What I've learned after two years as a youth minister
By Luke Johnson | June 18, 2014
Since the fall of 2012 I've been youth minister at St. Aidan Anglican Church. I haven't studied youth ministry formally — my background is in biblical studies, theology, and web programming — so I've been on an exciting and educational learning safari over the past two years. In wrapping up Season 2 this week, it seems good timing to share a few lessons learned.
Patience really is a virtue.
Imagine this scene: nine grade 5-9 guys, four grade 7-11 girls, two or three youth leaders, and an introverted youth minister, all in a small room in a hundred-year-old church basement. There is music, food, happy shouts, stories flying from all corners of the room, sibling banter, and suggestions chattering through the din for what we should do tonight. It's 6:15, and it's time to bring order to this jungle.
This might sound like a recipe for a couple Tylenol and a shot of 18 year Laphroiag. But actually, I love this sound. It's proof that these young people like being together and feel like they belong. Behind all the interruptions, interjections, random stories and questions are young people who want to be heard, who want to matter.
Early on I thought about being strict and laying down firm ground rules about noise and interrupting, but that was just a reaction to what felt like chaos. And, that would have really changed the dynamics of the group in an unhelpful way. I'm trying to welcome kids into a life in the church, not to force compliance for my own sake. Welcoming means walking with them as they are today.
So, I've learned a lot about patience. Patience is a virtue not because it allows you to calmly bide your time until things change; it's a virtue because of what it gives to others. Patience invites expression. It doesn't demand change, it invites the speaker to be heard and the actor to be seen. It doesn't close down, it integrates. It doesn't put down; it bears up. Patience recognizes where a person is today, and, with eyes on who that person can become, walks slowly along that road together. Patience communicates, "You belong just the way you are." This is a theological conviction as much as it is sociological. Christ offers this same welcome to all who turn to him, so I want youth group to be such a place for young humans.
Teaching is like food, not like a classroom.
A wise youth ministry veteran once told me that in the youth group context you can't expect to enlighten minds or change lives in an evening. Teaching needs to be like food. It needs to be consistent and nutritious, but it doesn't need to be memorable. You had lunch every day when you were ten years old, but I bet you can't remember what you ate on the seventeenth Wednesday of that year. Seeing as you managed to live beyond your tenth year means you didn't go without, even if you can't remember the food that got you through each day.
I don't get hung up on what each person learned or didn't learn. My only objective is to have them experience a fun conversation about scripture and faith. If they remember nothing we talked about, they'll likely remember that they enjoyed having the chance to talk about something with someone who cares enough to listen. The fact is, we do this every week for ten months a year! It's a long game, and deep change is usually slow change.
Growing requires lots of repetition.
Our youth group experienced some major growth this year, nearly doubling in size. That's a good thing, but it's also a challenge. I had talked a lot with the core kids for the first year and a half about our three "seriouses" — taking God seriously, taking each other seriously, taking our Christian tradition seriously — and as a result, the youth group was very focused in its purpose.
When the group grew in numbers this year, I didn't anticipate the new members' power to change group dynamics. I struggled for a little while to keep the group focused, and finally realized that the new kids simply weren't aware of the direction and priorities I had established with the original core kids. With the help of my faithful youth leaders, we enacted some gentle reeducation, and, as a group, we found our footing again.
Lesson learned for the future. Growth is good, but if it isn't carefully shepherded along the way, it can get squirrelly!
Believe in people, and they'll blow your socks off.
A young man in ninth grade asked me if he could teach the study one night. I was excited by the thought. I gave him a few initial questions and a Bible passage to think about and let him run with it. When the night came, I was so proud to watch him address his peers. He was articulate, thoughtful, engaging, clever, vulnerable and very intentional. It was one of those awesome moments when you know you've just witnessed the sprouting of something that has roots in a larger world.
I love being surprised by the young people I serve. They glow not only with potential but with present ability. Sometimes people just need the chance to be somebody. Needless to say, I'll be inviting others in the group to share.
Delegation is invitation, not imposition.
At the start of this second year of youth ministry I invited volunteer youth leaders to join me. I wanted to venture into running small groups and needed extra support to do it. (And it has been an awesome year, thanks to these dear people who gave so much time and effort.) I was afraid to overburden my leaders, for fear of turning their youth group involvement into a heavy yoke, so I told them their only responsibility would be to show up. I would produce and provide everything for them. So, throughout this year I have prepared weekly discussion sheets for the Bible study time, group activities, compline prayer liturgies, and, for much of the year, music. I worked tirelessly each week to produce quality stuff, and to be able to hand my leaders what they needed.
A job well done? Well... Several months into the year I started to feel the strain. It's difficult to maintain creativity when the clock is always ticking. A most wonderful youth leader mentioned to me near the end of the year that I should consider delegating portions of the work each week. She said, "Going to youth group is fun for us. We don't feel burdened at all." When I protested, saying that I'd be afraid to shove too much onto their plates, she replied, "We're offering. We all have pockets of time when we can plan things." Ah. Wise. So, this summer I am doing just that. I'm letting go of the fear of imposition, and embracing the notion that this ministry is as much theirs as it is mine.
Relational youth ministry is a road to joy.
This year some of our young people have had to face some tough stuff — disappointment, injury, loss... It's genuinely heartbreaking to watch a young woman deal with an injury that may force her to give up something she loves; or to see the pain of those who are grieving a death or a divorce in their families; or to sit with someone who is having to endure bullying or betrayal of friendship at school. But I'm glad these things can be shared, and I feel privileged to have a role to play.
I've been thankful so often this year for conscientious leaders and young people who are willing to invest in each other. When bad things happen, it's moving to watch others in the group respond with care, humor, and prayer. We're something together that we can't be alone.
So, it's been a rich year. I'd say Season 2 was a success. I'm glad for the summer break, but I'm eager for the start of Season 3.