“Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a longing fulfilled is a tree of life.”- Proverbs 13:12
I love attending the monthly meetings of the Pittsburgh Kids Foundation ( http://www.pittsburghkidsfoundation.org). About a hundred or so youth pastors, professors, missionaries, and next gen para-church ministry leaders gather in a beautiful downtown meeting space for worship, fellowship, and training. An old colleague and friend of mine (who still looks 25-honest to God- it’s infuriating!), Dr. Brad Henderson, leads this incredible group and knows exactly how to keep us all coming back- FOOD! Oh my goodness, they feed us so dang much! The meeting lasts several hours. So, first it’s coffee and bagels and stuff followed by an actual hot breakfast (Yes- cue a hundred youth pastors putting on their best ‘Kiwi’ accents and saying the LOTR line, “Second Breakfast!” to each other over and over again for several minutes. Youth pastors really are geeks…) before worship. Then they feed us a huge lunch at the endIt’s insane! And, therefore, I try to never miss it. (Oh- and also because of all that great worship and training and fellowship and what not- ahem.) But seriously, they do amazing things both here and in Haiti- if you’re anywhere near Pittsburgh they meet the first Friday of every month during the school year, and you should check it out! (Just not if you’re fasting.) Umm..Moving on…
Some of my favorite of these meetings are when a crew of about 30 or so youth ministry majors from nearby Geneva College drop by. They have so much energy and are, generally, the millennial version of hippy Jesus freaks- filled with all the love and hope and passion for the lost and changed hearts and a new church that their little hearts can hold. It’s so great to see several rows of their faces beaming like elementary school kids on a field trip to the zoo. But, then again, it’s also really sad…
Why so sad? Because I’ve seen so many of these crews over the years- and most every one of them want to be a youth pastor or youth missionary. I’ve been going to these meetings since there were about 15 of us in the basement of a local parachurch two decades ago. These classes of students came through then, too. That’s, at least, 600 youth ministry majors- every one of them taught and trained (and spending lots in tuition) to fulfill their calling. And that’s just one school…that means there’s literally thousands of young ministers raised up by colleges, universities, and bible schools/ programs ready to reach a generation-each and every year- by the time they turn 22 or so. Youth Ministry should literally be overwhelming the landscape of our church (and culture) but, sadly, that isn’t the case.
The reality, as said to me by Richard Burns at a conference I was invited to a few years back, the average tenure of a youth pastor at any individual church is just about 22 months. While it’s hard to trace down any statistics on whether these people leave youth ministry for other ministry or leave ministry altogether is hard to find, but considering I’ve felt like an “elder statesman” among youth pastors- (but still a young’un among associates and leads)- since I was about, say, the age of 30, my guess is most jump ship altogether.
The reasons for youth pastor burnout are numerous, and a simple Google search can bring up dozens of articles on the subject. Ironically- I just found one particularly opinionated one from a major youth ministry organization written with an almost “been there done that” kind of authoritative perspective-the author was just 26 years old! I don’t know every reason behind burnout (and I suspect it might be as personal as the individual and ministries involved), but I know for the circumstances in which I have faced it head-on personally, it is both a spiritual as well as a real-world skills issue. I think it is about not doing spiritually from the first day what you plan to be doing on the 2,777th day. It’s also about not beginning on day one with the basic strategies and practices that will enable the dreams God has given you to happen soon enough to encourage your heart rather than consistently remaining a distant goal you’re always shooting for but never seeing. With that, I offer you 3 things, that if you do them on/from “Day One”, I believe you won’t be constantly talking about what you’ll be doing “One Day” (and you might just make it to month 23 and way, way beyond…)
Number One- Pray. No- not just a quick prayer on your first day based on nerves and I don’t mean your normal devotional time. I mean- find your sanctuary and pray. And no- I don’t mean literally find the sanctuary of the church. This is what I do mean: If you just moved to the area, at the first polite opportunity on your first day, ask your pastor or supervisor where the most beautiful place near your church (within 15 or 20 minutes) is and explain you need to go there to pray for all who are/ will be a part of your ministry. Then go there. Dedicate that place as your holy ground.
