Last Wednesday Stacey and I celebrated nine years as youth pastors at our church.
Our students surprised us with a card, gifts, and the all important service shout out.
It’s cliché and all, but we feel incredibly blessed and honored to be able to minister at our home church for all these years.
I’ve been attending Fairwood for over 20 years and it’s been an amazingly fun adventure. It was a dream realized when I was asked to come on staff and lead the youth ministry I had attended as a teen.
Looking back, I was probably very under qualified for the job, but hey, there’s Grace for that.
As I look at my first nine years in full time ministry I can’t help but smile. God’s been so good to me. I’m grateful P. Wes Lindseth (the first pastor I ever had) took a chance on me. I’m also glad P. Brian (the second pastor I’ve ever had) was willing to keep me around and invest in me.
Here are nine lessons (in random order) I’ve learned over my first nine years in youth ministry:
1. Coolness Alone Won’t Cut It
I am a people pleaser by nature. I want to make a favorable impression with the people I meet. This was magnified in my profession. I wanted students to look up to me and I didn’t want to be a square. I wanted to be current, relevant and cool.
I’ve learned that coolness alone won’t cut it. There has to be something behind the trendy clothes and knowing what’s in or out in youth culture. There’s a youth ministry saying that goes, “Students don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”
I would adjust it ever so slightly by saying, “Students don’t need you to be cool, they need you to care.”
After all, does it really matter what jeans you’re wearing when you pray and cry with a student whose parents are getting divorced?
2. Build a Great Team & Release Them
Early on in youth ministry I had half of this equation figured out. I had a great team around me. People who loved and cared about teens. People who were dedicated to making a difference in young peoples lives.
There was only one problem.
I had nothing for them to do. I was doing everything. I didn’t want to overwork them, because after all, they were volunteers and I was the paid professional.
A healthy understanding of Ephesians chapter four helped me with this one. In short, my job is to create jobs for our volunteers to do. I can trust others to lead well do the work of the ministry.
3. Be a Great Husband & Father
If I were numbering these in order of importance this would be number one. Not because I believe only married guys with kids can be great youth pastors. It’s because as a married guy with kids, my students are always watching my interactions with them.
In a society in which many students live in broken homes with a single parent or grandparent, the need for stability is big. Loving and speaking highly of my wife is important for her (duh) and our students.
For teens that have “daddy issues” my role as a father is perhaps my greatest ministry tool. By loving, playing with, and caring for my kids I am a tangible example of their Heavenly Dad’s love.
4. Students Love a Challenge
In a teen world full of uncertainty and hurt, our natural reaction is to ensure they’ll make it and be okay. That’s important, but if we stop there I think we’re missing out on what students are truly capable of.
Students love to be challenged. I’ve found that more often than not they rise to our level of belief. Believe big and watch them rise to that level.
5. It’s a Long Season
You’ve heard, “It’s a marathon, not a sprint,” applied to countless situations in your life I’m sure. Youth ministry is no different. I prefer the baseball analogy though (shocker). The baseball regular season is 162 games long. The emphasis is on looooooong.
The lesson is simple. Good baseball teams never let one win or loss define their season. Why? Because they understand that there’s another game tomorrow.
The same truth applies to youth ministry. One big night or failed event does not define your success as a youth pastor. Don’t let one great message or a real clunker get your mind off track.
Remember, it’s a long season.
6. Change is Constant, Consistency is Key
In a world where change is constant and rapid, consistency is key. That’s easy to write after nine years in the same position and over 20 in the same church, but it’s no less true.
There have been numerous times I’ve questioned my role.
Am I the right guy? Should I be doing something else?
Yet, I come back to this thought. Our youth ministry, our leaders, the smiles and encouragement we bring students on Wednesdays and Sundays may be the most consistent part of their lives.
Hang in there. It’s worth it.
7. Preach / Teach Grace
You know what my Catholic upbringing and my early days of youth ministry have in common? Guilt as my primary motivator.
Black and white is simple. Rules and regulations are easy to communicate. You know what’s tricky?
Gray. It’s those areas of life that don’t have a specific chapter and verse assigned to them in the Bible that get tricky.
When in doubt, I have made a decision that I will always come back to the heart of the Gospel. GRACE. More specifically, Grace personified, Jesus.
He’s the one who brings change to students’ lives. Not me. Not my philosophy. Not my catchy one-liners.
It’s simple. Grace changes everything.
8. Hype is Overhyped
I’ve joked about it, but it almost feels like it’s true. I’ve often said that I took a class in college called ‘Youth Ministry Hype 101.’
We can’t hype every event. Come on, get real for a second. Was that really the greatest _______ you’ve ever seen/heard/experienced? If every event is the greatest ever what happens when one flops?
It’s all good, promote your stuff, but be careful you don’t over sell / promise what you can’t deliver. By the way, this may be THE GREATEST POST I’VE EVER WRITTEN!!!
9. Youth Ministry is NOT an Island
Youth ministry does not happen on it’s own. Yet, early on I led ours as if it was. We are connected and part of something bigger, the local church.
If students love youth night and won’t attend on Sundays, something isn’t working. The churches that house our youth ministries are places full of people who believe in what the youth team is doing. People in your church give money to pay your salary or stipend.
It’s not young verses old. Religious verses new converts. Entrenched ideals verses fresh ones.
We are part of one body. The older people in your church need your young peoples’ energy and excitement. Likewise your young people need their wisdom and life experience. The church was God’s idea; we’re a beautiful collection of misfits. We belong together.
So here’s to nine great, fun, exciting years of youth ministry. If you’re offering me nine more, the only question I have is, “Where do I sign?”