Redeeming the Time: Managing the Nebulous Work of Youth Ministry
Have you ever stared at your computer for what felt like hours, only to realize that it has been just a few minutes? That is how I often feel when I sit down to write emails about the week’s ministry activities. If you were to give me a theology text book, my mind would be completely engaged. If you were to sit me at a coffee shop with a student, I would be at ease. Yet the weekly task of writing and sending emails exhausts me.
I’m sure many fellow youth ministers resonate with my experience. In fact, I think every minister must reckon with the reality that much of his or her daily work will include mundane tasks: staff meetings, drafting emails, small group scheduling, expense reports, buying snacks, texts to students and parents who seemingly never respond, monthly planning, etc.
In his letter to the Ephesians the apostle Paul encourages them to live their lives wisely, “making the best use of the time, because the days are evil” (Eph. 5:16). To redeem the time means to capture the time we have been given and use it wisely. It means to understand our days as a gracious gift, and each task we complete as an opportunity to honor the Lord. There is much to do, but it doesn’t have to be a burden.
Here are some quick tips, which I have found helpful for managing the nitty-gritty details of youth ministry:
Begin the day with Scripture and prayer.
Our souls need to drink deeply from the well of God’s promises before we can approach the day’s demands. We need to pay attention to what God says before we address what others have to say. We need to hear from the Lord before we enter into the noise of the day. Deliberate time in prayer and reading scripture postures us before Jesus, aligning our heart to his will and setting the course for the day.
Distinguish between important and urgent tasks.
In this framework, a task labeled “important” is one that helps accomplish your long-term vision. For example, perhaps one of your long-term goals is to improve relational discipleship among your students and volunteers. Creating a discipleship plan or coordinating a meeting to brainstorm how to better connect students and volunteers could be categorized as an important task. Important tasks don’t necessarily have a deadline, but nonetheless help you achieve future goals.
On the contrary, an “urgent” task is one requiring immediate attention. These tasks typically consist of crises, problems, or deadlines. Certain urgent tasks can be avoided with planning, but often they are unplanned. For example, if a student sends you a text that insinuates he might harm himself, then you drop everything and help. Other urgent tasks might include: certain email correspondence, yearly budget deadline, camp deposits, emergency hospital visitation, etc.. I encourage you to write your own matrix. Identify for yourself which tasks are important and urgent. Then schedule your important tasks, leaving margin for the unexpected urgent ones that come up.
Brainstorm ideas with a friend or fellow minister.
Each Monday afternoon I meet with our executive pastor to discuss the past week’s ministry activities and chat about the week ahead. I have found that this meeting is essential for me as a leader because it routinely reveals faults in my planning or things I haven’t thought about. If you have a ministry team, this is a great thing to do together. Go through your schedules and make sure you are using your time wisely, not missing important tasks.
Set aside email time.
We are often too attached to our emails, and it can be the easiest distraction from the day’s work. Therefore, choose a time or two during the day and designate that time to read and answer emails. We are finite and not expected to be present at all times. It is humbling and hard to acknowledge that truth in our uber-connected world. Email is important, but there are few emails that need to be addressed within minutes of being received. Identify a time that works for you and stick to it.
Identify ideal meeting times.
Look at your schedule and set aside days of the week for meetings with students and parents. I try to plan time with students or parents on Mondays and Wednesdays. There is always freedom for other meetings to pop up, but this rhythm gives me an initial framework around which to plan the rest of my week. I try to adjust this rhythm seasonally as student’s schedules change.
Involve your family, friends, and roommates in contact work with students.
One of the ways that we can bless the students in our ministries is by showing them that we are normal people. Show them how you love and laugh with your spouse. Show them how you gently care for your toddler. Cook your students a meal and invite them to stay for a game night. Take your family or roommates with you to students’ games, recitals, and performances. Be creative and don’t shy away from incorporating those closest to you into your students’ lives!
Create an annual teaching calendar.
One of the best pieces of advice I received when I started in youth ministry was to create a teaching calendar. A teaching calendar provides a broad picture of every thing that will be taught throughout the year. It’s not detailed and sometimes only mentions themes or series. It is most helpful to identify important areas that haven’t been addressed or redundancy. I encourage you to involve your team or volunteers in the brainstorming process. As the years go by it’s exciting to look back and see all that has been taught and then look forward to the new ways students will hear the good news of Jesus.
Protect your day off.
We need a weekly reminder that we are not God and that He has commanded us to rest. This doesn’t mean that we don’t do anything useful, but it does mean that we intentionally stop our usual work. God commands a weekly sabbath so that we can experience his grace and be restored from the frenzy of our daily work. Therefore, don’t schedule meetings on your day off. Spend time outside experiencing His creation. Take your kids to the park. Pick up a hobby. Meet up with a friend. Pray and praise God for his good gifts.
Each day that we wake there is much to do, but know that the work we do is not in vain (1 Cor. 15:58). Even the daily administrative work matters, and we should work at it diligently with all our strength (Col. 3:23). In the process we must remember that we are not God and that is a good thing. We don’t have to hold all things together because he already does (Col. 1:17).
When we ultimately forget to send that email, forget about a meeting, or overlook an important text, there is abundant grace in the gospel. We must remember that we are not saved by our productivity. That is contra-gospel. Instead, we are saved by grace through the victorious work of Jesus. And He invites us to participate and share in a finished work. Therefore let’s capture the time and use it wisely, and by doing so lead our students to Jesus and show them how to honor him with all of our lives – even the mundane tasks.