100 Youth Ministry Gems
group magazine: January-February, 2000
By Lee Milam, Vann Conwell, and Mark Devries
This is the story of how a pretty good idea grew up into a really, really great idea. Not long ago we here at group thought it wouldnít be a bad idea if we asked three grizzled youth ministers to give us their best seasoned advice in little bite-sized chunks. So we asked obviously grizzled veterans Lee Milam, Vann Conwell, and Mark DeVries to give us their best stuff, right down the pike. Well, what we got back was more than not bad or pretty goodóthese are really, really great tips, as youíre about to find out...
1. Invest your time wisely. Because youth ministry is all about investing time in people, make smart decisions about guarding and investing your time.
2. Itís all about relationships. Teenagers need significant adults in their lives more than ever.
3. Itís bigger than you. Youíll never have enough time or gifts to do youth ministry by yourself. The sooner you figure this out, the happier youíll be.
4. Multiply yourself. Healthy youth ministries have a perpetual flow of volunteers. Investing your time in these people will make a huge difference in your ministry.
5. Learn to rest. Rest is your "regularly scheduled maintenance."
6. Learn to listen for the "story." When you understand a teenagerís life experiences, youíll be closer to understanding his or her behavior.
7. Donít take yourself too seriously. Young ministers usually bolt out of the gate ready to save the world. God has his own plan to save the world already established.
8. Choose your battles carefully. Iíve often seen youth ministers crusade for a cause they think is vital, unaware theyíve lost perspective. A wise pastor once asked his passionate youth minister, "Son, is this the hill you want to die on?" Some struggles are worth the risk, others become regrets.
9. Plant roots early. Find a church where you can spend most of your career. I was blessed to find such a church in my second year of ministry, and Iím still there.
10. Prioritize your life. Good time management begins when you evaluate whatís really important to you.
11. Sharpen your sword. You must stay spiritually fit. Surround yourself with excellence, and value those who know more than you.
12. Give your spouse space. My wife has a degree (and a gift) in working with small children. Our church never required her to "co-minister" to teenagers with me. Instead, our church kids were touched by her loving hands long before mine. Donít shackle your spouse with the rigors of youth ministry unless he or she is called to it.
13. Be accountable. Iíve asked my seven youth ministry deacons to keep me accountable. We pray, laugh, cry, and strategize together. Theyíre a major reason for our ministryís success.
14. Be generous. I love doing weddings for former group members. I return any compensation with a smile. Generosity keeps you in a servant mind-set.
15. Flex your humility muscles. Now that Iím in my later ministry years, Iíve grown concerned about the out-of-control egos Iíve witnessed in young youth ministers.
16. Recognize "God is still in control." Someone taped a hand-painted sign bearing this message over my office door the day we lost a group member to suicide.
17. Be a team player. Even if you work harder than any other staff member, insist on projecting a team spirit, and honor those youíre privileged to serve beside.
18. Love and respect people in authority. Build close relationships with people older than you.
19. Exceed expectations. When we lead with this attitude, people notice, admire, and follow.
20. Embrace technology. Teenagers are immersed in a high-tech environment. Let technology help youójust ask a kid to show you how!
21. Drink from the well of experience. I serve under the same senior minister who hired me 20 years ago. Heís my second father, one of my mentors, and has taught me most of my ministry skills. Find an older minister and drink deeply.
22. Diversify your life experiences. Find a hobby totally unrelated to ministry that brings you in contact with people outside your ministry world.
23. Avoid "rut" ministry. The clichť goes: "A rut is just a grave with the ends knocked out." Itís true. Donít be afraid to push yourself into new territory.
24. Donít reinvent the wheel. Network with other youth ministers you admire. Ask for permission to use their ideas. Most will consider this an honor.
25. Blend your teenagers into the church. Avoid the trap of isolating your kids from their church family. Too much time outside of the corporate body is essential, but too much creates a damaging disconnection.
26. Befriend your kidsí parents. Discover the blessing of close relationships with the parents of your kids.
27. Advertise. Your youth group may be the best-kept secret in town.
28. Prepare for life after youth ministry. As you grow in your ministry skills, youíll gravitate toward certain passions. Make sure you nurture those passions.
29. Donít fear a long investment in youth ministry. Many canít wait to "graduate" from youth ministry to "real" ministry. Let God use your "wonder years"óyour 20s, 30s, and 40sóto seed wisdom, maturity, resourcefulness, and parenting skills in you.
30. Learn to keep short accounts. If you and your family are to survive the ministry lifestyle, you must learn to live at peace with most people.
