by Jeffrey O.B. Conover
Youth Ministry Leader

St. Margaret’s Episcopal Church, Annapolis

Last year at his time I would have been telling you all about the exciting events and activities the Youth have to look forward to, both in Youth Group and Sunday School. Well, surprisingly things will be different this year! Here is a quick rundown of what – right now – Youth Formation will look like in the coming school year.

Through much of last year, Youth Group attendance was through the roof! An average Monday night would see twenty-plus sixth through twelfth graders hanging out, laughing and learning for two hours. Well, those days are on pause. Instead, we are going to experiment!

While the possibility exists for some limited in-person gatherings, they will be the exception, and I will use them sparingly for certain high-impact events. The bulk of Youth Formation will be on-line this year, much like all the schools in the County.  The entire Youth Group got an intense education on Zoom and its possibilities and limitations this past spring.  We learned a lot and are incorporating those lessons into our planning for the year. I “met” with some of our Youth Group veterans the other week to discuss ideas. Here is what we have come up with for the 2020-21 School Year.

Youth Group will meet virtually via Zoom. In the past, our meetings lasted a bit over two hours – three if you counted Monday night dinner, too. That length of time is excellent when in-person but is insane in an on-line format. So, we restructure. There will be THREE Youth Group meetings a week via Zoom, none to last more than one hour. The first will be for the entire Youth Group and we will meet at our old time of 7 o’clock Monday evenings. One of the best things about our Youth Group is the community it has created.  This sense of belonging has been critical to the program’s success, and we all want to continue to foster that.  Monday nights will be primarily about Fellowship; sharing what is happening in our lives, maybe a short lesson, and time to have some fun with the games we have collected for on-line use. A very special note about our first Monday night meeting, which will be on 14 September. This meeting will be especially focused on our newest members! We have a new crop of middle-schoolers to integrate into our group. Some of our High School students will join us that night to share our group norms and traditions and introduce them to our community’s culture. This way, when the entire group gets together on the 21st, things won’t seem strange to our newest members, and they will feel welcomed.

The other two meetings will break out by grade – Middle School one night and High Schoolers another (TBD). This allows me to work on lessons in smaller, more easily managed groups, and to tailor the content more to age. I resisted this when we met in-person because I find the younger members especially benefited from the interaction with the older students, and it provided the older students with some informal leadership opportunities. Zoom makes that more of a challenge, but the idea is that one or two of the high school students will join in with the Middle School group when they meet. Coupled with the whole group getting together on Monday nights, I hope this provides a reasonable facsimile of our previous format and fosters a sense of inclusiveness.

The meeting for High School students will have a different flavor. Having worked with this cohort now for over 15 years as both a Sunday School teacher and as Youth Leader I have discovered some things about their Formation. In the best of times it is a challenge to get them to Sunday School. In the best of times, it is difficult to get them to want to focus on something that seems like just more academics to them – another lecture that goes in one ear and out the other. What I have found works best is when the topic interests them, and that means giving them wide latitude in the direction of our discussions. They engage the most when they feel they are integral to the topic, and not just an audience. Another important lesson learned about this age group is time. They don’t have enough of it, and they treasure and guard their down time.  In this, I am their complete ally. They are young adults and should have a say in how they manage their time. This is the time to learn that important skill, and they do that by making some of their own choices. With all of this in mind, I want to try something radical with the High School.

We are going to combine High School Sunday School and High School Youth Group. And, we are not going to meet on Sunday mornings.

{GASP!!!!!!}  I know, I can hear you. Just breathe. I think this will work.

We are going to substitute a rolling, moderated discussion for a regular class time. Using Google Classroom, with which most of our students are already very familiar, we will replicate our wide-ranging discussions. The beauty of this idea is that the students can participate as they have the time. Everyone will be able to easily “hear” each other and will have more time to reflect on what they read and what they write. And, students who were not regular Sunday School-goers in the past (because getting up on Sunday morning was too difficult) might find it easier to participate. In fact, since we are using the same platform as they use in school, we might get a little increased participation as they finish up schoolwork. Fingers crossed! We will meet weekly via Zoom, but that meeting will be even more of a blend of Sunday School and Youth Group than I have tried to make it in the past. (A personal philosophy note: I have always seen them as two sides of the same coin. One is more learning and one is more practical application of what they learn).

Okay, but what about things like Night Watch, and lock-ins, and service trips? Short answer: I don’t know. I am going to be paying very close attention to try and identify when it is safe and essential that we gather in-person. I take my cues from the County, the State and the Diocese, using science and common sense. As the situation permits and opportunities present themselves, we will look closely at what is possible. Nothing can truly substitute for in-person gatherings, but nothing is more important to me than the safety and health of our students.

More detailed information will be forthcoming, covering these ideas in some more detail and discussing the lessons we will be having.  But for now, I hope this answers your basic questions of what the coming Youth Group year will look like. No one has a crystal ball (as far as I know), and there are challenges and risks to operating Youth Group virtually. However, my informal council of advisors and I are confident that that this is a good and workable plan.  I look forward to feedback, and I am always open to try something new. I hope you will support this plan and continue to support our Youth program as we work through the coming challenges!