I got an e-mail from a 33-year-old mother of twins a couple weeks ago. And while that might not sound like any big deal, what makes it special is she was in my first youth group nearly 17 years ago! She’d tracked me down and wanted to write an e-mail and tell me all about how things are going with her life now. We reminsced about the old times. It was like a ray of sunshine in my day.
I’ll never forget that first youth group at the church I served in seminary. I took the gig because the hours fit with being a full-time student. It met a requirement for graduation (serving in a church under supervision). And it paid. Not much, but it paid.
I admit now I saw the youth ministry role as a stepping stone to real ministry. Real ministry was defined by me as being a pastor. Don’t worry. I’ve repented! Because working with those students in that church changed my whole idea of what real ministry is all about.
It was on a big youth rally retreat experience with those students that I sensed God calling me to youth ministry. And then when summer came I took them on my first ever youth mission trip. And well, when that happened, I was hooked. I couldn’t not be a minister with students after that. The experience was too profound, too wonderful, too amazing to ever think I’d be doing God’s will if I stopped doing it. No matter where God leads me in my ministry from here on out, I’m sure I’ll be serving with teenagers in some capacity or another.
I hope for you that youth ministry isn’t just a stepping stone to “real” ministry as it was for me at first.
And if you’re a volunteer I hope youth ministry isn’t just another thing you do to help out around the church. Or to fill in until someone more qualified comes in. Or to be there until church leaders can guilt someone else into doing it.
We don’t need adult place-holders in youth ministry. We need loving adults who are passionate about God and kids. Adults who understand their role in serving teenagers is a big deal that impacts lives. Adults who’ll stick around year after year.
I hope you’ve gotten hooked on serving with teenagers. And I hope you’ll plan on staying for awhile.
Here are some tips I’ve picked up along the way about being in youth ministry for the long haul…
1. Set your mind on being there for an extended period of time. No matter what we do, if we’re committed to being there for a long time, and not just a short stint, we have better success. The jobs I’ve had where I stuck it out to the end of the summer or the term or whatever weren’t nearly as meaningful as the ones I put my roots down and dug in for the long haul. I hope you’ll see your youth ministry like that. That’s where God put you now, so dig down and give it all you’ve got. Plan to stay.
2. Get training on doing youth ministry. You’re not alone. Lots of us are doing what you’re doing. Lots of us are volunteers who work another job and work with the youth group because our kids are in it and nobody else would do it. And lots of people thrive doing youth ministry that way! The best advice I can give you is to get your hands on Group Magazine, get yourself to some local training events like Group Magazine Live, or get to a youth ministry convention put on by your denomination or other youth ministry provider (like Group!). Network with others doing youth ministry in the churches in your community. Share ideas. Find out what works. Get tips for handling the sticky issues. Learn to balance your life and ministry. When we develop skills for doing whatever we do, we enjoy it more and have more success.
3. Focus on the One Thing. Remember the main goal of youth ministry is helping teenagers grow in their relationship with Jesus. There are many avenues to get there, but that’s the biggee. Your job isn’t to keep the kids occupied and entertained. You don’t have to be an expert in lots of areas like adolescent development or theology. Through anything you do, let them see Jesus.
4. Go on a youth mission trip. Mission trips are amazing catalysts in the lives of youth and adults. And they don’t just affect the spiritual growth of you and the students, they give your overall ministry to teenagers a big boost. Don’t be surprised after you start going on mission trips that kids will want to spend more time together, will want to meet more often, will want to keep that spark that happened on the mission trip alive through the year.
5. Take care of yourself. Long term youth ministry is hard work. You don’t get e-mails from kids (or former kids) every day saying how you impacted their lives. In fact, if you do youth ministry long enough you’ll have days where you wonder what in the world you’ve gotten yourself into! That’s normal. Hang in there. Take care of your spiritual life, your family life, and yourself. Take time to go see a movie or read a book just because you enjoy it, not because it has something to do with your ministry. Develop friendships with people who aren’t part of the church. Attending to your personal needs reduces stress and helps you replenish for better service.
God has placed you in your ministry for a reason. God needs you there. The youth and their families need you there. The church needs you there. It’s a wonderful calling to be asked to serve teenagers! And one day I hope you’ll also hear from a student in your youth group from years ago.
Or maybe you’ll have an experience like Bob and Bonnie, volunteer youth ministers in a small town in Illinois. Several years ago, this older empty-nest couple decided if their church was going to be ministering to teenagers, they’d have to be the ones to do it. So they did. And every Sunday night they served kids snacks, played games, told stories, and had a devotion from the Bible. They’d sometimes have 5 or 7 kids. Then one week it’d jump up to over a dozen, and they’d be so excited! Then the next week it’d drop down to 3 or 4. It was frustrating, but they kept at it.
One student who came every week was a real pain. He gave them fits and challenged them on everything. He talked back. He was disrespectful. And Bob and Bonnie weren’t disappointed at all when graduation came, and he moved on.
Years later he showed up at their house. Out of the blue. Hadn’t seen them in years. All he wanted to do was say thank you. They’d had a big impact on his life, and now that he was an adult, he wanted to tell them that. And he said, “Even though it didn’t look like I was listening, I was.”
Thank you so much for serving students. God is using you. Please don’t go anywhere else just yet.
Doc Newcomb is a pastor, youth pastor, and Program Manager for Group Workcamps Foundation, a non-profit organization that provides a variety of short-term mission opportunities for church youth groups.