I was asked to speak at a gathering with other Youth and Young Adult Pastors a few months ago. This was in a session on ‘Winning In The First 3 Years of Ministry’. I shared 10 points from the perspective of what I wish I had known going in to youth and young adult ministry. Here are those 10 points, plus an extra.
1. I wish I knew that an active and exciting relationship with Jesus would be so hard to foster.
It’s easy to look at the Youth Pastor when we’re in youth group, or volunteering as a leader, and think they’re really spiritual and full-on for Jesus. If they are then that’s great, but in my experience it is really hard to find a rhythm in order to foster an active and growing relationship with Jesus. Sure, I’ve grown and have made Jesus the centre of my being since I was in high school, but being surrounded by teaching materials, going through Bible College, leading Bible studies, and preaching regularly, aren’t a substitute for personal spiritual disciplines. Make sure you carve out time for Scripture, prayer, reading, music, reflection and solitude.
2. I wish I knew that my relationship with my Senior Pastor was the most important in the church.
I feel like I’ve had great relationships with my Senior Pastors but I’m surprised at how crucial they’ve been for the week-by-week, month-by-month, year-by-year ministry. They are the closest relationship I have in the church because of my proximity to them and the regularity in which I see them. It is the relationship that keeps me energised and willing to stick around for the long haul. When Youth Pastors leave it is most likely because their relationship with the Senior Pastor has broken down. I’ve seen it, over and over again. I don’t want it to be me.
3. I wish I knew that the health of the youth ministry is only as healthy as the church.
Youth and young adult ministry is not happening within a vacuum, it is set in the context of the wider church. When you are sick the whole body is sick, not simply one particular part. So it is with youth and young adult ministry. In my first year as a paid Youth Pastor there was significant disharmony in my church that saw a number of significant and influential people leave. This had a trickle down effect. The evening service went from averaging 60-70 people each week to 20-30. The loss of young adults, the loss of youth leaders, the loss of high school students. It just went bang. This highlights the importance of making sure we are aware of what is going on in the wider church. Getting to know people across all ages and stages is important. An understanding of the history of the church is also critical when thinking through the church’s health.
4. I wish I knew that there would be friends for the road and friends for the journey.
Some friends stick around. They stick with you through thick and thin, when you move church, and are generally lifelong friends. These are friends for the road of life. Other people will simply be friends for the journey. They’ll be with you for the time you’re at their church or in their life. But, when you move they won’t continue to catch up with you or check in with you. It’s taken time for me to realise this, more so in the last 12 months. Friends and colleagues that I thought would continue to have an interest in my life, as I do theirs, don’t. It’s important to gather around you 3-4 friends who’ll be with you for the road, ministry or not.
5. I wish I knew that the grass was not greener in another church, in another ministry role, or in another para-church organisation.
It’s easy to let your mind drift to the church down the road and begin to think of how good it must be there. It’s not. It’s just not. They are having the same issues as you. They are having the same struggles. They are having the same problems. The same goes with going into a different ministry role or a role at a para-church organisation. The grass isn’t greener. It’s work. It’s hard.
6. I wish I knew that what I have done in the past doesn’t really mean much to others.
I’m proud of what I’ve done in my life. There are of course some stupid things I’ve done, but generally, I’m pretty proud of some of the things I’ve achieved in life – relationships, study, work, ministry. Guess what? No one cares. Except perhaps for that job interview or the search committee coming up. Other than that, no one cares. I mean, most people have a decent sized ego and so we’d like to think that our achievements matter. X number of years at this church, volunteer years put in at that other church, the secular work we’ve done in the past, the degrees we’ve studied for, the service opportunities we’ve been involved in, et cetera. et cetera. You know, it all builds us up to think that we’ve got some awesome job experience to be an awesome pastor, even before we walk into the role. Nup. That parent of the 14-year-old kid who is annoying each Friday night doesn’t care, they just want to know if you can look after their kid for a couple of hours while they go on a date with their spouse. That deacon doesn’t really care either, they just want to let you know that you can’t park your car at the front of the church because that’s reserved for more significant members of your church.
O how humbling ministry is.
7. I wish I knew that the sin that so easily entangles will entangle you with more force in ministry.
Yep, those things we fear, those habits we slipped into years ago, those things we listen to and watch, those temptations to click. These things will continue. The devil will attempt to strike, and strike with more and more force. I figured it would be easier to let go of those things because of the important and significant work I would be doing in the life of the church. How little did I know! You’ve had a porn habit, watch the devil seek to strike you there. You’re overly insecure, watch the devil play with you. You’re too conscious of your appearance or what people think of you, bang. You’re seeking intimacy and relationships, boom. Sin doesn’t stop. It carries on. And it’s usually coming at you with a force you’ve never seen before.
8. I wish I knew the extent of which church politics would take up headspace and suck my emotional energy.
There is a lot to be said about getting to know your wider church and being involved in the high level discussions and conversations at your church. Yet, it is also the place where church politics is most clearly seen and can just suck you dry if you let it. This is closely connected to point 3 about church health, but it is surprising at how deeply it can affect us. Some, and perhaps all of it, may not be about the ministries we are involved in. It might be to do with the budget, or with the way the flowers are arranged on Sunday mornings, or how the coffee and tea is served at morning tea. It might have nothing to do with your ministry at all, yet something small and insignificant can get us down and consume the rest of the day if we let it.
9. I wish I knew that people don’t need me to tell them what to do, they need the grace of God applied.
I remember the first few months of going to church after I’d finished up on staff at a previous church. I took the opportunity to visit various churches and also went back to our home church. What I distinctly remember was that every time I walked out I felt like I had more burdens than when I arrived. I felt like I’d been given a good sermon and good teaching, but when it came to application I’d be lumped with more and more things to do. My week was already busy. I’m house-hunting, I’m waiting for a newborn to arrive, I’m feeling overwhelmed with my own sense of sinfulness, I’m trying to study hard, I’m looking for a new job. I don’t need application that leaves me feeling like I’ve got to do more in order to get my life back on track. No. What I need is grace. I need the grace of God shown to me. I need the grace of God to make me realise that he is the one my burdens are to go to. All those significant things in life will be before him, given to him, and dealt with by him. I would encourage you to give people grace – kid, parent, young adult, oldie, pastor, ministry volunteer, anyone. When you’re teaching, give them grace. Apply grace.
10. I wish I knew how to work better.
I had been in the health and fitness industry for a couple of years before I moved into ministry. A few more years and I took up my first position in a church. I am an organised and systematic person naturally, but it still took me a number of years to work out a decent workflow system. Things like getting your emails down to zero, planning your calendar, working out how long things would take, making to-do-lists, dealing with budgets, how to think through a project like a camp or one-off event. The non-people work side of stuff. What is that? Administration. For this I’d recommend Tim Challies’ “Do More Better“, which only came out a little while ago. It covers what you’d need. And I’m sure you’ll be surprised at how much administration you find yourself doing.
***While I shared the above there was a glaring omission from the list, one which every Youth Pastor needs to know.***
11. I wish I knew it was such a privilege
Not until I left my first church did I realise how much of a privilege it is to be such an influence in the lives of young people and students. The trust, affection, openness, and vulnerability people have toward you is simply amazing at times. The position you have and the places you find yourself in as you disciple young people is phenomenal. While it can be long, frustrating, and messy work there is the privilege of guiding people in life decisions, applying the Gospel to people’s lives, and celebrating their growth as people and disciples.
What a wonderful work it is.