To my Dearest Sojourner in Ministry to Youth,
You are wise, my friend, to seek out and learn from the experience of others, others who have been educated with an often painful curriculum. And so, as one who has had the privilege of walking with many who have suffered their way into wisdom in youth ministry, I offer a few words of foolishness for you to consider.
I have been in youth ministry for over two decades now, but my experience has been much different than your journey will likely be. You see, I’ve never been on staff at a church. I didn’t really even want to be a youthworker! (In case you’re ready to stop reading right now, I should add that I have been a volunteer in our church’s youth ministry for most of the last 21 years, giving me the chance to work with five different youth pastors!).
The truth is that, as much as I might have been attracted to taking a position as a youth pastor, I resisted it. I’m embarrassed to tell you why. It came down to this…

I didn’t want to drive a bus.

I know it sounds ridiculous, but it’s true. Every youth pastor I knew had driven a rickety old bus up the winding roads of the mountains of California, nearly slipping off the edge (or so I imagined), with a bunch of loud, obnoxious teens yelling at the top of their lungs.
Besides that, I hate driving, and driving a bus was something I just would not do. Fortunately for you, with all the changes in legal and insurance matters, you may never have the option of driving a bus. But for me, it was the deal breaker.
But in God’s unpredictable choreography, a door opened for me to be involved in youth ministry from a different angle. So I began supporting youthworkers in the church by developing content and events to help students follow Jesus by helping them grow in biblical wisdom. This role led me to travel the country to hundreds of youth groups each year, and I began to see patterns in the lives of youth pastors that I hope can help you succeed in your ministry.

Invite People to Be Constructively Critical

Be careful not to rest in the positive praise of others. Know this: Church people will not always be honest with you. Some will praise you for the great job you’re doing and then give a very different evaluation to others. Too many youth pastors are dumfounded when problems arise that they never saw coming.
Being a youthworker can be incredibly challenging and relationally complex. You have to balance the expectations of the teens you are shepherding, their parents, church leadership, and scores of others who aren’t even remotely impacted by your decisions, but who nonetheless have an opinion.
Confrontation is hard, and many in the church don’t know how to speak honestly. By asking for critical input, we foster the fruit of humility and can see more clearly the changes needed in areas we might be blind to. Those who don’t ask for (or who resist) critical input, will very likely find themselves suddenly ambushed by conflict much larger than it should ever have been.
This pattern leads to blaming others, often the pastor, whom we can easily assume is simply intimidated or threatened by our talent. This stance has a way of increasing our wounded-ness, sending us to our next ministry post damaged, doomed to repeat the same mistakes all over again.
Should church leadership manage better? Of course. But we can’t control them. What we can do is take responsibility for our own lives. So I hope you’ll live into the advice in Proverbs to seek out wise counsel, even if that counsel comes in the form of a “wound from a friend.”

Invest in Learning

Is it possible that the staggeringly high turnover rates among those working with youth may be rooted in the fact that after a few years, we just don’t have anything fresh to offer?
When I was in college I made a little extra money doing magic shows. I’d been doing this type of thing since I was young, so I had invested a lot of time developing a great 45-minute program. It wasn’t long before I was spending much more time performing that same 45-minute show than I was practicing or experimenting with new ideas.
This approach served me well for several years. I was able to actually make a decent living during my first few years out of college doing little more than this 45-minute program. Then the problem came: People started inviting me to return. And I didn’t have new material to offer them.
And when I did create new material, it wasn’t anywhere as polished as what I’d been doing for the majority of my life. That’s when I learned how to balance my time between “exploring” and “exploiting,” a concept I shared with the Skit Guys early on in their career, which they have more than mastered.
We all have to find time to do both exploring and exploiting. If we are always exploring (learning new stuff), we never put anything in to action (exploiting what we have learned). And if we are always exploiting what we already know, we never learn anything new. Read books, chase down mentors, go to conventions (like Youth Specialties National Youth Workers Convention!), and make a priority of listening to voices that aren’t just like yours. Find this balance, and you will have longevity in ministry, always be adding to and updating the tools in your toolbox.

Don’t Be the Center

In all my visits to churches, I observed that the youthworkers who were most consistently developing Christ followers and servant leaders, who were experiencing longevity and health in their personal lives and ministries, had one thing in common: None of them was the central player in their ministries! They had students in leadership, and they had spent great amounts of time recruiting and investing in the lives of their adult leaders.
I’ve learned this fascinating fact about pianos (hang with me here): If you shout into a piano, the only strings that will vibrate are those with the same frequency as your voice. Your talent and personality will only connect with so many in the group. The sooner we realize this limitation, the sooner we’ll get passionate about finding a diverse group of leaders who can share in the ministry: more voices calling out, more students vibrating to more frequencies.
Volunteers are good for more than doing the work you don’t want to do. Find those who have teaching gifts and gifts of discipling youth. Help develop them, knowing that few of them will naturally be ready to step outside the box of seeing their role as little more than your “helper.”
When my youth pastors have helped me be successful as a volunteer, I want to stay in the game. When they have valued my time by being prepared and communicating expectations clearly, I want to show up. Don’t be the center. Make others successful, and you’ll accomplish so much more.
There are so many other insights I’d love to share with you, having observed so many extraordinary youthworkers over the years, but these few thoughts will give you plenty to work on for your next few years. More later.
May our Lord richly bless all that you have and will sacrifice to help this generation follow in the way of Jesus!

Mark Matlock

This letter is from the book Letters to a Youth Worker, edited by Mark DeVries.
Mark Matlock has been working with youth pastors, students, and parents for more than two decades. He’s the Executive director of Youth Specialties and founder of WisdomWorks Ministries and PlanetWisdom. He’s the author of several books including The Wisdom On series, Living a Life That Matters, Don’t Buy the Lie, and Raising Wise Children. Mark lives in Texas with his wife, Jade, and their two teenage children.

Questions to Ponder:

  1. What loyal opponents do you have in your life whom you trust to speak the truth to you, even when you might not
    want to hear it?
  2. What did you do last year to learn more, to be more equipped to do the work you do more effectively? What do you plan to do in the coming year?

Actions to Consider:

  • Do an informal 360 degree evaluation of your leadership strengths and weaknesses, gathering input from your boss, your co-workers, your leaders, and a few key parents and youth to help pinpoint next-step areas of growth for you.