I don’t pretend to have all of the answers. To be honest, I’m not even sure what all of the questions are. And the longer I’ve been doing this, the less sure I am of what is ‘working,’ or even what the definition of ‘working’ is.
However, I have been doing this work for 24 years in the same congregation. It’s been an amazing and wonderful ride. And I’ve seen a lot of other youth ministry professionals in neighboring churches come and go. There are some things I’ve learned and some observations I’ve made. Basically, they are things that I wish someone had told me.
They are not in any particular order, and they are not meant to be comprehensive…at all…
- Take a posture of listening, and then lead. When I came to my congregation, following 5 summers working in outdoor ministry and my involvement in campus ministry, I thought I knew the whole deal. I was pretty cocky, and I didn’t listen well. That was a mistake. It delayed the development of my ministry significantly as I worked and worked, as young people didn’t have buy in, and as I would just get frustrated with them. A good friend told me to take a posture of listening to the young people, to parents and to the rest of my congregation, and then with them chart a course and go, keeping my eyes on the vision that we had set out together.
- Read, read, read. There is SO MUCH good stuff out there right now. Become a student of ministry, of culture, of organizational dynamics, of systems, of families…read and then read some more. Authors I’m paying attention to right now include Kenda Creasy Dean, Andrew Root, Christian Smith, Seth Godin, Mark DeVries, Kem Meyer, Daniel Pink, Howard Schultz, David Anderson, Leonard Sweet, Jim Collins and Martin Luther. Who are you reading?
- Don’t change camps. Ok, maybe a better way to say this would be to “honor partnerships.” But I most often see this lived out in decisions about outdoor ministry sites. Here’s what happens: A new, energetic youth minister comes to a congregation after a history of working in outdoor ministries. Their new congregation goes to a different camp. After a summer, the youth minister decides that this camp experience doesn’t nearly measure up to the experience young people have at the camp where she or he worked…and so a process is put into place where the person takes the congregation out of that corporation, into another one.But the decision wasn’t really made for the good of the kids. The decision was made because the youth minister is either a) more comfortable at their home camp; b) wants to return to the camp a conquering hero; c) wants to exercise authority and they feel confident about this decision. These are all bad reasons for making a change.And what happens is that kids who have a loyalty to the old camp might give the new one a try, but it won’t measure up to what they remember, and so in year 2 at the camp, numbers drop. And now, looking at it through a new congregational lens, the new camp really isn’t that much better than the old camp, and it takes 2-3 years to figure that out. In the meantime, you’ve wounded participation in your congregation’s outdoor ministry and you’ve hurt your own credibility.
A better solution is to bring your expertise to the camp community that your congregation has been a part of and to help them grow with your experience from the other camp. That’s partnership, and it’s healthy. If a camp really wasn’t working, would I pull my kids? Yes, absolutely. But it would take a long time and I’d be very patient.
You may want to argue with me on this one, but I’ve seen it over and over and over. Apply this principle to other aspects of ministry.
- Don’t refer to it as student ministry. That’s crazy. No where else in the church do we refer to ministry by “what” people do instead of “who” they are as children of God. We don’t have an “Accountants Ministry” or a “Food Service Industry Ministry.” Why belittle their baptismal identity by focusing on their vocation as students instead of their identity as God’s child?
- Don’t get mad at parents. They’re trying hard. In the midst of planning, I can be guilty of this. We’re working hard on a retreat and it’s going to be great…the phone rings…and (best case) the daughter’s volleyball team can’t live without her for the tournament Saturday morning…can she bring her late? Or (worst case) the hockey tourney prevents the son from coming at all. We are gracious on the phone, but we get irritated. Was this the right call for the parent to make? Maybe, maybe not. But we do need to remember that the parent is trying to parent. And negotiating these things is a part of that. We want them there…we know it’s important…perhaps even more important than hockey. But the kids salvation doesn’t depend on making the retreat and the parent is trying to “fit it all together.” We need to show a little grace and give them a little bit of slack.
- Facebook and Social Media does not equal ministry. I know people who would like to spend the vast majority of their time on Facebook, tracking kids online activity, participating in the conversation, updating their youth group page, etc, etc… Now don’t get me wrong. I enjoy and appreciate social media (this is, after all, being written on a blog!). However, I have one thing to say: Social media does not equal good ministry. It is a PART of good ministry, but it isn’t the whole thing. Use social media as a tool. Do your best to make Christ present in your work on social media. However, don’t substitute social media for all of your ministry. Nothing replaces contacting a young person and inviting them to meet for coffee. They will light up, exactly because it is so rare.
- Borrow and share. There are a million good ideas out there. Don’t feel like you need to come up with all of them. Ask, and then use your peer’s work. And then when you write a resource/curriculum/Bible study/retreat plan…share it with others. We live in a wiki world. Use MartinsList.org.
- Develop a growth plan…use Standards and Guidelines. Don’t assume that in the future you will be good enough at what you do. You probably will be for today…but probably won’t be for tomorrow. Those who are effective long-term are so because they never stop trying to learn and grow. So figure out a plan. Take a look at the Network’s Standards and Guidelines and use that as a template. Don’t be scared off by it. Rather, see what it says we need, prioritize and get going on growing in those areas. And tell your supervisor/pastor/congregational council/mutual ministry committee/barista what you’re up to. They will be impressed, and they will become allies.
- Think bigger than yourself. Think outside of your ministry, and your congregation. There is a whole big church out there, and the Holy Spirit’s got ideas and energy. Let that fill you. Sometimes people don’t participate in synodical or churchwide stuff because they make assumptions about the people involved, or the quality of the programs. Usually those assumptions are wrong. And these ministries happen because this is one way Christ’s church fulfills mission. So don’t sit on the outside and throw stones. Jump into the middle and be a part of the movement of the Spirit. Make it better. Contribute. And realize that this is a part of the ministry of your congregation. We all contribute.
- Have fun. Usually, if it it isn’t fun, it isn’t worth doing. Fun is under-rated. Fun is a filter and a measuring stick. Because when things “click”…when there is a healthy creative process in place…when there is energy and the Spirit is moving, it is fun. Don’t confuse “un-fun” with “hard.” Fun can still be hard. But if you’re not having fun, something is wrong and you need to step back and evaluate.