One of my readers asked my advice on this situation: he’s a youth leader in a church with a struggling youth ministry. The main reason for the dwindling numbers is a moral failure by the previous youth pastor that led to divisions in the youth group. This new leader wants to revive the youth ministry, but how do you inspire both leaders and youth after a disastrous moral failure by a predecessor?
Obviously, this is a situation no one wants to find him or herself in. The sad reality is that youth pastors fail at times though and that someone has to pick up the pieces. So first of all, I want to applaud this new youth leaders for having the courage and the conviction to step up. It’s far easier to walk away in circumstances like this, so thank you for obeying God’s calling and leading in the midst of this.
So what would I advice here? Prayer has to be at the top of your list. The enemy has won a battle here and you stepping up means entering that same battlefield. More than anything, I’d pray for God to keep your heart pure and focused on him. Find prayer warriors to pray for you and this situation specifically.
Practically, you have a few priorities. The first is to take care of the direct victims of the situation, those the previous pastor hurt or damaged with the moral failure. Make sure these young people receive pastoral and psychological care to heal their psychological and spiritual wounds. Acknowledging the wrong that was done to them is crucial, so they feel heard and seen. Depending on how severe the ‘damage’ is, a formal apology on behalf of the church may be appropriate. If you don’t take this seriously, you run the risk of them turning their backs on the church and even on Jesus permanently. Obviously, this is in addition to any legal action you may need to take.
A second priority is to open communications with the youth, the parents, and the youth leaders—and maybe even the church leaders if they were involved as well. This is always tricky, because you don’t want to share too many details, especially with those who weren’t or aren’t aware of what happened. You also don’t want to further hurt the reputation of your predecessor. But something needs to be said.
I’m a huge fan of open and honest communication, without going into too much detail. Focus on the process: how could what happened happen and what will you do to prevent a recurrence? What safeguards are in place now, or what do people feel should be done to prevent this from happening again. Again, people want to be heard and seen here, and that may include venting their anger.
And then comes the hardest part: rebuilding the ministry. This is not easy when trust is damaged with both youth and leaders, as well as parents and church members. The most important thing you can do is making sure they can trust you. Be reliable in everything you say and promise. Overdeliver. Walk a steady line of encouragement and understanding, and be willing to take emotional hits when people keep lashing out. This will take time, above all.
Don’t deny what happened, or try to pretend it never happened. It did and no matter how sad, it’s the reality. The more you acknowledge it, the easier it will be for people to accept it and move on.
When you rebuild, start small and focus on relationships and on Jesus. Spending time with the students is the most important thing you can do to regain their trust, as is focusing on Jesus in your teachings. Teach forgiveness, without diminishing the severity of what happened.
Your leaders will need loving care as well, and possible discipleship. Maybe some of them saw what happened and didn’t say anything or interfere. Maybe there are feelings of anger, disappointment, or guilt. Building strong personal relationships with them and giving them the opportunity to vent as well are crucial.
In short, what you need most of all to rebuild a youth ministry after moral failure is to be a shepherd…and point everyone towards the Good Shepherd. Take care of the sheep in your care, both youth and adults, and keep loving them until they’re ready to trust again. And make sure your relationship with Jesus is strong throughout this all, as the enemy would love to see you fail as well.
Don’t lose hope though. The God of angel armies is on your side!