Doing Youth Ministry Like It’s Your First. . . and Last Year

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A mentor of mine, who served for many years as a Senior Pastor, once gave me some advice on longevity in ministry. “I treat every year at this church as if it were my first year of ministry,” he said, “but I always remember it could be my last.”

These words stuck with me because they describe what it takes to keep a faith-filled, high performing ministry going for the long haul, not just for a year or two before burnout and exhaustion take over. Below are a few key factors in approaching your ministry like it’s your first year – and your last.

Your First Year

Evaluate Your Excitement

I remember my first year of youth ministry. I came into the job, looked at the year-long calendar, and couldn’t help but get really excited for everything that was planned. When I got up in front of students to talk about the retreat, the mission trip, the Wednesday Night Bible Study, they got excited about those events because I was excited! But now that I’ve led dozens of retreats, been on countless mission trips, and gotten so good at laser tag that it’s not even fun to play with middle school students anymore, I find that it’s helpful for me to take an excitement evaluation each year.

My excitement evaluation happens when I look at our youth calendar and think deeply about the events, programs, or activities that make me most excited to be in ministry, and what specifics of those program or events make me most excited. Maybe it’s deepening a relationship with a community on a mission trip; or the opportunity to build leaders through a weekly program. When I’ve identified what particular aspect of a ministry activity makes me excited, I can then focus my work around that aspect. If I can’t think of anything that excites me about a particular program or activity, then maybe it’s time to re-think, re-plan, or just scrap it. I don’t make any major changes without first getting feedback from students, parents, and colleagues since there might be great value to a ministry that I’m missing. Middle school students still get really excited about laser tag, even if I beat them every time.

I’ve found that if I’m excited about ministry, it’s much easier to get students and parents excited about ministry.

Expand New Relationships

My first year was like someone opening a fire hydrant of names and faces. It seemed like every week I was meeting someone new – either at the church or in the community – who I just had to know. But the longer I’ve been in ministry in one place, and the more people I know, the more I find it’s comfortable to just maintain the relationships I already have.

But moving forward in ministry means constantly expanding your roster of relationships. Treating this year of ministry as if it’s your first means making the intentional steps of making new connections in your church and your community. How about taking the President of the Women’s Circle out to coffee? Or introducing yourself to the new history teacher at the high school? They’re good people to know and there might be doors for ministry waiting to be opened.

Take Some Risks

I’m not a natural risk taker, so in my first year of youth ministry I was conflicted over making any  major changes. When I told our youth council that I was considering a new format for our Sunday morning program but that I didn’t think it was the time for big changes, one of the parents spoke up: “If you’re ever going to change it, now’s the time. You’ll never have as much grace as you have right now!” And it was true. I made the change, made a few people mad at first, but had enough support from others to give the new format enough time to become successful.

While taking risks is always difficult, I’ve also found that it’s as difficult to take risks several years into my ministry position as when I was only months in; the reasons for not taking risks are just different now. Instead of worrying about making people mad, I worry that we shouldn’t mess with a good thing, or that this program or activity is good enough so why change.

But treating this year as if it were your first year means that you not only ask if a program or ministry area is good enough, but whether it could be even better. And sometimes that means taking risks. At your next youth council or strategy meeting, ask what programs or ministry areas are good, but could be even better. You might be surprised at some of the answers and it might be a good indicator of where you can take some risks this year.

Your Last Year

While it would be great to know that you have a full year to plan for a big transition, the truth is, we rarely have that kind of time. That’s why it’s important to be proactive in tending to the foundations of the youth ministry so that things remain healthy.

Invest in Strategic Relationships

While moving your ministry forward means growing new relationships, your last year has to be about tending to and investing in relationships that will keep the ministry moving forward without you.

I try and always ask myself: if I wasn’t the youth minister at my church tomorrow, who would run this program; who would lead this trip; who would be the leader here, and would they know what to do. If I can’t answer that questions, then I know it’s time to reconnect with those strategic leaders – both youth and adults – that could fill those roles.

If you don’t have a formal leadership development strategy in your youth ministry, consider starting one this year. It’s a big investment of time and energy, but there are few investments that can have as big an impact on the long term health of the ministry.

Fortify Your Foundations

What does your youth ministry do really well? What programs or activities will carry on without you? If you’re not sure of the answers to those questions, it’s time to fortify the foundational programs and activities of the ministry.

For instance, youth mission trips are a foundation of the youth ministry at our church. This means that I spend a lot of time a year in advance getting as much work done on those trips as possible. I know that those trips are integral to the health of our ministry and I want to make sure they happen no matter what. I also want to make sure that all the planning and details are accessible for anyone that comes in to take over the leadership of those trips. Contracts, records, deposits – all are organized and ready for anyone else to pick up at a moments notice.

This kind of planning helps make sure the strongest areas of the ministry will remain strong and that momentum will keep moving forward.

These are just a few ways that I try and approach my year of ministry. What are some strategies that you have for keeping excitement high and momentum moving forward in the youth ministry at your church?

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Lane is the Pastor of Discipleship at Brentwood United Methodist Church in Brentwood, Tennessee. He’s a graduate of Huntingdon College and Harvard Divinity School and is an elder in the Tennessee Conference of the United Methodist Church. Lane has a passion for making disciples for Jesus and for Auburn football! Follow him on Twitter: @RevLaneDavis.

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