Principles for Newbie Youth Pastors
I have a friend who just started a job as a youth pastor for a small town church. When the church hired him, they were emphatic about two “vital” elements:
- Don’t change the room.
- Make sure you let the pastor know what’s going on.
So much to say… I don’t even know where to start.
I’ll go ahead and refrain from ranting, “Seriously? That’s all you require!!!”… skipping to the more intriguing subject matter. The fact is, my friend “Neal Newbie” hasn’t ever worked in youth ministry before, so this is his first crack at it. He met with me last week and basically asked me, “Where do I start?”
I asked him how many teenagers currently are at the church?
“Two last week.”
I asked him how many volunteers?
There are three middle schools and two high schools within 2 miles of the church. The church currently has a “Sunday School” hour on Sunday morning and nothing mid week.
So what would you tell him? How does a youth worker know where he or she is supposed to start?
I think many youth workers might immediately start a midweek program. Others might start going on nearby campuses. Some might just assume fetal position, shivering in the corner of their office in hopes that the senior pastor never checks on them!!!
So where should my friend “Neal Newbie” start?
5 Quick Principles that I Actually Shared with “Neal Newbie.”
- Ask Questions
I can’t even count the amount of times I’ve heard churches complain about the new youth pastor who came in and immediately started changing everything in the first two weeks of ministry.
“He never even talked with the existing leaders! He just changed everything!”
No one wants to be that youth pastor. Besides… how is a youth pastor supposed to know what works without first observing and gathering information.
My advice to newbie youth pastors is to not rush into anything. First, humbly take some time gleaning wisdom from the existing leaders, parents and students. Specifically…
- Seek counsel from the Senior Pastor. Ask him: “What did you like about the previous youth pastor? What didn’t you like? What did he/she do well? What did he/she do poorly? What is your vision for the youth ministry?”
- Seek counsel from the existing volunteers.Ask the same questions you asked the senior pastor. Also ask, “How can I help you make a difference in the lives of kids in our community?”
- Pick the brains of parents.Connect with parents from the church and the community, asking them what they see as needs of their own kids, other church kids, and unchurched kids in the community.
- Observe the attitudes and needs of young people.Meet outreach kids in the community and begin to discover their felt needs. Meet believers in the church and the community, considering what kind of ministry models might help them grow in their faith.
- Seek God’s guidance.Pray throughout this entire process and seek God’s direction.
- Read advice from youth ministry veterans. Read booksand blogs from people you trust in the youth ministry world. Begin to gather knowledge and ideas about skills you need to develop and applicable tools that might help you.
This principle requires humility, patience and even a little bit of strategic thinking. This person doesn’t approach ministry with an attitude of “Get out of my way, I know what I’m doing.” He or she has a desire to investigate the environment and think outside of cookie-cutter programming. This investment of observing context and listening to others will pay off (my friend Adam McLane’s Good News in the Neighborhood curriculum helps youth workers and students do this). I can’t think of a better way to reach a community than to first spend time getting to know the people in it.
- Start with People… not Program
This principle has a lot of crossover with the first principle I shared, but it deserves specific attention.
Effective youth ministry isn’t about dodgeball, pizza and all-nighters. Don’t get me wrong, I use all of these tools (and find them effective)… but they are just tools. And they definitely shouldn’t be the focus of any ministry.
Ministry begins with relationships, and relationships should always be priority one.
Just in case there are a few skeptics in the ranks, allow me to interject a quick reminder: the entire Bible is about relationships—our relationship with God, and our relationship with others. The beginning of scripture paints a picture of God’s desire for a relationship with us (and our sinful nature getting in the way). God’s 10 commandments are all about relationships. The first half are all about our relationship with him, and the second half are all about our relationship with others. As you thumb through the rest of the Old Testament you’ll consistently read the commands to be right and just, which basically refer to our relationship with God and our relationship with others. And in the New Testament we see the ultimate example of God’s desire to connect with us in the ultimate act of humility—becoming human and walking among us.
What an example to follow.
