One of the most valuable and daunting tasks in Youth Ministry is the visit to the local school lunchroom. There is, in my opinion, no better way to meet students in their world, to show the students in your ministry that you genuinely care for them, and to build relationships with new students than by showing up for lunch at their school.
I started showing up at Cascade High School for lunches in August of 2001, and have continued to do so sporadically throuout the years. I have been allowed to enter the school and visit students despite enduring four different administrations, multiple school boards, and about 5 principals throughout the years.
While most of us are concerned about impressing and interacting with the students, I write this post today to encourage you and give you some ideas about partnering with the SCHOOL where you minister. By keeping your school in mind, you will hopefully be able to have access to this amazing opportunity while you minister to your students locally.
Always ask permission instead of forgiveness
I’ve learned never to assume anything. In schools, new leadership, new policies, and new modes of operation come standard. I almost always call ahead on the day I’m going to show up, just to let them know I’m coming. When a new principal or superintendent comes, I always double check to make sure it’s okay that I’m coming, even though I’ve been around a lot longer than they have. In short, always ask, and be respectful of the authorities within your school system.
Be an ally to the lunchroom staff
Most people pay little attention to the lunch lady serving or to the woman dealing with student accounts at the end of the line, but these can be some of the most important people you encounter. These folks are going to see you the whole time you are there. They will watch how you interact with students, and they will also see if you make a huge mess they have to clean up. And one of the best ways to honk off the lunch staff is to bring in outside food like pizza. You may be hugely popular with students for bringing bags of Taco Bell to their lunchroom, but you just threw off all the lunchroom counts, and wasted a ton of their food and effort. The last thing you want is to be asked to leave the school because the lunchroom staff is tired of putting up with you. One thing I’ve done is to help the lunchroom staff clean up the cafeteria between lunches. Why not? What else do you have to do while you wait?
Know the boundaries and live happily within them
With all the politics, different religions, and frankly, crazy parents out there, schools are often subject to ridicule from all angles. You don’t want to be one of those angles, so know your boundaries. If the school says you can only go to certain places in the lunchroom, then only go there. Most schools would frown on you taking advertisements of your youth events to the lunchroom (ours allows it, but I’m sure that’s rare), so don’t do it. Follow the rules, and you’ll be happy you did.
Use your own students to meet new students
One thing I have heard from multiple teachers is that they think it’s neat that I mingle with ALL the students, and not just the ones that go to my church. I do this deliberately by telling my students at church my intentions for my lunchroom visits. I let them know that my goal is to say hey to them and THEN meet all their friends. This is a very natural and relational way to connect with new students. And, after a while, you know half the school. Teachers and staff will notice if you are investing in the same students they are.
Work hard to remember names – it DOES make a difference
You may only interact with the school secretary when you walk in the door and sign in, but learn her name and engage her / him in conversation. Know the key people before you walk in the door, and know their titles as well as you can. I once called the new Superintendent “Mr. __________” and asked if he was a new teacher. He corrected me by saying “I’m the Superintendent, and it’s Doctor.” I felt like a dork. Don’t be a dork – know the players, and learn their names. When a new principal shows up, set up an appointment and let them know you’re here to help, and you both want the same thing. It’ll go a long way.
If tragedy strikes, be available
Over the years, there have been a number of students from local schools nearby that have been killed in car accidents, suicides, and other tragedies. When this happens, the school will often look for resources in their community to help students through the grieving process. If you have taken heed of the previous advice, you will probably receive a call. No matter what you have planned, GO! Drop it all and be there. You will have incredible opportunity to minister to your students and new ones as well, but you will also communicate to your school administrators that you are a part of the team, and a ready and willing resource that they can call upon in times of crisis.
These are a few practical steps I have taken over the years to partner with our local schools. What would you add to the list? What has worked for you in your community?
Keith Parker is the Youth Minister at Hazelwood Christian Church in Clayton, IN. He began doing Youth Ministry in 1997, and has been at his current church since 2001, ministering to Middle School, High School, and College Age students. He is married to his best friend, Jill, and has 3 boys - Tyler, Zach, and Matt. Follow Keith on Twitter - @Keith_Parker1 or Instagram - kparker170