I am egocentric. I am selfish. I am driven by personal goals. I am wanting to see the change in student’s lives. I am unaware that anyone can do the same job as me. I am a youth minister. Sound like a bad commercial for youth ministry? Unfortunately, this rings all too true for most youth ministers. I am willing to admit that this was my tune when I started in youth ministry. I believed that I was God’s gift to youth ministry and that I was going to change the way youth ministry was done. I read all of the books, studied all of the models and came up with the perfect plans for creating my youth ministry. The only problem was that I was willing to do it all alone. And that was a recipe for disaster.
Recently, I returned from a mission trip to Costa Rica. I led a group of about fifteen college students and young adults (many of whom I had seen come through our youth ministry at some point in their journey) to work at a camp in the southern part of Costa Rica. Our job was to build twelve foot columns for an open air gymnasium. Since we were in the middle of the rain forest, we spent the first part of the work day bailing water from the four foot holes, then we would have to build up the steel towers, frame them with wood casings, and pour the concrete. After a day of letting the concrete set, we would remove the casings and fill in the holes. We had nine columns to build in one week. In addition to this work project, we also had a Vacation Bible School being led twice a day for about 45-50 children at a local school.
We worked hard and we wore ourselves down. We learned on the first day that we would have to work around the rain schedule. We ultimately would learn the importance of flexibility because time and efficiency are measured differently in Costa Rica than in America. But the most important lesson came on the last day.
Because of the rain and the aforementioned time and efficiency problem, we were working to finish the last three columns on Saturday morning before catching an early afternoon flight back up to San Jose. We started the day at 6:00 AM and planned on working two and half hours before breakfast. We had a lot to do to finish up and all fifteen of us were on the site that morning working to complete this project. I started out jumping in the hole and bailing water. I immediately went to removing casings and straight into filling holes. By 6:30 AM, my clothes were soaked by sweat and the humidity. Around 7:45 AM, there were three of us with shovels working to fill in the last hole. I had not stopped since we arrived at the site that morning and the sweat was dripping from my brow. I was determined that I was going to see this hole through to completion. I had a good friend of mine on the trip with me. He and I had known each other since elementary school. We grew up together at Roswell United Methodist Church and participated in a lot of the same activities. We had gone our separate ways during college, but were reunited after graduation. When I began working at Simpsonwood United Methodist Church, he eventually followed at the behest of my wife. She knew that he needed a group of young adults to be around and she wanted for him to become involved in our church. He ended up meeting his wife in that Sunday School class. The two of them became instrumental in my youth ministry and were a key component of this particular mission trip to Costa Rica.
Now we had both been on mission trips together before and we knew the work ethic of each other. We worked hard and we always wanted to see a project completed. That morning, I had allowed the motivation of the completion take over my common sense to drink water and, fortunately, my friend was there to call me out on this mistake. We were shoveling the mud into the hole and he looked at me and said, “Let’s go get some water.” Now, as a leader, I have always taught people to watch out for those under their care and make sure everyone stays hydrated while working in the sun on mission trips. However, I refused his advice and argued with him while continuing to shovel. I know that I made fun of him for quitting and reiterated my desire to see this hole completed. The next phrase out of his mouth was what would change my entire approach to ministry. He said, “Drop the shovel; someone else will pick it up and finish the job. You need to take care of yourself and drink some water.” As we walked away from the hole and went to get some water, I turned around to see five or six different people come in with shovels and finish the hole rather quickly.
How many times have I been caught in a position where I feel as if the whole youth ministry is sitting on my shoulders? Too many to count. And I have always, without fail, tried to be the savior of the ministry and complete the project at hand. Whether it is that one kid that only I could deal with or leading the parents meeting so that no one else has to deal with it or planning a trip from beginning to end without any assistance. I continued to push myself and press on toward the completion of each project with the assumption that I was the one who had to do this because I knew how. Or even worse was when I rationalized that this was my job and no one else should have to do my job for me. I was afraid of being seen as weak and incompetent. Truth be told, I was being selfish and egocentric.
Youth ministry is about one person and that person is not you. Every youth ministry should be about pointing the way to Christ. John 3:30 tells us “He must become more and I must become less.” Too many youth ministers develop a “messiah complex” where we want to be able to save our kids and rescue them from the evil of sin. We believe that we are “called” to do this and we are the answer. Youth ministry needs to be built around two principles: 1) We are not messiahs and we should not try to be such. Instead, we should strive to point kids in the direction of Christ and remind our kids and ourselves that “He must become more and I must become less,” and 2) We need to include others in our ministry. We need to seek out and train additional adults and older youth to assist with building up the Kingdom. Youth ministry is about building relationships between the youth and mentors who will guide them and it is about helping others build up The Relationship.
