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Downshifting Your Summer Strategy

If you’re a volunteer youth worker who needs to take a break, this article might help you. If you’re a youth pastor with maxed-out volunteers, this article might give you perspective.

I am a longtime volunteer youth worker and full-time staffer at my church in a non-youth ministry role. As I write, the summer hasn’t even begun and, already, I have facts-of-life factors pulling me back from my traditional fourth-gear pace. While I’m still involved with our weekend middle school ministry, I’m doing less in our midweek service, and I’m not as involved in the big picture of what Jesus is doing in our youth ministry.

In Ecclesiastes 3, Solomon tells us that there’s “a time for every activity under heaven”—and that includes your time investment in youth ministry. Of course, I still have a heart for teenagers—that’s what makes the tension of downshifting so palpable. In the last few years, I’ve had to deal with a serious illness or crisis in our family, began an intense regimen of college coursework, invested myself in a time-intensive job project, plunged into a more-than-usual travel schedule—I’ve had no choice but to downshift. And I’m guessing you, like me, absolutely hate it when you have to slow your roll in ministry. We can’t imagine ourselves flat-out quitting unless, of course…we have to.

There is another way to think about this—a friend calls it “surgical involvement in youth ministry.” I like that because it elevates precision and intentionality. It also implies fixing what’s out of joint. Surgery is a strategic medical treatment. As a longtime youth worker, I bristle at the thought of pulling back from something I so enjoy. And, I feel guilty about it. I imagine you feel those things too. So, here are specific thoughts and strategies that help me stay meaningfully involved while not sacrificing my weightier priorities. Summer may be the perfect time to experiment a little…

1. Strategic Communication—When I began working toward a Master’s degree, I knew I had only so much capacity in my evenings to balance coursework, home life, and youth ministry. One day I sat down with my youth pastor and explained I didn’t want to quit but would like grace and permission to pare down my involvement. Thankfully, I received both. While every youth pastor craves “all in” youth workers, mine appreciated my track record of showing up faithfully over the years and was willing to work with me. So I communicate with one of our team leaders when I won’t be at midweek service or a key youth event. What generally works for me is an every-other-week arrangement. When I’m fully there. I tell myself: Wherever you are, be there.

2. Strategic Connections—The benefit of communicating with teenagers outside the main youth meeting is that when I take breaks, I already have an established rapport with them. A text, direct message, or chat between weekend services isn’t out of the ordinary. The difference is, I’m more intentional about those connections when my presence is inconsistent at youth group. For example, this summer I’m unable to attend most graduating seniors’ open houses (ugh, the first summer in over 25 years I’m making a conscious decision to skip). It’s the right decision this year, but I know I’m missing more than those cream-cheese pinwheels I love but will never make. It’s talking with parents and catch-up conversations with kids who no longer attend youth group but are there for their friends’ grad parties. So I’m texting girls with whom I’ve grown close and want to continue to invest, telling them (sadly) I won’t make it to their party, but I’d like schedule lunch. And I will follow through because I want to. And no one will interrupt our conversation to take a selfie… In addition…

    • I keep up with our youth ministry’s social media pages and parent e-letter so I know what’s going on. For example, when fellow youth workers talked about our kids participating in our annual talent show, I could reference what a teenager had done in the show based on the descriptions I heard. Rather than  apologize all over myself and make excuses as to why I wasn’t there (me-centered), I asked (other-centered) questions about it: “Were you nervous?” “Do you enjoy performing?” Then I affirmed their talents.
    • I’m casually upfront with kids about not being there. If they ask where I was last week, I tell them in user-friendly language. I do my best to remember things they told me the last time I saw them, or in a recent social media post, so even if I miss a week I can ask about it. “How’d your Spanish final go? I remember you were nervous about it.” “Uh, who’s the dude? Spell his last name so I can run a background check.”
    • By the way, if you’re ever tempted to pretend you were at an event you weren’t at, that’s understandable. But don’t. Kids usually see through adult posturing.

3. Strategic Breaks—I try to be strategic about the times I choose to be absent from our main group time and significant events. Where can I take a break when the youth ministry is on a break? For me, the main breaks are the week of Thanksgiving, three weeks surrounding Christmas and New Year’s, and a four-week break during the summer. Throughout the year, I look ahead at our youth ministry calendar, as well as my own, and decide what activities I can leverage for quality relationship-building with kids. For example, I prioritize small-group nights where I’m in a circle face-to-face with my girls (as opposed to weeks when the program means I’m sitting in the crowd, less connected). I also want to be part of all-hands-on-deck serving, like our Fall Kick-off and our weeklong summer local mission project. To me, it’s all ministry and it’s all important. The key is to pick and choose wisely where I can maximize intentional ministry.

4. Strategic Presence—It’s easier to mentally check out when I’m not physically present at leader meetings and our weekly large group time. That makes sense. What surprised me was that after a season of sporadic attendance, it was tempting to check out when I was actually there. I hated that, and it’s not normally me. But, it was a fact. So I began working harder at being fully present mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. Teenagers are worth it, and a fully engaged youth worker is not only golden but fulfilled.

5. Strategic Guilt—Guilt in ministry is a cousin to parenting guilt… It lurks in the back of the brain waiting for any reason, legit or not, to surface. You’ll likely feel guilty for your seeming lack of commitment. Years ago I heard screenwriter Randall Wallace (Braveheart, The Man in the Iron Mask) quote a Persian proverb: “When the heart is willing, it will find a thousand ways. When the heart is unwilling, it will find a thousand excuses.” Is my graduation party absenteeism an excuse to not show up, or is it a way to make space for other connections? We have to pick and choose what we can manage. Your circumstances might have you choose differently than the examples I’ve given. But guilt, like fear, should never be our go-to motivation to do anything in youth ministry.

Whether full-on or half-time, as long as you and I feel the freedom and desire to serve in youth ministry, we can find ways to show up in kids’ lives in other ways. And we can be thankful they still want us to.

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Downshifting Your Summer Strategy

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