A couple of hours ago, I just finished speaking at a national youth leaders’ conference. At the conclusion of my last session, someone privately asked me an interesting question. “How do you build something in youth ministry that will really last, Jeanne,” the guy said quietly. The intensity behind his voice and the seriousness in his eyes told me that he probably had a personal story behind the question. Let me highlight for you a few of the things that I shared with him.
- Focus on building a destiny—not a dynasty. A destiny deals with people, but a dynasty deals with programs Destiny tends to focus on significance, but a dynasty focuses on success. A person of destiny prioritizes servanthood; but someone focused on a dynasty prioritizes servitude.
All along the youth ministry journey, there will be the temptation to focus on the more visible, the more spectacular, and the more sensational. But from my vantage point of 37 exciting years in full-time youth ministry, I can assure you that those things won’t build a ministry that will last. It will be the non-glamorous moments of personal discipling, laborious planning, and behind-the-scenes praying that will come together to create a ministry that will really last. Don’t get too impressed with the spectacular. Jesus isn’t.
- Choose or lose. In other words, be a person who doesn’t just stumble into his priorities, but a person who very purposefully chooses his priorities. Thoreau once said, “It is not enough to be busy. So are the ants. The question is ‘What are you busy doing?’”
The busier you are as a youth leader, the more strategic you have to become about living a “choose or lose” lifestyle. We’re all familiar with the Pareto Principle that tells us “20% of our time efforts will usually produce 80% of our results.” So if you want to create a lasting ministry impact in students’ lives, you will continually be asking, “Where can I put my energies that produce the most results?”
Often in my life, that question determines how much time I invest into various students. I focus on giving myself away to my leaders and potential leaders. If not, my “EGR’s” (“Extra Grace Required”) eat up the majority of my time.
- Preach louder with your life than you do your pulpit. I’m pretty skeptical about how much real truth is transferred apart from a living, up close model. So if you want to build a youth ministry that will last, prioritize living your own messages with more fervor than you ever publicly communicate them. Students will catch your attitudes, your priorities, and your responses. And over time, that haunting Scripture from Proverbs will become a reality: “When a student is fully trained, he will be like his teacher.”
I’m been privileged to be the youth pastor for 13 and 15 years respectively at different locations. On my farewell nights, no one mentioned my sermons or brilliant program ideas. But countless students talked about quietly watching me, noticing my attitudes, and internally being shaped by the Christ I tried to model.
- Begin preparing for your exit on the day you enter. Sound strange? But I really think this truth is vital. If you want to create a youth ministry that has lasting impact, you have to focus on creating leadership all around you. In short, you have to “work yourself out of a job.” That’s always one of my first goals when I begin to work with a new youth ministry. So in this manner, I begin preparing for my farewell party during my very first month.
You see, common sense tells me I won’t be leading a certain youth group forever. It may be 15 or 20 years down the line; but at some point, I will probably pass the baton to someone else. If I internally wanted to build a self-centered dynasty, I will secretly be glad if the youth ministry starts to unravel when I walk away. But if my heart has been focused on creating a youth ministry that will last, I will want a core of strong, competent leaders to take the ministry to the next level. Though the old saying is trite, it still remains true: “There is no success without a successor.”
- Build yourself to last. Lasting youth ministries rise and fall on lasting youth leaders. Sometimes, with all the demands of teenagers and parents, we forget the importance of taking care of ourselves. Worse yet, we can sometimes feel self-centered or lazy when we “disappear” for a day or choose occasionally not to answer our cell phone.
We all know that in a family unit, one of the nicest things mom and dad can do for the children is to take care of themselves. In like manner, in a youth ministry family, one of your most unselfish leadership acts will be to take care of yourself.
Pace yourself so you can do youth ministry for the long haul. That means taking days off without guilt, focusing on some teenagers that are replenishing to you, and even turning off your cell phone. That also means doing some “self leadership” activities like reading, youth ministry coaching, or interacting—anything to help your youth ministry skills grow to the next level. By building yourself to last, you are building a youth ministry that will do the same.
So thanks for letting me give you some of the highlights from my conversation this weekend. Remember? A youth pastor had asked me, “How do you build something that will last?” My hunch proved right. There was “history” behind his question.
“Any special reason you ask?” I said casually as we started to finish up the conversation.
Pausing, sadness flashed across his eyes again. “I guess so. Growing up, I had 11 different youth leaders. Now my old church doesn’t even have a youth ministry. Everybody’s scattered and most of us aren’t even living for the Lord now. I just don’t want to repeat the pattern. I’m a volunteer in a different city now. But I just want to help create something that is around for a long, long time.”