In his letter to the church in Ephesus, the apostle Paul writes the first job description for any ministry leader when he points out that church leaders “prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up,” (Ephesians 4:12). It is not our jobs to do ministry alone; we need to be equipping other leaders to serve through ministry. We need to be encouraging the next wave of leaders to find their ministry.
Equipping leaders is a slow and steady process, much like growing a garden. My dad comes from a family of gardeners and every decent gardener knows that there are three simple steps to a good garden: plant, grow, and harvest.
In order to equip your youth ministry team, you have to first build your team. Maybe you inherited a group of volunteers or maybe you are having to start from the ground up. In his book Good to Great, Jim Collins talks about the importance of having the right people on the bus. He says we need to “get the right people on the bus, the right people in the right seats, and the wrong people off the bus, then we’ll figure out how to take it someplace great,” (41). With the right people in place, we can discover a vision together. The days of standing in front of the church body and having a “cattle-call” approach for recruiting volunteers are over. With all of the emphasis on providing safe environments for kids and volunteers, we need to know our volunteers and not simply accept anyone off the street.
Part of building any good team is helping your team members understand their gifts and talents. When I was growing up, I played baseball. To say I was not good is an understatement: I was the reason for mandatory playing time. If not for mandatory playing time, I might have never played. Unfortunately, having me in the game was a liability for our team and cost us some good quality wins. One time, as a nine year old runt, my coach put me in to pitch. I had always played in the outfield up to this point (mainly because not many balls were hit to the outfield). To make matters worse, I threw the ball side arm which meant that I had no control over where the ball would go and no business pitching. In one inning, I walked nine batters, hit two with wild pitches, and threw a total of two strikes. I was pulled from the game and never pitched again. You need to help your volunteers discover their gifts and talents and put them in the proper placement for the most effective ministry.
You must also provide nourishment for your volunteers through spiritual guidance and prayer. All of your volunteers are still growing in their faith. In addition to your teenagers, it is also your job to minister to your volunteers. Your volunteers need your assistance and guidance to grow in their ministry. You have the resources of the church and experience on your side. Running a business meeting, managing a family, going to college or working in a plant are all a lot different than leading teenagers in conversation. Remember, you cannot just throw a seed into the ground and expect it to become a tree. You have to water and nurture that seed.
Throughout the ministry of your volunteers it is important that you remain an anchor to their ministry. Keep them grounded and help them to avoid the “messiah complex.” So many churches have a such a high turnover in youth ministry. Remain a constant and consistent force with your volunteers and your ministry. One of the toughest problems in youth ministry is recruiting and building a team where there has been no consistency. Your volunteers will stay with you if you are a constant for them. But if you are just looking to spring board to the next job, you are ultimately doing a disservice to the church’s youth ministry. It is not a mistake that long term volunteers can be found in churches with youth ministers who have remained consistent and stayed the course.
Another part of growth is the acceptance of failure. We can try as hard as possible to shield our volunteers from failure. However, if we teach them to accept the failures (and the failures will come in youth ministry), we will be growing a stronger volunteer base. A few years back, one of our volunteers was ready to quit youth ministry because he felt he was a terrible teacher. Well, he wasn’t a great teacher, but he knew how to talk with the kids and build relationships. We worked together to discover his gifts and accept the fact that he was not a teacher, but a shepherd. We then found someone to work with him who was a teacher. Today, he is one of our long term volunteers and the kids love him.
Every good crop will produce bad with the good. It’s never easy to fire a volunteer, but it is important to learn how to let go of someone. We had a Sunday School teacher who had a gift for driving kids away from Sunday School. This individual just did not fit with teenagers. No matter how much time we spent trying to change the approach, there was always going to be a disconnect. We finally had to approach this person and encourage them find another area of ministry. It turns out that they went on to lead an elementary age class and those kids loved this person. Letting go of people is not always easy, but may be necessary to grow your ministry.
Finally, back off and prepare yourself for your next level of ministry. So many volunteers are stifled because we do not allow for them to spread their wings. We hold them back so they will stay within “the vision”. My daughter would have never learned to walk if we had carried her everywhere she needed to go. Providing too much care to a garden can sometimes hinder the growth process for your plants. We need to know when it is time to let nature do it’s thing and produce something marvelous. This could mean the end of your time within the ministry. It is OK to move on to a new ministry or area of ministry if you have properly grown your volunteers and equipped them to do God’s work.
We all understand the importance of building disciples, but when we can learn to build disciple-makers we will see a transformation in ministry. This is not a model of ministry, it is principle. If you are looking for another model of ministry, keep looking. You can incorporate this principle into any model. But you need to understand this principle if you plan to have a long-lasting and effective ministry that will reach far beyond your goals and your parameters. You need to recruit, train, and pass off your ministry. Ministry to youth is too good to hold onto and we need to be willing to share the gift with others. I think you will be surprised how many people can do your job.