What if you could wake up two years from now and feel good about yourself, your church, and your ministry?
Considering the statistics about short youth pastor tenures and high youth minister burnout rates, that would be quite an accomplishment!
So, let’s fast forward. We’re two years into the future. You wake up, go to the kitchen, and make a cup of coffee. You sit down at the table and start to reflect a little bit about your first two years in youth ministry.
Your first thought takes you back to your ministry classes in college (or seminary). Some of your professors were lively and engaging. Others were dry and boring. But you appreciate how they all tried to prepare you in their own ways.
Your next thought is about how ministry in the local church is different than you thought it would be. In your classes, every theory worked out perfectly. The textbooks explained things so seamlessly.
But in your actual ministry, you have to deal with unreasonable demands and imperfect people. However, your actual ministry is also more rewarding than you thought it would be. You’ve seen students surrender their lives to Christ, discover their spiritual gifts, and form amazing friendships with each other.
Your next thought is about the other people from your classes who started with such promise and enthusiasm. They had high hopes and big dreams. But things didn’t work out like they thought they would. Half of those people have already quit their first ministry job (or been fired from it).
Then you think back over your first year in youth ministry, those first twelve months. What were the key things that you did to set yourself and your ministry up for success and sustainability? What were the things that you prioritized that others didn’t?
You pull out your phone and start typing a note of the things that come to mind. Here they are…
5 Priorities for Your First Year in Youth Ministry
1. Build Relationships
People want to be seen, heard, and cared about. They want to be known. When you first show up at your church, students are asking a few questions in their heads (some might even ask these questions out loud): Can we trust you? What are you going to do here? How long will you stay here?
You have to start there, with those students and their questions. And that means that you have to start with relationships. Earn their trust by spending time with them, having fun with them, and keeping your promises to them. Invest in them. Show up for them. Surprise them. Cheer them on as they navigate the weird, happy, and hurtful moments in their lives.
This priority is so important that I wrote a book about it: People Skills for Youth Pastors.
2. Maintain Boundaries
Drs. Henry Cloud and John Townsend say, “Just as homeowners set physical property lines around their land, we need to set mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual boundaries for our lives to help us distinguish what is our responsibility and what isn’t” (Boundaries, p. 27).
There will be many opportunities that come your way. Some of them will even be good opportunities. But for each of one of those opportunities, you have to make a decision about whether or not it is wise for you to say yes.
• Will it help you move in the direction you want to go?
• Does it distract you from more important matters?
• How will it affect your family?
• Will it derail you on your way to where you want to be?
Those are important questions to ask and answer.
Boundaries are also what Andy Stanley calls guardrails. “A guardrail,” he says, “is a system designed to keep vehicles from straying into dangerous or off-limit areas.”
Guardrails are necessary for our cars, and they are also necessary for our lives. Avoid situations that have the appearance of impropriety. Avoid situations that awaken temptation. Boundaries protect your ministry so you don’t wreck your ministry.
3. Communicate Consistently
It’s so easy to communicate with people. We have cell phones, text messages, email, and social media. There’s no reason why a parent should ever have to wonder about what’s happening in your ministry. Granted, you might communicate through all of those channels and a parent might not check any of them. But that’s the exception, not the rule.
Occasionally, my son’s gymnastics practice will be canceled. As a parent, I only get upset about it when the gymnastics school doesn’t communicate it ahead of time. More than once, we’ve driven the half-hour to get there only to find out that practice was canceled. If it weren’t for the relationships that my son has with his coach and the other guys on his team (see Priority #1), we would’ve left by now and found a new gym.
Parents don’t want to be left in the dark about the details of what’s happening in your ministry. A monthly email, a text message reminder, and weekly social media updates will go a long way toward keeping everyone in the loop about what’s going on. Make it a priority to communicate consistently.
If you need help with your social media strategy, I’ve written a book that includes a full strategy and tons of templates to help you: Social Media Skills for Youth Pastors.
4. Make Improvements
Thom Rainer points out that your first year at a church is the “honeymoon period” (usually). The church believes the best about you and you believe the best about them. For that reason, I don’t subscribe to the typical advice that you should wait a year before you change anything in your ministry.
Sure, you should be smart about what you change and when you change it. But the church hired you to lead the youth ministry, so lead it. Don’t wait a year to fix something that isn’t working.
In fact, making a few small changes that create obvious improvements will help you create more buy-in and momentum for the future. Make sure you do your homework and figure out why things are currently done the way they are done before changing them, and you might even want to check with the senior pastor before moving with some of your ideas. But if you don’t see any red flags, make the changes you want to make.
By the way, a great time to change things in your youth room or on your schedule is during the summer. That will allow you to relaunch with something new and different when school starts back.
5. Plan Ahead
One of the reasons why youth pastors don’t last is because they burnout. The amount of administration, creativity, and energy required to keep the ministry growing and moving forward is too much for some people. One way that you can help yourself with this is by planning ahead.
Spend a day or two out of the office if you can. Print out or purchase a big 12-month calendar and start filling it in with dates. When does school start? When does it end? When is summer camp? When are mission trips? When will you have events After that, you can add ideas for relevant sermon series ideas that lead up to or build off of those activities.
Keep an eye out for busy seasons. Is too much happening in one part of the year while not enough is happening in another part? Can you shift some things around to balance it out? Is there a gap that needs to be filled?
This is one way to rise above the daily/weekly grind and work on your ministry instead of only working in it.
For more help with ministry planning and strategy, see my book Every Week Matters.
BONUS TIP: Find a Mentor
For some reason, many youth pastors don’t do this. I think it might be because they don’t think they have time for it. Or maybe it’s because they think they’ll figure things out on their own eventually. Whatever the reason is, not having a ministry mentor (or coach) shouldn’t be an option.
In his book, Consider This: A Youth Minister’s Guide to Longevity, Chris Trent points to the Apostle Paul’s relationship with the younger Timothy as an example of this. Chris adds, “there have been a lot of days when I’ve needed a Paul in my life. I’ve needed someone to lead the way through example and intentional conversations. I’ve needed someone I could trust to share my most intimate struggles and doubts with. I’ve needed someone I could share my crazy ideas with” (p. 4).
Maybe you know the feeling that he’s talking about. But even if you don’t (yet), make it a priority to find a mentor in your first year of ministry. It will pay dividends in the next years of your ministry.
When you wake up two years from now, will you feel good about yourself, your church, and your ministry? Or will you wonder how it all went so wrong?
You know you can’t do everything in your first year (that would lead to burnout!). But you can establish a few priorities and put your focus there. My advice is that you focus your first year on the things I’ve mentioned above:
• Building relationships
• Maintaining boundaries
• Communicating consistently
• Making improvements
• Planning ahead
Those are the things that will set you up for a successful, sustainable youth ministry.
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