Summer usually is a high-water mark in youth ministries — a time of long hours but tremendous growth. Summer allows youth ministers to spend more time with students, going on lunch outings or to the movies, and traveling for hours on the way to long-anticipated mission trips and camps. In these, youth groups grow together in ways not possible during the school year.
But like many things in the time of COVID-19, all that changed this summer. With churches going mostly virtual and summer camps suspending normal activities, youth ministers had to adapt the way they did everything, from trips to service projects all the way to Bible studies and youth group meetings.
“Summer has been very different from our usual hopes and expectations, but we’ve done our best to remain flexible while making the most of what we have,” said Chris Cherry, associate pastor for youth and families at First Baptist Church in Greensboro, N.C.
Along with the other challenges brought on by COVID-19, youth ministers began summer with an additional obstacle to engaging their youth: Zoom fatigue. With so many students finishing school virtually in the spring, youth ministers like Cherry had to navigate how to meet safely without exacerbating the fatigue of their already screen-weary youth.
That meant using a blended approach, with some events taking place online and some meetings in person. “Overall, we’ve greatly cut down on the number of times we meet on Zoom and have instead tried to meet in person as often as possible,” Cherry said. For in-person meetings, his congregation followed the recommendations of health experts, requiring masks, physical distancing and meeting outside at the church.
The impact of the pandemic is shifting the way youth ministers think about their ministries, moving away from intensive Bible studies and elaborate youth group activities to focusing on what students need most.
“Our events have been very simple in nature, but they’ve all had good turnout and high energy,” Cherry explained. “We’ve colored with chalk in the church parking lot, brought our lunches to eat together at a distance, played a modified version of bocce ball and tie-dyed shirts together. All of this is simple but also meant our conversations were more natural and not behind a screen.”
For Marnie Fisher-Ingram, associate pastor for youth and their families at River Road Church, Baptist in Richmond, Va., an emphasis on personal connection was a top priority in this unusual summer.
“Youth need social interaction, and they need the ability to laugh and process,” Fisher-Ingram said. “Mostly, they want to see each other, and they appreciate hearing from adults in their lives who love and care about them. In these times, a gathering to watch a movie, play bingo or charades goes a long way.”
Since July, Fisher-Ingram hosted separate lunch gatherings for middle school and high school youth. In addition to these gatherings, she has been sending mail to her youth since the beginning of the pandemic.
Perhaps the greatest challenge for summer was recreating mission trip and camp experiences, which are a major emphasis throughout the year for many youth groups. Often they build anticipation throughout the year with promotion, sign-ups and fundraising efforts. But in mid-April, PASSPORT Camps, which both Cherry’s and Fisher-Ingram’s youth normally attend, announced it would not hold in-person camps for the first time in its 27-year history. With travel restrictions in place and the high risks involved with traveling in confined spaces and working with mission partners, mission trips were out of the question as well.
With a little creativity and the help of PASSPORT and Cooperative Baptist Fellowship field personnel, both River Road and First Baptist Church were able to offer unique summer experiences. The national office staff at PASSPORT, along with several college students, quickly pivoted to offer a series of virtual camp experiences, including Bible studies, worship and parties. Youth ministers had the flexibility to choose when, where and how their youth groups were involved.
“We participated in the virtual season of PASSPORT for the month of July, mostly through our Instagram page,” Cherry said. Cherry posted updates to the youth group’s page, sharing worship videos, Scripture passages and invitations to virtual gatherings so that his students could participate.
“We also did a modified mission trip week in Greensboro,” he explained. “Instead of traveling to Washington, D.C., like we had planned, we worked with a couple of local mission partners. We also had CBF field personnel Leslie-Ann Hix Tommey record a video to share about her work at Metro Baptist Church in New York City.”
During the week, his group harvested food from the church’s community garden to donate to a local resource center and sponsored a “Fill My Trunk” challenge, where church members were challenged to fill the back of a youth’s SUV with canned goods. In total, they collected more than 750 pound of food in just two hours.
River Road opted for an in-person week of “Parking Lot Passport,” for one hour each evening. Each youth was assigned a parking spot in the church parking lot and participated in the Bible studies provided by PASSPORT and then concluded with a game. Fisher-Ingram’s group went a step further to show their support for PASSPORT, which is taking on a major fundraising effort to recoup the lost revenue as a result of canceling in-person camp. “With some of our youths’ leadership, we hosted a virtual dessert auction. Youth made the desserts, and we auctioned them off online, with all the proceeds going toward PASSPORT,” she said.
While it is not exactly the summer these youth ministers prepared for, they know it is not one they or their students will forget.
“Even with recreating them at home the best we could, there’s just something about youth spending time together while doing things that matter,” Cherry said. “We missed staying up late playing Bananagrams and creating memories that will be shared years later.
“It was really tough to try to walk youth through the realization that all the summer things they looked forward to were being cancelled one by one. We’ve made plenty of great memories this summer, but we miss those opportunities without a doubt.”