I suppose that if one were to address achieving longevity in youth ministry it would be advisable to throw in a bit of information about one’s credentials (so to speak) in that area. After all, who wants advice on longevity from someone who has been in youth ministry on a paid or volunteer basis for a whopping total of six weeks?
Therefore, before I get into my advice, you probably ought to know that I have been a volunteer youth worker in one capacity or another for about 12 years. I only say “about” because I can’t be sure if I started in 1994 or 1995. So, for all I know, it could be 13 years. Whatever …
Oh, and, for what it may be worth, all those years have been at the same church. In some ways, that has been an advantage, but I realize that some may see that as a limiting factor in my understanding of youth ministry. Again, take it for what it’s worth …
Having said that, here’s my advice (if you want to call it that):
Realize early on that it’s not about you …
There are many shades of meaning to this. First, it’s all about Jesus and pointing the youth to him — not to a cool poster you designed or a fabulous talk you gave or an amazing event you organized. Second, it’s all about Jesus and your relationship with him (more on that later). Third, it’s about the youth and the guidance they need to become disciples of Christ not the latest youth ministry fad that you think would be oh-so-cool to implement even though it has no relevance to the life of students in your specific setting.
Also, when changes come to the church … and they will whether it is a new pastor or the addition of a staff member or what have you … take it as an opportunity to evaluate your role and make adjustments, if needed. If you want a model from Scripture, remember that when Jesus appeared on the scene in Judea, John’s followers questioned him about it. John’s response was that Jesus must become greater while he became less. Sometimes, this is what must happen in the church. Sometimes, too, the change may just allow you to drop those aspects of ministry you consider to be your weakest and start to work out of your strengths and passions.
… And yet sometimes it is about you.
First, don’t let yourself be drained by ministry. Yes, take care of your responsibilities, but also be sure to take some time away. Over the years, I’ve gone on a solo mission trip (that is, I joined a group of adults from around my denomination for the trip for which I had no responsibility other than to show up and do the work), two National Youth Workers Conventions and (so far) five weeks of intensive seminary classes. Now, I know some may think that the seminary classes are hardly getting away from it all, but it’s all in the way we are wired. For me, taking some time away to be the sponge absorbing someone else’s wisdom is as refreshing as a cruise in the Caribbean may be to others. I know, sounds strange, but it’s the truth.
Second, don’t neglect your own relationship with God for the sake of doing “ministry stuff (see related post).” Remember Jesus told Martha that she was concerned about many things, but Mary had chosen the better thing. Don’t forget to do the better thing.
Finally, find your own style. I struggled for years using different curricula from different publishers thinking that creating lessons on my own would just be reinventing the wheel. I have been much more content in my teaching (and I think the students have learned more) by using such materials as a base from which I design my own Bible studies and talks.
Study, study, study
The better you know God’s word, the better prepared you will be for those impromptu ministry moments. You’ll also be better prepared for when the discussion turns down a rabbit trail. You don’t have to memorize the book of Leviticus, but you do have to have a better than average grasp of what lies between those leather covers I can’t begin to count up the number of times we (the youth and I) have been in one discussion or another and a passage comes to mind that I can’t quite put my finger on. I mention that I think it is in one book of the Bible or another and pretty soon we’re all paging through the Bible to find it. Youth paging through Bibles? Can’t be a bad thing, now, can it?
Studying applies to non-Biblical works as well. Keep up with youth culture. Read books by authors you agree with. Read books by authors you disagree with. Go to seminars. Share insights with other youth leaders.
Cut out the comparisons.
Adopt a don’t ask, don’t tell policy about the number of students attending your youth group. I honestly could not tell you the average at our church right now. Nothing will foster frustration and self-doubt more than endlessly comparing yourself and your ministry to the one across town. Constant comparisons drive you to do more which only takes you a little further and a little faster down the road to burn-out.
The admonition against comparisons applies to programming as well. The church down the road may start off youth group with a praise band leading some worship songs while you plug in the iPod and sing along with a CD. Is God looking at your accompaniment or attitude of the heart?
A concluding word …
While these little bits of advice certainly apply to anyone in youth ministry, I can only speak from the perspective of a volunteer. Paid youth staff likely have a whole additional set of considerations, but that is something that I just can’t address. Maybe someday …
(Another post in a series inspired by this post at Life in Student Ministry.)
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