Summer. It's a different animal for so many youth workers, isn't it?
There are a lot of you reading this that are looking forward to Summer because it's a break! For you, summer pretty much means shutting down the programmed aspect of your youth ministry. Save for a Summer Camp here or a Mission Trip there, you're looking at a few months of no youth group. (Which evokes mixed emotions, for sure.)
Others of you will more or less keep programming the same during the Summer months. But the dynamics are different. With students and leaders traveling more often, and with a more laid back schedule, you'll watch attendance be spotty at best.
Still, there's a third group that will land somewhere in the middle of these two extremes. You'll have a decreased formality to your schedule and you'll definitely hit the Camp and Missions scene.
Whatever Summer looks like for you, there's one aspect that we all have in common: Summer is the perfect time to grow relationships with individual students.
To some this will seem like an obvious statement. But to others, the first response might be to disagree. If your tendency is to see Summer as a time to "check out," let me challenge you to see Summer as fertile ground for strengthening your relationships with students. For those of you who would say that building relationships in the Summer is actually more challenging, I would agree in one regard: it takes a different kind of effort on your part. You'll have to be more intentional about seeking out students. But I believe it's worth it . . .
You see, I think Summer as the ideal relationship incubator. There are quite a few factors that make this true:
- Students' schedules are open. Many of the activities that fill students' schedules during the year are gone. And even though many will have camp and practice in the Summer, it's so much easier to work around schedules compared to the school year.
- Parents' too. A relaxed schedule for students frees up parents some, as well. It may be easier to get mom or dad to drop off their child for an activity if it's not the 20th time they've done so that week.
- The pace of Summer seems to invite students to slow down and relax. I don't know about you, but I can often feel the stress of the school year on my students. Summer seems to create a vibe better suited for hanging out.
- Summer activities are just more fun. Water parks, swimming pools, floating a river, an afternoon movie, a road trip to a baseball game . . . all things that are pretty much out of the picture in the school year.
So Summer does indeed present a great opportunity for relationships. Here are a few thoughts and/or strategies for getting the most relationship building bang for your buck:
If you don't have to go it alone, don't. If you have adult volunteers that help in your ministry, encourage them to join you in strengthening relationships with students this Summer. As much as you're able, create the expectation that they are to regularly look for opportunities to hang out with students. And as you have opportunities, invite a volunteer to come with you.
Work The Marginals
We all have those students that seem to wilt in large groups of people. Heck, I feel that way sometimes as an adult! Summer is an awesome time to seek out your "fringe" students and build connections, one-on-one. Our default is to hang out with those students most like us, especially in the Summer. Be intentional about seeking out those students who may be most in need of real relationship this Summer.
Have A Plan
I've been accused of trying to boil everything down to a process. Guilty as charged. So, hear me say that by "a plan" I'm not advocating creating a graph or a spreadsheet of your students with a color-coded grid denoting when you might try and meet with each of them. (Though hypothetically if you were to create such a document, I would hypothetically be totally on board. And I would think you were awesome.) No, by "a plan" I mean setting goals. Here's the deal: if you don't set goals for yourself (meeting with at least one students a week, for example) you'll find yourself mid-Summer having not met with the first student. Have a mental plan for making the Summer count.
Seek Out Your Working Teenagers
Students who work summer jobs present a great opportunity to build relationships. Ask if it's OK to drop in on them when they're scheduled to take their lunch break. Your lunch might be short, but there's not reason it can't be sweet. Engaging with students where they work is an incredible opportunity to build them up. Encourage them. Talk up their work ethic. And challenge them to see the opportunity as a chance to reflect Christ to their peers.
Even if you are someone who continues to run your youth group programming during the Summer, ramp up your "organic" or "non-Church" meetings with students. Don't double dip. Grow relationships outside of your structured meeting time.
Start Summer Traditions
Seek out smaller groups of students and start Summer traditions. Do you have a handful of students who love sports? Take them on a road trip to a baseball game. Have a small group of girls who love the lake or the beach? Take them for a day. Make it special. And do it each Summer.
Building relationships in the Summer does require a different kind of effort on your part.
But if you're intentional and diligent to create relationship building opportunities, you'll find your youth group stronger once the Fall starts. And you'll find your own life deeply impacted by the growing relationships you have with your amazing students.
[Note: This article originally ran Summer 2013. But it's still pretty good advice. :)]