“Where do I start?” It’s a question that a lot of youth workers are asking right now. The new church season is about to start or has started already and that means it’s time to get busy. Many youth workers are veterans who have been in the same position for a number of years, but there are also many youth workers who are starting someplace new. So where do you start if you’re new in your position in leading youth ministry? Here’s my advice.
Start with prayer
It may seem like the biggest cliché ever and you may even be tempted to skip this point altogether. But it’s a truth that I can’t stress enough. You need to start with prayer. Before you do anything, before you call any meetings, plan any events or think of themes for youth services, you need to pray. If your work as a youth worker isn’t born out of prayer, it will be in vain. Here are some things you could pray for:
- Get a list of all the teens in your youth ministry and pray for each one of them. Pray that you will see them as God sees them and that He will fill your heart with love for them. Pray for their parents, that they will love their teens and be an example to them, especially in faith related things.
- Pray for all your leaders and volunteers. Pray for wisdom for them, for love for the teens. Pray for their families, that they will not suffer.
- Pray for your (senior) pastor and the church leadership. Ask God to give you a servant’s heart that is willing to serve those placed above you.
- Ask God to give you insight into what the youth ministry needs, where it’s at and what the biggest issues are. Pray that your ears and your heart will be open to all signals.
- Pray for yourself, that God will keep you close. Pray for strength, wisdom and humility to lead and serve well.
Start with listening
If you’re new to the job, even if it’s in your own church, start with asking loads of questions and then listen. Talk to all volunteers as soon as possible, schedule ‘dates’ with key leaders or decision makers. Ask the senior pastor or elders if there are known issues. Have there been genuine complaints from parents? Set up a meeting with them and listen to their concerns. In the first three months of your job, you should focus on getting the bigger picture, on identifying the key issues. The good news is that you can get away with asking ‘dumb questions’ too those first two or three months. After that, they expect you to have the answers. So take that time to ask everyone’s opinion. And it’s important for you to truly have an open mind about this and not jump to conclusions too soon. Take the time to gather information and then analyze it, it’ll pay off later on.
Start with quick wins
If you want to make a good impression from the start, thereby earning credit you’ll need later on when some tough decisions need to be made, look for some quick wins. These are issues that are a big frustration, but are easily solved. When I started out as youth worker in my last church there was some conflict over the teen small groups, a girl wanted to change groups because all her friends were in another group, but she wasn’t allowed to. One of my first decisions was to allow her to change groups. I didn’t do it just because it would win me points (which it did by the way, both with her and her parents and with the small group she went to), but because I wanted to communicate that the people mattered more to me than the rules. What quick wins can you identify? Maybe it’s the youth room that’s been a mess for ages and needs to be cleaned up. Maybe it’s an event that had been canceled but that everyone wants back. Maybe people are complaining they never know what’s going on in the youth ministry and all you need to do is start a monthly newsletter. Look for something you can fix easily to earn some much needed goodwill.
Start with a plan
I know it’s easy to focus purely on the operational side of youth ministry. There are events to be planned, services to be organized, small groups to be led. But if you allow yourself to get sucked in into all these operational tasks without ever taking the time to make a plan, you’ll end up going nowhere. I’ll get into more detail on how to make a strategic plan for your youth ministry in a later post, but here are some suggestions to start:
- Does your youth ministry have a mission statement? If so, do leaders and volunteers know it? Does it function? If not, this will be your first priority.
- Is there any kind of strategic plan for the next five years or so? Is there a vision for the future? Are there any kind of goals written down?
- Is there a teaching plan? How are the subjects and themes for small groups, youth services and retreats chosen?
Start with communicating
Radio silence is deadly to youth ministry. People will need to know someone is leading, so start communicating soon to all who have a stake in youth ministry: teens, parents, leaders, volunteers, board members or elders, senior pastor, etc. If you’re new to the church, introduce yourself in a letter to all the volunteers, the parents and maybe even the youth itself. Ask to be introduced in a Sunday service if possible, so people will know your face. Set up a specific work related email account and spread the word. Communicate what you will be doing for the first weeks. If you plan to visit all volunteers for instance, put this in a letter so they know you’ll contact them (which you then must do, so people won’t feel cheated…and make sure you don’t forget anyone!). Let the board know what you’re doing so they know you’re up and at it. And don’t forget that a big part of communication in those first months is about managing expectations.
For the veterans among you, do you have any other advice for youth workers as where to start?