Relationships are priority one. Let me give a few examples of what this looks like in a youth ministry setting:
Connecting with Teenagers
Young people today are in dire need of an adult who loves them, knows their name, and is willing to listen. Our kids don’t need Sunday school half as much as they need a caring adult who is willing to pick them up and take them to ice cream and talk about real life. (Note: I’m not saying that Sunday School is bad and we should replace Bible teaching with eating fattening foods. I am hinting that one-on-one discipleship is almost always more effective than what many churches are guilty of providing- a boring teaching time that has no relevance at all to today’s teenagers. And in all honesty, I like to provide one-on-one time AND a relevant teaching time for those who are willing to show up.)
Sadly, I see youth pastors spending far more time fixing up the youth room, working on their Sunday morning talk, and buying food for the snack bar than they do connecting adults with teenagers. Connecting is where the real impact is made.
So what does this actually look like? Connecting with teenagers can be as simple as sitting down with the pastor’s son over coffee or as terrifying as meeting teenagers for the first time on campus or in the bleachers of a football game on Friday night. Your approach will vary with the different types of kids (luckily, the book Connect offers some practical help in this area, devoting a chapter to each of six types of kids, providing you with plenty of tools to help you connect with the diverse types of teenagers you’ll meet).
But connecting with teenagers is much bigger than one youth pastor just hanging out with a handful of kids; a youth pastor must also be…
Developing Adult Leaders Who Will Connect with Teenagers
Which is more effective? One youth pastor devoting one-on-one time to 5 kids regularly, or one youth pastor developing a team of 10 or 20 adults who each spend one-on-one time with 5 kids regularly? Do the math… the answer is clear.
Far too many youth leaders hate the discipline of recruiting, so they bury this daunting task in their “to do” pile and only visit it once a year during “campaign Sunday.”
Mobilizing volunteers is vital, and one of the most important qualities I look for when hiring a youth pastor. Don’t worry; there are some great resources out there that make recruiting, training and motivating today’s volunteers much easier.
Connecting with Parents
What good is a youth pastor who the teenagers all consider “rad” …but the parents don’t trust him! A youth pastor isn’t just a minister to students, he or she also needs to minister to parents.
I’m a parent of three teenagers, and I know that I could use all the help I can get!
This is one of the biggest reasons we started TheSource4Parents.com a couple years ago. Youth workers realize the need to provide resources and training to parents. Most parents welcome the help. (Maybe that’s why I’m doing more parent workshops than any other training right now?)
Why is it that in every town I visit across the US, regardless of size, the body of Christ is divided into different buildings only blocks apart. First United Methodist, First Baptist, First Presbyterian… really? They were all first?
Worse yet… sometimes these brothers and sisters don’t even talk with each other.
This needs to stop. Youth pastors and senior pastors alike need to break down many of these barriers and celebrate what we have in common. It all starts with a phone call to the youth worker at the church down the street (here’s a few tips).
Don’t put the wagon before the horse (really… that’s the only analogy I could think of?). Don’t spend 10 hours on a Sunday school lesson when the majority of the young people in your community don’t even show up.
Put people before program.
Does this mean you shouldn’t have youth group, Bible Studies, or any kind of program whatsoever? Not even close. Programming isn’t a bad word. Point of fact, programs can be a great tool when you know their purpose. That’s why it’s vital for any youth pastor to…
- Set the Vision for the Ministry
The first principle I shared for “newbie” youth pastors was to ask questions, listen, and gather information about your community. I encouraged you to observe young people and ask adults a little about the history of youth ministry in the area. This requires a little bit of strategic thinking.
This is why I always look for a youth pastor who is a big picture thinker. Youth ministry leaders need to be able to know ‘why’ they do what they do. If I ask you why you do Wednesday night youth group, the answer better not be, “Because we’ve always done a Wednesday night group.” Or worse yet, “The church requires us to do something on Wednesday night.”
Youth pastors need to set a vision for the ministry—the ‘why’ behind what you are doing.
I don’t care what model you use—just use something. That’s where some good training comes into play. In the first principle I encouraged you to read books and blogs that provide you with tools and resources for youth ministry. In my Connect training, for example, I divide everything we do in youth ministry into two categories, Outreach and Discipleship. Then I encourage you to figure out ways to do each, giving you some tools to do either (this fun little video provides a good summary).
Entire books have been written about how to set vision and purpose (I recommend Doug’s, Purpose Driven Youth Ministry… a classic).
Set the vision for your ministry. Figure out what you want to achieve, and then you’ll be able to decide how to achieve it.
