Were Your Summer Plans "Canceled"?
Serve Cincy Missions Week
By Jayk Hinze
The summer of 2020 is not one that we will soon forget. The ways that our society has been shaken by Covid-19 were entirely unexpected, and I know that many of us are still processing these changes. And yet, God is still at work in our communities doing incredible things. And this summer, our youth ministry found new meaning in the words, “love your neighbor as yourself.”
Our youth ministry program has a long history of summer mission trips. Each summer, we would pack up our students, volunteers, and equipment into vans & trucks, and we would drive to a different community to be the hands and feet of Jesus and meet the needs of “the least of these.” This summer, because of Covid-19, our church leadership decided that it was not a good idea to cram a bunch of teenagers into vans and drive some 6 hours away to sleep in bunk houses together for a week. And in that decision, I fully support them. But this meant that all my plans for the summer were out the window!
So, instead of doing what we’ve always done, we decided to have a local missions week right in our own community. As my team and I were praying about the next right steps for our students this summer, it became clear to us that He wanted us to truly serve our neighbors. So that’s what we did! We set up six different worksites around our immediate community in northern Cincinnati for our students and adult leaders to work on during the day, and we also had three evening worship services at an outdoor location. We also went kayaking as a group during one of the days. And miraculously, everyone stayed healthy all week!
Preparing for the Week
The preparation process for this week was not easy. For me personally, I had to start by grieving the loss of what was. I needed to recognize that this summer was going to be drastically different from other summers, and I had to be ok with letting go of certain things that I was especially excited about in ministry. I also had to walk through this process with some of my volunteer and student leaders as well.
Next, we had to adapt. There are certain elements of every mission trip that are universal: work during the day, worship opportunities in the evenings, and a few splashes of fun along the way. But there were also certain elements that were completely out, like sharing food together. So my team and I came up with some safety measures that we hoped would help to keep our students and adults healthy while still being able to serve and fellowship together in person.
Our major shift was breaking our large group up into smaller groups. Instead of gathering together for worship in the morning or sharing meals together in the evenings, almost everything we did during the week happened within the context of the work teams that we developed. Before choosing to participate, we asked everyone to conduct a self-screening to check for any Covid-19 symptoms. Then, students and leaders met at their worksite each morning, and at the end of the work day, students went home for dinner and showers before coming back to evening worship. We also followed the guideline from the CDC and asked everyone to wear a mask while they participated, and we looked for as many outdoor service opportunities as we could find. Our kayaking trip and evening worship were the only times throughout the week that the entire group was together, and during these times, we encouraged everyone to practice social distancing.
As for the work, my team and I took a threefold approach to finding jobs for our students to do. First, we looked to partner with local mission organizations that were already at work providing aid and relief during the pandemic. This was challenging, as many organizations were not yet receiving outside volunteers yet. However, we were able to locate one worksite this way. We also discovered material needs from ministries that we could help to pack, sort and prepare offsite to be delivered to them.
Our second area of focus was to identify people within our congregation who had potential yard work needs or small repair projects that our teams could handle. On this front, we found several small projects that took a day or two to complete. So, we prepared a couple teams to travel to different worksites throughout the week to accomplish the requests that we got. This was an awesome way to connect our students to some people in our congregation that they do not normally interact with, and we finished the week with several happy church members. Two women in particular are still raving about how big a blessing it was to have our students come and help them!
Our final area for identifying worksites came from our church Board of Trustees. They had developed a list of projects around our church building that they were hoping to accomplish while it was closed to the public, and our students were able to jump in and be a big help with that. We also convinced them to let us update our youth room space, which was another big win! On this front, we also discovered another church property near ours that needed lots of TLC, so we deployed a team to that location as well.
- You cannot do ministry on your own
First and foremost, it is important to seek God’s guidance in ministry. I spent time in prayer for this missions week each day leading up to and during the actual week. I had to remember that God is already at work in our community, and so I looked for ways that fall in step with what He was doing. I prayed for work that would actually make a difference for others, and God led us to the places where our help was needed.
