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8 Viable Tools to Help Build a Sustainable Youth Ministry

Mark DeVries wrote Sustainable Youth Ministry and two other youth ministry books:  Before You Hire a Youth Pastor and The Indispensable Youth Pastor. Also, Mark heads up Youth Ministry Architects. In my opinion, Mark is one of those guys who will teach you how to engineer your youth ministry for the long haul. I am always referring youth pastors to Mark’s books because I greatly benefited from them. A while back, I did an interview with Mark DeVries and thought it would be awesome if I shared it. When I was writing the interview, I tried to focus on 8 issues/topics that stuck out to me as I read Sustainable Youth Ministry.

The Sustainable Youth Ministry Interview conducted by Jeremy Zach:

Jeremy: Mike Woodruff argues that nothing characterizes a successful organization more than their willingness to abandon what made them successful. You go on to argue that failing youth ministries are the ministries that 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 we had a ministry that was consistently accomplishing everything we’d been praying we’d accomplish, I don’t think I’d try a lot of experimenting. But when I see how many kids we’re not reaching, how many kids are not as prepared to live independently in Christ as we’d like, I’m compelled to keep tinkering with things. I would love to say that most of my plans work the first time. It’s hard to have parents and kids disappointed when we take away something that was “sort of working” and replace it with something hasn’t been proven yet. To the youth pastor who doesn’t want to let go of something that probably needs to go, I would remind them of those songs we sing in youth group all the time because they are so great, and then we sing them until everyone—leaders and kids alike—want to vomit. Maybe you’re 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 a little time by putting the old horse out to pasture before you’re finding yourself in the unenviable position of working like crazy to get your dead horse to carry you somewhere.

Tool #1:  Reduce a program and try something new by experimenting.  Place a high value on self-experimentation.

Jeremy: In your experience, have you found that youth pastors are willing to take a real and honest look into their own heart? Why or why not? Essentially, are youth pastors willing to put in the work to become emotionally and spiritually healthy? Should a youth pastor highly consider consulting with a Christian therapist?

Mark DeVries: We (at Youth Ministry Architects) get the privilege of working with lots of youth pastors who have been willing to take the hard look at their heart and their negative patterns keeping them stuck. I am amazed by the courage of so many of those folks. At the same time, we’ve also worked with folks who are so frightened by the inward journey that they stonewall any attempt to walk down that road.

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

Tool #2:  Get a counselor, mentor, spiritual director, or a friend ASAP.

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 and not meeting driven but has the ability to lead a meeting in a loose and flowing way and still achieves the task at hand? Would you recommend this? How would you define a good meeting? Do you think that a laid-back type of meeting leader should conform to more of a productive and 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—an inability to allow the buoyancy of playfulness to turbo-charge the productivity of a meeting.

It’s not a question of relational vs. organized. You want to lead a meeting that is organized, not chaotic and playful, not anal…at the same time. We don’t need to pull out Robert’s Rules of Order when we’re doing our planning for the skits at the fall retreat. But neither do we want to have a hilarious discussion that everyone enjoys but that results in nothing being planned and no one taking responsibility for the next step. Patrick Lencioni’s Death by Meeting is a great resource for understanding great meetings.

Tool #3:  Run an organized meeting that is playful and not chaotic as the team gets stuffed planned and done.

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

Mark DeVries: Ask early, ask often. When we ask 4-6 months before we want someone to serve, we are much more likely to get a volunteer who will take this position seriously enough to revisit the priorities in his or her schedule—a much bigger question. When we ask without enough lead time, we’re asking folks if they would be willing to simply add something on top of their very busy lives…which most of them simply won’t do. Ask Early. When someone says no, I simply put them back in the hopper and ask them again in a year or six months. Very few will say no more than 6 years in a row!

Tool #4:  Adult volunteer recruitment strategy:  Ask Jesus, Ask early, Ask often!

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

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 in your ministry. 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 the value of authenticity).

You can use this survey approach with your kids, your leaders, and yourself. Just for fun, if you are the leader of the ministry, you might just ask yourself those questions, replacing “our youth ministry” for “I” in the survey questions, since so much of the climate of the ministry is powerfully (yet subtly) impacted by the feel you bring to the ministry.

