I didn’t set out to be the children’s minister’s nightmare parent, but I became that person and it didn’t have to be that way. Here is how it all happened:
Our church’s children’s ministry was planning on taking a group to a huge preteen event being held at a nearby megachurch. The registration flier said the early bird deadline was in early January, but I was out of town and missed signing my sons up by that deadline. Once I realized I missed the early bird rate and was going to have to shell out an extra $20 when I finally did register, I lost my motivation for getting them signed up right away. What I didn’t realize was, what our children’s minister really meant was that the early bird deadline was the actual deadline for our group, but more on that later.
(To be fair it’s likely she announced this more than once to my sons, but I didn’t get that message, and that in itself is a valuable lesson we can all learn – communicating announcements exclusively to the children or youth might be about as effective as not announcing it at all. If you need the adults to take action, send money, etc, you would be wise to let them know directly, rather than through the grapevine.)
So back to the story, it was now the week before the event and I was ready to sign up my sons. This was when I learned it was too late to sign up for the group. At this point, the only date I had seen was the Early Bird date, which in most situations means there is another date later that is not “early”. But like I said it is entirely possible that this was communicated to my children. So, given that we could not sign up with the church group, I did what any resourceful parent would do and called the venue directly to see if there was space available that we could sign up individually.
And this is where the story gets interesting to me.
Instead of simply saying yes or no about whether or not there was room, the contact person answered my “is it too late to register my two sons?” question with his own questions: “Did you not hear the announcements during worship about the deadline to sign up?” “Did you miss the signs posted around the church?” “Was there a financial or some other reason why you couldn’t meet the published deadline?” I was taken aback but then I explained I was from a different church altogether. He apologized and then explained that they are “trying to create a culture of responsibility in the congregation.”
Well, I was surprised to learn I was an irresponsible parent. Had I not offered up that I was from a different church, I would have left that conversation with a very negative feeling about that church.
But a culture of responsibility? How intriguing. On one hand, I wonder what kinds of situations led up to the moment of the church staff getting together and saying “you know what we need? We need to have a culture of responsibility here.” You know, no rules are created without reasons. But even more, I wondered what I have done in my own ministry to create a culture of irresponsibility.
It’s more common than you’d think. When a deadline is published and you really don’t enforce it, you communicate that your deadline doesn’t really matter. How often do youth or youth parents ask you, is it okay that they forgot to turn your forms and can they turn it in later this week? Do you find yourself saying, “it’s okay, get it to me as soon as possible”? Who wants to say no? But if we do this every time there’s an event, what we tell people unintentionally is that they can turn things in as late as they want. Your deadlines don’t mean diddly squat.
I have a friend whose predecessor had this habit. She would tell everybody when forms were due and then she would let the deadline pass. Realizing that she didn’t have enough youth signed up, she would extend the deadline. Eventually she would call each youth individually to ask them if they were coming to the event. It didn’t take long for everyone to expect things to work that way. When my friend took over, that culture was not going to work for him. And when you’ve got events to plan and need a basic headcount, this last minute stuff causes all sorts of avoidable stress. So how can you make the change to a culture of responsibility?
Here are 3 steps to create a culture of responsibility in your youth ministry:
Step 1: Communication. Anytime you are making a big culture change, you need to cover the change with communication up and down the chain. As you roll out events, explain what will be different this time. Clearly communicate the deadlines and that the deadlines really will be enforced this time. (I’m talking deadlines here, but this step is true for any kind of big change – it could be getting students to be responsible for taking care of the youth room, getting people to show up on time, etc.) Be sure to get your volunteers and church leaders on the same page – explain why the current system is not working and how you would like them to help you fix what is broken. It’s especially important that you communicate up the chain because that is to whom unhappy people tend to complain. Communicate deadlines or rule changes in as many channels as possible – like I learned with my own children, just a verbal announcement to the students might not be enough. Back up your announcements in print, in texts, on websites. In my case, I would have acted differently if I’d understood that the early deadline was really the final deadline, so make sure you communicate all dates and times clearly.
Step 2: Consistency. Once you’ve set the deadlines and expectations, keep them clear and consistent. They apply to everyone and expect this to be true for every event. Nothing undermines a change quicker than being inconsistent about it. And this goes for communications from anyone that is “kind of official,” too, so make sure your volunteers understand and communicate the same message and don’t “walk it back” with the way they phrase or answer questions. As much as I was taken aback by the megachurch contact person’s questions, they clearly had a plan to consistently expect responsible behavior across their ministries. How much easier would your life be if the families in your church knew you expected them to be responsible?
Step 3: Enforcement. It might hurt at first to feel like the bad guy. If you have someone who misses the deadlines and expects special treatment, be prepared to say no. If you can’t say no, at least don’t give a 100% yes. If you have some flexibility, have an “early bird” rate/deadline and a “regular” rate/deadline, but say no after the final deadline. Set your expectations high and people will rise to meet them.
Of course, this inevitably leads to the question of grace. If a youth wants to participate but missed the deadline, are there times when it would be okay to let them in? If you want to have flexibility, determine that upfront and not after the fact. As long as you determine the rules in advance, I would say, in special circumstances, yes, it is okay to work after deadlines. Let’s say a youth is new to your group or just heard about the upcoming event, you might be able to make an exception. In the Megachurch they had clearly determined that not seeing signs, or hearing the announcement or having financial trouble was the criteria they were going to use.
Also, instead of just saying yes to late sign ups, plan on making these the rare exceptions – allow youth to sign up if someone drops out and a space opens up, for example.
So instead of saying,
“Yes, I can sign you up, no problem don’t worry about it,”
“I can take your name and put you on the waiting list in case someone drops out,” or
“I can take your name and see if we can order extra food and materials this far past the deadline, I will check and get back to you.”
In my story, my sons ended up missing the event. It was a tough lesson for our family but not the end of the world. I’ll work on being more responsible next time – and that’s probably a healthy thing.
Would love your feedback:
Where have you struggled with this?
Would you make exceptions to let people sign up late? In what circumstances?