After eight years in youth ministry I recently stepped into a new role as a teaching pastor at a suburban church. If you’ve ever transitioned from one career path to another, you know how challenging it can be. Although I can point to many examples of effective ministry, I’ve been reflecting lately on what I would’ve done differently if I could do it over again….
1. I’d be more intentional in my relationships.
Youth ministry really is all about relationships—we know that. But knowing and doing are two different things, and when I look back I realize that I was always too busy to spend much time with teenagers outside of our weekly programs. And the more our ministry grew, the more difficult this became.
I know a pastor who mentors 10 men a year through a six-month discipleship program. He puts together an application, a group covenant, and lists of memory verses, required readings, and audio CDs to listen to. Every year for the last 10 years he’s mentored 10 men—that’s 100 men he’s intentionally built relationships with. I have to say, to use the Apostle Paul’s terminology, this pastor is running quite a race!
Years ago John Wesley, the great pioneer of Methodism, said, “Give me 100…who fear nothing but sin and desire nothing but God…and such alone will shake the gates of hell and set up the kingdom of Heaven on earth.” And E.M. Bounds, the Civil War pastor and itinerant preacher, echoed Wesley: “The church is looking for better methods. God is looking for better men.” Intentional relationships are foundational for true ministry impact.
Of course, Jesus is our model for developing mentoring relationships. Pastor and author Robert Coleman studied Jesus’ template and created a framework for intentional relationships he calls “The Master Plan of Evangelism.” For a quick summary of this strategy, go to http://www.intervarsity.org/mx/item/4267.
2. I’d decide on a few words to describe my central passion.
I’ve been noticing lately that those who are leaving a legacy in ministry often have a phrase they’re known by—a few words that describe their passionate focus. For example, Bill Hybels often says, “The local church is the hope of the world.” John Maxwell frequently says, “Leadership is influence…nothing more, nothing less.”
In my old church the senior pastor always proclaimed: “God is good, all the time. And, all the time, God is good.” The Brooklyn Tabernacle’s Jim Cymbala often simply declares, “God is Love.” These little phrases have the ability to stick, even in the minds of our teenagers, long after we’re gone. How cool would it be if your kids always remembered you for your “few words”: “___________________________________________________.”
3. I’d pursue more training.
Towards the end of my time in youth ministry a strong regret crept into my soul—I realized I’d sold myself short by staying away from training conferences. That’s an even deeper regret when I consider the abundance of options I had in this era of youth ministry—the Simply Youth Ministry Conference is just one obvious example of many.
When I reflect on my ministry to teenagers, with the perspective that distance offers, it’s clear that I missed many opportunities to equip myself to do the job. Even more, I think I shortchanged my volunteer leaders because I rarely took them to training conferences where they could get the intensive training and encouragement they needed to multiply and extend our ministry vision. My shortsightedness, I know, has cut into my ministry’s legacy.
4. I’d spend more time seeking wise input.
When I first started out in youth ministry, I wanted to connect with the teenagers so badly that I’d go to extremes in my attempts to connect with them. For example, once I organized an “outreach” dance at our church—we pumped all-secular music for the whole night. When I look back on that evening now, I realize it produced nothing but a bunch of questions from concerned parents.
At one retreat I got so rowdy with a group of teenagers playing dodgeball that I let the game get way out of hand—we knocked out three windows and cost the church hundreds of dollars. Another time I published a flyer with the headline “Try P.O.T.” and passed it out in church. At the bottom of the flyer in a very small font it read, “Come next Sunday to our Parent Of Teen meeting.” This did not go over well in the pews.
I know that we all make mistakes, but looking back now I know I could have been more cautious and wise in these situations. I never thought to invite one of the experienced sages on the church staff to mentor me through the year. If I’d had a regular meeting time on my schedule just to talk through what I was doing in my ministry and invite input into my decisions, I wonder how my trajectory would’ve been impacted. In particular, I’m thinking my relationship with the parents of my teenagers would’ve radically improved—they might have trusted me more and replaced the skepticism I so often felt from them with their support. “Learning the hard way” is an overblown growth strategy.
5. I’d help equip the church for my transition.
Someday you’ll transition out of youth ministry—God either will call you to a new adventure in ministry, or he’ll call you home! Looking back, I wish I’d been more proactive about preparing my last church for my transition—that would’ve kept the teenagers in my ministry from getting lost in the process. Transitions can be awkward and challenging, but I’ve found that most church leaders are open to the departing leader’s input, and even welcome help in screening replacement candidates and landing the right person.
