One month ago, I said goodbye to a ministry that I have been doing for 18 years of my life. I have been honored to be a youth pastor in four churches in volunteer, bi-vocational, dual-ministry and full time positions. I have also been able to serve as a Bible teacher at a Christian school. I love teenagers. I am also one of those that love a feared and ridiculed portion of students- middle schoolers!

I am not going to pretend to be an expert on youth ministry, but I have had many learning experiences (aka mistakes and a some wins) that I really don’t want to let go to waste. I’ve had the chance to speak to a few young youth pastors and if they can gain any encouragement, insight or ideas from my years of serving, it’s a win!

Reflecting back, here we go:

  • If you must do a lock in, do the biggest event of the night at 2-3AM.

Trust me- it is an adrenaline rush that helps you make it through the night. They will be zombies by 7AM when their parents pick them up.

  • If you do 30-hour Famine or another fast type event, do not think that taking your kids to Golden Corral afterwards is a good idea.
  • Your critics aren’t the majority, they’re just the loudest

I can’t take credit for this phrase as it came from Perry Noble at a small unknown conference I was attending. As I sought to bring change to the ministry, did things that made some uncomfortable, I have gone back to this quote again and again. When people start talking, often, they are the small LOUD minority of the church. The rest are okay. Take everything the vocal minority says with a grain of salt, see if there is any truth, don’t let it penetrate your self-image.

  • They are listening 

If I had a dime for every time I went home and said, “I blew that lesson,” I could afford daily Chipotle visits…with the guac. However, I have also had student’s years later, quote from a random lesson I taught that I was for sure they were checking the girl out across the room during. Don’t base your sense of successful counseling or teaching in the moment. It may take 7-8 years before they recall it. Just be faithful.

  • Never underestimate the influence on people not in your spotlight 

There are some students that are the center of youth group. They are the ones everyone wants to be around and they influence the rest of the group. Often, youth pastors catch themselves focusing all their time and attention on those kids. In my experience, a handful have continued to be strong followers of Jesus. However, over the last five years, I have received letters, calls and texts from students that honestly- I didn’t pay as much attention to or thought wouldn’t really do much. These students have informed me that they came to Christ, went into ministry or are following Jesus because of my influence on them. And I wasn’t fully focused on them because they weren’t the central kids in the group. Never rule out the ones on the periphery.

  • You’re not the messiah.

There is a struggle in every pastor that you are the one solely responsible to “save” students from their troubles. We put on a superhero cape and come to the rescue. When someone makes a dramatic change in the right direction, we can subconsciously pat ourselves on the back rather than realize we are only vessels through which Jesus works. Don’t steal the spotlight. The ministry is not fully dependent on you.

  • Focus on who is there not who isn’t 

As with the adult ministry, there can be this intoxication over numbers. We equate numbers with success. Low numbers equate failure. We can sometimes obsess with having to have more and more and more students. While I get the desire to impact more and more, we often lose sight of impacting those we HAVE been entrusted with. This is especially true for groups that are less than 10. I had some nights that I had 2 kids show up. I was demoralized until the Lord spoke to me and reminded me to focus on doing my best with those two before he might allow more to show up. The perspective change transformed my ministry.

  • Prioritize a social life

This is especially directed at single youth pastors. I was one for 14 years. I thought it noble that I was married to my ministry. Biblically speaking, there is an advantage to the single life and being devoted to ministry (1 Corinthians 7:32-35). However, there is a need for balance and mental health in finding a social life outside of ministry. If your church is small and does not have many people in your age bracket, visit another church on an off night to connect with others. Your well-being depends on it.

  • You will be replaced.

Whenever you have to move on to another ministry, many of us have this notion in the back of our head that the ministry will never be the same without us. This is especially true if it was a “bad breakup.” Yes, you will not be replaced, but your position will be filled by someone else that “will never be replaced.” If your belief is the ministry will fall apart once you left, you most likely built a personality cult or did a bad job in raising up other leaders to take your place. Leadership is temporary. You will be replaced. Daniel 5:21b

  • Set healthy emotional boundaries

This is specifically targeted to guy youth workers. Keep emotional separation between you and female students. There has to be a line drawn that indicated when you hand it off to a female leader or wife. As guys, our ego gets a shot when young women tell us how wonderful we are. It is a slippery slope no matter who you are and it can destroy your ministry and marriage. I read every story I hear of a youth pastor that falls into sin as a humbling reminder for me to be on guard. It is sad how many of those stories started when an innocent young woman expressed some level of admiration for help she received from a male youth pastor/leader.

To be continued…