31. Stay forward-looking. Lifetime ministry requires vision for the future. On his 80th birthday, a dear member of my church simply said, "Iím committed to a long walk in the same direction."
32. Guard your reputation. Watch how, who, and when you offer counsel, opinions, friendship, and your presence. Once your reputation is stained, itís an uphill recovery.
33. Resist the "answer person" role. Though youíll be asked for help, counsel, prayer, and advice, donít become known as the supreme source for lifeís answers.
34. Have a community presence. Your ministry should thrive outside your church walls. Help coach a softball team, volunteer at the school library, or tutor a child.
35. Invest in continuing education. My church leaders encourage our staff to attend conferences and workshops. They recognize the difference it makes in our church life, and in our personal growth.
36. Keep the home fires burning. My elders see this as a requirement for me, not an option. They recognize when Iím neglecting my family, and insist that I balance my time.
37. Celebrate the seasons of your ministry. I look back at my 20 years as if it were a football game. The first quarter, my group members saw me as a buddyóI had to work at respect and discipline. In the second quarter, I took on a big brother roleókids came to me wanting advice and direction. In the third quarter, more parents than kids came to me with their problems. Finally, in the fourth quarter, Iíve become a true father figureócoaching parents, mentoring volunteers, and empowering others to do what Iíve learned.
38. Beware of the tyranny of the urgent. As your ministry grows, youíll be tempted to run from crisis to crisis. Donít forget the importantóyour precious family, fellowship with Godís people, and time in Godís Word.
39. Delegate responsibly. Train your volunteers to lead the way. Occasionally plan to miss youth events. Send a signal to your teenagers (and your church) that home is number one.
40. Bitter or Better? Every ministry experience can turn you in one of two directionsóchoose wisely.
41. Donít play favorites. Sooner or later, youíll be accused of favoritism. So be proactiveólet kids and parents know theyíre all equally important to you.
42. Expect the unbelievable. Kids will tell you things thatíll floor you. And God will intervene in unbelievable ways.
43. Be transparent. Because kids can see through hypocrisy and insincerity like tissue paper, you have no choice but to be real.
44. Teach using stories. A good illustration is a window in a long wall. Teenagers love storiesóand so did Jesus.
45. Live the message. It took a long time to realize that kids are not studying my learning materials, theyíre studying me.
46. Prepare a safety net. If you stay in youth ministry, youíll regularly face crises. You need a plan for almost every scenarioópregnancy, rape, suicide, murder, abuse, and so on. Ask key professionals in your church to help you design a plan for youth group emergencies.
47. Innovate. When Nobel Prize winner Dr. Linus Pauling was asked how he made his great scientific discoveries, he responded, "In order to have a few good ideas, I must have lots of ideas."
48. Evaluate. Every major effortóa missions experience, camp, retreat, learning idea, or service projectóshould all be debriefed and critiqued by teenagers, parents, and church leaders.
49. Be slow to speak. Early in my ministry, a fellow staffer caught me before I angrily unloaded on our church leaders. He said, "Just because you think something doesnít give you the right to say it."
50. Lay up heavenly treasures. Thereís no higher calling than leading young people to Jesus. Itís an honor and joy that few people will ever knowócherish every moment of your ministry.
51. Finish your day before you start it.2 Schedule your important priorities (such as time with God and your family) first thing in the morning or the last thing at night. The more you have to do, the longer this prioritizing process will take.
52. Do the important things (spiritual disciplines or teaching preparation) at a place and time when you wonít be interrupted. Few people call or want appointments before 6 a.m.
53. When you read a book or article, mark the stories, quotes, and statistics you want to keep. Then copy your treasures on 3x5 cards and file them by topic.
54. Donít answer the phone. Let your voice mail answer, then check it frequently.
55. Laugh loud at least once a day.
56. Cry at least once a week.
57. Find a "Barnabas" who can be your ministry partner.
58. Find a "Paul" who can be your spiritual director.
59. Find a "Timothy" who can receive what you have to give.
60. Take an elder out to lunch once a week. Share your vision and listen to his or hers.
61. When youíre budgeting, use the rule of thumb that it takes (on average) $1,000 per active teenager in your group to run an effective youth ministry. Let your board know when theyíre getting a bargain.
62. Recruit leaders for six-year terms. Ask them to stay with the same kids from seventh through 12th grade.
63. Ask the most gifted people in your church to be volunteer youth leaders. Ask them every yearófew can say no eight years running.