- Demo Some Ministry Models
I recently bought a kayak from a small canoe and kayak shop near my church. When I asked them which kayak was for me, they basically answered, “I don’t know, why don’t you demo a bunch and tell us what works for you?” This little shop has a ‘demo’ program where you put a down payment down, then you get to try out any kayak you like and see what works for you. The reasoning behind this is because each person is so different it would be hard for a kayak salesperson to sell the same kayak to every person, male, female, tall, short, muscular… and not! There is no ‘one kayak’ that works for everyone.
If only people realized that in youth ministry. Just because a basketball program worked at your last church doesn’t mean the same program will work with these kids in this neighborhood, in this building, with these volunteers.
After a youth pastor asks questions of the pastor, the leaders, and the kids (Principle #1 and #2), he or she should use that information of what has and hasn’t worked to attempt a ministry model that might best achieve the set vision (Principle #3).
My friend Rob just experienced this with a ministry opportunity at a local middle school. Rob has been serving local campuses for years, even writing articles for us about how to get on campus. Last spring one of those campuses called him up and asked him for some help:
“We have a building on campus that you can use after school any day you want. We’d just love you to provide something positive for kids. You can do whatever you want.”
How would you like that hand extended to you?
Rob called me up and asked me to come look at the building with him. It was right on the edge of this middle school campus and it had a snack bar, pool tables, ping pong… name it. Rob was overwhelmed. “What should I do?”
Think about this. What would you do? Run a program? Just provide a place to hang out? Offer tutoring? How would you use this facility to connect adults with kids? How would this facility introduce people to a relationship with Jesus? Would it be a tool to help kids grow?
And that’s where it began. He began “experimenting” for a lack of a better term. He tried different formats both ‘programmed’ and ‘unprogrammed.’
I had a similar experience years ago and it was a weekly learning experience. “Whoops. That didn’t work. Let’s try something else next week.” It takes patience, perseverance, and constant tweaking.
Here’s where that “advice from youth ministry veterans”(Principle #1) can be a big help. Read books and blogs from people you trust in the youth ministry world, discovering what models and methods worked for them. Visit websites that provide current training and ideas (outreach ideas, discipleship help, discipleship agendas, discussion starters, etc.). They might work for you as well. But you’ll never know until you try.
And when you try, don’t forget to…
- Give It Time!
Ministry takes time. Don’t be discouraged when you go on campus for the first time and the kids are rude to you. Don’t give up when you try to start a Bible study with a few of the church kids and no one shows up. Don’t quit your job when the elders meet with you to confront you about the mess that the junior highers made in the church lobby last Sunday (you’re the new babysitter, dontcha know)!
You might try three or four ministry models (Principle #4) before you find the right one that helps you reach kids for Christ or help believers grow spiritually. It takes momentum for most ministry models to begin growing in impact.
Watch out for discouragement. Paul encourages us in one of his letters to the church in Corinth:
Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain. (I Corinthians 15:58, NIV)
When you use the wisdom and experience you’re gathering to “give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord” … He’s going to bless those efforts in ways you don’t even see.
“Neal Newbie” and I connected for lunch when he told me about his new job as a youth pastor. I gave him a copy of my book Connect and began trying to answer his countless questions. The overwhelming question was, “What do I do first?”
As I organized my thoughts, these are the five principles I shared with “Neal Newbie.” I began with Principle #1…and he’s already beginning to use the first few principles as we speak.
Funny… many (if not most) new youth workers don’t even do the first three principles. They start right with #4, blindly using some model that they’ve seen used successfully before. Sadly, there is no one “cookie cutter” model that works everywhere.
So where are you going to start?
What about you?
Are you using a ministry model that was handed to you?
Are young people meeting Jesus?
Are young people growing in their faith?
Which one of these principles might help you the most?
Jonathan McKee is the author of over twenty books including the brand new The Bullying Breakthrough; The Teen’s Guide to Social Media & Mobile Devices; If I Had a Parenting Do Over; and the Amazon Best Seller - The Guy's Guide to God, Girls and the Phone in Your Pocket. He speaks to parents and leaders worldwide, all while providing free resources for youth workers on TheSource4YM.com. Jonathan, his wife Lori, and their three kids live in California.