This week we continue our 2016 theme of “The People.” With words about…..
“The People who stay in youth ministry”
Danny Steis is the Minister of Students at Yates Baptist Church in Durham, North Carolina and a Campus Minister at Duke University. He enjoys fishing, reading, ska music, homebrewing, and most of all – unstructured time with his family (Johanna, Marley, and Ruby).
I have frequently seen the 2-year turnover rate among youth ministers (it happened to me) and I know many former youth ministers who were either forced out of churches and ministry or were so hurt that they vowed never to return. I was very encouraged at our last CBFYMN meeting in Decatur that they majority of us present had been in youth ministry for 10+ years and many had served the majority of their time in a single church. What are the “secrets” to thriving (and not just surviving) in youth ministry? I’m no expert, but the following has helped me greatly.
The Serenity Prayer – Not Just for Alcoholics!
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, The courage to change the things I can, And the wisdom to know the difference.
Youth ministry can be tough. Teenagers are often inconsistent, rude, and indifferent. It seems that some parents will make their kids commit to every possible thing except church; And we all have that one (or more) parent that always has a “concern” and is more than happy to share it in the most unprofessional way possible. As ministers we are not punch the clock employees and we put our heart and soul into our work so it can be difficult not to take absences, critiques, and failures very personally. Churches can also become very unhealthy with the consequence being poor treatment of their ministers. Budgets shrink, job descriptions grow, and people get upset. Ministry can be like running sound – no one notices you unless you’re doing bad job (in their opinion). How do we thrive in such situations?
The ultimate truth is that we can’t do anything. There is a great freedom in believing such a statement. Jesus’ sermon on the mount seems to highlight the power of a kind of inactivity (meekness, turning the other cheek, etc…) and submission. Richard Foster puts it best – “[Submission] is the ability to lay down the terrible burden of always needing to get our own way.” Admitting what we can’t do frees us up in incredible ways to put resources and time to what we can do. It also helps us more freely become, to use Paul’s term, “co-laborers” with God. How can we minister in the name of Jesus if we think it’s up to us to do everything?
Admitting and truly believing that there are many things that I can’t and probably won’t ever be able to do has been one of the most rewarding and helpful things I’ve ever done in ministry. It’s not the same as saying “it is what it is” or simply giving up. It’s a radical form of freedom and empowerment. Here’s how it practically works out for me:
“Just a youth minister….” attitudes are a good thing
We’ve all experienced the “when are you going to be a real minister” or “they’re just a youth minister” type comments; And they can be hurtful. It’s tempting to turn on our justice warrior mindsets, quote statistics, and get angry, but we should celebrate being “just” a youth minister. I don’t have to be at committee meetings 4 nights a week to give my “important” voice to their decisions. No one ever says “wait, before we make this decision about the carpet let’s get our youth minister’s opinion.” Now, to be clear my opinion is valued and I am more than welcome and encouraged to give it to matters that I feel are important, but I’m not required to be present at every meeting like a “real” minister. I can spend that time doing ministry or, more importantly, being with my family.
Also, the bar is set really low for you – good! If keeping the youth happy, entertained, or parading them in front of the church on youth Sunday is all that’s required for you to be seen as doing a good job then do it! Know that the real important ministry happens in the little conversations over coffee, the occasional “breakthrough” moments, and the students that come back many years later and pick up where you left off. The real important stuff is generally not Facebook worthy. In humility keep it between you, the youth, and God. No need to #Blessed/Selfie it all over the internet. Eugene Peterson points out the danger in such an approach “For pastors, being noticed easily develops into wanting to be noticed.” Humbly denying the opportunity for attention helps us further depend on God for our ministry evaluations and longevity.
Prayer and Personal Spiritual Formation
All of our job descriptions have some throwaway line about “…practices Christlike character, active in Bible study, etc…” but this really is important to long tenured ministers. It also is not Facebook worthy and personnel committees will never take your “quiet time” into consideration in your evaluation, but it is crucial. Doing something that doesn’t directly benefit your to-do list is very helpful in admitting that you can’t do it all, let alone the spiritual benefits it provides. I begin every day with about 30 minutes of quiet reading in my office. Sometimes the time is devotional, sometimes it’s prayer, sometimes it’s just quiet. If the rest of the day is crazy at least I had some time to reflect. Action without reflection is meaningless, especially in ministry. Just take a look at megachurch (and megabusy) youth ministries. More often than not they have a lot going on but things appear a mile wide and an inch deep. Taking time to reflect and be with God is very helpful in figuring out what you can change and what you can’t.
The Grass isn’t Always Greener, Especially on Facebook
I can get very discouraged when I compare my ministry and my youth group to those I see on Facebook. “Holy crap?!? How do they get such a high percentage of their youth to show up on Wednesdays?” I’m not one of those “Oh, I don’t have Facebook” weirdos (relatives of the “I don’t own a tv” variety), but if I were the comparing of ministries would be the reason I gave it up. It can be destructive comparing ministries online, especially if we don’t know the contexts. Instead, talk with other youth ministers face to face (like at CBYMN Oasis) and you’ll come away encouraged or at the very least you’ll find someone to vent with.
It can be tempting to find a “better” place to serve, especially if you’re “part-time,” but take a look at most “better” youth ministries; Generally the youth minister has been there quite a while. Good and healthy churches have long-tenured ministers, but an opposite correlation is also almost always true. Long-tenured ministers produce healthy congregations. All churches go through unhealthy phases so jumping ship will not help you here.
There are, of course, times when leaving a church is the right decision. Sometimes dysfunction can be toxic and unhealthy; this is where discernment and prayer and the importance of personal spiritual formation are apparent. If you’ve spent all your time as a ministry manager with no personal spiritual time for yourself then the decision will be very businesslike. This shouldn’t be the case. Let God be your guide (other youth ministers can help too).
I am found of saying “If you have low expectations then you’re never disappointed.” I say this phrase sarcastically, often in defense of having let someone down, but there is some truth here. Let your only expectation in youth ministry be doing ministry to youth and you’ll be content. A few years ago I had the thought “how much of my ministry anxiety is about job security?” I had been fired in the past and was worried it would happen again. What a terrible motivator for ministry. What is the source of your ministry worries?