64. Memorize Scripture and review it as you drive.
65. When you feel like a failure, congratulate yourself for being on track.
66. Find organized mothers to plan your major events.
67. Be your senior pastorís biggest supporter. If you canít, skip the next tip.
68. Stay where you are. Youth ministry doesnít really get fun until youíve spent six years in one place.
69. Recruit enough adult leaders to give your ministry a one-to-five ratio of leaders to kids (including your inactive kids).
70. Spend more time in prayer and less time in programming.
71. The best teaching flows out of personal Bible study.
72. Pray bold prayers.
73. Your way isnít the only way. Learn to compromise.
74. File lesson materials and devotionals, but wait four or five years before repeating them. Discipline yourself to generate new material.
75. Recruit people different from yourself. You need people who can reach teenagers you canít.
76. Even when you feel youíve publicized an upcoming event well, communicate some more. People are more oblivious to the details than you think they are.
77. Ask God to confirm your call. If God calls you out of youth ministry, follow him. If he calls you to stay, draw strength from that affirmation.
78. See parents as partners, not adversaries. Your ministry is one-sided if it doesnít embrace parents.
79. Age is not a valid indicator for effective ministry. You can be too old for youth ministry at 25 and very effective at 65.
80. Parenting is like getting multiple graduate degrees in youth ministry.
81. Be a friend to your teenagers, but never compromise your ministry to be liked by them. You may be the only significant adult in their lives who will speak to them about Jesus.
82. Never resign on a Monday. Things will look better after two nightsí sleep.
83. Observe at least one day off every week.
84. Read books that have nothing to do with youth ministry.
85. When youíre planning an activity, look for ways that someone could be injured. When in doubt, donít do it.
86. Choose your emergencies. Ask your church to pay for a second phone line at your home thatís just for youth ministry calls. Screen calls with an answering machineórespond only to emergencies and handle the rest at your office.
87. Maintain the following priorities in rank order: God, family, and ministry.
88. If your church owns a bus, get a commercial driverís license. However, whenever possible recruit someone else to do the driving.
89. Factor a van or bus rental cost into any activity that takes your group out of your city.
90. Watch for The Messiah Complex. You canít fix deep-seated problems in kids through sheer force of will.
91. Spend time with people who can challenge you spiritually.
92. Always preview videos before you show them to kids.
93. Donít fall into the trap of feeling you must entertain your kids or theyíll go someplace else. Challenge them with service and mission trips.
94. Remind yourself that no one is irreplaceable. A healthy group wonít fall apart when you leave.
95. Ensure that Jesus is the central figure in your ministry.
96. Treat teenagers as worthy of your confidence and trust. Donít underestimate their ability or desire to live boldly and honestly for Jesus.
97. Be prepared to share the intent behind what you do. An unexamined ministry is an aimless, ineffective ministry.
98. When you get together with ministry peers, donít gossip about your church leaders. Gossip is just as sinful when itís clothed in hip cynicism.
99. Never, ever, make a young person the butt of a joke.
100. "Professional" isnít the same as "self-important." God chose a donkey, a thief, and a prostitute to speak on his behalf. Weíre in good company.
10 THINGS I WISH I'D KNOWN
I thought I knew it all. I had a college diploma, two internships under my belt, a budding free-lance writing career, and a box-full of awards. Then I met my group of 40 middle school students for the first time. A 200-pound eighth-grader challenged me to a fight in the parking lot. A sixth-grader told me he and his friends would "break me in easy." A seventh-grader hit him in the head with a basketball and asked if I was the new "substitute teacher."
Then a key adult leader quit, a new family in the church told my senior pastor our youth program was inadequate, and every day someone advised me that "Pastor Jon never did it that way."
Now, after a year of full-time youth ministry, I love my job. And Iíve discovered I have a hidden gift for making mistakes.
The 10 things I wish Iíd known...
1. Donít change everything all at once. Leaders earn the right to make changes. I tried to plant new programs before Iíd built strong relationships. Bad idea. When I established trust with my adult leaders and kids, I introduced the same ideas that had flopped beforeóand they worked.
2. Donít try to do everything yourself. Two is better than one. And 20 is even better. As I included more people in my ministry, I discovered their gifts dwarfed mine in many areas.
3. Itís okay if the previous youth pastor did it better. Pastor Jon was a great youth pastor. Instead of fighting his ghost, I started saying things like: "Pastor Jon was great! I hope I can be as good as him one day. Maybe you can help me." Kids and adults began to see me as his extension, not his replacement.
