How to Survive and Thrive In Your First Youth Ministry Job
There is nothing quite like being young, idealistic, and naive. Let’s be real; this is a fair way to describe most people in their first full-time job out of college (especially when it’s in their intended career). Despite the number of grey hairs on my head, I have rather vivid memories of my first few years as the youth director in a large church. They’re vivid because I was really out of my league as an inexperienced youth minister in a very large church – and I knew it. What church with more than 5,000 members hires a rookie straight out of college, when they could have hired a veteran of at least five years? By God’s grace and design, this church did, and I was the beneficiary. My first year saw many days wondering if I would survive, yet I ultimately served there for nearly ten years.
Given my rookie status, that first year I discovered several keys to getting off to a solid start. Some I accomplished better than others, and experienced the results of that. The following are five suggestions of how we survive and thrive in our first few years.
Read every good book on youth ministry that you can. Few people have the luxury of a youth ministry degree (and I doubt it’s as beneficial as people believe). We learn best on the job. If you are not reading at least one youth ministry book per month, I’d be concerned about your future.
I would add to that: read books specifically on leadership. Ask your supervisor and Senior pastor (if they are not the same person) to recommend leadership books to you. It’s wise to understand leadership in the same way that your current leaders understand it. My Senior pastor was fond of books by Max Dupree, and I learned a lot from them.
Two things will emerge from reading books on youth ministry and leadership. One is a vision for what you intend to see happen. The other is a strategy to accomplish that vision. Without vision and strategy you are dead in the water!
Remember that this reading is for the development of your ability to lead students. It is part of your job. Don’t hesitate to include reading in your daily office time. Too often we view reading books as a luxury, rather than a valuable and legitimate way to use time in the office, but it is!
Find a Mentor
Find a mentor or two and meet with them regularly. When you meet, ask lots of questions and bounce ideas or concerns off of them. I had a unique situation in that a former Young Life Area Director was on our staff, heading up young adult ministry. I found myself in his office often, and was able to call him at times just to say, “Here is my situation, what do I do?” He was more than eager to pour into me. I’m not sure if he was flattered by the opportunity, or saw it as a chance to shape someone, but his intentions did not matter. He was there for me.
I also had a Youth for Christ director who attended our church and intentionally took me under his wing. Though he led a ministry that was vastly different from mine, he understood my situation well. Our conversations were incredibly valuable because he was many years older and much wiser than I.
Find out what your church leaders are excited about and figure out how it relates to your ministry. You need to be on the same page as your church leaders. Their passions and direction should also invigorate you. If they’re excited about evangelism and outreach, start considering how to do that with students. If it’s missions, direct some of your energy to youth missions.
Your supervisor and the leadership of the church will be a lot more excited about you if they see you engaging in the things they are most passionate about.
Learn what your church expects of you, and work to fulfill those expectations. In my first position, the church’s real desire was to see numerical growth in the youth ministry. I had to make that a priority and, given my own conscience, I had to find a way to do that without sacrificing substance.
We periodically created events to draw large numbers I could report at staff meetings. I also reported on deeper growth taking place in the lives of students. Put plainly, if you are not meeting expectations, there is no reason for the church to keep you around. You will soon be looking for a new job.
Build strong relationships with key leaders in your church. Let them hear from you personally about your vision for the youth ministry and your passion for students. Solicit their feedback. It may be they’ve already heard from your boss about what a great job you are doing, but that cannot be assumed! The elders, board, or vestry members need to hear from you personally and unless you regularly get to report directly to them, you will need to make an extra effort to connect.
I have met too many youth ministers who lost jobs because the top leadership group in the church did not see their effectiveness or relevance, despite the pastor’s support. In the Anglican Church, the Rector is the one who ultimately determines staffing, but as soon as he is gone, the vestry will cut your job if they don’t see your importance. In some denominations what counts is what the board thinks. So, set up lunch or breakfast meetings to share your vision and passion with key leaders of the church.
The bottom line is simple. No matter how passionate we are to proclaim the gospel, teach students God’s word, and see his kingdom grow; if we want to have a ministry that bears fruit, we must learn how to become a vibrant and enthusiastic part of the leadership and staff.
Join us for Rooted 2016, an intimate youth ministry conference, where we will explore the good news that God’s grace is sufficient for our relationships: with ourselves, with others, with the world, and with God. Jesus is our reconciliation yesterday, today, and forever.