For those of you just starting out in youth ministry, I am so excited for you and for the journey you are beginning.
Your call to work with young people means there’s a good chance you have a love for duct tape, mud pits, or dodge balls. But it also says something about your love for Jesus.
It goes without saying (but I’ll say it anyway) that the main goal in youth ministry is to see kids move closer to their Savior and strengthen their faith in Him. But as I learned the hard way, there is so much else that goes into this job! Let me save you a little pain and shorten your learning curve by sharing a few of the things I’ve learned over the years:
Fill Your Own Cup First, Then Pour Out
When I was first starting out in youth ministry, I made the mistake of considering the youth programs I led (youth group, Bible studies, and Sunday school) as the main source of my own spiritual formation. Bad idea. Sure, we can learn a lot about our faith and ourselves by teaching and leading, but those experiences cannot be the foundation of our own life in Christ. So find a small group for yourself (even if it—shhh—means going to another church), schedule time for your own devotion, and connect with spiritual mentors regularly.
Determine Your Life/Ministry Balance
Whether you are single or married, have a child or still consider yourself one, you won’t stay in this game long without creating a rhythm to your life. I LOVE what I get to do in youth ministry. The blessings are rich and deep. But we can love our ministries too much. When we do, our entire life (including our ministries) can suffer. So fill a few slots of your week with blank space (give yourself a weekly Sabbath and stick to it). Having a life outside of ministry actually has a way of making your ministry richer and longer.
Do Parent Ministry and Volunteer Ministry, Not Just “Youth” Ministry
Spending time with youth is a part of our job as youth pastors, usually the part that feels the most natural for us. What is more difficult to define, especially just starting out, is what is expected of us when it comes to parents and volunteers. Start this way: Learn the names of your volunteers and the parents of your youth. Pray for them. Find time every week to show your appreciation for the ways they are partnering with you in ministry. If you don’t yet consider parents and volunteers “partners” in your ministry, take time to develop a plan for moving one or two of them into partner roles in the coming year.
Make Deposits in the Trust Bank before Taking Big Withdrawals
If you’re a normal, exceptional youthworker, you’ve come into your job fully loaded with really great youth ministry ideas. You are ready to start making things happen. But before you blow up anything, spend some time learning the current system, meeting the people involved, and marinating in your church’s unique culture. After getting to know your church, your families, and your highly invested volunteers, you’ll not only have a clearer sense of what to change, you will have also “earned the right” to make changes by honoring and listening to those you will need to implement your new ideas.
Name Your Ministry Priorities and Keep Them
If we’re not careful, we can easily push aside the most foundational, most important parts of our ministry because there are too many urgent things that demand our attention RIGHT NOW! It’s not likely that you’ll build a long-term, thriving ministry without attending to a few fundamentals:
- Planning out your calendar and curriculum six months in advance
- Recruiting volunteers at least six months in advance
- Getting to know parents
- Regularly spending time with youth on their own turf
- Responding to emails or phone calls within 24 hours (by creating blocks of time for responding, rather than allowing yourself to be interrupted hundreds of time throughout the day)
- Updating your senior pastor and other church staff regularly
- Communicating regularly with your volunteers, with parents and youth, and with your church.
Because you’ll have other priorities to name, just remember it will be easier to stay on top of these if you work on them every week.
Manage Climate with a Non-Anxious Playful Presence
Because the people with whom you work are human, and because this is church, there will be drama. If you haven’t experienced it yet, it’s coming. Someone will be upset with you or the youth ministry and you’ll have to address it. When you are put in that situation, respond; don’t react. Rather than pinging off of the anxiety of those around you, allow your calm and non-anxious presence to allow every challenge to set a healthy reset button.
Give Your Boss the Good News and the Bad News
Our senior pastors probably don’t want to know the details of our week or what game we are going to play at youth group next week, but they will want to know about anything that impacts the big picture. At least a couple times a year, make an effort to share with your senior pastor what you are doing in your ministry, what your goals are, what your strategic plans are, who your key volunteers are, how they are doing, which parents are most involved and which parents you’d like to see more involved, which youth are causing you the most joy or grief. And of course, we want to keep our pastors informed if there’s a chance they might be receiving an angry phone call or complaining confrontation related to youth ministry. Anytime we prepare our senior pastors for a “storm,” our reliability stock goes up.
Architect Your Schedule
Before we know it, we can spend a great chunk of our days doing things like responding to emails, surfing the internet for funny YouTube clips, reading blogs, returning phone calls, and attending meetings. In short, we can be victims of our schedule rather than architects of it. The folks we know who have stayed in the game of ministry may or may not learn to be “organized,” but they have learned to do the most important, highest leverage tasks first. They’ve learned tricks like giving themselves time limits for things like email and preparing lessons, leveraging the time crunch to provide the motivation for getting things done.
My prayer for you is that you will find ways to be intentional and deliberate as you start out in your ministry, that you will stay true to who you are, and that you will share your gifts with those you meet along the way. May you experience the joy of seeing Jesus in youth, of growing closer to Him because of your ministry, and of equipping other adults to join in this adventure.
Blessings on your journey,
This letter is from the book Letters to a Youth Worker, edited by Mark DeVries.
Jen DeJong has been working in youth ministry since 2002. She currently is a Senior Consultant for Youth Ministry Architects. Jen graduated from Vanderbilt University with a B.S. in Cognitive Studies and a minor in Communications. She also earned a M.S. at Vanderbilt in Developmental Psychology with a special emphasis on parental involvement in teenagers’ extracurricular activities. Jen currently resides in Belleville, Ill. with her husband, Marc, their daughter Maria, and their two dogs.
Questions to Ponder:
- On a scale of one to ten, how do you feel about the rhythm of your life and ministry right now (one being “totally out of balance” and ten being “right in the flow”)?
- Of Jen’s eight recommendations, which is hardest for you?
Actions to Consider:
- Create a rhythmic-week plan for yourself that prioritizes your time and blocks our time for Sabbath and family. Learn to keep it. For help on creating a rhythmic week visit www.cymt.org/resources/rhythmic-week.