If you’ve been doing student ministry for any length of time, you know that at some point you’re probably going to find yourself at a new church with a new group of students and whole new set of expectations. And those expectations are coming from everyone—parents, students, staff, pastors, and even yourself. That’s why how you navigate the first few months of that transition is crucial to your success long-term.
So here are a few hacks to set you up for transition success (and hopefully save you a lot of headaches in the process).
Don’t give into the temptation to dismiss the past traditions of your new group. Have some humility. Not every idea has to be your idea. Just because you didn’t start it doesn’t mean that you can’t embrace and have fun with it. Even if that means (at least for the time being) that every Bible study begins with a heated bottle flipping contest. Or that you’re (at least temporarily) committed to that annual-late-night-progressive-dinner-lock-in. Like my friend Jonathan says, “You can’t come in like the Tasmanian Devil tearing everything up.”
2. Show up
This sounds crazy, but one of the best things you can do for a while is be seen at the stuff that your community, your church, and especially your students care about. To do that, you have to start by finding the right person to give you the inside scoop on all of the key events in the community (football games, tree lighting ceremonies, festivals, concerts, fairs, etc.) Obviously, you need to use wisdom here. You have to have a little work/life balance. But just know this: Few things early on will give you a return on your investment like demonstrating to your new community that you are committed to doing life with them.
3. Sit down
No, not to binge watch the newest season of Stranger Things! Sit down one-on-one with every key leader, influential student, and involved parent. It will be much more difficult for people not to give you the benefit of the doubt when you’ve made time to sit across the table from them for lunch of coffee. Use those conversations wisely. Spend more time during those sit downs finding out their stories and their perspective. Don’t try to win them over with your magnetic charm or shove your super-secret agenda to save the student ministry down their throats. Like my friend Shane says, “They need to know you’ll listen to where they’ve been before they’ll listen to where you’re going in the future.”
For example, when my friend Jonathan arrived at his new church, he took out every Small Group Leader, bought them dinner, and asked them for honest feedback. He said he did this because he was in a unique position of newness where he could honestly say to each person, “Tell me the truth. You won’t hurt my feelings.” This gave him valuable insights into the ministry that were helpful both to him and to the senior leadership of his church for months to come.
4. Be brave
You’ve probably already discovered this, but your fresh eyes will give you some perspective that the last person may not have had. Although you will need to honor some of the traditions of the past, there will be some things that need to change. Don’t feel like your job is just to keep everyone happy all the time because you’re the new guy or the new girl in town. You were brought in to lead a movement. It’s your job to fix bad systems. However, these changes should only be discovered and executed through careful conversations with key people. Look for changes to make that will elevate the role of your Small Group Leaders and make life easier for them. If there are better ways to value them, inspire them, and equip them, then be brave and pull the trigger. This may be the greatest contribution that you can make in your new position.
Those first few months as a new leader in a new church over a new group are hard. I get it! But believe me when I tell you that they’re also incredibly crucial. Focus on transitioning well in the short-term so you can lead your group well in the long-term.