The 3 Mile-Markers of Success
group magazine: March-April, 2003
Special Series: Assessing Your Success
Is your ministry effective? If your answer is a vague “I guess so,” how do you really know when you’re making a lasting impact? We asked three sharp youth ministers who have more than six decades of experience among them to offer their best advice for assessing your ministry’s success. We start the series with Jeanne Mayo.
by Jeanne Mayo
On a cold December night, I said farewell to the youth ministry I’d led for 13 incredible years in Rockford, Illinois. On my last night at the church, the team members I was leaving behind organized a special celebration titled “Legacy”—it was an evening of reflection, laughter, and love. One by one, these dear people told how the ministry had permanently marked their lives. At the close of the service they honored me with a platinum ring that was inscribed “A Legacy of No Regrets.”
As I reflect on that unforgettable night, I see more clearly the mile-markers that pointed the way to enduring success. Did they include the crowds that showed up at our amphitheater every Wednesday night? No. What about the national recognition that came my way? No. Or how about the spiritual fireworks that often characterized our weekly services? Nope.
Number 1: Success Mile-Marker
You know you’re a success in youth ministry when teenagers take you for granted and fail to appreciate all you do.
This one might sound strange, but when you parallel your youth ministry to Christ’s experience with his disciples, it makes sense. The 12 guys on his ministry team never sang “How Great Thou Art” to him. In fact, they often seemed unimpressed by the sacrifices Jesus made to minister among them. They were quick to fall asleep when he asked them to pray, quick to lose their tempers when he didn’t give them their way, and quick to act like they didn’t even know him when they were threatened.
Looking back on my years in youth ministry, I believe discipleship is a love/hate relationship. We can’t significantly impact our students unless we spend time with them. Yet the more time we spend with them, the more they take us for granted.
Just before I announced I would be leaving my ministry in Rockford, I was in the ladies restroom prior to our Wednesday night youth service. Hidden behind the stall doors, I had no choice but to eavesdrop on a few teenage girls who came running in to make their final glamour check. One girl told her friend how “boring” she thought my talks were. They quickly finished and ran out the door laughing, unaware that I’d overheard the whole thing. I managed to smile and remind myself that “God’s not out to hurt my pride; he’s out to kill it!” I walked out of the restroom, notes in hand, to give another one of my “boring talks.”
A week later, when I announced I was moving to another church, guess who lingered to tell me what a difference I’d made in her life? Guess who tearfully told me no one would ever be able to take my place? And guess who quietly asked me if we were sure we were doing the right thing? That’s right, it was my restroom ego-booster!
So, what had changed? Nothing, except she realized I wasn’t going to be around much longer. Did it bother me? Not really. As I read the New Testament, the 12 in Christ’s “youth group” weren’t too impressed with him either—at least not until his Father moved him to a new location.
Number 2: Success Mile-Marker
You know you’re a success when you’ve been in one place long enough to have “remember when” stories.
Persistence is the greatest revenge on hell. In our dysfunctional society, where complete family units are an endangered species, we can define successful youth ministry with three words: Just be there. Sounds simple, but in a world of “rotating relationships,” a long-haul ministry can’t be overrated.
Conversations about the “night the bus engine caught on fire four years ago coming home from our fall retreat” are key markers of success, as long as you’re consciously creating new memories today. It’s dangerous to recycle the same stories over and over in your mind. I’ve been in full-time ministry for more than three decades, and I still push myself to generate fresh stories. Without fresh stories, I won’t have a fresh heart. I fear that I might stand before Christ one day with an enlarged youth ministry but a shrunken heart.
Over time, youth ministry can degenerate into a boring, unfulfilling task even to the best of us. It takes sheer determination to create new stories with new kids. I recently led a student named CJ to the Lord—he’s my fresh story in the making. With God’s help, I’m determined to authentically befriend CJ so one day he can write his own stories in the lives of students.
Number 3: Success Mile-Marker
You know you’re a success when you fight to remain a voice, not an echo.
There are many echoes in youth ministry—people who merely mimic the culture’s values rather than fight to be a distinct voice for biblical values. I’m not talking about legalism or nitpicking about music styles or body piercing. I’m talking about being a prophetic voice in the lives of our young people—a voice that has something to say about character, conscience, and conviction. It requires no energy or backbone to simply echo what kids want to hear.
John the Baptist is a good example—he ignored the pressure to conform and lived out his calling instead. That’s why he’s immortalized in the New Testament as a “voice of one crying in the wilderness.” Some youth leaders settle for having a ministry of success, but truly successful youth leaders choose to have a ministry of significance.
This slow slide into echo-land is like a youth leader traveling aboard a huge ocean liner. As she stands on the deck and looks out on the ocean, the ship appears to stand still. But if she dropped a large buoy from the ship’s deck, she’d quickly realize just how fast the ship was moving. The buoy would quickly disappear on the horizon. In the same way, it’s easy for us to assume our values have remained unchanged when they’re really slipping away, unnoticed.
In our culture, the only absolute is that there are no absolutes. Our challenge is to remain a fixed point in a sea of mediocrity; a fixed point that’s committed to remaining a true voice to young people. After all, our Boss was once described as “the same yesterday, today, and forever.”
I was the last one out of the building the night of the Legacy service—the clock read 4:30 a.m. as the last student said his final farewell. Exhausted, I trudged my way up the steps to the door one last time. I paused at the top and cast a fond glance back at the room that represented the epicenter of 13 years of youth ministry. Was I afraid to walk out? Not in the least.
You see, I began preparing for my exit the very day I made my entrance. Through the years, I tried to make sure that my desire to be needed was never greater than my desire to be exceeded.
The youth leader I left behind is Jeremy—one of my fresh stories from the early ‘90s. After he committed his life to Christ, I was honored to coach him through a host of normal spiritual growth issues. Months later, we wrestled through possible career choices. I helped train him for full-time ministry, then took part in his wedding. Years later I stood with him at the hospital as he held his firstborn son in his arms. And now, as I walked through the exit door one last time, Jeremy had matured into a man who was no echo. Now, that’s a success marker.
Jeanne Mayo is a three-decade youth minister who recently moved to a new ministry in Sacramento, California. She’s also developed and distributes an impressive line of youth ministry resources and speaks all over the world. To learn more about her youth ministry resources, go to www.jeannemayo.com on the Web.
Next issue: Chris Hill on “The 3 Immutable Standards”