Dear Youth Worker: Get Trained
Yes. You are a theologian.
Anytime you open the Bible and read the scriptures, anytime you talk about God or your Christian faith, you do theology. It may not be intentional, but it’s inescapable: You are chief theologian and biblical interpreter for the young people who gather around you. It’s a high and holy calling.
My question is: Why insist on doing it alone?
God did not intend for us to pursue this calling alone. We need training and education in youth ministry, not to make us smarter, but to save us from trying to do ministry by ourselves. The point of reading widely, getting trained, and pursuing education is not to be “book smart” but to immerse ourselves in dialogue with other people who, like we, are attempting to faithfully minister to youth.
But, alas, we youth workers as a breed are notoriously independent. We like to do it our own way without too much intervention. And sometimes, whether out of arrogance or independence or the need for validation, we try to do ministry based on little more than our own ingenuity and spiritual insight.
We dredge the depths of our minds, souls, and experiences for material and ideas. We interpret Scripture alone. We speak of God out of our limited experience. We try to impress young people with the talks, events, and games that we invent. We counsel them using nothing more than our personal experiences and the latest pop psychology insights.
In the end, however, our ministries become hobbled by our own limited perspective, and our efforts become predictable and monotonous. If we don’t end up leading kids astray, we’ll at the very least end up falling in the exact same potholes that thousands of youth workers before us have fallen into.
Eventually, we come to the exhausted end of our own resources and ideas. The passion we once had for God and young people will be tattered and torn, and we hang ministry up for something that comes with twice the pay and half the headaches. Trust me, the world’s best Starbucks baristas are untrained and disillusioned former youth pastors.
I know this because after a few years in youth ministry I ended up working for Starbucks. I was you: called, gifted, alone, and burned out. What allowed me to climb out of the pit and return to ministry was entering more fully into what I call “The Conversation.”
Let me be clear, the reason to pursue training and education in youth ministry is not for the degree or the credentials. It’s to enter The Conversation.
What conversation, you ask?
The Conversation, as St. Anselm described it, is “faith seeking understanding.” Like Augustine before him, Anselm understood that faith doesn’t come with all the answers attached; it’s not the end of the journey, but the beginning. The Christian faith, and particularly ministry, is a matter of belief about the nature of ultimate reality (Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again) meeting the realities of the world in which we live.
What it means to “live and move and have our being” as Christ’s people in the world is very much a matter of faith in search of understanding the implications of it all. Faith seeking understanding is an apt phrase to remember in youth ministry, too, because so many of us enter youth ministry out of sheer faith and calling, and with little else.
God called, and the thrill and excitement of ministering to young people was enough for us to dart into the forest of youth work, and sprint up the mountain of youth ministry. Called down the trail by our love for God and teenagers, the journey was a joy, a delightful gift even. But at some point, we discover that we can’t live on sheer calling alone.
The way gets dark, our lungs burn in the rarefied air, our feet are exhausted, the journey gets lonely, the path ahead is obscured. If you believe the statistics, the average youth worker spends roughly three years wandering in the forest of youth ministry before finding her way out, usually exhausted, broken, and disillusioned.
While we often blame church, parents, or even the youth, the reality is that the average youth worker starts the journey with “faith,” but gains little “understanding” alone amidst the forest of youth ministry. No backpacker or mountain climber worth his salt goes into the wilderness without the proper gear and without conversation with local guides and experts. Those that climb and hike know that they need to be in conversation with others who have wisdom they lack. Likewise, the wisdom of faithful believers is to be celebrated and cherished because they have gone before us, have skills in areas that we lack, insights into places where our souls are blind.
Once in seminary a friend asked me, “So, who’s your theologian?” I stared at him blankly for a moment. “Who’s my theologian?” I responded snidely. “I don’t have a theologian, I have the Bible.”
It was a good answer I thought. My friend didn’t think so. “Let me put it another way,” he said. “Who is the theologian with whom you’d like to sit and read the Bible? It’s foolish to try and interpret Scripture alone, so who is the theologian that best gives you insight into reading the Bible?”
That conversation changed my perspective on what education is and why it’s important. I hope it changes your perspective, too. In that moment, I suddenly recognized that education is about meeting potential ministry partners.
Reading a book in theology or youth ministry is like sitting down with someone who is a partner in ministry and talking shop. Conferences, training programs, and formal degree programs are like dating services that expose you to a breadth of potential dialogue partners, people who can help you see, think, understand, and practice in new ways.
You know that shelf of books by your desk? It’s not a graveyard for trees, but a gathering of your ministry dialogue partners, the people with whom your faith is seeking understanding, and with whom you are journeying through the dark forest of youth ministry.
So, my prayer for you is simply that your enter The Conversation. Surround yourself with dialogue partners in youth ministry—whether they speak with you over a cup of coffee or from the words of a printed page—and refuse to walk the path of youth ministry alone.
Your fellow theologian,
Dr. Andrew Zirschky
Professor & CYMT Initiatives Consultant
Andrew has more than 20 years of congregational youth ministry experience and holds an M.Div. and Ph.D. from Princeton Theological Seminary. He is the author of Beyond the Screen: Youth Ministry for the Connected but Alone Generation and Teaching Outside the Box: Five Approaches to Opening the Bible with Youth. As the father of two adolescents, he has both a passion and vested interest in helping students creatively re-imagine youth ministry for a new generation.
Andrew’s Work At CYMT
I am a professor at CYMT’s partner seminary, Austin Seminary, and am Intiative Consultant for CYMT’s Innovation Laboratory. I help develop new ideas and direction for the lab and its participants.