James Dean, who played a troubled teenager in the 1955 movie, “Rebel Without a Cause,” said, “Dream as if you will live forever; live as if you will die today.” You’ve probably seen it on a teenage girl’s Instagram bio.
It’s a nice thought, and for James Dean, who tragically died in a car crash at age 24, eerily prophetic.
Student Ministry can be a difficult calling. We all have our fair share of troubled teenagers. We could all name a rebel without a cause or two. Or 10. There are some teenagers we wish could stay in our ministry forever. And some we wish would graduate today. Or yesterday.
How do we navigate this rewarding, yet challenging role without crashing and burning out way before our time?
I think the secret lies in a slight modification of James Dean’s famous quote: Invest as if you will stay at your church forever; prepare as if you’ll leave your church tomorrow.
Invest and Prepare
The average stay of a youth pastor at a church is anywhere from eighteen months to four years, depending on which research you look at. Even at the upper end, four years is not nearly long enough. I had the privilege in my twenty-five plus years of youth ministry experience of only serving in two churches. It was a blessing to plant deep roots and to experience the harvest of relational and ministry seeds planted over many years. I could write a whole series of blogs on what it takes to stay at a church past the average, but I believe it begins with a mindset.
Get in the mindset
I’m going to stay here. This is my church. These are my people. This is my family. This is home. I’ll be here forever or until God makes it clear it’s time to go – not when it gets difficult, not when my bag of tricks runs out, not when things aren’t going like I want them to. I think a lot of times youth pastors blame God for leaving a church when in reality they were just bored, fed up, or their favorite class moved on. What I’ve learned is there will always be another favorite class that comes along if you just hang in there.
I’m here to tell you from experience there are beautiful, amazing things that happen. They can only happen when you stay long enough to see several classes through from the time they walk into Student Ministry until the time they walk across the stage on Graduate Recognition Sunday. And it all starts with a mindset of longevity. To mangle another well-known phrase, we should be here for a long time, not for a good time.
Our students need consistency in their lives. In a world where it is increasingly difficult to trust adults, youth pastors need to be committed to staying with kids for the long haul. Go deep in your relationships with adults and students at your church. Be open. Be dependable. Be there.
Invest as if you will stay at your church forever.
But prepare as if you’ll leave your church tomorrow.
When I left my first church I felt as if too much of the ministry was dependent upon me and my personality. The ministry struggled for a season after I left and I felt a tremendous sense of blame because I had not prepared it for my eventual absence. From the moment I started at my second church, I made it my goal to ensure it didn’t happen again. I wanted to prepare and plan in such a way that if I got “hit by a bus” the ministry was set up for continued growth and vibrance even after I was gone.
Empower others to do the work of the ministry (Ephesians 4:11-12).
It’s tempting to want to do everything yourself. After all, it’s the only way to guarantee it will get done the way you want it to. The truth is, even though it seems like you’re working harder, it’s a lazier, easier way to do ministry. It’s a much more difficult task to identify, recruit, train and empower others for important roles in your ministry.
There are things only you, as the paid youth pastor, can do:
1. Set the vision and direction of the ministry. Language shapes culture. You can certainly enlist help for this, but ultimately you are responsible to hear from God and communicate to everyone in the ministry where you are going and why you are going there.
2. Represent the values and mission of the church/senior pastor to the Youth Ministry. You are a part of staff meetings. You regularly hear the heart of your pastor and know the direction of the church better than members who aren’t a part of those meetings and discussions. Don’t allow your ministry to be a silo, separate from the bigger church body. Bring your ministry underneath the umbrella of the church’s overall mission.
3. Represent the Youth Ministry of your church to the community. I was fortunate enough to be associated with the football team at our local high school for long enough that I was able to start a weekly coaches Bible study in the Coaches Office at the school. Nearly every coach attended. I couldn’t have done that without consistent service and our church’s financial support of the team.
But the fact that I was a pastor allowed me to be seen as an authority worth listening to. Even now, as a full-fledged, defensive line coach for the team, no longer on staff at a local church, all of the coaches still refer to me as “Pastor P.” I embrace it and consider it an honor. Being known as a pastor can sometimes close doors, but just as often it can open doors if you begin with a heart to serve.
4. Make key decisions (budget, which intern to hire, etc.) This is why you get paid the “big bucks.” There are some decisions only you can make.
Four things. Four important things, to be sure. You have to do your job and you need to do it well, with all of your heart, as if you’re working for the Lord and not for people (Colossians 3:23). Throw yourself into this work and give it your very best.
Everything else? Not only should you not try to do everything else, but there are people (adults and students) in your church who can do those things way better than you can!
Here are some examples of things students and adults should be doing instead of, or in addition to, you.
- Calendaring. Enlist a team of adults and students to help you plan your calendar. Give them responsibilities for specific events and programs. Make leadership development a priority.
- Planning and leading games. I remember very distinctly one Sunday gathering dressing up in a Santa costume I borrowed that turned out to be a little too snug in certain areas. I decided right then and there that my time of being the one dressing up and doing goofy stuff in front of the kids was over. From then on, I invited kids to dress up and do the goofy stuff and lead the games. And they absolutely killed it. They did it way better and funnier than I ever could. And I regained some of my dignity over time as well.
- Teaching. Yes, you can do the majority of the teaching. But there are people who can help. Develop a teaching team. When God calls you somewhere else, the ministry will have a group in place to carry on the upfront ministry of teaching the Bible.
- Utilizing technology. Let’s be honest, kids are way better at this stuff than we could ever hope to be. As Bane told Batman in The Dark Night Rises, “I was born in the dark, you merely adopted it.” Our students were born into technology. Most of us just adopted it. Don’t build another PowerPoint or Keynote presentation. Have a student do it. Don’t produce and film another announcement video. Have kids do it. Tell them what you need and watch as they surpass anything you could have done.
- Recruiting new volunteers. You should always recruit. You’re the face of the ministry. Just like college football, outstanding recruiting is one of the main keys to success. But you shouldn’t ever recruit alone. Bring on an adult or group of adults and train them to recruit alongside you. And who better to recruit adults to work in student ministry than the students themselves?
This is not an exhaustive list. There are any number of other tasks associated with your job that students and/or adults could do instead of you. If they’re not one of the four things only you can do, then empower others to get them done. Enlist them, train them, and turn them loose.
Preparing as if you’ll leave your church tomorrow means empowering enough people to ensure the ministry has the potential for health and flourishing even after you’ve gone.
Invest as if you will stay at your church forever; prepare as if you’ll leave your church tomorrow.
This is the secret to effective, long-lasting, ministry in the place God has called you.
If I can help you in any way, please let me know.