Staying Healthy in Youth Ministry: Work for a good boss

Rule 1: Run a ministry that fires you up rather than wears you out

Rule 2: God is in control—don’t be a control freak

Rule 3: Work for a good boss

Each of us must work either under, or alongside, a senior minister or group of elders (your church or denominational structure decides what type of structure works best for them.) One of more of these people has the power to make your working life a joy where you are encouraged and fired up, or, a burden where you may end up exhausted and in a state of ‘unhealth’. It is important for you and your ministry that you work with someone who promotes your professional (and personal) wellbeing and not your career destruction. In my experience, it is a necessity that you ensure that your boss is healthy. If they aren’t, chances are you won’t be either.  As we reflect on what it means to work for a good senior minister, there are two things that must guide your thinking here.

Avoid working for a workaholic senior minister!

Ministry tends to attract highly driven types, and that is a good thing. This world needs Jesus and we need men and women who are passionately committed to helping people follow him. The problem is, some of these church leaders simply don’t know when to take off their shoes, grab the remote and kick back for a spell. These are the dreaded “workaholic senior ministers” (and my guess is, you know one!)

Now there are two types of workaholic ministers: those who know they are nuts (and don’t expect you to follow suit) and … those who don’t know they are nuts (and expect everyone else to work seven days and seven nights a week). I worked for one of the latter. When I took the job he told me that this was “church life in the fast lane—we work six days and six nights.” (While he took one day per week off, he believed that every one of the other 144 hours must be given over to ministry.) To be honest, it wasn’t the six days so much as the “six nights” that killed me.

I have talked to countless youth leaders who work for a workaholic. The vast majority of these youth leaders have the same message, “he just doesn’t get it and I’m slowly dying.” So, the question is, what do we do about it?

The first thing is of course, … don’t work for a workaholic. This would be a question I would ask in the interview process. I would also ask around (other staff, elders, the previous youth leader etc.) and if you get a whiff of stressed out, overworked staff, run to the hills. I have said this before but it bears repeating, it is better to work for Starbucks than for a toxic church situation—Starbucks tends to look after its staff.

If you are working for a workaholic. This is difficult, and there are no simple, magic cures that I can offer here. The first thing I would do is to try my best for a series of conversations where you explain to your boss that you struggle with his work ethic. In fact, try to convince him that God wants us to rest (I think it is written in stone somewhere…). At the very least, will your senior minister agree that, “what works for them must not be expected of you?” You may find that they simply do not understand where you are coming from. This is where some solid elders or key parents may need to come in as support.

I would also try to show him through various ways that you are working very hard and not slacking off. This could come through giving him weekly reports and keeping him updated with everything that is going on in the youth ministry. While this is a good strategy, keep in mind that workaholics are rarely satisfied; either with themselves or with those who work for them. In the end, like all difficult bosses, you will have to learn to work with them and, in many cases, around them.

Is there an elder that you can speak with? The workaholic senior minister will probably not listen to you (you are, after all, merely junior staff). However, he may listen to a peer.

For those of you working in this situation, the bottom line may simply be to make sure your next gig is different.

Make sure your boss is not on the verge of burnout

This is a very difficult skill to cultivate but I need to post a warning for all of you in youth ministry. Be careful, you do not want to work in a church where the senior minister is about to blow a gasket.

Many ministers are great at covering up the lurking burnout that is just below the surface. They appear to be fine until wham-o, they fall in an exhausted heap. Before taking a job at a church I would seek out some information: Has this person ever taken time off in the past for exhaustion? Are there some informed people who are worried about his/her health? Does the minister have trouble making decisions (about issues in the church)? Do the decisions that get made never become realities? Does the minister get teary at the drop of a hat? These are some of the signs that I have learned to recognize.  Be warned, a boss on the edge has the serious ability to make your life a living hell … that is because their life is a living hell and they just aren’t thinking straight.

Again, it is better to skip a potential ‘sweet gig’ than to work in a life-sucking furnace. If you have any hint that the senior minister is on the edge … look for a temporary job where the toughest thing is learning to say “tall, grande or vente?”

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Staying Healthy in Youth Ministry: God is in control!

Ministry is exhausting. It can crush your bones, numb your mind and suck every ounce of emotional energy from your spirit. Ministry is so very exhausting for three simple reasons:

1. You are working with people. People who, like yourself can be flawed and demanding, sinful and unpredictable, and insensitive and rude.