The process of this does many things. First- it lets whomever you asked about it (ideally your supervisor) know that your first priority is going to be prayer and what God wants from you. For most pastors this will be extremely positive, and they’ll be glad they hired someone who puts the first things first rather than just talking about it. (Now, if they seem to have an issue with this, the good news might be you just went through a job interview, so your resume is up to date…just sayin’.) In the places I’ve ministered, my sanctuary has been a park, a reservoir, a pretty street, etc..it just needs to be a place you can truly get away and completely focus. In my current situation, ironically, it actually is a sanctuary. (Okay, so I fudged a bit on what I said.) But- you see- I came to Christ in this ministry. So, when I’m stressed, I unlock the old sanctuary and sit in the exact spot in front of the altar where I first met my Father 27 years ago. Peace floods over me in that spot no matter what I am facing at the time. The point is, if you begin your ministry with retreat to your Father on the first day- your habit and discipline of prayer will sustain you and prevent you from having to “retreat” from battle when the challenges inevitably arise down the road.
Number Two- Interview your ‘Primary Stake Holders.’ – Find a key volunteer/ parent in the youth ministry you are taking over and have them over (or invite yourself over to their place) for dinner. (If you invite yourself- offer to “cater it in” or what have you.) Spend time getting to know their interests first outside of the ministry and then, if time allows, within it. Pray for them before the evening is over. Before they leave, if they are able to help you do so, ask them to help you arrange these dinners with you once each week with key volunteers and parents for the next several months. It will be tiring- but sow into these relationships- listen to who they are. Answer their questions and get to know them better.
In the business world, this is called “Interviewing Primary Stake Holders.” Too often, new youth pastors respond/ find out only what their supervisor or pastor wants from them before they’re off and running to put in their own agenda/ duplicate whatever worked the last time/ affected them when they were a teen/ learned from their favorite professor- even do “what God put on their heart.” Now, I’m not saying not to do that- but there’s no reason why you can’t do that while you are listening to the stories of the people you are called to love.
It might seem counterintuitive, but taking time to learn the hopes/ cultures/ and family life of your volunteers and parents before creating your strategy will get you to your goals and dreams for your ministry much faster than pursuing them on the basis of what you formulated before you even knew the people you are now called to serve. In fact, during these times, they will almost certainly divulge their greatest concern for the youth ministry or their greatest hope. Take note of these. Often, a concern can be something very simple. If you address it early, you might win their favor for years to come. (Because you showed you honored them enough to listen.) Best yet, these meetings will turn many of these people into friends before you’ve even really gotten started.
Number Three- Go right back to school. Schedule a meeting with the principal of the nearest schools/ the schools the majority of your students attend. While you are there, offer to help or volunteer in any way you can. In other words, when you are first beginning, decide to regularly seek your evangelistic fruit from the tree rather than the barrel.
Look, you do want your group to grow, right? No- it isn’t “about numbers.” But anything that is healthy grows. Furthermore- have you ever known a teenager who doesn’t want to include their friends in what excites or interests them? Instagram built billions in revenue specifically on the inclination of teens to share everything. Even thinking apostolically and being determined to “send” more than you “gather” still requires that you make a commitment toward personal contact with students you intend to disciple. So- let’s just assume that one of your hopes as a youth pastor is that your group will, in fact, grow larger at some point, and it will do so because whatever your students are experiencing is good enough that they want to share it with others.
Now, In a public school, some principals might be wary, but if you explain you’re not there to proselytize and simply serve them, you’ll be surprised where you might end up. I’ve had to be a volunteer in a classroom to a lunch monitor to a tutor to a volunteer custodian. (And I have great ministry stories from each role.) But I’ve also been invited in to teach a bible class as a part of an elective, religious “exploratory” program. I was, essentially, running a youth group in a public school during class hours! Some of my most amazing ministry experiences and students came from these environments. You may just find the most dedicated, fastest growing, boldest leaders in your youth ministry will be those who came to Christ through your personal ministry and outreach, and the local school provides most youth pastors their greatest and easiest access to the mission field. I’ll never forget one night in one of my youth groups when I sat in the back of the room during worship. As I was looking over the 150 or so teens who were truly being moved by what they were participating in, God brought me to reflect that the entire worship team and several of the students serving behind the scenes were all students I met for the first time at the local middle school a few years before. None of them had a close relationship with Jesus when I first learned their names. If you start from day one harvesting your field, you’ll have a better chance at keeping your group growing without the atrophy and complacency and the “it’s about us” attitude that many groups fall into after a couple of years.
There are obviously many more things you could do- but I find these three all participate together to keep your heart and focus right. They can keep your heart encouraged and hopeful as you see your ministry develop fruitfulness even in its earliest stages. What about you? What other ideas/ things have you done on your first day in ministry (or even in your marketplace job) that helped establish the foundation you relied on years down the road?