by Emily Ingram
I have worked in youth ministry for about five years. I was only 20 years old when I took my first position as a youth pastor. I was young and really thought I had the whole idea of youth ministry figured out. Looking back, I realize how little I actually knew at that time. If I could transport myself back in time, there is a great deal of advice I would give to my younger self. I realize I cannot do that, but perhaps I can serve as voice of guidance to those who are just starting out in youth ministry. It can be the best experience of your life, but it is also one that can be filled with many trials and times of discouragement and frustration along the way. Take a moment to read these three simple tips that perhaps can help cut out some of that frustration early on. Ready? Here we go:
1. Realize you are the adult, not one of the older, cooler youth. This seems like a very simple concept, but this is one I see new youth ministers struggling with all the time. They are trying so hard to come across as the cool youth pastor that they lose the respect of the youth in the process. You are the adult; you serve as their spiritual guide and mentor, not their BFF. If the youth see you as one of them, then you will have a much harder time being able to speak into their lives, as they will find it difficult to take you seriously. You will find it hard to take control during youth meetings. This is generally where things such as youth texting during your message is a problem. Yes, it is important to connect with them but not at the expense of losing their respect. It takes time to learn how to walk that line, but it is a goal you can reach with some time and effort on your part. For example, keep the social texts and calls to a minimum. It is good for the youth to have access to you when they need your guidance, but if you text them as much as they text each other, then their perception of you will be that of someone in their own social circle. Yes, it is important to get to know your youth, but the best way to do that is in person. Take a group of them out to eat on a Sunday afternoon for lunch following morning service or plan a youth retreat. Times such as this provide excellent opportunities for you to really get to know your youth in a relaxed and fun environment. My rule of thumb for phone calls and texts is this, which I have presented to the youth: if it is after 10 p.m. and you are contacting me, it should be an emergency situation. Setting boundaries such as this helps them see you as the leader and not just another friend.
2. Don’t just focus on the popular kids. I cannot begin to say how often I have seen this happen in youth ministries. This is a mistake I admit making, as well. Many youth workers do this with the very best of intentions. You think to yourself, “If I can get the youth with influence on fire for God, then the rest will follow their lead.” It is a good thought, but sadly, it rarely ever works. What ends up happening is a youth worker spends all of his or her time trying to focus on those select few who really do not have a desire to be spiritual leaders among the youth, and those who really do have a hunger for God often fall through the cracks. I have had youth from other churches even confide in me that their youth pastors seem to put all of their attention into the select few popular kids. They see it, and it affects them greatly. They feel as they do in school–as if they are not as important as the popular kids. Our youth ministries are meant to be a safe place for all youth. It should have a completely different dynamic than their high schools where only a select few stand out. Take the time to get to know as many youth in your ministry as possible and invest in those who are truly hungry for God. You will get a much greater return on this investment.
3. Never choose talent rather than obedience. Here is a common scenario: Your youth ministry is not very large, but you would love to have a praise band comprised of the youth in your ministry. That is an excellent idea; however, there are not that many youth to choose from. There is only one girl who has a good singing voice; so naturally she is the first one you approach. She seems very excited and eventually starts leading praise and worship for your youth meetings. Later, other youth start coming to you, asking if you are aware that she has a certain reputation among the boys at school. You want to confront her, but if you do, she may get upset and leave; then you are left without a singer for your praise team, so you just pray for her and hope she comes to realize her mistakes on her own. Pretty soon, no one in the youth really participates during praise and worship anymore. They are too distracted by what is going on in the personal life of the young lady you have chosen to lead worship.
Sadly, I see this happen a lot in youth ministries. I understand you want to try new things in your ministry, and it is fantastic that you want to involve the youth, but just because someone is talented does not mean he or she should fill that slot in the ministry. Take the time to pray about decisions such as this. By placing a student in a position within the ministry, you are putting your seal of approval on his or her lifestyle. Granted, teenagers are teenagers, and they will make mistakes; that is to be expected. However, it is of the utmost importance that the youth who are put into positions of leadership are those the other youth can respect. It is a direct reflection on you and the ministry you lead. It can bring youth in, and it can push them out. A simple understanding of these simple concepts will save you a lot of grief during your first few years as a youth minister. This is advice I wish someone had given to me when I first began, and I pray this can serve as a help to you as you carry out the calling God has placed on your life.