I was also incredibly blessed to have lots of help in preparing for and leading this local missions week, and I cannot say thank you enough to these folks. I held an initial meeting with seven of my core ministry volunteers to talk through the logistics of the week and to think through all that needed to be accomplished in order to make it happen. Within that group of seven, I had one volunteer who was willing to talk through the high-level decisions with me regarding safety measures. This team also helped to coordinate the various worksites where we served. And for the week itself, I had over twenty volunteers working with our students across our six different worksites. And, because we were not able to provide transportation, we relied heavily on parent involvement as well.
I was also impressed with the maturity that our seniors and student leaders demonstrated during this process as well. Obviously, they were looking forward to going away on our usual trip, but they were willing to get on board with this new plan early, and they helped to get the rest of our students excited about the week too. And during the week, they did a great job of keeping the energy up!
- Stay adaptable
It was important for me and my team to stay adaptable during the preparation process, because there were a number of changes that came up during each of the weeks leading up to our missions week. In fact, just four days before our week began, our county was given an extreme Covid-19 ranking by the state of Ohio, and we weren’t sure if we’d be able to gather at all. I learned quickly that every plan we made needed a contingency plan, and oftentimes those contingencies needed contingencies of their own! We didn’t even make it to our opening worship service without having to make adjustments to our schedule. At times, it was incredibly frustrating, but with the help of my team, we persisted. We knew that this was what God was calling us to, and we remained flexible to get the job done.
- The power of presence
When we first went on lockdown in the Spring and shifted all of our ministry to online platforms, there was a small part of me that was worried that would become the new norm. People would be content meeting virtually, and in-person ministry would start to go the way of the dodo. I cannot tell you how grateful I am to be wrong about that. There is something so valuable about being together in ministry, and we experienced that in full force during our missions week. Prior to this, we held a few small in-person youth activities at the local park, but for many of our students and adult leaders, this was the first time they were seeing each other in months. And it felt very good to be together. Three nights during the week we held outdoor worship services in the evenings, and God’s Spirit was palpable in our midst, especially on the night we shared communion together. Despite the differences in our week and the sadness some of us felt, we were still able to come together and worship the Lord in a mighty way. And even though we were masked and socially distanced, there was something very powerful about being together during the week.
On the last night of our mission trips, we traditionally hold a senior night celebration where the graduating seniors are given the space to lead worship and share their testimonies with the rest of the group. This is a powerful tradition that we wanted to make sure that we kept during our local missions week, and I am so glad that we did. It was inspiring to hear from our seniors about how they were processing these seismic shifts in our world as they prepare for a new season of life. Another tradition we have on our trips is that we require students to leave their phones at home, which we obviously could not recreate in this new model. But, at the end of the week, I had one student come to me and say that the worst part of his week was going home to his phone each night, which I took as a big win!
Our missions week in July of 2020 would have never been my first choice on how to lead a summer missions trip. But I believe that God showed up in the midst of it to do some incredible things in and through our students and adult volunteers. We were still able to be the hands and feet of Jesus, despite all the changes we are experiencing in this pandemic, and I believe God used our efforts to make a difference in our community. We partnered with other local ministries and learned more about how God was at work in our community, and it was also a great blessing to be able to serve some of our own church family!
Covid-19 has changed so much of our lives, and we have to acknowledge this if we want to continue to lead our ministries effectively. But we also have to trust that God is still moving in and through the lives of our students, and that means that we still have work to do! There is still hurt and brokenness in the lives of our students. Young people still need adults who care about them and want to help them grow in their relationship with Christ. And this means that ministry has to continue! Whether it happens in-person or online, students still need opportunities to become familiar with our Savior!
Jayk is the Youth Director at Church of the Saviour in Cincinnati, Ohio.