five things i’ve learned in five years of volunteer youth ministry

It’s Little League World Series time, which is one of my favorite sports events of the year. It’s just a bunch of eleven-, twelve-, and thirteen-year-old kids who go out and perform ridiculous feats of athleticism that are typically performed by grown adults. Not only is the baseball talent spectacular, but the sportsmanship is top-notch and unfamiliar in most other sports contexts.

When I was the age of the boys in Williamsport, I craved to play in the Little League World Series. Now, as an adult, I still love watching the Little League World Series and there’s a part of me that’s still jealous of the kids who get to play in it. Too bad I’m way too old to play, and I don’t know enough about the mechanics of baseball to coach.

I really wish I could coach a team to the Little League World Series. When ESPN “mics up” the coaches, they’re always speaking words of encouragement and occasional hilarity to the kids on their teams, even when those teams are down eighteen to nothing. Getting to do something like that would be awesome, especially within the context of competitive sports (which I love).

I have to remind myself during these times that I already have opportunities like this, and have had them for the past five years. While volunteering with youth at my church never got me on ESPN (and would probably have been a pretty boring show), it allowed me to be the kind of influence in the lives of youth that I saw played out on TV. And I guess that’s more important than getting famous on TV…

Unfortunately, I don’t think the seventeen-year-old kid I was when I began working with the junior high youth ministry at my church was the most effective youth volunteer on Earth. I mean, I was still a student in the high school ministry myself, and a rather immature one at that. However, I’ve changed and learned a lot in the five years since then. I’ve graduated from high school and college, gotten married, acquired a full-time job, and, most importantly, grown a full beard.

Granted, I’ve learned a lot about youth ministry because I have a degree in youth ministry, but I would also say that the most important things I’ve learned have been learned from experience. I think most people would agree that experience is usually the best teacher.

For the purpose of this blog post—and just for you—I’ll recount five of these things I’ve learned posthaste. Five things learned for five years of volunteering in ministry. Poetic, huh?

But first, a disclaimer: I am not an expert. My experience is embarrassingly miniscule compared to most people in the profession, so please grant me grace where I’m wrong or arrogant. I can only convey the things that I’ve learned in that short time, even if they’re simple or silly. If you disagree, that’s cool. Let’s discuss it.

Okay, here we go.

Lesson #1: It’s not about me.

This is number one on my list because it has been the hardest lesson for me to learn. In fact, I would consider this still a work in progress. When I first started working with the youth group, I saw it as an opportunity to feel good at myself. Whether it was kicking middle schoolers’ butts in basketball while making them die of laughter at my remarkable wit or getting showered with praise for my “martyrdom,” my primary reason for working with youth was largely a selfish one. I know that doesn’t sound nearly as spiritual as it should, but at least it’s honest. I wanted to baptize kids, not because of any care for their eternity, but because it would make people stop and say, “Man, he must be one heck of a youth leader. Do you know how many baptisms he’s done?” Yeah, I know, pretty despicable, isn’t it?

However, I will say that in my five years of volunteering, my attitude toward the work I was doing took a definite shift. The more I grew up and came to an understanding of what I was actually doing, the less youth group gatherings, trips, and special events became about me. Now, I can’t say that I all of a sudden became completely selfless because that’s not true. Sometimes I really want it all to be about me, but I truly believe that those are the times when I am the least satisfied and effective in my ministry.

If you’re reading this right now and you work with youth, let me just remind you: it’s not about you, and it’s not about me. It’s a tough pill to swallow, for sure, but I can’t stress enough how important this maxim has been to me in my short time working with youth. If you’re working with youth primarily because of how it makes you feel about yourself, please get out because you’re wasting your own time. There are a thousand better things you could be doing than hanging out with kids who are quite a bit younger than you.

But if you, like me, feel like there is a deeper impetus for why you’re drawn to spend time with middle and high school aged dweebs, then I implore you to get this through your head as soon as possible. It will make you a much better youth worker, and it will save you a whole lot of heartache when you realize that no matter how hard you try, you just can’t be as cool as a fourteen-year-old with bombin’ Nike socks.

Lesson #2: There is power in presence.

Note that I said “There is power in presence” not “There is power in presents.” For the love of God, please don’t start buying the kids in your youth group iPads and stuff so they’ll like you. That’s weird. Spending money on people, I think, is not nearly as important or meaningful as spending time with them. (You like that wordplay? I sound almost like a preacher.) This is particularly important with teenagers, who may not necessarily have adults who invest much time in them—although a good number of them do, so don’t try and replace those relationships if they’re already there!

The best part of spending a good amount of time with students is that you don’t always have to be diving into really deep spiritual conversations. In college, I had enforced small groups in several classes, where nearly 100% of those relationships involved deep spiritual discussions, and those relationships mean precisely nothing to me. The relationships that do mean something to me are the ones that are a) characterized by a great amount of time invested into them, and b) 40% sports conversation, 35% literature conversation, 20% laughing about poops and farts, and 5% deep spiritual conversation.