2. You always need to be ‘up’. By this I mean that you must constantly be ‘up’ for the events of this week (church, youth group etc.). You must always be the role model. This comes with an inevitable degree of wear and tear.

3. There is an inbuilt importance to what we are doing. It is so very important that we must not give up or give in. This sometimes causes us to push ourselves when we should slow down or even stop for a rest and recharge.

An added dimension that can sometimes make youth ministry harder than most other ministries is simply because we are ‘under’ so many others. Think of all those groups whose opinion matters to our job wellbeing. 

  •We must work under a senior minister and/or elders. You may say “I work with him/her” but the fact of the matter is, they are still over you in the Lord. And, can have a big say in your longevity at your present job.

  •We must aim to work with and even for parents—we are, after all, working with their children. Therefore, their opinions matter greatly.

  •In addition we of course work with the youth themselves.

We need to listen to so many opinions, so many preferences, so many ‘helpful bits of advice to further our ministry.’ Youth ministry is, as a result, filled with workers who are barely hanging in there. I see it in some of my colleague’s eyes—they are the walking dead, are they hanging in by their nails? Nope, they left their nails in the cliff’s edge a long time ago. 

This is the second in a series of post designed to offer some guidance towards “self care: staying sane in youth ministry.” The first post offered some practical advice. This one is going to be a bit … trickier. Your second rule for self care in youth ministry is while you must take great care to work hard and to work smart, God is in control. GOD IS IN CONTROL!

Staying healthy in youth ministry rule #2[1]: You must (MUST!) realize that God is in control!

I have met a lot of youth ministers. There are some who, quite frankly, are lazy. They are lazy in their actions and they are lazy in their minds. However, it has been my experience that they are the minority. The majority work hard and are eager to get better at their craft. Many of them are the exact opposite of lazy—they are driven.

The problem is that in this desire to get things done we become … control freaks. This is one of the most unhealthy aspects to ministry and it is also one that, in the end, will cause you harm.

Now, there are those of us who are aware of this fact, and if you are a control freak you really must acknowledge this fact. Failure to do so will almost certainly cause you suffering and fatigue. Sure we want to see things get done—important things, but we must be very careful. Consider these well-known words from the Apostle Paul:

We proclaim him, admonishing and teaching everyone with all wisdom, so that we may present everyone perfect in Christ. To this end I labor, struggling with all his energy, which so powerfully works in me.  Colossians 1:28-29

Notice that Paul works hard, very hard. However, he realizes that it is Christ who is working in him. It is God’s power, not Paul’s. This frees Paul up to relax even while “laboring and struggling”, knowing that the results are up to God.

With this in mind, I want to leave you with three simple thoughts:

  1. Be faithful, work hard. Leaving things in God’s hands doesn’t equal an excuse for laziness. We must be faithful with the gifts that God has given us and use all our energy to see his Kingdom built.
  2. Be smart—do things God’s way. I have written about this copiously in the past so I won’t say much else here. Bottom line; if your church or youth program is producing unhealthiness in your spirit (and body), it may be an unhealthy program.
  3. Know that it is God who brings the fruit from your ministry. Ultimately we must stand with Paul when he says “I planted, Apollos watered, but God brings the growth.”(1 Cor 3:6-7). God brings the growth … not us. This must mean that the fruits of our ministries are totally out of our control!

What does this mean for me?

Can I take a day off and not do one scrap of work? YES!

Can I turn off my phone and feel guilt free for not responding to texts? YES!

Can I say “no” to a 6:00 am prayer meeting (especially when I’ve had a small group Bible study the night before)? YES!

Do I fret when kids just don’t seem to get it? NO!

Do I worry about the numbers game when I have parents or elders breathing down my neck? NO!

In the end, I have learned to examine myself in the present and make sure that what I am doing is faithful, smart, and healthy and that God is in control of the results. I have learned to look back and to see how the Lord is gracious and compassionate and uses my feeble efforts to build his Kingdom. This frees me from my natural tendency toward control freakdom.


[1] Rule #1 = run a ministry that fires you up rather than wears you out.

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Staying Healthy in Youth Ministry Part 1: Run a Ministry that Fires Up Rather than Wears You Out!

[Well it’s been awhile and it is time to get back into the swing of things as my self imposed exile from writing is over so hold onto your hats. Here we go!]

A few weeks back I gave a seminar titled “Self care: keeping yourself healthy for long-term ministry.” One person came up to me and said, “I really wish I had heard that talk when I started out ten years ago.” With that in mind, I want to spend the next few posts on covering just that—how to stay healthy in youth ministry. I also want to answer a question I am often asked, “How have you been in youth ministry for so long?”

