I wrote a post yesterday on the seasons of youth ministry and struck chords with readers. I decided to unpack the post with some recommendation and thought.
The first season.
Wooing – Prior to hiring you experience the best parts of the employment opportunity. Plenty of affirmation and inquisitive discovery as synergy is sought.
Heading to a new mission can be exciting. The idea of being desired and needed can be intoxicating. The intoxication can dull your sensibilities and dangerously keep you from separating your emotion from the realities. In this season a church wants to hire someone. You want a job. Both of you have an idea of what you’re looking for.
Overhyping yourself and making huge assumptions about them. Most people do a little research before the conversations escalate. They make assumptions about synergy and elevate those assumptions. A candidate responds and offers points relevant to the question through their filter of perceived “best answers” the church seems to want.
Church: “We’re looking for someone who can raise the bar with our student ministry programming. Tell us about what you’ve done.”
Candidate: “Yes. That excites me.”
Proceeds to share past programming accomplishments with the church’s perceived style in mind.
A better exchange.
Speak with authenticity about your experience. Be careful not to overhype your accomplishments. Think through how your experiences unfolded. More than likely they were accomplished through teams or individuals that are not moving with you. Whether you like it or not, you’re verbally dictating expectations without understanding the fact that you have no idea of the potential youth ministry team’s capacity, proficiency, or trajectory.
Share your past experiences but be realistic with your conversation. Yes, you did the things you’re saying but you did them with a team. You can get a feel for the current team on the back of the exchange.
Candidate: “This is what I’ve done in other places. What are some barriers that have kept the student ministry from already having better programming? Can you explain what you think the benefits will be? When was programming the best and how did it happen?
Don’t just listen to what they say, listen to what they don’t say. Do they bring up support, empowerment, budgeting, equipment, people? When they do, what do they say? If they don’t bring it up you need to press on this. Don’t assume that it’s a given just because they want it. They may want it but not spend a dime to get it. They seem so nice and encouraging. They can be nice and encouraging your entire tenure and equally unsupportive through backing and financial empowerment. It happens all the time. ASK them if you can see the budget. Not the general budget but the documentation of where and how the money was spent on over the previous three years.
If you don’t see one single programming related expenditure like equipment, training, or supplies there may be a reason for it. Figure it out. Don’t be lazy. You will pay the price for making a huge leap in assumption.
Previous leader didn’t want to do programming. Youth ministry had a budget but wasn’t allowed to use it. Youth ministry had a budget, was allowed to use it but had a purchase policy akin to filing taxes for a fortune 500 company that made past youth leaders give up. It also could be that programming is a felt need for a core problem unrelated to programming such as ‘kids are leaving cause it”s boring.’ Another reason might be that there are not enough leaders or emerging volunteers who could actually even execute programming.
Semantics are a huge arena of potential confusion. In this example I’m talking about programming. It would be a major loss if your definition of programming had nothing to do with their definition. That’s why the follow up questions where you ask them to define past wins and current barriers are so important! It forces them to unpack definition and detail.
Above all, due diligence! Be thorough. You might worry that if you’re too thorough that you will turn the hiring team off with perceived doubt or attention to detail. The church you want to work for is looking for assurances that you can do the job. You’re the 15th youth pastor they’ve had in twenty-five years. They’re worn down and use to the machine. You are not. You’re about to move your family to a commitment. Don’t assume and don’t oversell yourself.
Let’s say in this example that you understand programming. You’ve done it before and you’re fine with it but your passion is building small groups and relational ministry. Let them bring that up. Wait for it. But if they don’t bring it up, you better bring it up! If the implications are that they value it less or don’t seem to have passion for it you would be a fool to think that you’re leadership will cause them to explode with joy over your focus on that as oppose to programming. You’ll be all excited about small groups and leaders caring for kids while they are on the other end in the “meeting, after the meeting” saying to themselves, “didn’t we tell him that we wanted to raise the bar for programming.”