4. If you donít have kids, youíre not a parenting expert. Parents need advice and guidance, but a 23-year-old single guy is not their ideal mentor. When they need advice, I connect them with older parents.
5. Church staffers are your greatest asset. Iíve learned to seek my senior pastorís wisdom regularly. My fellow staffers work to involve teenagers as childrenís ministry helpers, worship musicians, and nursery caregivers. We meet weekly to encourage each other and to pray. And my co-workers have quashed destructive gossip by speaking highly of me and confronting people who complain without talking to me first.
6. Network. The Baptist minister in the next town gives me curriculum, videos, and timely advice. The youth minister at the "big church" in town helps me with budget and time-management issues. The Youth for Christ missionary helps me reach out to kids at school. The intern at the Episcopal church reminds me about my passion. A local college professor helps me find new adult volunteers.
7. Active learning is more memorable than a sermon. No one remembered my speech about sanctification, but my high schoolers will never forget the day we prayed by drawing comic strips.
8. Take care of your personal needs. Bathe. Eat right. Sleep every night. Spend time with adults. Read books. Exercise. Take your day off. Pay your bills on time. Spend time with God.
9. God has better answers than you do. Every time I try to work my plan, I fall on my face. Every time I ask God for help in a specific area, he delivers in amazing ways. I prayed for more youth workers, and three appeared at my doorstep. I prayed for peace in the middle school group, and we have peace.
10. Youíre called to be faithful, not successful. Faithfulness to Godís call is success. Ask him for a vision and follow that vision. My identity is not "youth pastor." My identity is "child of God."
Kyle Minor is in his second year of youth ministry in Florida.
THE 18 MONTH MYTH
By Rick Lawrence
"Studies indicate that the average youth director lasts only 18 months." So says George Gallup, the granddaddy of Christian pollsters. Iíve heard the same factoid quoted by esteemed youth ministry speakers, authors, academics, and average-Josephine youth leaders hundreds of times. So itís gotta be true, right?
Hereís the trouble: Iíve attempted to trace this now-infamous truism back to a specific source, and I canít find one anywhere. Gallup doesnít cite a particular study. Neither does Barna. Itís a ghost vampire not even Buffy can kill. The 18-Month Myth is now part of youth ministry lore. Itís been used over and over to describe youth ministers as easily scared gypsies who bolt at the first sign of trouble.
Well, Iím here to tell you itís all a bunch of bunk.
For years Iíve challenged people who reel off this 18-month statistic to cite their sources. Iíve disputed its authenticity for two reasons: (1) The average group reader has five years of paid youth ministry experience and has stayed at the same churchóboth as a volunteer and paid stafferófor more than six years. (2) At conventions, workshops, and in casual conversations with youth ministers all over the country, I hardly ever meet one who bags it after a year-and-a-half.
So we here at group decided to find out the truth, once and for all. We asked our research staff to complete a scientific survey of North American churches using a representative sampling of denominations. Hereís what we discovered:
*The average paid youth minister has just over four years experience (4.2 years, to be exact).
*The average paid youth minister has been at the same church for almost four years (3.9 years, to be exact).
So youíre not the lone stable person in a sea of here-today, gone-tomorrow gadabouts. And, if youíre a group subscriber, itís a good bet youíre even more committed to your profession and your church than those nefarious nonsubscribers out there.
Now I feel all squishy insideóthe good kind of squishy. I hope you do, too.
Rick Lawrence is editor of group.
THE CASE FOR STAYING PUT
By Mark Devries
Research show that preschoolers do better (emotionally and behaviorally) if they remain with the same caregiver throughout their preschool years. And Iím convinced the same is true for our group members.
Iíve been at the same church for a little over 13 years, so I can say with some certainty that long-term youth ministry is not only better for the kids, itís easier and more satisfying for the youth minister as well. I didnít begin to see visible "fruit" from my work with kids until my seventh year. Unfortunately, too many youth pastors stay around just long enough to leave feeling like a failure.
Last summer I spent time with Wayne Rice, one of my heroes and the co-founder of Youth Specialties. Wayne had recently changed his focus from traditional youth ministry to working with parents of teenagers. He told me he felt a little guilty about the change because heíd always been a passionate advocate of long-term youth ministry. But he turned the corner when he realized: "Staying in youth ministry for life is not the goal. The goal is to be where God wants me."
Wayne helped me realize that not everyone is called to be a "lifer." Even so, Iím encouraged that more and more of my peers are resisting the "greener pastures" temptation and choosing to stay in youth ministry for the long haul.