Do I merely have the supernatural gift of longevity … well, not really. But what I do have is some wisdom picked up from hitting the wall a few times and learning how either avoid it or how to go around it.

As we do this we are going to go through a few of the ‘rules of staying healthy’. Our first rule is simple: run a ministry that fires you up rather than wears you out.

Ministry is tiring; there is no way around that. However, there is a kind of tiredness that is a ‘joyous exhaustion’. This is where you can fall into your bed knowing that “tonight was a great night because some really great things happened.” Think about that really great retreat you organized where the group really clicked and a number of youth had their relationship with the Lord taken to a new level. This is the kind of joyous tiredness I am talking about. This is very different to the “did we even make a difference in this event we just ran?” type of weariness and to the “why don’t my volunteers seem to get it” exhaustion that we feel deep in our bones.

With this in mind, it is imperative that you are running that type of ministry that can keep you going even when the natural tiredness comes. Here are three tips to help you along:

  1. You need to be in charge of a ministry that operates with your gifting and abilities. I am not an administrator—never have been, never will be. Office stuff and long meetings wear me out. I like being with youth and running youth group gatherings. I also love small group Bible study. Too many of us rushed into a job without taking a long look at whether this job is a good fit or not. So, what are you good at? What type of ministry really gets you pumped up? If you are into discipleship but running a ministry committed to evangelism, you are going to find yourself quickly wearing out. The wise word here is: if you want to stay energized, cut with your ministry grain rather than against it.
  2. You need to get to the stage where everything doesn’t depend on you. I came to that realization many years ago. The youth group I was running was working well and I discovered that I could take two to three weeks for my annual vacation. I had a team of leaders that worked well and a group of core youth who loved the program and could run it without me. So, if you want to be like the energizer bunny, build up your leaders, and build up your core youth.
  3. Think about the practical aspects of your week: the when, what and where. Staying healthy may simply be a matter of knowing what to do and when to do it. Many of you will know my dislike for Friday evening youth group. I have seen that this program tires most leaders out rather than builds them up. In addition to this, I need to be careful of early morning prayer meetings. There will always be someone telling you that “Jesus got up early to pray”! (I had a youth leader who was adamant that we pray every other Friday at 5:00 am. I tried my best to hang in there but after three meetings I’d had enough—it simply took too great a toll.) If you are an early morning prayer type person- more power to ya. If not, don’t sweat it, God is satisfied with us praying at a later time. You may also want to think about how much driving you do. In many different settings, youth leaders find themselves spending hours in traffic or on the road. I have found this to be an energy zapper. Think about saying “no” to those meetings that aren’t all that necessary and a long distance away. Or, learn to take the bus where you can catch up on emails at the same time.

Bottom line is: stay sharp by thinking smart.

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Starting Out 4: If you want to end up with a temple, don’t begin with a beach house!

I need to tell you from the outset that I’m a hopeless carpenter. I don’t know if it was my propensity for bumping my head as a child that caused some synapse malfunction or merely some faulty DNA, but my brain doesn’t allow me to build even the simplest of structures. That is, when it comes to earthly structures. However, I can give a bit of wisdom when it comes to building youth groups, and here is your main thought as you start out (or continue) in youth ministry: don’t try to build a temple by first building a beach house.

I want to ask you to take a look at 1 Corinthians 3:10-17.

This great section of scripture teaches us a ton about building a solid youth ministry, but let’s just concentrate on just a couple of things from this passage. First of all, notice that what is being built is a temple (v. 16-17). It is not a recreation center nor a beach house—it is a mighty temple of God’s Spirit! Note the second thing: there is a wide choice of building materials and we must use those things that will withstand fire on the day of judgment (v. 12). The bottom line is this: how we build our youth ministries, and the materials we use are of primary importance. This, fellow youth ministers leads me to our …

Two golden rules that must guide our path

What you start out with is what you want to continue doing in the future.

What is used to attract youth must be the same as what is used to keep youth.

Now these two rules will, in effect, dictate much of what you do as you begin your youth group. You do not start with one program (designed to attract the hordes) and then hope to shift into a more ‘godly, spiritually mature’ program once they get switched on. This is the oldest of youth ministry myths and, quite frankly, it doesn’t work.