Tool #5:  Put together a ranking survey (for you, students, parents, leaders) that will indicate what ministry values are showing up and not showing up in your youth ministry context. Once the youth pastor has identified what values are not present, it is time to make a climate change. Basically take an assessment and focus on the values that are not appearing in your youth ministry.

Jeremy: What type of advice would you give to a youth pastor who is just starting out, he/she is committed to sticking it out for the long haul, and they want a sustainable youth ministry? What are some overarching principles that will help steer the youth pastor in the right direction?

Mark DeVries: We use a “builder’s list” for every church we work with to help churches identify the most important, most foundational tasks to attend to. It’s amazing that most of these tasks are the same no matter what size church you’re in…and they are often the most easily avoided.

Tool #6:  Please download builder’s list PDF now (Click here —>  Handout- Builder Checklist )! This builder’s list will drastically help you clarify your youth ministry triangle pyramid, which will lead you to construct a sustainable youth ministry. This Builder Checklist is the best 2-page document that will get you to lay a solid foundation for your youth ministry.

Jeremy: You are not a fan of youth in leadership. However, what if there was a student apprenticeship program that was focused on producing a student servant leadership team? For example, kids are cleaning up after the program, kids greeting new students, kids stacking chairs after women’s ministry program. Students will not have the power; rather students will have the power to be servants of the youth ministry. Thoughts?

Mark DeVries: I love it! In fact, I’ve obviously made my case about student leadership a little too stridently. I’m a huge fan of student leadership, student apprenticeship, student servanthood. In fact, I love to see our kids have the chance to carry much of the upfront load for our ministry.

What I’m not a fan of is students setting the vision or direction of a youth ministry. What I’m not a fan of is adults abandoning youth to lead without appropriate mentoring and discipleship being built into the process. What I’m not a fan of is churches assuming that they can start a thriving, sustainable youth ministry on the foundation of student leadership. Great student leadership happens when the key foundational elements (from the Builder’s List) are in place before trying to create a student leadership program.

Tool #7:  Allow our students to carry the upfront load of our youth ministry and get our key student leaders a mentor.

Jeremy: Nobody likes criticism. When we are being criticized either by a parent, other pastor, and staff admin, what techniques would you suggest as we try to listen and not get defensive? I know you mention a few in the book namely listen for the nugget of wisdom and search for creative solutions together, but what are some other strategies?

Mark DeVries: I love the bullfighter approach.

Keep your eyes on the bull: Listen to them closely to what they have to say without running after them and trying to change them.

As the bull charges, get out of the way: The biggest mistake most youth workers make in conflict is that they try to wrestle them to the ground, try to win on the brute force of their brilliant ideas. It almost never works.

As you step aside, face the same direction as the bull: Nothing is as powerful (and disarming) as coming side by side with your attacker and looking in the same direction, saying something like, “You’re exactly right about…We definitely need to work on that.”

Access the bull’s power: Once your criticizer has been heard, he or she is much more likely to jump on your team and help you move the ministry forward, especially if it helps solve his or her area of concern. The next step in a bullfight is killing the bull. That would not be a good idea.

Conflict management, like bullfighting, is a learned and practiced skill. If you are constantly getting sideways with your criticizers, let those encounters be a practice field for you to hone your skills.

Tool #8:  Come alongside your attacker and see it from their perspective.

For more amazing content on how to build a Sustainable Youth Ministry, simply buy the book.

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Jeremy Zach easily gets dissatisfied with status quo. He reeks with passion and boredom is not in his vocabulary. He becomes wide awake when connecting with student pastors, thinking and writing about student ministry, experimenting with online technology, and working out. He is married to Mikaela and has two calico cats, Stella and Laguna. He lives in Alpharetta, Georgia and is a XP3 Orange Specialist for Orange—a division of the REthink Group. Zach holds a Communication degree from the University of Minnesota- Twin Cities and Masters of Divinity from Fuller Theological Seminary.