Let’s be honest…..leadership, especially in youth ministry, is hard.
And, there is no magic formula.
As youth workers we desire to see students surrender their lives to Jesus and become leaders who will not only influence friends and family right now, but will continue to make an impact for the kingdom throughout their lives. This should be the vision for every youth ministry, no matter the context.
Slow Youth Ministry is about doing things well. We understand from experience and scripture that slowing down and doing what is best, not necessarily good, is the key for building a strong, deep and sustainable youth ministry. However, when it comes to practical leadership, youth leaders often find themselves living in the gray area. We have to consistently ask ourselves, “What is best in this situation?” and “How and where is God leading us?”
Youth leaders must be wise leaders, which is why it is an imperative that we live out youth ministry through a slow process. Proverbs 14:16 states, “The wise watch their steps and avoid evil; fools are headstrong and reckless” (The Message). When we slow down we can better see and hear what is best; we can determine where God is leading our next steps, because we find our grounding in his presence. Henri Nouwen writes, “If there is any focus that the Christian leader of the future will need, it is the discipline of dwelling in the presence of the One who keeps asking us, ‘Do you love me? Do you love me? Do you love me?’ This is the discipline of contemplative prayer” (In the Name of Jesus, 42).
In youth ministry we experience moments where it seems that everything is clicking and working, giving us that mountaintop feeling. Yet, before we can get comfortable, we are brought back down to the valley where we face another mountain to climb.
A student looses a parent to sickness.
A family is broken through divorce or infidelity.
Negative attitudes from students and parents, and negative talk from members of the church about the student ministry.
Conflict with a volunteer youth worker or pastor. Being caught in the middle of a conflict between other staff members or a volunteer and the pastor.
All of these situations (and there are many, many more) require wise, slow leadership that must be tailored to each specific context. This means there is no boxed formula for how to lead when times are tough. And, I believe that is how God wants it. Without a 1,2,3 step process we are made to go deeper into the presence of God that is within us and around us.
So, what can we do when leadership it tough? How can our leadership be contemplative in nature? How can we grow in wisdom?
Grow in Grace
We do what we do only by God’s grace. Grace is a gift God grants each of us as a daily, transformative experience in the journey of discipleship. We receive grace through the contemplative life.
I currently serve at a United Methodist church. In the Methodist tradition, we learn from John Wesley ways that we can grow in grace. While Wesley may not have used this language, I like to call it, “Walking as a Contemplative.” There are six “means of grace”:
1. Searching the Scriptures
5. Public Worship
6. Christian Community
As we participate and listen in the practices, God will speak (even in silence) and guide us toward what is wise and best.
Know Your Relationships
Proverbs 16:15 tells us, “Good-tempered leaders invigorate lives; they’re like spring rain and sunshine” (The Message). Each youth worker needs a person(s) outside of the his or her ministry context in which they can speak truthfully and honestly. A person that will listen and allow you to put all your frustrations on the table. This can be a close friend, a mentor or a fellow youth worker (once again, outside of where you are currently serving). Of course, you will also need to be the person that this friend can trust to vent out their frustrations.
A youth worker should never take their frustrations out on family members, volunteer youth workers, parents or students. This negativity will suck the river of energy dry. Now, this does not mean that you put on a “church face” when you really feel like the world is crumbling around you. This goes back to wisdom. When you are faced with a mountain, it’s important to be authentic. However, your attitude must be put in check, and allow this to be a learning opportunity for both you and your students as you imitate trust in Christ.
Know your environment. Know your relationships.
Take a Sabbath
It is also important to have a healthy relationship with the ministry. If you find yourself unable to a have a Sabbath (one day-a-week where you turn everything off and do what you love), you have an unhealthy relationship. The Sabbath is a God-ordained gift for rest and renewal. It’s not a day to lay on the couch, eat potato chips and watch t.v. (unless this is your hobby, I guess), but a day to just enjoy the love of God by doing what you love. Find a hobby. For me, my rest and renewal is through painting. I love to paint, and if I go a few weeks without this creativity, I find myself becoming irritable and foolish.
So, let’s be honest….leadership is hard.
Youth ministry is hard.
It is messy and frustrating.
But thanks be to God who gives us the wisdom, grace, love, and strength to navigate the gray waters where we see students surrender their lives to following Jesus and becoming leaders who influence their world.
Nouwen, Henri J.M. In the Name of Jesus: Reflections on Christian Leadership. New York: Crossroads, 1989.
For more information on John Wesley’s teaching on the “means of grace,” visit http://mstreetumc.org/how-we-grow/