Ever feel like you need a do-over?
Some days I do.
After a lifetime of youth ministry, I find myself looking back over the decades and wishing I had another shot at some of the bumbling decisions I made along the way.
Most of them were careless missteps in the moment, demonstrating a lack of wisdom or discernment in handling a situation, the inexperience of making a decision too quickly, or the immature insecurity of doing what would please the crowd.
As regrettable as some of these day-to-day mistakes were, there were actually some bigger directional miscalculations that had much greater implications for the students and families in my care, the volunteers who faithfully served with me, and for me as a leader.
The sad truth for me was that some of these crucial lessons could only be learned in the unforgiving classroom of life. It was when I began to experience the unintended consequences and destructive side effects of my lack of direction that I understood more clearly where I ought to be going.
The great news for you is that you don’t have to make the same mistakes I did. I’ve had the privilege of training youth workers for decades, and whether it’s in the classroom, a conference, or through conversation, my hope is that you could avoid careless mistakes and instead soak in the joys of ministry each day. That’s why I’d love to share with you seven lessons I had to learn the hard way, but once I learned them they forever changed how I did youth ministry.
1. Youth ministry is a team sport
It wasn’t so much that I didn’t see the value of building a team of volunteers to help share in the burden of ministry. It was that I declared myself the owner, general manager, coach, and captain of the team. I had surrounded myself with people who looked like me, sounded like me, and thought like me, failing to recognize the strength that comes in diversity.
The biblical metaphor of the body with a variety of parts serving a variety of functions was not being lived out as God intended. I needed to begin to think of the team as an orchestra with a wide range of instruments, creating amazing music together, and to see myself as a conductor, whose job it was to get the very best out of each of the incredibly talented individuals whom God had brought together to accomplish his purposes. As I made this transition, my greatest joy came in seeing each of them living out their calling instead of seeing my personal agenda advanced.
2. Great programs don’t make disciples
I’ve always known how to throw a great party.
I came into church youth ministry from the world of Christian camping where I had served as a program director for a number of years. Filling a calendar with bigger and better events was my ministry sweet spot, and our numbers grew accordingly. Everyone seemed thrilled with what I was doing. Kids were bringing their friends, parents were cheering me on, and the church leaders smiled when I turned in my bulging attendance records.
But it wasn’t long until the pressures of one-upping myself every week became exhausting. The burden of keeping a growing group of entitled consumers happy was taking its toll. And of course, there was little or no evidence of spiritual rootedness visible in the lives of even my most faithful students. It was a deep encounter with Ephesians 4 in my quiet time one day that put things into perspective. As a pastor/teacher my calling was to prepare God’s people to serve.
Entertainment needed to give way to equipping.
My role needed to change from event planner and menu manager to pastor/shepherd/mentor.
Don’t get me wrong. It was a tough transition and lots of kids walked away. We didn’t stop having fun together. We still did a lot of crazy things and created memories that we still laugh about today. Programs are not the enemy. Pointless programs are the enemy. When we understand the mandate of the great commission and it becomes a reason for existence, everything begins to point in the right direction.
3. Parents are not the enemy
When I was a young youth pastor with a couple of preschool kids, I figured I knew more about raising teenagers than most of the parents whose families I served.
My naïvely arrogant perspective was that they were either unmotivated, unqualified or uninterested in discipling their sons and daughters. They were fortunate to have someone like me step into the gap and compensate for their apparent incompetence. I happily became a spiritual subcontractor for families who were more than happy to step aside and let me take responsibility. What a mistake! Instead of equipping, encouraging, and empowering parents to invest spiritually in the lives of their own children, I saw myself as a rescuer of a generation. It’s a long story, and I won’t take the time to tell it here, but I came to realize that parents who seemed disengaged from the spiritual lives of their children were usually not disinterested or incompetent. Instead, they were poorly equipped, afraid, and uncertain about what to do. I had the opportunity to invest in them so they could invest in their own sons and daughters. What a difference that simple change in attitude made. I so wish I had learned it earlier.
4. I am a role model, whether I choose to be or not
We serve a generation that listen with their eyes. They are watching, learning, shaping their attitudes and actions by replicating what they see in the lives of people they trust and respect.