A friend of mine who’d been the youth pastor at his church for 14 years decided to transition out of the position, and he actually served on the search committee for his replacement! Once the new person was hired, he stayed on for a little bit to help the new staffer get settled and to serve as a bridge from the old to the new. The new guy “learned the ropes” of his new ministry setting from a trusted advocate, who left the scene before things could get awkward.
When and if you transition out of your current position, think of what an asset you could be for the next person to fill your shoes—you might not be able to stay long enough to directly help the new person, but you can do things that will help your teenagers and adult leaders swallow all the changes that are about to come. It’s Christ-like humility to care more about your soon-to-be-old church’s future than your own. ◊
Nathan is a former youth pastor who’s moved into a teaching pastor role. He lives in Maryland with his wife and daughter.
One Thing I’m Already Doing Better
We asked youth leaders who serve on our Simply Youth Ministry Conference “Inside Track Team” to answer a simple question: “What’s one thing you’re doing better in your ministry than one year ago?” Here’s what they said:
Better Dependence—We’re making time for prayer—I mean, we’re not only scheduling time for prayer, but letting prayer schedule our time. We have seen students’ lives changed!
—Tony Roos, Plymouth, Wisconsin
Better Timing—We’re doing our small groups (called Flite Groups) better. In September, we moved them from during the week at homes to Sunday night at the church. Sunday night our middle schoolers meet at 5 p.m. for worship and then 6:30 p.m. for Flite Groups. Our high schoolers flip that and meet for Flite Groups at 5 p.m. and worship at 6:30 p.m. This was a major advantage for the parents to be out only one night of the week versus two, and helped with parents who had a student in both ministries. This also allowed us to recruit better adults because the time fit in better for them.
—Roy Probus, Kansas City, Missouri
Better Planning—The “one thing” I’m doing better than last year is planning my weekly meetings by giving my leaders the material (LIVE Curriculum) in a usable, friendly format, with plenty of options. It also helps me communicate with parents almost weekly.
—Bill Holleran, Casselberry, Florida
Better Partnering With Parents—I’m getting better at connecting with parents and helping them. A few examples:
1. Each Wednesday I send home a parent partnership sheet, giving them a quick overview of what we covered, questions to continue the discussion, places to dig in the Bible, and a challenge as a family. It also has some quick announcements on it.
2. Monthly parent night (associated with our worship service night). Parents come, have dinner, play games with us, and then listen to a relevant talk given by either myself or by a guest speaker.
3. We send out a weekly email update with our parent partnership sheet attached.
4. We “brag” to parents about their children.
5. We recruit “lead” parents to pursue other parents in the youth group.
—Nathanael Miles, Green Bay, Wisconsin
Better Accountability—This year we’ve increased accountability among our student servant leaders—we’re challenging them in both “deep” and “wide” ways. They fill out a monthly “30 Days Gaze” report for me—it gives me a window into how they’re growing in their own spiritual life and how they’re shepherding our students (deep), as well as how they’re doing in their pursuit of others to lead to Jesus (wide).
—Bill Freund, Katy, Texas
Better Communication—We’re doing a lot better at connecting students to small group leaders by using a weekly connection journal. This is a simple paper book that allows the teenager to write anything they want, and then their small group leader writes back to them. This goes back and forth on a weekly basis. It helps the small group leaders to pray for and write to the students during the week, and then the students read and respond during small group time.
—Mark Drooker, Midlothian, Virginia
Better Administration—I’m doing a better job of keeping on top of my administrative stuff. I make a to-do list on Monday morning and prioritize the list, this helps me keep on track.
—Paul Daly, River Forest, Illinois
Better Questions—In my one-on-one relationship time with our youth, I’m asking questions that lead them towards the “who” they want to be (and who God wants them to be), rather than “what” they want to be. How do the decisions they are making reflect on who they want to be? What activities do they need to be a part of, and what ones do they need to be released from?
—Randy Quade, Friesland, Wisconsin
Better Closeness on the Leadership Team—Our church switched from a typical Sunday School model to a small group model at the beginning of this year, and my wife and I began hosting a small group in our home that is comprised almost entirely of our adult youth ministry team. This has really deepened our relationships; we’ve become a family. The incredible sense of community that has come from "doing life together" has allowed us to care more deeply about one another, and I think the students have picked up on it—it has resulted in some of the most “real” conversations between students and leaders that we’ve had in six years.