This past weekend, I got a chance to visit the small town where I held my first ministry. I hadn’t had a chance to come back since I left there over 6 years ago, but was up in the area so I thought I’d just take a quick drive through. It was so weird going back, and all sorts of thoughts and memories came flooding back. I enjoyed just sharing the memories with my wife, who was just my fiancé at the time. I got to see the things that were exactly the same, and things that had radically changed. I wish I could have stopped by and visited some people as well, but we were on a time crunch.
The trip also got me thinking on how I’ve grown as a youth minister. I could only shake my head as I remembered all the stupid things I did. Granted, I had plenty of experience as a volunteer and intern, but this was the first time I’d been “the man” as the youth minister. I thought I had it all figured out, but the truth was I really had no clue! Sure, I did a lot of great things and made a difference, but there were also so many things that I simply messed up. So I wanted to write specifically to you new and soon to be youth ministers out there, and give you some advice from one who has survived long enough to pass on this wisdom. Many of these tips were learned in that first ministry, from mistakes I made and was fortunate to learn from. Some are just things over the years I’ve seen will help. Either way, these 7 tips will help the new youth minister get started right…
1. Maintain a relationship with Christ – This might seem like a “no duh” type of statement, but I’ve seen too many youth ministers let their relationship with Jesus slide. Set aside time for prayer, reading the Bible (for something other than a lesson plan), worship, fasting, and spiritual renewal. You will be able to survive a little while on “Spiritual fast food” – the nourishment you get from all the church and youth group stuff you do. It does not last forever, and eventually you will come crashing down unless you really are rooted in God.
2. Have a plan – Know where you are taking the ministry. This goes beyond a mission statement (although its part of it). Be intentional in all you do, and think how things fit together to fulfill your final goal. I made the mistake early on of just throwing stuff on a calendar, and doing the same programs that characterized my youth ministry growing up, and then wondering why it didn’t work. If someone asks you why you are doing this retreat in November, or why you have small groups, you should have an answer that points to both the immediate and the long term goals of the group. In the same vein, know what you are going to teach. I’ve been guilty of winging it before and while you might make it work once or twice its not good to get into that habit. Plan your lessons a year, 3 years, even 6 years down the road. It makes a big difference.
3. Make allies, not enemies – Senior Minister. Church Staff. Parents. Church members. School officials. The pizza delivery man. All of these people (among others) can either be your biggest supporters or your biggest enemies. Make them supporters and allies. Don’t go in with the “Me vs the world” mentality that many youth ministers have. There are two things that will help build all of these people into allies – communication and consideration. COMMUNICATE COMMUNICATE COMMUNICATE! And then if you think you’ve communicated the message enough, do it again! If you are giving too much, someone will tell you (hasn’t happened to me yet). No one likes surprises, or being caught flat footed. Let people know whats going on. Broadcast all of your successes. Be sure your sr minister and staff know any potential problems. It makes a big difference. Also, be considerate. So many problems can be avoided just by taking a second to think how something you are doing will impact other people. Say hi to church people in the halls. Don’t abuse a school’s rules when you visit. Tip your pizza man. The more people you have on your side, the better it will go for you.
4. Continue to learn – You don’t know everything. Chances are, you don’t know 1% of everything. I sure didn’t. Thankfully we live in an age that makes it easy to continue to learn. Read books, youth ministry and otherwise. Attend a conference. Go back for your masters. Listen to podcasts. Read blogs. Find a mentor. Try to learn something new every day. You don’t want to look back on your ministry 10 years from now and see the littered remains of students’ spiritual lives that could have been saved if you’d taken 15 minutes a day to grow as a youth minister.
5. Build a team – Notice I didn’t say recruit volunteers, or find sponsors, or trick people into helping. No, you need to build a team of people that has diverse gifts, abilities, backgrounds, ages, shapes, and sizes. In the sports world, a team is a collection of various parts that have different roles that are all geared towards winning the game. If you have 11 quarterbacks or 11 wide receivers, you will lose the game no matter how talented they are. The same is true in ministry. If you have a group of people just like you, you will not reach your teens. Or, if you have a bunch of people that are just “volunteering” or being chaperones, you will fail as well. You need to find a bunch of different people who love God and love teens and get them on your team. Then work together to minister to your community.
6. Network with other youth ministers – In my first two stops in youth ministry, I had little or no interaction with other local youth ministers. I didn’t know any, to be real honest. In my last position, though, I found a great team of local YMs that worked together, laughed together, and prayed together for the community. It was awesome. You need this support, encouragement, and fellowship if you are going to survive. Chances are there is a group that meets somewhere in your community or area. If not, start one. Just call up some churches and invite the youth minister out to lunch. Don’t worry about planning this or that or talking about in depth ministry stuff, just be friends. The other stuff will come in time and be invaluable.
7. Rest – I know a guy who works 80+ hours a week. He’s single, so he can get away with it for now. But I noticed long ago that he was showing early signs of burnout, and I fear it could be a big fiery explosion type burnout. God rested on the 7th day, as an example to us. Why do we think that we are better than God when we eschew rest? Yes, being a workaholic feels good sometimes because its rewarding. But in the end we are destroyed by it. The ministry world is littered with people who thought they could get away with skipping rest. Guard your day off. Make sure you take vacations, and turn off your cell phones, email, and facebook. Find time every day to relax, and enjoy a hobby. Even Jesus took time away from the crowds to enjoy time with the Father, so you be sure to do the same.
These are not “7 Steps to have an awesome youth ministry”. These 7 tips will help you from making major and minor mistakes that will derail your ministry, and will set you on the right path to having a successful God-honoring youth ministry.
What other advice would you give to a new youth minister?