By Fr. Mark Perkins
At many Anglican parishes — especially those of the small and mid-sized variety — youth ministry tends to be an afterthought. This is understandable, given all the responsibilities placed upon clergy, not to mention the relatively low numbers of youth sometimes found in such parishes. Nevertheless, children and youth constitute the first field of evangelism. Even if you only have a handful of youth in your parish, you owe it to them — and to their parents — to ensure that you are doing what you can to help them grow in the faith and stay in the Church. For that matter, even a parish that has no youth whatsoever ought to be prepared to minister to youth. If you are not prepared to welcome and minister to families, you cannot expect families to join your parish.
Designing and implementing youth ministry may be a daunting project, particularly if your parish has not typically had an active youth ministry. To that end, we publish the following step-by-step guide which, with some careful thinking and hard work, will help you evaluate the state of your parish’s youth ministry and modify it to better serve your youth and families.
We also publish this guide in the spirit of collaboration and conversation — we would love to hear your experiences with youth ministry in the comments below or via email!
While this model has been put into practice at All Saints Charlottesville and St. Alban’s Oviedo, neither parish offers a “perfect” youth ministry — some of what follows remains more “aspirational” than “actual.” The goal, however, is not perfection but movement in the right direction, which this guide can help you achieve.
While this process should always be undertaken under the authority and guidance and with the active collaboration of the parish rector, any parishioner — lay or clergy — can spearhead the process with the rector’s blessing.
Please do not think you need a “youth minister” to start a youth ministry!
Relatively few Anglican parishes have the resources to support more than one full-time clergyman, and even those that do rarely have a dedicated youth minister on staff. I consider this a blessing in disguise. Full-time youth ministers tend not to be fully invested in the whole of parish life and are therefore exceedingly likely to implement a “siloed” youth ministry, creating a practical parachurch-within-a-parish for youth. This is compounded by their transience — according to Mark DeVries’s Sustainable Youth Ministry, the average tenure of a youth pastor in America is 2-3 years.
While youth do have particular needs distinct from those of younger children and older adults, youth ministry should never isolate them from the broader life of the parish. Those who design youth ministry models should do so with the explicit goal of embedding youth within the full life of the parish. Moreover, the person who leads or facilitates the parish’s youth ministry should seek to create a ministry model that does not rely on one individual for success. A sustainable youth ministry requires support and engagement from clergy, parents, and other laity. It should be sustainable if the facilitator (whether rector, curate, parent, or other layperson) moves on from the parish or from youth ministry.
In general, this guide follows a “backwards-design” process — starting with the goals and desired outcomes of youth ministry, then considering how to evaluate whether these goals have been achieved (assessment), and lastly plotting the immediate steps needed to work towards those goals (events, programs, etc.). In other words, we ask three consecutive questions:
Goal: Where are we going?
Assessment: How will we know when we’ve arrived?
Planning: How will we get there?
These large, framing questions guide the process. They should also lead to many other, more specific questions. For example, here are several that need to be considered:
What is the goal of youth ministry?
What are the broad cultural or local challenges to achieving this goal?
How are the youth currently involved and ministered to in the parish? What are the strengths and weaknesses of this status quo?
How can the parish better minister to youth? What things should be removed? What should be modified? What should be added? And how?
At the end of the process you should have a working document answering these questions in detail, enabling you to understand more fully the state of youth ministry at your parish and to see the steps needed to improve it. This document can also be shared with parents, mentors of youth, and other interested parties in the parish to deepen their own knowledge and understanding of youth ministry in the parish and to build a base of supporters and collaborators in ministry. Of course, a document itself is not a youth ministry. It must be implemented and then revised to meet the particular needs of your parish — and revisited over time as circumstances change.
This guide to evaluating youth ministry originated in a project completed for a course on youth ministry taught by the Rev. Dr. Steven Tighe at Trinity School for Ministry, and what I provide here closely follows the model provided in the class.
I first applied it to my previous parish, All Saints Anglican Church in Charlottesville, Virginia and then adapted it for use at my current parish, St. Alban’s Anglican Cathedral in Oviedo, Florida. After reading the guide, you will probably find it helpful to consult the working documents I created as case studies and examples. You can see the older All Saints’ document here.
You can download the newer and slightly better St. Alban’s working document as a PDF here:
(The two are fairly similar in approach, but, upon the wise advice of a parishioner, I did add “mission statements” for youth ministry as a whole and for the Youth Group Planning Committee in particular to the St. Alban’s document.)
These documents were aspirational ideals, and not everything has been implemented as originally planned. An “adult mentors group” was particularly difficult to figure out. (For one thing, intimate group meetings were impossible when I first came to St. Alban’s at the beginning of the apparently interminable pandemic). While every healthy parish has a number of folks who would make wonderful mentors, they may not be ready to do so without a period of serious spiritual formation beforehand. Likewise, the most well-formed and engaged parishioners may already be overstretched in various forms of parish ministry and service. In other words, an adult mentorship group may be downstream of some serious time and work put into cultivating (to use Fr. Martin Thornton’s language) a “Remnant” of faithful and dedicated Christians (see, for example, the Pastoral Ministry courses and guidelines for Mission Communities from Bishop Scarlett in the Anglican Catholic Church’s Diocese of the Holy Trinity). Fr. Sean McDermott, Curate at All Saints Charlottesville, has broadened the vision for that group into a youth group events planning committee, and I plan to do the same at St. Alban's this year.