Nor do you want to attract young people with one thing (a ‘fun program’) and then hope that they will find out about Jesus and stay because of him. Again, this type of program has been tried and found wanting. This is a case of “building with straw, in hopes that they will turn to gold.” (Didn’t the alchemists of an era long ago believe that you could build a machine that would turn straw into gold? This is simply the youth ministry equivalent!)

You simply must decide what type of program you can run that will help the youth to get to know Jesus better. The rule is simple, if you want a group that takes the Bible seriously, you must have solid Bible teaching from day one. If you want a group that helps students to rely on Jesus in prayer, make sure you pray from the first meeting—you don’t suddenly “discover prayer” sometime around week 30. If love is to be a defining characteristic of your group, make sure that you yourself are a loving person, the leaders or volunteers are loving, and, that you run activities that promote genuine love.

So, here’s your homework:

  1. Look at your program, is it built with straw or gold?
  2. Take another look: is your program designed to build a temple or a beach house of straw?
  3. Are you running a weekly program that will be similar to the one you hope to run in five years time?
  4. Finally, are the activities that make up your program the same ones you want your youth to be undertaking in the future (or, are you hoping that there is some ‘magic shift’ that occurs causing them to suddenly become spiritual)?
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Starting Out 3: It is easier to float with the iceberg than to prop it up

Today we are going to talk about icebergs even though I don’t know a lot about polar exploration. I’d love to give it a shot but I just don’t think this Arizona boy will ever have the chance. I guess winter in Saskatchewan can at least count for a distant second.

I want to continue to focus our thoughts on starting out—what do we do to get our youth group going in a way that is profitable for long-term discipleship and ministry.

If you’ve read my earlier posts you may remember that I’ve encouraged you to do some things that will help your time in your new youth group to be more profitable. I want to now focus on a question that is basic and yet foundational to your work: Who will this group be for? Most youth leaders begin with dreams of reaching out to the lost and so they aim for a group filled with nonChristian youth. While this is understandable, be very careful. A group that is predominantly nonChristian will lead you to, what I have described in Changing the World, the upside down iceberg.

As you know, icebergs have all the weight at the bottom. This base supports the top, which, while visible, is the minority of this great structure. The principle is the same for any effective youth ministry. If you want to see a group that reaches out to those who don’t know Jesus, you must have the strongest base possible. This base must be made up of two key groups: Christian youth from the church/local area, and youth who, while they may not yet be strong Christians (or even Christians at all), are willing to wholeheartedly participate in every spiritual activity that you run.

I think about many of youth groups that I have either heard about or participated in the past few years. They are designed to attract the lost. When the lost do come, there must be activities that will be enjoyable and will keep them coming. This becomes a tremendous burden to the volunteers and to the leader themselves. This is an example of an iceberg that is wrongside up. The leadership team must then prop up this iceberg to keep it from crashing down.  In my experience, gravity always wins and inevitably, the group crashes.

The better way

Your goal must be to build a strong base of Christian youth. These youth can then minister to nonChristians youth. As the base grows, so does the top—the whole thing gets bigger and bigger!

So, one of your first steps is to begin your youth group with the above two groups (Christians and any youth who willingly participate in Christian activities) as your base. Find out exactly how many Christian youth are in the church or have gone to the previous group. Meet with these youth and explain to them your desire to run a group that will be built on getting to know Jesus each week and encouraging each other to follow him. If there was a youth group before you moved into the leadership role, find the next group; those youth who came to the youth group and were willing to participate in the spiritual activities. These two groups are your core, your bread and butter, your pizza base and every other metaphor that you can insert here.

A word to youth ministry vets

I’m not talking about those of you who look after animals but anyone who has been in youth ministry for a while. We all need to be careful of the upside down iceberg—even seasoned specialists with the best of intentions can be sucked in to running a group that is upside down. This will make things so much harder in the long run.

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Starting Out (Part 2)

Last time I asked you to go through three important questions. This time, let’s steal something from real estate and apply it to youth ministry.

In real estate there is one key rule: Location Location Location. It is where it’s located that matters. In youth ministry, especially when starting out, it is Relationship Relationship Relationship.

So, let’s take the first step

Here is the first thing you must do—and it is very, very important. Get to know your people. Find out about them as you spend time with them. A wise man with the last name of Bacon once said, “Knowledge is power.” Since bacon is awesome, and must be listened to, it is worth thinking about this quote. You must get to know as much about the place you are working as you can. What worked in the past? What didn’t? What about the previous youth leaders—why did they leave, how long did they stay? What are the hopes of the youth in the church for the youth group? What do their parents think?

