Finding My Worth When Attendance is Dropping Like a Rock

BY 30 HOUR FAMINE TEAM

By Keely DeBoever

Slide1I can honestly say that I have never been very good at the numbers game when it comes to youth ministry. Maybe when I first started, I may have thought to myself, ”Is there new trick can I try to get teenagers to come back?” But, almost instantly, that felt a little too political for me, like I was trying to get their vote. I never understood the concept of “courting” certain students so that they would come, when I had plenty of other students who seemed to make the choice without any special treatment.

Due to my unwillingness to play this game, I have had to deal with more than a few “why aren’t they coming” conversations. I can even remember a conversation when I was told that “more volleyball and pizza” should do the trick! Once, one of my students picked up on the pressure I was receiving; and in that moment she ministered to me, saying “Don’t they know that our group is growing up! All they care about is if we are growing out.” She was referring to spiritual growth over numerical growth. Through her words I knew that I was doing what I was called to do.

Many of us have finally gotten to a place in our ministries where we can honestly say that numbers are not all that they are cracked up to be. But, deep down we can’t help but feel a sense of PANIC when the numbers begin to drop. So, how do we feel a sense of security in our calling, when the world seems to be measuring us by a different standard?

MENTALLY PREPARE YOURSELF

First, you need to understand your ministry context. I have found that over the years, I was able to learn the ebb and flow of my students and families. I know that my numbers are going to drop off in the Spring (I’m pretty sure this is not unique to my context). The weather gets nicer, school pressures increase, and I happen to be in a church where people are always on the go. Knowing this helps me mentally prepare for the dreaded spring plummet. I also try to get calendar information from my students’ parents so that I can be aware and prevent overlap with scouting trips, young life events, etc.

You’re never going to be able to make it perfect…but knowing when the big things are can help you plan for success, and not totally blame yourself for a low week when you know the reason behind it. If you haven’t been in your context that long, look for the people who have and ask for help with this. Being aware of the natural flow of ministry in your context can help you prepare for the inevitable dips in attendance and take comfort in knowing that it isn’t personal!

GIVE YOUR VERY BEST NO MATTER HOW MANY ARE THERE

We have a strong tendency, as human beings, to focus on our immediate surroundings and that which we can see. When the attendance drops unexpectedly, we may have a strong urge to go into self-preservation mode, laughing awkwardly as we grasp for scenarios that might explain the present situation. We may even be tempted to ask, “Where is everybody tonight?” as we try to make sense of our disappointing reality. Those four words can be incredibly damaging to the spirit of belonging that so many of us work hard to cultivate in our groups. We may as well have said, “You who are here don’t matter much, since I’m only focused on those who aren’t here!” That feeling of failure that you may be experiencing when you look out to empty chairs, is probably also bubbling up in your students as they wonder if everyone is hanging out somewhere without them. Resist the urge to comment on your own disappointment and look at the drop in numbers as a way to connect on a deeper level with the ones who are there. Sometimes a smaller crowd can be just what those students needed!

BE FLEXIBLE

We’ve probably all heard the saying that “people make plans and God laughs.” As youth workers, we know this to be true in so many cases. If you are going to be successful at the second point above, flexibility will be necessary. You simply cannot do the same program with six students that you had planned for twenty. You scrap things on the fly and you allow the students who are there to help drive the direction of the program. This is the moment when you rely on the relationships that you have built with your students to inform what will happen next. The Holy Spirit is a powerful thing. When we cling too tightly to our plans for success, we don’t leave room for the spirit to push us in a different (and, often better) direction.

As youth leaders, our worth should never really be determined by the attendance at all—whether our numbers are up or down. Our worth should be found in the knowledge that we are created in the image of God and that we are to bear HIS image to the world…even if to only one person at a time.