A recent Facebook post caused me to reflect on my time in youth ministry.
- Youth Ministry is tough.
It is exhausting work. It is work that, by most, is done with an enormous amount of passion and dedication. The youth ministers I know love their students. They have them to their house, answer texts at odd hours of the day, show up at ball games, take them on exhausting retreats. The youth ministers that I know passionately engage their students. It is tough work to dedicate that amount of heart and time to youth ministry.
What makes it even more exhausting is the amount of failure that youth ministry consists of. You get 2, maybe 3 hours with kids during the week. After that, they are under the influence of friends, schools, and primarily parents. After dedicating so much time to individual students, so much effort, so many conversations…many times, if not most, students end up not interested in the message you’ve dedicated your life to.
I remember walking into meeting after meeting begging God to give me words, or the patience to listen, or the energy to keep up. I remember waking up early, hoping that God would teach me how to love Him so that I could teach students how to love Him. I remember the pressure of every action being scrutinized by high school students, their parents, and even church leadership. Youth ministry is tough.
- Youth Ministry is a daily battle with expectations.
Marriage and youth ministry have this one thing in common – expectations. Except, in youth ministry you aren’t fighting with your own expectations, you are fighting with everyone else’s. Parents want the youth ministry to be a certain way. Turn the music down, turn the music up. More doctrine! More dodgeball! Less dodgeball. More retreats. More music! Less music! Cooler songs! Less retreats. Get me the schedule sooner.
The funny thing about it is that, most students don’t share their parents expectations for the youth ministry. It was silly.
Students have expectations too. There are expectations for entertainment, no doubt. Some students just migrate from group to group, looking for the best show in town. But, the students expect, sincerity. Genuineness. Students expect freedom of schedule. They don’t understand the constraints of a family, or bills, or just life in general. High School students live in a world with boundless possibility and little responsibility.
And then, add to it, the church’s expectations. More students! More discipleship! More office time! More events! Change your strategy! More videos! Do this different! Clean up after your kids! Why is this broken? It’s probably the teens!
It’s a bit of a tug of war. In the midst of it you just want to crawl into the fetal position, cover your ears to drown out the noise and pray that you can actually hear God’s expectations for the youth ministry. I may have actually done that…more than once.
- Youth Ministry is rewarding.
Youth ministry is so rewarding. I get text messages, phone calls, emails, and facebook messages to this day thanking me for time invested. I don’t have the heart to tell them that I had no idea what I was doing. God is supremely gracious to have used someone like me.
I recently had the opportunity to perform the wedding ceremony for two of our former students. They both are pursuing Jesus Christ, and are serving Him in all that they do. And, while I know that their parents did all the hard work, there are few sweeter rewards than being a part.
- Youth Ministry is a blast.
No, seriously. I got to take two to four trips a year with high school students. That’s a blast. I got to plan tournaments, travel internationally, go to high school sporting events, play Xbox, eat LOTS of Chipotle, and all with High School students.
I absolutely love High School students. They try so hard when you first meet them to cover up all their insecurities, and before long, they have picked up on all of yours, start to make fun of them, and let down their guard. They are honest, wrestling with what life really is all about. They are profound thinkers, willing to ask questions that many adults don’t want to face. They want to serve. They want to be a part of something bigger. They haven’t settled into 9-5, followed by television, followed by bed. They want more, and as a Youth Pastor you get to be the person to show them that God is that “more” that they are looking for.
- Youth Ministry is about listening.
This was the hardest thing to learn. I started very young into Youth Ministry. (more on that later)
Students, parents, elders, leaders…few people want to hear all of the things that you know. In 2014, church kids are no longer church kids; they are skeptics who have attended church all of their life. Telling them all of the things that you know will drive them further away. They want to be heard. They want space to doubt. Students in 2014 are offered all of the pleasure that they could ever make time for, they are rarely offered the confines of a safe relationship. They so desperately want genuine and they often have no clue how to find it. Learning to give students the gift of listening was without a doubt the greatest blessing to the youth ministry where we served.
- Youth Ministry is a team effort.
Yes, I planned a lot of stuff. Yes, I spent a lot of times with students. However, I received a paycheck for it.
If the growth and progress of all of the students in a church depended on the youth minister alone…the youth ministry would fail. God blessed me enormously with an amazing team of godly adults who came along side of our students.
I didn’t pay these adults. They gave their time. They opened their homes. They often opened their wallets, to help support our youth ministry. I am constantly amazed at the dedication of unpaid youth workers. No youth pastor in the world can thank them adequately for what they do. The hours are miserable, the trips are exhausting, the students can become overwhelming. Any adult youth leader that is present, is there because they want high school students to learn to walk with Jesus.
My wife, too, was probably the most incredible asset that our youth ministry had. On many occasions I considered resigning so that she could have the job. She wasn’t part of the package deal the church negotiated. Out of her own time and love for the students, she’d spend time with them, have them over to the house, help plan parties, go on all of the trips. She was amazing. This is not true of all youth pastor’s wives, and that is okay. It was true of mine. I fell in love with her again and again just by watching her work with high school students.
- How did I start so young?
There is a vivid scene in my memory that I will never forget. I was standing at the front of a charter bus starting out the front window. The driver was doing the best that he could to keep us on the road in a blizzard. We were in the middle of nowhere in Wisconsin. There were probably 6 inches of snow on the ground already and it was coming down quickly. Behind me were 40 high school students and a handful of adults that had begrudgingly decided to accompany me on this winter retreat.
I was only two years older than the oldest student on the trip. I was 20 years old. And I was in charge. Terrifying.
Youth ministry is often relegated to the young. That is unfortunate. I only had 2 years of life experience more than the students I was leading. I had never been married. I had not even graduated college. I had never raised a kid. I had never had a major crisis that fell solely on my shoulders. I had enormous character flaws (still do). I had a messiah complex. Arrogant. Brash. Condescending. Cruel. You name it, and I had it.
Add to it that I had no idea what I was doing and…well…you get the picture.
Life beats some of that out of you. Not all of it, but some of it. Regardless, God saw fit that I begin youth ministry when I did. It was full of lots of mistakes. It was lonely, at times. It was exhilarating at times. After a while, we started to figure out what we were doing and how to do it best. God has used the pain and frustration of starting so young. He blessed me in my youth, in part, and at the same time frustrated me in my youth (not that I’m not in my youth anymore).
God is faithful, and always knows best. God’s path is often a lot different than what we’d expect or imagine. More than anything, Youth Ministry taught me to hold on for the ride.