Good Advice

13 01 2011

Well, I’ve officially been in full-time youth ministry for a year now. And as I look back, there have been so many ups and downs, successes and failures, and millions of great memories. But I know I could not have survived without the support and advice of many other youth ministry veterans who have guided me through the process. I’ve read blogs, devoured books, and taken full advantage of our local “youth director lunches.” So, as a retrospective, I thought I’d share the pieces of advice that have most shaped my ministry process this year:

1. Avoid creating annual events. This comes from my wonderful and ridiculously talented friend Sarah.

When one of her youth ministry events goes especially well, she will not plan it again the next year.  Because if you do the same event two years in a row, one of two things will happen: 1. it will bomb spectacularly, and you won’t understand what you did wrong, or 2. it will go well, and become an annual tradition that you’re stuck with forever, for better or for worse.  Obviously I have yet to see what sticks around past the first-year mark.  But I have to say, our spring retreat at Sky Ranch went so well in March that I naturally was planning to do it again…until I spoke with Sarah.  Now I’m thinking about other possibilities for spring break: a week of service, a choir tour, a retreat somewhere else, a Bible study weekend, a camping trip?? Really, the possibilities are endless, and applying these words of wisdom will keep my ideas (and events) fresh and innovative.
2. Always schedule one more bus driver than you think you need. Really, this sounds like common sense…but when Julie, the children’s minister, shared this strategy with me about halfway through the year, it alleviated soooo much stress!  Now, on youth group nights when we have a field trip, I rarely PLAN to drive…but if one of my drivers gets sick, or if we suddenly have an influx of 10 extra kids, I don’t have to scramble to find a Plan B.  (I’ve actually started applying this to my volunteer schedule in general, and always making sure we have one extra volunteer…that way, I can float around as needed, or lead programs without worrying about the details)
3. Expect a “new” youth group every season.   Youth ministry has three seasons: spring, summer, and fall.  Each one feels completely different, and the mix of kids who show up seems completely different, too.  I read Rethinking Youth Ministry‘s blog entry a couple of days before the fall semester began…and good thing, too!  I soon found out that some of my (semi-successful) programming models were now recipes for disaster, and it had everything to do with the culture of my “new” youth group.  I actually think that the seasonal flux is good for me, because it makes me constantly re-think the way I’m doing things and keeps me from getting stuck in a rut.
4. Think of yourself as an interim…even if you’re in it for the long haul. And being there for the long haul is definitely good!  But even the most long-lasting youth ministers won’t be there forever…so don’t make the youth ministry all about you, and always be thinking about your successor.  For me, this has meant constantly asking myself questions like, “If something happened to me, would my volunteers/youth/parents know enough about what is going on to continue?”  “Am I keeping good records?”  and “Even if I think this particular piece of curriculum is not helpful, might it be useful to someone else in the future?”  (I can’t remember where I read this, so if you know, please tell me)
5a. Listen to your students. Another one that sounds simple…but this reminder was one of the biggest perspective-shifts that came out of the National Youth Workers Convention last year.  I ate lunch with Timothy Eldred one day, whose philosophy of youth ministry is deceptively simple: Let your youth be the youth ministers.  So let the youth group belong to them.  They have great ideas, so give them a space to try…and fail…and grow…and succeed.
Why is it so hard for us to give up control?  With this reminder in place, I’m trying to make spaces for my youth to step up and lead.  In the works so far: a community garden, a step team, a girls’ night, a progressive dinner, a worship service for the homeless…I’m excited about the possibilities!
5b (because there were 2 number 5s). Don’t just tell us what we want to hear.  In keeping with point number 5a…this piece of advice came straight from my students!  When my church was going through the hiring process, they asked the youth what they wanted in their next youth minister.  After I started my job, the pastor gave me the handwritten notes.  Some were funny (“beasty” “has good hygiene”) but a couple of them were really focused on the discipleship process.  I keep this one scrap of paper on my desk, reminding me to always tell the truth, never settle for easy answers and always challenge my youth to take the next step in their journey of faith.