In my last Youth Ministry Sellout Post I talked about my move out of youth ministry and some new perspectives I have since said sellout. In this post I’m going look back and talk about some successes and failures in youth ministry. To be clear, some of these are mine, some of these I witnessed first-hand. In my time doing youth ministry I was fortunate to be around a number of great and not-so-great examples doing youth ministry. The amount of awesomeness and douche-baggery I’ve witnessed is extreme. I’m glad I did though. It helped shape me a person not just a youth pastor.
So, here are some successes, failures, and lessons learned (theoretically) as a result. They are in no particular order, just as I think of them. As I look at many of these, they can be general life lessons, but they have special meaning to youth ministry folks.
- Don’t confuse what God accomplishes through you with your own accomplishments. This is a hard one. Sometimes things happen because of a great idea, sometimes it’s dumb luck, and still sometimes God does great things despite your every effort to thwart it. Having a big group, talented kids, or anything noteworthy is great and something to brag on God about, but realize you just had a part to play in the whole thing. This is especially true if your church is growing, or has a bunch of adults with youth-age kids. This is even MORE true when it comes to spiritual decisions/accomplishments/growth/things. Never, and I mean NEVER take credit for anything spiritual. Don’t forget for a second that God did that. (1 Corinthians 3:6) Paul didn’t have a surefire system to ensure spiritual growth, you don’t either. I’m sure your teaching is great, your small group program is incredible, and your one-on-ones are the best. But if you are ever tempted to take credit for it, don’t, you will just look arrogant. Then, you will look stupid when it doesn’t work the next time…
- Don’t be lazy and blame it on your family. I’ll be the first to admit that pastoral ministry is tough. Doing that same work with teens can be even more difficult because of the turmoil associated with teenagers. I also understand that having a family is tough. Paul agrees with me and he is pretty smart too (1 Corinthians 7:33-34). When you add kids to that mix things get even harder. I only did youth ministry about 19 months before I had a child of my own, so I didn’t get to do the ministry for years unhindered from family responsibility. I hear a lot of guys in ministry say things like, “my first job is to be a husband and father.” The last time I checked my wife and kids weren’t the ones signing my paychecks. I think my first responsibility is to my wife and then to my kids, but that is different than my job. I also have a responsibility to my employer. If my job keeps me from fulfilling my responsibility to my family I need to renegotiate or quit. Simply not doing my job is not an option.
- Learn the 4-6 things kids care about most and capitalize on them. There are lots of similarities with teens. Everyone likes to think they are the most unique snowflake in the blizzard but we are all way more alike than different. You can spend a lot of your time trying to learn every nuance of each kid and how to deal with them on the most personal level. The truth is that we usually don’t get that much time with any one teen. So, I usually tried to learn the core questions that the culture produced in the teens. This was different in the different communities, so don’t think I’m saying everyone is exactly alike. In an upscale DFW suburb the questions dealt mainly with keeping up appearances in the midst of struggles, not feeling significant compared to the accomplishments of parents/family, and how to balance personal interests and social pressures. In rural Texas it was fitting in, overcoming their certain reputation, or trying to get out of their lot in life. Suburban New Mexico is quite different where teens want Christian friends at school that lived out their faith, significant opportunities to serve, and extreme authenticity. Of course, a lot of teens want to know how “far is too far,” how to deal with parents/siblings/friends/family, and have questions about God and faith. If you can learn to be a student of the culture you can save yourself a great deal of time and energy.
- Learn to love old people. This one was easy for me but I didn’t appreciate it at first. I have always had a great relationship with my 3 grandparents. Therefore, it was natural that spend time with spiritual grandparent-types. My first job was working for a pastor that was the same age as my grandma. I liked the way he led a group of people that were mostly my grandparents age, so I stuck with him. Ever since that first church I’ve hung with old people. I’ve taken senior groups to activities, individuals to doctor appointments, and gotten the pants beat off of me by seniors in dominoes and cards. When I started at my current church I began meeting with a guy that was in his late 60’s. Most Monday’s his wife cooks us breakfast. He has been going to Grace Church for over 40 years, has raised 8 kids, and has served Grace Church in every capacity except pastor. Why is this advice so important? When you are doing youth ministry it is extremely easy to just hang out with teens and other youth leaders. That is a huge mistake though. As much as I love both teens and youth workers they usually have very little influence in the church. I’ve seen too many youth directors/pastors lose their job over silly stuff simply because these men/women didn’t have any allies in the older crowd. I’m not talking about playing politics, or something underhanded to gain secret advantage. I am talking about developing real relationships with non-youth-age people in your church. When you hang out with old people you find out where the skeletons are hidden, where the landmines are buried, and the behavior deemed fatal by the community. That info is priceless. Also, old people bring credibility. When the carpet gets set on fire during your midweek youth gathering who will have more influence with church leadership about keeping your job, the 15 year old who started the fire or a 65 year old woman who has been a member of the church for 50 years? It probably won’t matter that you’ve discipled that 15 year old and he is planning to be a missionary. It will matter that Mrs. Mable loves you and thinks that the church is a better place with you employed there. I can’t tell you how many times having an old person on my side has saved my bacon, and I DO love bacon.
I only covered four things… not what I had imagined, but it will have to do for now…
What are the most important lessons you’ve learned doing youth ministry?