On several occasions in his letters, the apostle Paul encourages Christians to look at his life and then imitate what they see. What a bold invitation! But here’s a newsflash for those of us who are in relationships with teenagers. They will do exactly that whether we invite them to or not. They will look at our lives and reproduce attitudes, priorities, behaviours, language, lifestyle choices, and other elements of our lives that they observe – whether for good or for evil. When we choose to engage in youth ministry, we choose to live our lives visibly. Your most significant instrument of ministry is your life – lived transparently and authentically, so that a generation can see the difference that the gospel makes in you.
5. When I try to give away what I do not possess I burn out
A bucket that is dropped into an empty well will inevitably come up dry.
There is nothing more exhausting than communicating unfelt or unbelieved truth. I have felt the hollowness of teaching a lesson on forgiveness while harbouring bitterness in my heart. I have known the dissonance of calling kids to moral purity while my own thought life was being allowed to run free. I have challenged kids to be more disciplined in their times of scripture reading and prayer while the busyness of ministry kept my own Bible closed and gathering dust.
The truth is that it takes a disciple to make a disciple.
In fact, over the long haul, we will reproduce disciples after our own kind. The easy solution is to simply avoid teaching in areas that are not authentically present in our own lives, but in doing so, we are short-changing those we are called to serve. A better solution is to be continuously intentional about the formation of our own souls so that the teaching we do will come out of a deep place of honesty, and ring true to those who sit under our teaching.
One thing we know about this generation is that they can sniff out hypocrisy in a heartbeat. Far too often, their reason for walking away from faith is the gap they see between what is taught and what is lived by those who claim to be leaders.
6. My family first
When your own kid says, “Hey Dad, how come you always seem to have room in your schedule for everybody else’s kids and so little time for us?” it causes you to reassess your priorities. Fortunately, my kids were honest enough to ask me that question fairly early in their lives. I had to come to the realization that my primary ministry calling is to be a father, a husband, and now more recently a grandfather.
This does not mean that there are never circumstances when my family has to make a sacrifice for the sake of ministry. It does mean that the primary lens for measuring my ministry effectiveness involves looking at the health of my family and the quality of relationships that we share. Just for the record, there are a ton of benefits that come with growing up in a youth ministry family. Each of my kids has been blessed throughout their adolescence with great mentors who were leaders in our student ministry. They got to experience things that a lot of kids would’ve never had an opportunity to experience. The story of the high priest Eli in the old testament is a sobering reminder that you can do a great job with someone else’s kid and completely lose relationship with your own. Samuel was a worthy investment, but perhaps not at the expense of Hophni and Phinneas.
7. Keep the custodian happy
There are few hurdles in ministry more difficult to overcome then lack of cooperation from the people who take care of the facility. I learned it first in camp ministry and then had it reinforced over and over again in church ministry, and again during the many years I had the privilege of leading Youth Quake (an annual youth event on the Briercrest College campus that brought in several thousand teenagers for the weekend).
So how do you keep these faithful servants, who work behind the scenes to facilitate the fulfilment of our ministry mandate, on your team?
We plan well in advance and communicate clearly so they are not dealing with crisis that our last-minute ideas have created.
We leave things the way we found them and make sure we are not creating extra work.
We teach our students to respect the facility that these folks take such pride in caring for.
We say thank you often and let them know that they are crucial partners in the ministry we are accomplishing together.
And of course, we realize that this principle goes way beyond the custodian and covers the church administrator, the executive pastor, the ladies in charge of the kitchen, and so many others who do the “invisible things” that allows our visible ministry to flourish.
So, here’s the deal! Some lessons can’t be learned really well in a lecture hall or library. Many of the most important ministry lessons I’ve learned have had to be learned in the messy day-to-day reality of doing ministry.
That’s just one of the reasons we launched the Coalition for Youth Ministry Excellence.
It’s a ministry training program that’s designed to help students learn to do youth ministry while doing youth ministry. If you’d like to hear more about this unique experiential immersion training program visit us at www.coalitionforministry.com or get a hold of me at the Coalition office (250-826-6050).
My prayer for you is that you will learn these lessons more easily than I did and that your ministry will flourish, as you pursue the calling God has placed on your life.
Youth workers make an eternal difference!