5 Tips When Your Student Ministry Declines
4, 15, 27, 33, 42, 55, 20. No, that is not a combination of my safe. That is a trajectory of the attendance number in my ministry. On my first night, there were 4 students. Fast forward all the way to March 2022, and we had 55 students at a Wednesday night service. To say times were great and I was riding high would be an understatement. Then, fast forward a year later to March 2023, and our attendance went from 55 to 23 in one year. What happened? How did it happen? That is for another article at another time, but I will say we graduated almost 20 seniors, so that was some of it but not all. I want to focus on how I responded. I tried to act excited about “the rebuild,” but internally, I was confused, aggravated, scared of what people in the church may think, and mad at the students that left (it happens). I don’t say this to be mean or Debbie Downer, but when your student ministry increases, it will most likely decline at some point. Student ministry is like the ocean; after you have been through a few cycles, you will see that the tide comes in, and the tide goes out. Here are a few things that I have found (mainly what not to do) that will help you when your student ministry declines.
- Process Your Pain
This is something that I did not do when I noticed my ministry’s attendance begin to drop off. I couldn’t bring myself to admit to anyone, let alone myself, that I was hurt. When you notice your student ministry decline, talk to someone, and process it. Go to your Senior Pastor or Supervisor, be honest, and tell them how you feel. If you feel like a failure, say it! Side note: Just because you say it doesn’t mean it’s true. The sooner you process your pain, the sooner you can go to number 2.
- Define Reality
I had to come to the realization that my student ministry is no longer a student ministry of 40-50+, so I have to start planning accordingly. When you define reality, you are not admitting defeat. You’re being realistic. We can get stuck here if we are not careful. When our ministry goes back down and we try to act like it hasn’t, we look silly. The biggest reason is that we’re scared to admit that we are not as big as we once were. That doesn’t mean that you don’t plan for when your student ministry grows again because it will. My problem was that I didn’t have a plan for when my student ministry got to 55. I just tried not to lose anyone. That didn’t work. We are now a student ministry of maybe 20 again, but that also means I can invest more time in the students. Just make sure you have people in place who can help you invest; even if you do have a smaller number than before, there’s still only one of you. And that leads me to number 3.
- Focus On Who’s In the Room, Not the Ones that Left
This can be such a hard thing to do because our instinct is to try to get back what we’ve lost. But let me challenge you to focus on the ones that are still there because those are the students that are engaged, those are the students that will become new leaders, and those are the students that you need to pour into. Students will come and go in your youth group, and it’s very hard to make leaders out of the ones who come and go and aren’t bought in or only show up on a fun night. It’s the 12 students that show up on Spring Break Wednesday that you pour into. That’s your core. Focus on the room, not the door.
- Don’t Measure Attendance
WHAT?! Don’t measure attendance? What are you saying? Hear me out. I’m not saying you don’t count attendance, but don’t measure your success by measuring attendance. Focus on reaching out to 5 students and 5 parents a week. Focus on having a Bible study each week with 3-5 students you think could be leaders, go to ballgames, and have students over for a cookout once a month. Those are the things that change the future of your student ministry — not looking back at Wednesday’s numbers on Thursday morning. I don’t think we will ever be asked how many students we put in seats (if we are, you can blame me). I think we will be asked about how many disciples we made. So stop measuring your success by how many of the seats are full.
- Make a Plan For it To Grow Again
You’ve heard the old saying, “What goes up must come down.” But also, what goes down will come back up. When your student ministry declines, it’s only a matter of time before it grows again. Be ready! I wasn’t when mine took off, so I tried to play not to lose instead of playing to win. A failure to plan is a plan for failure. It will grow again, and then, it will decline again, be ready for that too. That doesn’t mean you are a failure. That means you’re a Student Pastor. Remember, the tide comes in, and the tide goes out. Don’t chase the tide. Enjoy watching it come in and go out.
Share your thoughts with others in our YM360 community:
- Has your student ministry gone from large numbers to small numbers before? How did you handle it?
- What can you share from your experiences that would help a Student Pastor going through this?
Help your students and the adults in your church make a difference in the lives of others with Volunteer Accelerator: Youth Ministry Edition!
Ready for more articles and training? Check out these top posts!