning’s schedule of activities. Details are lost, feelings get hurt, and ministry is muted. Instead, let people know you value what they have to say. Create a simple flow for getting info your way. It could be as simple as a dry erase board on your office door or carrying Post-it® notes for people to write on as they tell you something. My preference is always an email because it gives me a record of what was needed and a way I can file it where it needs to go or send out the requested information. Texting comes close, but still usually means involving a computer for sending back forms or documents, so I like to skip the middle step.
Handle Incoming Details One Time
In the old days before electronic communication, time-management experts would say, “Handle a piece of paper only once.” That wisdom still applies. If that email is about a date, put it on your calendar. If the text asks you to do something, put it on your calendar. If you open an app to do something, don’t open another one until you finish the first thing. Remember, if you’ve publicized your preferred method for receiving information, you can create systems to help. Set up folders in your email, on your phone, or maybe the old-fashioned real-folders way for registrations, care concerns, calendar needs, etc.
Transmission: Information Out
Communication, obviously, is about getting information out to others. Because we’re constantly promoting events—because we always need to get details out about our programs—youth workers have to become experts at the best way to communicate with the tribes in their local contexts. We must become adept at creating a climate of communication, so we successfully dispense information in a timely manner.
Establish Team Communication Norms
I’m in a lot of churches and often hear comments such as, “We never know what the leader is doing.” “I don’t get the lesson until I walk in the door.” “I wish my volunteers would pay attention to the details.” Rather than shoot your communication arrows in the dark, decide together as a ministry team: “This (insert email, text, etc.) will be our prime verbal/word form of communicating, and this (server folder, Facebook, Google Drive) will be where we send/place our written forms or documents.
Don’t Assume Anything
Review every form of communication to make sure there are no code words, abbreviations, acronyms or hidden everybody-should-know-that details, etc. People don’t always know, which is frustrating, especially to new people.
Know Your Audience
Different people need different forms of communication. Parents usually want emails; youth want texts; church members want to see messages in written form. Communicate to those folks in the way that is natural for them. Yes, you heard my implication correctly: You’re going to need to become great at communicating in a variety of formats. Simply sending one email to everyone probably won’t work.
Also, in reading your audience, know which groups need follow-up communication and in which format. I’m calendar-driven, so if it goes on my calendar or task list, I generally don’t need a reminder. Even if I haven’t met a deadline, I’m painfully aware that it’s out there. However, many people don’t operate that way. You have two choices with those folks: You can fail to send a follow-up reminder and be frustrated when they let you down; or you can send a reminder (a shorter, sweeter version of what already went out), and all is well. If the recipients blow you off after that, it’s on them.
The Calendar Is Everything
We are a cloud-based-calendar-driven society. Make the calendar your friend; parents will love you for it. When you do, your communication improves. Why? Because the calendar holds us all accountable. You have to honor events you’ve scheduled, and parents/youth have to honor set deadlines. A savvy communication strategy takes the calendar and meshes it with details.
Nail the Details
“God is in the details,” was said by a German-born architect. He would know, given that drawing solid blueprints is extremely important, a matter of life and death. We can calendar all day long, but if we don’t get the details that are on the calendar correct, no one will trust us. Stating and restating youth ministry details is essential. Carrying them out is essential, too.
Positively Brand the Ministry
People in your church are going to talk about the ministry. Give them something great to talk about. Plant cheerleaders in each key ministry of the church, and consistently feed those people stories of the powerful work God is doing among the students.
Some of us will have to tweak things a little. We’re nailing communication. Others of us, well, we’ve got a way to go. That’s OK. Communication is organic. It’s relational. The good news is that the more we practice, the better we’ll get. All we need to do it start, and if communication really isn’t your strength, find a parent or college student who’s adept at communication flow, and invite him or her to take this article and put it into practice for you. Just remember: Communication is simply a tool to help more students enter the flow of your youth ministry, so they can hear the good news about Jesus. The better we get, the more ministry happens—and happens well.