by Maria Ghianni-Wilkinson

During my time as a Graduate Resident in CYMT, I learned so much that helped me grow as a youth minister; I also often found that I had to adapt some of what I was learning to fit better with my context. I think that when people teach youth ministry, talk about youth ministry, and learn about youth ministry, the focus can often be on bigger church ministries. There is nothing wrong with learning what it takes to work in a large church setting, and I am grateful for learning what I did. However, there is something to be said for not overlooking our small town/small church ministries.

While serving a Church in a small town in Tennessee, I came to love the town. However, it can be difficult living in a small town and working at a small church. Because I grew up in Nashville, it took some adapting to get used to Carthage. I had to learn how to live on my own and how to enjoy alone time more than I ever had before. This naturally took time and effort. For example, I had to learn how to live in a town that was kind of like a bubble – it often felt like everyone knew where I was and what I was doing. As youth workers, we often have to take caution in the way we act in public. In small  towns, it’s magnified to a much greater degree. 

One thing that really helped was that the church congregation accepted me almost immediately. They loved and supported me. In small churches and towns, you have the opportunity to connect deeply to people; not only are there less names to remember, but there is also something about smaller groups that can create strong bonds between people. The best way to be successful and to be happy in a small town or small church is to be connected to your church, your community, and your young people. 

Relational activities are absolutely essential to ministry, because they show your students that they aren’t just a number. They show your students that you care about them and that you want to know who they are and what is important to them. In Carthage, these relational activities were more than just a way to know my students; they were a way to become a known face in a small town. I consistently showed my face at football games, middle school FCA, theChristmas and Homecoming parades, the town fair, and the county play. It’s important to know your context and learn where your students and families spend their time.

The heart of your community is connected to the heart of your ministry. As someone who lived in a small town, I was a representative of myself, of my church, of my role as youth minister, of Jesus. As youth ministers in general, these are true statements. However, in a small town, your identity is rooted in your community. I wasn’t just Maria. I was Maria, youth minister of Carthage UMC, youth minister to Krissy or Maggie or Coleman. I was Maria, someone who worked at the church across from Sonic. I was Maria, resident of Carthage, and representative of my youth group in a huge way. 

I was not only present in my community, I was also present within my church. One of the biggest struggles we face as youth ministers in small churches and large churches is finding volunteer support. Now I don’t know about you, but I would be much more apt to volunteer with a ministry if knew the person in charge and knew that they cared about my church as a whole, rather than just their own ministry. I would be more willing to serve if I saw them serving as well. 

Our church often had luncheons after service in order to support the women’s ministry, the Cub Scouts, the Habitat for Humanity group, etc. I would be there. There was major support of our choir program. I joined. Carthage UMC is deeply involved in the Emmaus community. I did the walk my first year there. I would often get asked to go to lunch by our parents or by volunteers, and if I was available I would always say yes. You don’t have to be a “yes woman,” and you can say no; however, being present, connecting to your church congregation, becoming more than just a worker, and being an active member will, in return, allow your congregation to see you as family rather than just as someone who teaches their kids about Jesus. They will see you being involved, and the hope is that they will choose to become involved in return. That they will choose to support you and your choices, that they will decide to make youth ministry a priority. 

When I first started working at Carthage, I had a lot of ideas about how our programming should look. I grew up attending a big church in Nashville, and we met three times a week so that was my plan. However, when it comes to your programming, you have to be able to adapt it to your ministry. When I first got to Carthage, I tried my best to really push a Bible study on Sunday nights, but no one ever showed up. It wasn’t until I moved the Bible study to Monday nights and held it for Junior high girls specifically that students started consistently showing up. Through taking the time to know my context, I was able to make a strategic and smart ministry change.  At bigger churches, you have the capability of having small groups for junior high girls boys, senior high girls boys, sometimes even just ninth grade girls, just twelfth grade boys, etc. But our church had just me, and I led just one small group. And it still made a difference. It wasn’t what I originally wanted, but things aren’t always what you picture them to be. 

Because of the smallness of our ministry, there was a closeness. Just like small congregations and small towns create families, so do youth groups. You can connect deeply to your students. You can attend more than one of their games or musical performances a year. Ministry in these settings can’t be about the numbers; it has to be about being able to be in discipleship with your students, helping them find their identity in Christ, loving them, and watching them grow. My church loved me, and I loved my church. Living in my small town of Carthage, Tennessee, working for a small church, and living in ministry with those students changed my life and helped me truly understand my place in ministry. As youth ministers, we need to remember that we get the chance to be in discipleship with young people, that we get to change lives, that we get to love our students so much that they see Jesus. I hope that I can remember that on days when life gets hard. And I’m thankful I did remember it when life was Carthage.

Cultural Toolkit Assessment

Use this week’s download to investigate your church’s culture and the community you serve.  The assessment has questions that will guide in this process no matter where you live and serve and no matter how long you’ve been there.  Use it with your student ministry team or if you are new to your church do it on your own. The guide is especially helpful to churches who have lost connection with the community around the church.  It can also be helpful to churches who think their community makeup is one thing but the needs of their people are actually different. Let us know what you learn! Download Here.

About the Author

Maria Ghianni-Wilkinson is an 2015 graduate of the Center for Youth Ministry Training graduate program with a M.A. in Youth Ministry. She currently lives in Belfast, Northern Ireland with her husband Michael. Maria has been working in ministry for nearly 10 years, both in Tennessee and overseas, and she now serves as the youth pastor of Movilla Abbey Church in Newtownards. Maria enjoys travel, Netflix originals, and spending time with her two cats, Simba and Salem.

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