Summer Ministry 2021: Navigating Through the Tight Spots

There’s a section of the Appalachian Trail in New York that I hiked with a group of students years ago. As we made our way, we came across a rock formation that the map identified as the “Lemon Squeezer.” Already loaded down with our packs that held everything we needed for the journey, we were forced to confront a real decision when we arrived at this particular spot on the trail. You see, the way this rock formation interacted with the trail meant that there was simply no way you could keep your pack on your back and make it through the opening in the rock. We had to remove our packs if we wanted to get past the Lemon Squeezer.

COVID-19 has presented us with a very similar scenario. You’ve likely already learned this: There’s just no way you can hold onto what was strapped to you and get through the challenges of this dynamic time in history. Many are trying to simply hold their breath until they can resurface and resume 2019 life and ministry as it was, but a far better way of thinking is to let those shoulder straps slide down your arms and let the backpack of “what was” hit the ground. NOW we can move forward.

Summer 2021 is coming. In the context of COVID-19, what might it look like? While it’s pretty much impossible to outline exactly what life looks like for us because of our different geographical locations, there are some principles, ideas, and truths that can be 100% transferable.

The New Equation: Connect > Gather

The standard we were using to measure good stuff in ministry doesn’t work anymore. We would primarily use the “who’s in the room” metric. But now, the room is closed. And even if it’s open, it’s not open like it was. So we’ve got to prioritize connection over gathering. And if 2020 has taught us anything, it’s that connection is critical. So how do we face our summer plans with this new equation in the forefront of our minds? Here are some ideas to connect:

The Unboxed Church
Move your gathering to a local park (an open field will do). If you need to reserve a pavilion or space, then go for it but if not, just give your students the day, time, and location and see what happens when you connect with God and each other without walls or a ceiling. Be sure to adhere to your local COVID guidelines. Ideas might include bottled drinks to share with strangers, music to create atmosphere, Frisbee, kickball, or corn hole. If you’ve got a “9Square” set, that always seems to draw a crowd and is a great way to attract others to join in.

The Lunch Room
If your ministry has an Instagram account, go Live at Lunch (we do this weekly) and allow students to connect from wherever they are (with whatever they’re eating). It could be a time to share laughs, tell stories, or ask questions.

The Mission Stay
Summer mission trips have long been a staple of student ministries everywhere. But if travel isn’t possible or advisable, create a blueprint for students to identify and meet needs on their street, in their neighborhood, and in their community. This might include a week of student services at different places. On Monday, you might do trash pick-up on that road that the Department of Transportation never seems to get to. On Tuesday, you might show up at your local foodbank and help stock or distribute food to hungry families. Maybe on Wednesday, after following safe practices, each student brings items to put together peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to distribute to the homeless of your community. What if on Thursday afternoon your students met at the yard of a widow to wash windows, pull weeds, or mow the lawn? What if a few students simply sat with that widow and drank tea and listened to her stories? What would happen if COVID changed our attitude toward what “missions” actually looks like and how it can play out in our daily lives?

Camp in a Box
Camp ministries all over the country had to get super creative in how they facilitated camps for young people in the summer of 2020. From where we’re sitting now, no one is quite certain what summer camps 2021 will look like. Contact your nearest camp to glean (or purchase) some tools and/or ideas they’re using in their context. Package the ingredients in a custom box and deliver them to your students. The camp-in-a-box could include online activities your group can engage in[ST4] , outdoor hikes/prayer walks your group can take, and suggested activities or discussions students/families can have at home during that “camp” week. Special edition t-shirts, freebies, and hashtags to compile the fun are other ideas to help make your camp enjoyable.

*If your local/district camp is open and you’re able to go, then GO! So many camps were hurt financially by COVID-19, so finding a way to support them would be a huge blessing!

The Recalibration(s)

Whether you “cool down” ministry efforts or “ramp up” programming initiatives during the summer, it’s a great time to recalibrate the direction of the student ministry you’re a part of. Especially if you are in a leadership role, this season is agreeable to flexing, tweaking, revisions, and new endeavors.

Some questions to ask during the summer season:

  • Are our students engaged in missions? How do we know? How can we better invite them to take ownership in ways they haven’t done before?
  • Where did we see the most traction last fall, winter, and spring? How do we maintain and increase momentum?
  • What has been our biggest struggle this past year? Do we feel that we’ve got a workable solution that effectively addresses it?
  • What do we dream for our fall season? What can we do during the summer to bring that dream into reality?
  • Assuming that schools will reopen to some degree in the fall, what needs to be done this summer to leverage the opportunities that campus presence will offer us?
  • Who isn’t on the team but needs to be? What training needs to be offered this summer in order to prep them for the future?

“Yes, and how?”

While it’s easy to simply “power down” and let ministry hibernate until COVID-19 blows over, we need to instead ask ourselves, “Yes, and how?” Do we still need to cultivate spiritual communities? Do we still hear the voice of Jesus calling us to make disciples who make disciples? Do we still see a strong need for young people to find a safe place for grace-filled relationships to flourish? Does our local church/ministry continue in the call to serve the community in which God has placed us?

Yes. And how?

How do we meet the unique needs around us? By innovation that drops the backpack of what was so we can navigate through the tight spot of this global crisis. And if we do, we will find that not only have we made it through but we have grown stronger, more adapted to change, more mission-minded, and more effective for the Kingdom.

Jerry Varner
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