Any of the text in this post — or in the specific St. Alban’s and All Saints’ documents — may be used by any parish for non-commercial purposes, so long as the following attribution is made: Adapted from Fr. Mark Perkins, “A Brief Guide to Evaluating and Developing Youth Ministry,” Earth & Altar (22 June 2022) https://www.earthaltar.org/post/guide-for-evaluating-and-developing-youth-ministry.
STEP ONE: THE GOAL
The first step is to ask exactly what you are hoping to accomplish with a youth ministry program. In a backwards-design approach, everything follows from and points towards your ultimate goal. Ultimately, what from your youth ministry will be taken up in the kingdom of heaven in the life of the world to come? To that end, how do we grow the youth in love and service towards God and neighbor? With these goals in mind, what would a well-formed Anglican look like? How will your youth ministry provide formational opportunities to grow into mature faith? And what would you like to see in your youth on a year-to-year and day-to-day basis?
Begin by brainstorming these questions by yourself before collaborating with others. The rector along with any other clergy or laity actively involved in youth ministry should be a part of the subsequent discussion. You will probably also find it helpful to bring in trusted parents of current youth or young adults as well.
Prior to that collaborative brainstorming but after coming up with your own initial thoughts, you may want to consider consulting or revisiting our “Portrait of a Well-Formed Anglican.” In addition, you will want to read through and consider the documents I developed for All Saints and St. Alban’s (linked and attached as a PDF above).
Following the collaborative brainstorming session, you will want to write up a short, one-page narrative of these goals, as well as a roughly 100-word, 2-4 sentence mission statement. (As noted above, you may liberally borrow from anything I wrote — copy-pasting and all! — so long as you somewhere include the attribution requested above.) Again, the purpose of this process is not to create a rigid plan from which there can be no deviation but rather to achieve greater unity around and clarity about the goals of your youth ministry.
STEPS TWO AND THREE: CULTURAL CHALLENGES AND THE CHURCH
Step two requires outlining a birds-eye overview of the challenges presented by the culture to these goals, ideally considering not only national but also local and even parish-level cultural challenges. (I largely overlooked such local concerns in my own youth ministry analyses, which is an oversight and weakness.) Step three considers the place and role of the Church in general within this culture — in particular by evaluating various approaches to youth ministry.
For some, this will be the most challenging step, and you may find it helpful simply to read, internalize, and then copy-paste the relevant parts of the analyses included above. Ideally, though, you should also draw upon any cultural or sociological resources you or your rector may have read, as well as your own experiences and the wisdom of any parents and teachers in your parish. My own assessments of the culture and the Church do little more than draw upon the reading materials assigned in Dr. Tighe’s course, and so they are far from the “definitive word” on the subject.
STEP FOUR: THE STATUS QUO
In my experience, this is the most rewarding and enjoyable part of the whole process. Here your job is to act as an investigative journalist seeking to discover every single way that youth are currently or have ever been involved in the parish, as well as any aspects of their spiritual formation or community service that fall outside of typical parish settings. Begin, of course, with specific youth-oriented elements in the parish: youth groups, trips, etc. But then consider every way that youth participate in the life of the Church alongside their parents or other adults. Consider also aspects of their lives in school or in the community that contribute to the kingdom of heaven and to their growth as Christians.
You should interview as many people as possible — clergy, parents, other adults, youth themselves. Ask questions! Take notes! You may be surprised at how many things youth are already doing and how much healthy growth and ministry is already occurring without any central planning. Your job, in those cases, is to bring clarity, organization, and coherence — and to do what you can to maximize the spiritual and communal benefits of these activities. You may also find things that need to be cut, if you find that some activities serve no viable purpose or are actively counter-formational.
(Having said that, bear in mind that fun — as a means of community and relation-building — is absolutely not a bad thing! While you may find that time could be better spent or that some activities are detrimentally frivolous, please do not think you need eliminate any activity simply because it is “just fun.”)
STEP FIVE: VISION AND IMPLEMENTATION
Here is where you bring coherence and clarity to the good things already happening, explain how you will eliminate any bad things that might exist, and describe what changes will occur, how, and when.
There are a variety of ways to organize your implementation. For instance, you could approach the plan topically (education, community service, adult mentorship, trips and retreats, graduates, etc.). You could, alternatively, scale the plan from the least challenging (things already being done or easy to implement) to the most challenging (a capstone service project or a well-developed adult mentorship group).
Established patterns can be difficult to modify, and you will want to enlist the support of parents and of the rector in bringing about change. Further, you will find many goals harder to pull off in practice than they are to write down. That’s completely normal! Expect that many projects will take longer than you initially think. Be willing to revise your plan when things don’t go as desired.
To that end, I have found it helpful to think of my plans not so much as rigid structures that cannot be modified but rather as aspirational goals that will not always come to fruition in the ways initially hoped. Some may balk at this open-handed flexibility, and indeed we should be sure that our plans are not undone because of timidity or sloth. But, at the same time, humans are not machines, and there is no youth ministry plan that will work for all youth at all times in all places.
Nevertheless, without a plan, formation will inevitably be aimless and unlikely to bear sustained fruit. If that is the state of your parish’s youth ministry, I hope this guide provides the beginnings of a remedy. As noted, the evaluations of All Saints Charlottesville and St. Alban’s Oviedo will help you see how the theoretical steps outlined above might actually play out at a parish level.
Educating children and youth is the first field of evangelism and one of the most important things a parish can do. The harvest is plentiful — God bless you as you consider how best to be a laborer in the field!
Fr. Mark Perkins is Curate at St. Alban's Anglican Cathedral in Oviedo, Florida and Executive Editor of Earth & Altar.