The small town of Hitchcock, South Dakota, population 95, like many other rural communities, is experiencing a decline in population. But the children’s and youth ministry program at The United Methodist Church in Hitchcock is holding steady and has seen a small increase in attendance. “We have made an effort, as a team that participated in the Children’s and Youth Ministry Cohort, to be organized, intentional, and to let the kids know we care about them,” says Rev. Steve Behrens, who serves as the pastor at Hitchcock UMC. “The cohort is a gift from the conference.”
Since 2017, 35 churches have been experiencing changes to their children’s and youth ministry through participating in training provided by the Dakotas Conference and Stephanie Caro, Ministry Architects.
Teams from churches gather four times a year to learn from Caro and each other. Between each gathering, local congregations spend time planning and implementing ideas, receive individual coaching from Caro, and connect with other teams.
Fargo First UMC had a five-person team involved in the cohort learning effort this past year. “We really benefited from the systems that we learned about—communication, organization, volunteering,” says Rev. Kris Mutzenberger, who serves as the Discipleship Pastor at First United Methodist Church in Fargo, North Dakota. “We had our Children’s Ministry Coordinator, Sunday School teachers, parents, and grandparents on our team.”
Besides attending the cohort training sessions, First UMC has been engaged in an 18-month assessment and consulting process with Caro. “We have seen a 17% increase in our attendance at children’s and youth ministry programming,” says Mutzenberger.
One of the ideas that the congregation in Fargo has been implementing is holding family faith events. One successful event, Celebrate Creativity was an opportunity where everyone could share their talents and hobbies. “It was a time when everyone could participate — a truly multi-generational experience,” Pastor Kris shares.
Other family faith events held at Fargo First UMC include the Journey to Jesus prayer walk, and Faith and Fiction book talks.
Hitchcock United Methodist Church has implemented a practice of honoring a child or youth in the community each week as a result of participating in the Children’s and Youth Ministry cohort. During worship, a slide with the photo of the person being honored that week is projected. The slide or sometimes multiple slides highlight the person’s interests, hobbies, their favorite food, TV show or movie, pets, and family.
“Each week we make a special effort to honor one child or youth,” says Rev. Steve Behrens. “We encourage the adults and the congregation to get to know the young people and form a relationship. The weekly profile provides everyone an opportunity to engage in a conversation with the person that is being honored that week.”
Rev. Behrens had a team of four people from the congregation—the Sunday School superintendent, a Sunday School teacher, the youth group leader, and himself attend each of the four training sessions. “We learned a lot together. The training was wonderful,” says Behrens. “We gained a lot from the coaching calls. One of the most valuable learning experiences was being able to share and learn from the other teams from other churches.”
Rev. Mutzenberger agrees with Behrens and also adds that the shared learning experience creates a knowledge base among the leaders. “The shared vocabulary and knowledge base that you gain as a team is crucial. You understand as a team, can engage in leading, planning and implementing together because you have learned together,” she says.
In Hitchcock, Pastor Steve and the team now know the need to plan, put support systems in place, and get organized. “We have a common idea of why it is important to plan and be organized. We also can have conversations about support systems, like volunteers,” he says.
Both Behrens and Mutzenberger emphasize that it is essential for the pastor to be involved in the process.
“If you have an opportunity, get involved,” says Behrens.
“It is a blessing to be able to grow and learn as a pastor with a team from your congregation. Anytime you can learn something new or are reminded of something you may be familiar with, it is a great opportunity and blessing,” says Mutzenberger.
The first training for the Children’s and Youth Ministry Cohort was held at Dakota Wesleyan University in July. Eight congregational teams are participating this year, including Faulkton, Groton, Madison, Marion/Dickey/Jud, Sioux Falls First, Sioux Falls Hilltop, Spearfish, and Sturgis.
Here is what participants had to say after the first training: “I thoroughly enjoyed this training.” “This brings together several ideas that have been floating around in my head. Truly engaging!” “The face-to-face meetings with monthly coaching calls is a great format.”
Three more training sessions will be held. Everyone is welcome to attend. The dates of the training are: October 12, 2019, at Storm Mountain Center; January 11, 2020, at Lake Poinsett Camp and Retreat Center: April 3, 2020, at a site to be determined.
If you are interested in attending any of these training sessions, contact the Office of Leadership Development for the Dakotas Conference by e-mail or phone: 605-990-7796.