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Sustainable Youth Ministry: 8 Tools for a Strong Teen Program

sustainable youth ministry

Sustainable youth ministry is the ultimate goal of youth work. That’s the message of Mark DeVries, author of Sustainable Youth Ministry and leader at Youth Ministry Architects. He teaches how to engineer a youth ministry program for the long haul.

Check out these highlights from my interview with Mark about sustainable youth ministry.

8 Tools for Sustainable Youth Ministry

1. Reduce a program and try something new. Value self-experimentation.

Jeremy Zach: First off, Mike Woodruff argues that nothing characterizes a successful organization more than willingness to abandon what made it successful. You argue that failing youth ministries are cultivating experimentation, innovation and creativity. What would you suggest to a youth pastor who doesn’t want to let go? Or how does a youth pastor get comfortable with falling forward (failure)?

Mark DeVries: I hate failing just as much as the next youth pastor. If a ministry was consistently accomplishing everything we prayed to accomplish, I don’t think I’d experiment much. But when I see lots of kids we aren’t reaching, I’m compelled to keep tinkering.

I’d love to say most of my plans work the first time. It’s hard when parents and kids are disappointed when we take away something that was “sort of working” and replace it with something still unproven.

So to the youth pastor who doesn’t want to let go of something that probably needs to go, I’d remind them of those great songs we always sing in youth group. Then we sing them until everyone—leaders and kids alike—want to vomit. Maybe your next step is not to kill a program but to decrease its frequency and slowly replace it with something new.

But I don’t have to talk you into it. Eventually, the horse the ministry is riding will die, and you’ll be trying something new. I’d just like you to save time by putting the old horse out to pasture before you’re in the unenviable position of working like crazy to get your dead horse to carry you somewhere.

2. For sustainable youth ministry, find a counselor, mentor, spiritual director, or friend ASAP.

Jeremy: Have you found that youth pastors are willing to take a real, honest look into their own heart? Essentially, are they willing to work to become emotionally and spiritually healthy? Should a youth pastor consider consulting a Christian therapist?

Mark DeVries: We (at Youth Ministry Architects) get the privilege of working with lots of youth pastors who’ve been willing to take the hard look at their heart and their negative patterns keeping them stuck. Their courage amazes me. We’ve also worked with folks who are so afraid of the inward journey that they stonewall any attempt to walk down that road.

Like kids, all of us in ministry are hardwired for community. We likely won’t take any transforming steps to deeper emotional capacity or spiritual maturity on our own. Whether it’s with a therapist, life coach, spiritual director, or true accountability group, every youth director I’ve ever known would benefit from more of these conversations. When we spend almost all our time with people who have less emotional bandwidth than we do, we aren’t likely to grow.

3. Run organized meetings that are playful but not chaotic.

Jeremy: Youth pastors and meetings are sometimes not a great mix, especially if the youth pastor has ADD. You state “meetings led by creative, relational youth workers tend to swirl and churn, addressing dozens of issues with the same level of time and energy, often leaving the most important topics to the point in the meeting when time is up.”

What if a youth pastor is more relationally driven but can lead a meeting in a loose, flowing way and still achieve the task at hand? Would you recommend this? How would you define a good meeting? Do you think a laid-back type of meeting leader should conform to a more productive, structured type of meeting person?

Mark DeVries: Absolutely! You’re really talking about the power of bringing a non-anxious, joyful presence to a meeting. This is often the biggest challenge that the anxiously organized person brings to the table. It’s an inability to allow the buoyancy of playfulness to turbo-charge the productivity.

It’s not a question of relational vs. organized. You want to lead a meeting that’s organized, not chaotic and playful, not anal…at the same time. We don’t need to pull out Robert’s Rules of Order to plan retreat skits. But neither do we want to have a hilarious discussion that everyone enjoys but that results in no plans and no one taking responsibility for the next step. Patrick Lencioni’s Death by Meeting is a great resource.

4. For adult volunteer recruitment, ask Jesus, ask early, ask often!

Jeremy: Recruiting is tough in youth ministry. You’re very clear that the probability is two-thirds of potential leaders turning you down. It seems, for me, at least three-fourths turn me down. They never have enough time or don’t want to commit. Or they’re very selective about what they can and cannot do. So how does a youth pastor cultivate a sustainable youth ministry environment where the odds are in our favor? Maybe 50/50?

Mark DeVries: Ask early, ask often. When we ask 4 to 6 months before we want someone to serve, we’re much more likely to get volunteers who will take this position seriously enough to revisit the priorities in their schedule—a much bigger question. When we ask without enough lead time, we’re asking folks if they’d be willing to simply add something on top of their very busy lives. Most of them simply won’t do that.

Then if someone says no, I simply put them back in the hopper and ask again in a year or six months. Very few people will say no more than 6 years in a row!

5. Next, conduct survey about what values are (and aren’t) showing up.

Jeremy: You talk about the triangle pyramid (Climate, Vision, and Tasks). Part of this requires creating a climate change. It seems that changing the climate needs to happen more organically than artificially. What are some key components that directly indicate the current climate of a youth ministry? How does a youth pastor assess the climate and temperature?

Mark DeVries: I like to view my ministry through the lens of our deliberate values (which are the guardians of the climate). Let’s say the values of your ministry are Christ-Centeredness, Welcome, Joy, Teamwork, and Authenticity. Generally, you and your leadership team can “smell” whether these things are really in place. If you need something more formal, you could easily put together a ranking survey. (1-5, strongly agree to strongly disagree, with questions like, “Our youth ministry is a place where people feel free to be who they really are without pretending” to test for authenticity.)

Use this survey approach with your kids, your leaders, and yourself. Replace “our youth ministry” for “I” in the questions. After all, much of the ministry climate is powerfully (yet subtly) impacted by the feel you bring.