You must get to know as many people as you can, as well as you can, as quickly as you can. For Canadians, this is where Timmie’s is your best friend. For Americans it’s Starbucks. For Aussies it is one of any of the 1,000 fantastic coffee houses within walking distance of your front door! Spend time in these places getting to know your volunteers, potential volunteers, youth in the church, parents of the above, staff members etc. In fact, by the end of your first month you should be so full of caffeinated beverages that your eyes glow.

You will also want to take the bold step of inviting yourself over to everyone’s house for lunch or dinner. I realize that this can be awkward, so tread carefully, but I probably don’t need to convince you of the value of sitting in a family’s home to gain some knowledge and appreciation of who they are. As soon as someone from the church says “we really should have you over for a meal” you grab your calendar and say “how about this Thursday?”

As you meet with people you must learn to ask the right questions and to listen, really listen to the person across the table from you. You must also take this opportunity to begin the job of earning their trust and their willingness to follow you.

Your needs:

  • Some $$ to cover coffee (& meal?) expenses
  • The right set of questions

SUGGESTED QUESTIONS:

  • Tell me about yourself, where did/do you go to school? Was/is it a positive experience?
  • Tell me about your family?
  • Where are you in your relationship with Jesus? (How/when did you become a Christian?)
  • Describe for me what you like about youth group (if they are involved)?
  • What are some things that you would like to see happen in youth group?
  • Would you be able to be committed to the youth ministry regularly?
  • [For Parents/older people: Do you think you could give us some help at all?]

Now, get to it. Find those people and grab a coffee!

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Starting Out: 1st thoughts

Well, this week is the week when summer is officially over and the school year begins. For most of us in youth ministry this is our kick off week. At least it is for me. With this in mind, I thought I would spend the next few posts offering some wisdom for anyone of you who is starting out in youth ministry.

Now I need to be clear on one thing—when I started out in youth ministry I did not have a clue about what to do. I had energy and a passion for Jesus, and that was about it. Hopefully in the next few posts I can give you just a bit of a “leg up” and help make the next few months go smoothly for you.

There are three key areas that you need be very clear on:

Who you are (your gifts, what you can do, what you can’t)

What you hope to do in the next year or three

How you hope to do it

Having a firm grasp on these three areas will make your life go a bit more smoothly. (I am going to assume that you, dear reader, have some self-awareness of who you are, what gifts you have and don’t have etc. I am going to assume that you also have some people around you who are honest and can speak truth into your life. A good mentor who is familiar with youth ministry is going to be a real help here!)

Who you are

While we know God is sovereign and can do anything, we have a “sober judgment” of ourselves (Romans 12:3). Do not bite off more than you can chew, nor should you underestimate your abilities and giftedness. This is where close friends, or a wise marriage partner are crucial.

For example, if you are a naturally gifted evangelist, this will no doubt make up some part of your ministry. If you aren’t, you may not want to program in a big push on evangelistic growth, just yet. If you are a good upfront speaker, you will want this to be a key part of your program. If you aren’t, you will either find someone else who is, or you will build your teaching time around small groups.

The key here is to really, truly have a grounding in who you are and what you can achieve. I have seen far too many people in youth ministry who really should have been librarians instead. (Just to be clear, I’m not knocking those of you who are librarians, it was the simply the best profession I could come up with to contrast with youth ministry. I love librarians where would we be without them?)

Keep in mind that you will grow and pick up skills and new abilities as you mature in your ministry. Right now we are focusing on the first year. With this in mind, be clear on your abilities.

What you hope to do in the next year or two

The people (and youth) in your church want two things: 1. They want you to listen to them and lovingly hear their needs, wants, goals, struggles etc. 2. They want you to lead them; helping them to encounter Jesus and his people on a deep level.

It is your job to formulate some plan that will facilitate this. I will write more on this later but you must walk the tightrope of crafting a program with your group in mind and providing a new program that is effective in building Christian maturity.

How you hope to do it

The last one is pretty obvious isn’t it? You need to have a plan. Hopefully you have been trained somewhere along the path as to the “hows” of youth ministry. Needless to say this is the big question isn’t it! This will be the focus of the next few posts. To get us started, however, let me suggest two books that are very helpful, if not crucial for the new youth leader both of them are by Mark DeVries:

Sustainable Youth Ministry

The Indispensible Youth Pastor

Next we will look at first steps in your first year.

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