I think relationships with teenagers should be similar. Time spent with someone is so very important to developing a strong and meaningful relationship with them. And let’s be honest, if you try to force spiritual discussions anytime you spend time with a student in your ministry, they will invariably get burned out and freaked out. That might make me sound like a bad youth worker, but in my experience as a student and a volunteer it seems to make sense. Sometimes drudging that kid in Mario Kart can mean way more than making him spill his guts regarding the spiritual ramifications of his parents’ divorce. (This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t engage in spiritual discussions with kids. If the opportunity presents itself, of course you should take it. All I’m saying is don’t force things where they don’t need to be forced.)

But before you can even begin to consider what you’ll do with a kid, you’ve got to decide that you’re committed to spending time with them. You don’t have to have an extravagant plan or a minute-by-minute itinerary; just be there, be loving, be a good role model, and be willing to dive deep should the appropriate opportunity make itself available.

Lesson #3: Get away sometimes.

This one relates back to the previous. As important as presence is in youth ministry, it’s also important for you to get away from it sometimes. I know that fifteen-year-old kids seem like they’re really awesome, but letting them be your only friends will burn you out so fast. Taking time away, time for yourself or with people your own age, will (most likely, I hope) preserve your longevity in youth ministry.

There have been times when I’ve had to tell kids no when they ask me to hang out with them because I had just spent the past week at camp or something, and one more second with a teenager would drive me absolutely insane. It sucks to say no and the students usually have a hard time understanding why, but in those times it was really important for me to have that time away to recuperate.

Even Jesus took time away from ministry, and if the Son of God could do it then you can do it too. It might feel wrong for you to take a week off of youth group or say no to a kid who says he needs you right this second, but you’re only human. Do yourself a favor, man, and get away for awhile. I promise it’ll be worth it.

Lesson#4: Sometimes I’m the heart, sometimes I’m the sole.

No, I didn’t misspell “soul.” I meant to write “sole,” like the sole of your foot, that disgusting part of your body that no one in their right mind would want to touch or even see. It’s a play on words, see? “Heart and soul”; “heart and sole.” Anyway.

Some days you’ll get to be the metaphoric heart of the youth ministry. Maybe you get to teach the lesson at youth group, and three thousand students get baptized as a result. Maybe you introduce the best game that has ever been played in the ministry (probably the most exhilarating experience of my life). Maybe your answer to one of the youth minister’s discussion questions makes the whole room bust up with uncontrollable laughter. Those days are the best. Those days you’re the heart.

Other days you’re the sole, like when you get back to the church after a long trip to camp and the youth minister asks you to unhitch the trailer from the van by yourself. It’s pouring rain, it’s one in the morning, and all you want to do is go home and sleep. Not to mention the day before—the last day at camp, the day when everyone cries and seeks counsel from adults—none of the students wanted to talk to you about what God’s doing in their hearts, so you feel like a second-rate youth leader, like you just wasted your whole week. Those days you’re the sole.

I’ve learned that nearly every youth worker has days where she’s the heart and days when she’s the sole, and I think both experiences are valuable. The days when you feel like you’re the heart of the ministry are the days when you’re instantly reminded that what you’re doing really matters. However, some of my greatest growth as a youth worker has come from experiences of being the sole, when I feel inadequate and incapable. Not only am I forced to grapple with my own humility, but I’m also able to identify and learn from mistakes as well as learn to rejoice with others in their successes.

Obviously, the “sole days” are not nearly as fun as the “heart days,” but without the “sole days” I’m pretty sure it’d be easy for us to get really thrilled about ourselves and how awesome we are and how much we are doing for the kingdom. A balance of both kinds of days, I think, keeps our attitudes and motivations where they need to be for us to be successful in ministry. Being the sole can feel demoralizing, but it’s important to realize that it’s okay to be the sole sometimes because good growth can come from it.

Lesson #5: It’s okay to not feel qualified.

When I first started working with the youth at my church, I was under the mistaken impression that I had to have everything figured out, and that it was cause for alarm if something came up that I was unprepared to handle. Luckily, I’ve learned that this isn’t the case. I say “luckily” because I’m not a very smart dude, and the chances of me getting things even remotely figured out are slim-to-none.

Of course, a basic understanding of the Bible and adolescent development is imperative when it comes to working with youth in a church setting, but thankfully a dual-PhD in child psychology and systematic theology are not required. The most important things to have are a willingness to serve and a genuine care for the students. Those two things are foundational, not optional.

It’s okay to be asked a question and not know the answer. A youth minister expecting each volunteer to have the ability to answer each and every question accurately would severely narrow the list of candidates. In general, I would say that youth aren’t primarily looking for people who can answer all their questions. I think they’re more concerned with finding a caring adult who is willing to help the find out the answers to their questions.

If you got involved in youth ministry and you feel unqualified, then join the club. History is filled with people doing things they’re totally unqualified to do, whether that’s biblical history or not. What that means for you is that you can’t use this as an excuse to quit. Guess you’ll have to work a little harder then.

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