Ministry in the Public School Arena—During School Hours!
One of this year’s focuses for the NATIONAL YOUTH WORKERS CONVENTION will be how youth workers can partner with schools to impact the lives of teens. This post from Dale Kaufman is one of the ways that his ministry is impacting students outside the walls of the church. Don’t miss more of the conversation at NYWC and register early to save big! NYWC.COM
On April 20, 1999, my wife and I were heading back to our home in Michigan after visiting our families in Colorado. I had pastored in a suburb of Denver for nearly 15 years, so we had a lot of connections there. As we were driving across Nebraska, on the radio we began to hear news about a shooting at Columbine High School. This got our attention, because Columbine was one of the schools I had drawn students from during my time ministering in Colorado. As we listened, the news became so grim that we seriously considered turning our car around and going back to see if there was anything we could do to help. In the midst of my prayers for the Columbine families and school came the realization that—regardless of how difficult it may be—youth pastors and youth workers need to do ministry in the public school arena. We not only need to be involved after hours by going to sporting events or concerts—we also need to be involved during the school day, bringing the light of Jesus into a world that desperately needs it.
So how do we effectively do ministry in the public school arena?
We’re all aware of the obstacles. But over the last several years, I’ve worked to break down what barriers I can so that the students in my group get to have some contact with me in their schools and the school administrators and teachers see me as an ally and a valuable resource. I’ve worked to be seen as a person who seeks to serve, not convert.
Here are some things I’ve learned while being in the trenches of the public schools:
Schools need help, and youth workers can fill the gaps.
I’ve found the best way to minister in a public school setting is to find a need and fill it. Schools need good, dependable volunteers in a variety of settings during the school day. Schools need volunteers to help coach sports teams or volunteer in classrooms. I found my niche in the school cafeterias. I spend two days a week at the local middle school helping to monitor the lunchroom—I’m an extra pair of eyes and ears in a cafeteria full of more than a hundred rambunctious sixth, seventh, and eighth graders. At the high school, I push a trash can around the tables, letting students dump their trash. Neither job is glamorous, but I wouldn’t trade them for anything! These offer me valuable opportunities to see my students in their “natural habitats,” and I get to meet and greet their friends as well as get to know other kids I would never otherwise see. Since I’m not a teacher, they see me in a different light, which helps kids be more relaxed around me. I can just shoot the breeze and be a friendly voice and face in what may be an otherwise tough time and place for them.
Start out right.
Whatever area you’re going to volunteer in, be proactive and start things out right by undergoing a background check through the school’s system. Then go in with a servant attitude, and meet the principal or assistant principal. Tell them you’re there to help in any way you can, reassure them you won’t proselytize the students, and let them know you’d love to utilize your particular strengths to help the school fulfill its mission of educating students. You may be surprised at where the school needs help. Remember, it doesn’t matter if the job is unglamorous—that’s not what you’re there for. You’re there to serve, plain and simple.
School administrators are probably going to be distrustful of you at first. Make sure you understand that going in. Never go in expecting that your personality and smile will win them over or that your title of youth pastor is going to mean anything—in fact, you’re going to have to overcome your title of pastor. Start out slow, do the jobs nobody else wants to do (trust me, no one is pounding on the principal’s office door, begging to ride herd on middle schoolers in the cafeteria), and build trust by being professional in what you do. Do everything with the attitude of Christ (Philippians 2:6-8, 12-16), and trust God to open up any doors he wants for your ministry.
Walk through doors when God opens them!
I can’t tell you how many incredible conversations I’ve had with students in school lunchrooms. I get to connect with them in ways I otherwise wouldn’t be able to. And it doesn’t stop there. As a result of the trust I’ve built in the schools, I’ve been asked to take part in leadership mentoring programs, been used as a crisis counselor (several years ago, our high school was rocked by multiple student suicides, and I was allowed to come in to help during that time), and now I’m even facilitating a student-led Bible study that meets weekly. In addition, I’ve had the opportunity to give talks on homelessness, take part in National Honor Society pinnings, and speak at high school Fellowship of Christian Athletes meetings. Doing all of that takes time and commitment, of course. But I would much rather spend hours of my time involved in my students’ world than sit in my office planning the next youth group game for Sunday night. And besides, the more I’m seen in the community and the schools as a force for good, the more chance I have to be heard when God opens hearts and ears to his gospel.
Don’t get a martyr complex.
It’s easy to feel as if you’ve “invaded” the school and can now take advantage of that trust to “change the school for Jesus.” That won’t end well for you or for the rest of us who are building bridges. If that’s going to be your attitude, then stay in your office. Yes, in many ways we’re going into the Enemy’s territory when we walk through the doors of a school. You will certainly encounter things that will make you uncomfortable, but as a follower of Christ, you should meet those kinds of challenges with tact, compassion, and love. Remember that Jesus died not just for your students—he died for every kid, teacher, and administrator as well. One of the coolest things I do in the lunchroom is silently pray for the kids and teachers as I walk around. I pray that the Lord would move in their hearts. If there’s a student I know has a need, I specifically pray for him or her as I walk by. The student may be engrossed in eating lunch or talking to a friend, and I don’t even say a word as I pass by, but I lift that student before the throne of God in prayer. Who knows what harvest God may bring about in that student’s life because I took a moment to pray as I walked by or picked up his or her trash.
Doing ministry in the public school arena requires time, grace, love, and patience. It’s not easy, but I can’t think of a better way to engage the world of teenagers than to walk through the front door of their high school or middle school to serve in Jesus’ name!
Dale Kaufman serves at the Milan Free Methodist Church in Milan, MI. Outside of overseeing the youth ministries of the church, Dale also helps with other ministries such as worship and technology. He has served in churches in New Mexico, Colorado, Oregon and Michigan. He and his wife Pam have two sons, two dogs, and one sugar glider!
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the YS Blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or position of YS.