Taking the Pulse of Student Ministry

Q&A with Rob Weise, student ministries coordinator for EFCA Forest Lakes District

Few ministries have been able to avoid the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. Student ministry leaders around the country (and globe) adjusted rapidly to meet the needs of teenagers and families. While the vehicles may have changed, ministry goes on and youth groups strive to continue making disciples of the next generation.

In the midst of these always-changing circumstances and uncertain timelines, I sat down for a video call with Rob Weise, one of the EFCA’s district leaders for student ministries, to dialogue about how the pandemic has affected churches and leaders.

Rob felt God's call to full-time ministry in 1996 and joined Highland Community Church in Wausau, Wisconsin, as their pastor of student ministries in 1997 and served there for almost seven years. In 2003, Rob joined the EFCA Forest Lakes District staff as the director of student and family ministries and has been on staff for 16 years. His role has allowed him to connect, resource and encourage many youth leaders for more than a decade.

Rob and I touched on a variety of topics in our conversation, and we hope it’s a helpful discussion for youth leaders and anyone who might want to encourage them.

Q: What has been your general sense of what’s going on in youth ministry these past few weeks? How are youth workers dealing with this crisis?

Someday, we will emerge on the other side of this, and we have to ask ourselves, “Will we have anything left to give?”

Weise: We saw leaders and pastors initially figure out they needed an online presence weekly, and the students were checking it out. The second priority most leaders jumped into was creating small groups and utilizing their adult leaders to connect with students on Zoom and FaceTime.

Wevers: Our leaders have done an excellent job of jumping in right away to make the best of an unprecedented situation. They’ve not only continued to find creative ways to disciple students and support families, but they are wearing multiple hats.

Weise: That’s exactly right. I know one youth pastor who has become the Zoom Call Coordinator for a large church of more than 2,000. Others have stepped in to be more involved in Sunday morning and organizing slides, video and sound because they have knowledge and skills in that area. It’s really amazing.

Q: If there were something that you could communicate to senior pastors on behalf of youth leaders during this time, what would it be?

Weise: I think my first advice would be to help them have realistic expectations and a strategy that allows their youth ministry leader to have the extra time it takes to care for themselves and their family. All of sudden they are working from home—many have young children in the family, others are homeschooling— and I wonder if we’re asking too much of them. It’s a complex question, because this is a time where we need to connect and care for our members, but we also need to be careful. Someday, we will emerge on the other side of this, and we have to ask ourselves, “Will we have anything left to give?”

Wevers: I’ve been pondering that same question. The adrenaline and newness of everything sustained people at first, but it’s not surprising that many are hitting a wall. I think if we don’t find rest during this season, we’ll truly regret it. But we have to help youth leaders create space for it. They love what they do, and when they see a great need, they will try to meet it. Church leaders will be wise to help youth leaders pace themselves. And they’re not the only ones who need to hear that message.

Q: Rob, what are some of the biggest challenges right now?

Weise: I’ll start with this: the uncertainty of what the timeline looks like moving forward for each state makes it hard to plan ahead. I try to advise youth leaders to continue (or start) training their adult leaders on how to connect with students. Whenever the quarantine ends, leaders should be asking how they will begin to meet, depending on the size of group that’s allowed. Students are a bit “Zoomed-out,” so the personal contact from their leader is very important.

This is absolutely an opportunity for youth leaders to plant and water the gospel.

Another big challenge for leaders—and I caution against it—is playing the comparison game. We hear about what others are doing or where they are seeing success, but you have to be able to discern that your own gifts are unique and your church’s context is unique. One of the ways to fight discouragement is to find people to share ideas with and get encouragement from.

Q: How have youth workers been able to support each other in the midst of this crisis?

Weise: Youth ministry Zoom networks have been very helpful. These networks normally meet in person once a month, and they’ve continued to meet monthly online. It’s such a great place to share ideas and best practices. Even more than that, they are able to share struggles and pray for each other. I had one leader share how excited she was because they had more attendance online than they’ve ever had in person before. They were reaching new people with the gospel, and we all get to celebrate that together. That support is priceless.

Q: On the flip side, where have you heard of God at work in the next generation during this crisis?

Weise: There’s no doubt that families have been given a golden opportunity for more quality time together. I’m encouraging parents to see this as an important opportunity. I think there’s so much fear and anxiety out there. We have to be pointing them to God, and some of our youth leaders have been doing a great job, but we need to empower parents to carry that baton if they haven’t been already.

Wevers: You know, one of the most difficult—and unfortunately, common—challenges for youth ministry in 2020 is that students are incredibly busy. They barely have time for youth group, for reading their Bibles, for doing the things that will help them grow spiritually. Well, that’s all changed for a season. This is absolutely an opportunity for youth leaders to plant and water the gospel. But you couldn’t be more right—we have to help support and encourage parents in their role as the disciplemakers of their students.

The coronavirus has brought a lot of fear and anxiety to the world of teenagers, but the gospel has an answer to fear.

Weise: This might be a wake-up call for some families. It's become clear that maybe some families weren’t as healthy as they thought they were. We can ask, “What’s been your plan in giving your kids spiritual direction?” They are getting more real time with them than anyone else now. Finding ways to have spiritual conversations with them is a good place to start.

Q: Let’s end on this one, Rob. What kind of lasting changes do you think this season will bring to student ministry around the country?

Weise: One thing that’s being revealed is that all the events have been stripped away, and youth ministries have had to adjust dramatically. No more sports or activities. Families were so busy, and now it's at a standstill. It will be interesting to see what we bring back, and what we let go. It’s the perfect time for leaders to step back and take stock of their ministry and make changes if necessary.

Wevers: What I’ve seen is that the ministries that center around the gospel and rely on relationships are the ones that are doing well right now. They still have the very thing that students need most and the vehicle to get it to them. The coronavirus has brought a lot of fear and anxiety to the world of teenagers, but the gospel has an answer to fear. It has an answer to anxiety. It has an answer to suffering and even death itself. The youth leaders that are fluent enough in this good news that they can apply it to students’ lives in this crisis are—by God’s grace and His Spirit’s work—going to see a lot of maturity and growth in their groups.

If you’d like to get involved in a network or access some of the resources we’ve compiled for navigating this season, please contact us at reachstudents@efca.org so we can connect you with our district leaders for student ministry! We’d also love to pray with and for you. For more updates and resources from ReachStudents, sign up for our e-newsletter.

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