Grace For the First Years of Youth Ministry

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As a youth minister who is still in the first years of ministry, I know firsthand that an abundance of grace is needed in this season. Transitioning into a new church culture, building relationships with staff, parents, and students, as well as the constant outpouring of ministry can be overwhelming and difficult (to say the least). If you have felt a mix of emotions in your first years, you are not alone.

When you fail, sleep through Bible study, run out of food at youth group, or send an email to almost the entire congregation, there is grace for you. Resting in the good news that God in his mercy saves us from our sin and uses us in our weakness frees us to soak in the gospel of grace throughout each day in ministry.

When you fail…

It is not a question of if you will fail, but rather when you will fail. Ministry is full of opportunities to feel our shortcomings. The gospel meets us in our failure because it frees us from perfectionism and the performance-driven life. Culture says to have a perfect record. But the gospel says that Jesus had the perfect record for us. Ministry is not a “three strikes and you’re out” – if that were the case, I would be long gone.

One brisk fall day I was driving the 15-passenger church bus for an early morning Bible Study. I dropped the students off at school and then, as I was backing out of a steep and cracked driveway, suddenly bump – thud – wham – I had hit a tree. Hoping and praying that the damage was minimal, I drove off just longing to get out of this massive, old, smelly bus. With a ten-minute drive back to the bus’ parking spot, the thoughts of failure crept in. “Oh no, how could that happen? Thank goodness no students were in the bus. Will the damage come out of my salary? Oh gosh, I have to tell my boss. What will the staff think of me?”

To make matters worse, every time I pressed the brakes the horn repeatedly beeped loudly due to being hit. Imagine a 5’4” girl driving through small, windy streets with too many stop signs in a massive bus with beep, beep, beep blaring every few seconds. Internally, the beeping sounded like failure, failure, failure. I finally parked the bus, stepped out to the back, and yes, behold there was a 5-inch wide indention of a tree running from the blinker up to the roof. Downcast, I sunk into the seat of my nice small car feeling like a failed youth worker.

Later, when I drummed up enough courage for the dreaded phone call, my boss answered and by the grace of God he graciously told me that it was okay and then comforted me by sharing the time he wrecked the church bus himself. His gracious attitude toward my failure is exactly the way the Lord acts towards us. We are all failures bound to mess up, but the Lord loves us in our weakness and He continues to use these times to show us how needy we are, to fix our gaze back on the cross, and to feel the grace of God flood over our failure.

When you feel inadequate…

The gospel means that you do not have to prove yourself ever again. Christians are called to live for the audience of one, Jesus Christ our Savior. When your job calls you to lead a large group of students on a mission trip overseas and you don’t know how you will heard silly, wild, goofy, and loud 9thgrade boys through customs, feelings of incapability might surface. When you share a devotional during staff meeting in a room full of seminary graduates and ministers who are twice your age in ministry-years, you can feel intimidated. When you meet with a parent to discuss her child’s difficult behavior, you can feel unqualified to share wisdom on family discipleship.

Our feelings of inadequacy can actually be a good vessel that draws us to our knees. 2 Corinthians 12:9 states that “God’s power is made perfect in our weakness.” When we feel weak, God is strong and will use us for His glory and our personal growth.

When you feel exhausted…

Many people treat youth ministry like a sprint but in reality it is a marathon. Part of your job in youth ministry is to fill up yourself so that you will be pouring out of a full cup. The gospel means rest; Jesus carries the burdens of life for us. It is often normal to feel tired and overworked in ministry, but self-care is important for fruitful ministry. Therefore, setting healthy boundaries in place is essential. Setting time to recuperate after a week-long youth trip, finding a mentor, doing a life-giving hobby on your off-day, and scheduling a weekly time of spiritual renewal are a few helpful ways to fill up your emotional and spiritual cup. Consider what is restful, life-giving, and helpful to you.

When things don’t go as planned…

The longer I am in ministry, the more I realize that we have to hold our plans very loosely. Plan A rarely happens, so learning to roll with the punches is essential. When our youth group took 35 junior high students on a “Mystery Trip,” I had created what I through was the perfect schedule and timeline for our three-day adventure. We ate lunch an hour late, got to the water park early, and students didn’t have their spending money with them – shocking, I know. But, as it usually goes, Plan B or C often work out better than even the best Plan A I could have created. I am grateful that we serve an omniscient (all knowing) God.

When you don’t see fruit…

Fruitful ministry is rarely fruit in the way we think. We usually evaluate ourselves based on performance and results. In the first years, there aren’t usually too many results. Thankfully, we are loved apart from performance. When weeks go by and still only two girls show up for Bible study it can be frustrating – I know from experience. When all a small group wants to discuss is school, grades, teachers, their attire, and the next football game, it can feel like your content and well-planned lesson is not sticking or even welcomed at all. Lots of youth ministry is seed-planting – which often feels laborious. We can faithfully plant and water seeds, but thankfully only the Holy Spirit causes the growth. I often pray that the Lord would change the way I view fruit, and that He would open my eyes to ways that He is working through my ministry.

The first years of youth ministry are filled with an array of feelings. Preaching the gospel to yourself daily and extending grace upon grace to yourself are needed during all seasons of ministry, but especially in the first years. When you feel overwhelmed, inadequate, exhausted, and clueless, look to our gracious, kind, and loving Savior. The good news is that our ministry is not about us. Our students’ spiritual growth isn’t a reflection of how godly we are. The gospel means rest, the gospel means that Jesus carries the burdens of life, the gospel means that we have Emmanuel every step of the way, the gospel means that we don’t have to prove ourselves, and the gospel means that we can lean into our weakness and fall into our Mighty Savior’s arms.

Today, rest in the gospel of grace.

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