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In August of 2011, my wife (then fiancée) and I arrived in Coraopolis, PA with our things packed in the back of our cars to start my first youth ministry position. I was thrilled. I had been hired full time. This was my dream. I was ready to set the world on fire and be the best youth pastor ever in the history of youth pastoring.
As you may imagine, I was on the front end of a lot of learning. After graduating fifth in my class in High School, I would graduate with honors from Valley Forge and believe that I was set up for total success. While I experienced some success and some beautiful moments in serving students over the last two years, this time was filled with difficult lessons that stretched me and showed me an honest picture of myself. These lessons are mentioned in Bible School and you probably intrinsically know them to be true, but as I think back over the last 29 months and starting at two different churches (Coraopolis and where I am now), remembering these ten things would have saved me from some heartache.
Coming out of college, I had this idea in me that I could teach everyone all the forgotten ideals of ministry. It reminds me of a scene from the TV show “Last Man Standing.” A young business school graduate walks in and tells Tim Allen’s character, the head of marketing, that a lot has changed in marketing since he graduated business school and that he is behind the times. he sarcastically responds that he fell behind because he has been too busy doing marketing. I remember once correcting everyone in a staff meeting early on in Coraopolis and talking about how we were losing site of what was important. I was so entirely sure that I was right that I didn’t think about how much I was making a fool of myself. I looked arrogant and drove a rift between me and other staff members before they had a chance to get to know my actual heart on anything
Sometimes the best thing you can do is just close your mouth and listen. Learn the hearts of the people you work with and let them learn yours. Learn the church and listen to people’s stories. Trust the leadership of the church. They know their church better than you. They have been there a lot longer and, honestly, will probably hire your replacement. If you simply remain silent and let people see that you care, the time will come where people will trust your leadership because they will know that you care about them. Build rapport in the beginning. Don’t be in such a rush to fix every little thing that you might think is “wrong.”
Your church will not do everything right in your eyes. Read that again. Again. You will have to realize that some things just aren’t worth starting an argument over. Part of serving your church and Senior Pastor is bending on less important issues (like the layout of the bulletin, for example) because God has called them to lead the church and has called you to serve him and his church.
Andy Stanley mentions that you have two unique roles: First Husband to your Wife and Father to Your Children. Other people can and will do everything else you might think is worth sacrificing for. Why trade the non-unique for the unique?
YMCA directors can make successful programs that grow and attract a ton of students. Pastors pray because the spiritual needs of students are of tremendous importance. Prayer and dependence on God are the only things that makes you a minister. In fact, your primary responsibility is the spiritual needs of your students. Don’t neglect this. Ever.
I have a lot to learn. My bachelors in ministry taught me how to prepare a sermon and the theory that goes behind being a pastor. The next 29 months (and the rest of forever) was when I learned to BE a pastor from other people who were already pastors. Maintain relationships and always bounce situations off others when confidentiality is not an issue. Experience is the best teacher and others have experience they can hand off to you if you give them the opportunity. Two ways to do this are hiring a coach or regularly keeping in touch with a professor.
Proof read everything you write and ask yourself these questions:
“Can anyone, even the person who knows the least about me, take what I am saying here the wrong way?” “Is this joke worth the offense it might cause?”
“Is this helpful to anyone?”
“Am I disobeying Scripture, including that one verse about not sitting in the seat of mockers?”
I have learned the hard way that I should always bounce a questionable post (a post that will start an argument) off my wife and maybe even someone else. Usually, If i feel I have to do this, I probably shouldn’t post it. Social Media is not the place to debate doctrine. The anonymity and need for perfect appearances are not helpful when honest debate is your goal. With that in mind, post pictures of babies and animals and leave the debating to be done over coffee.
Because I wanted to be a pastor for so very long, there was a feeling of achievement when I sat at my desk for the first time. I had to be on my guard because feeling as though you have already achieved can set you up for laziness. You might be tempted to rest on your laurels. It is helpful to remind yourself that a lot of people are sacrificing a great deal because they want you to invest in teenagers. They have trusted you and you should do your absolute best to make them feel like that trust is worthwhile. Further, you are accountable to God for how you use your time so be on your guard against laziness.
I sometimes feel like Youth Ministers end up being the comic relief of the church staff. They never seem to take anything seriously and they are constantly late. If this is you, it is tough to correct. Honestly, I often have to remind myself that I need to live up to my calling, take lateness seriously, and respect people and their conversations by not always being so quick to make a joke. One particularly excellent book on this subject shares about a church that referred to their youth pastor’s scheduling practices as “Jim Time” because he was always 20-30 minutes late. There is no business more serious than the business of leading people to Jesus. There will be times for fun, but you don’t always have to be the first one to get a laugh.
It will feel awkward, but you should try your best to pin expectations down to measurable and clear terms. When your future Pastor says he expects growth in the youth ministry, ask what he means. “Oh, you know” does not answer this question. How many people should be involved in what capacity in 6 months? 1 year? A good general question to ask is “What will it look like 3 years down the road if this has worked out exactly as you had hoped?”
After you clarify, ask yourself honestly if you can do this job. If you are like me, you probably overestimate your capacity and gifting so this is a tough question. However, failing to ask it is much more difficult. If you are being asked to provide oversight to children’s ministries and you don’t see that going well, you might have to say no. If you are being asked to grow a youth group to 150 students and the largest local high school has about 200 students, you might be being asked to do something that is impossible. If you are not able to be successful, you are setting yourself up for a lot of hurt and disappointment. It is not worth it. Continue to look and believe that you will find the right place. It might not be the first place willing to hire you.
As a youth pastor, you will constantly tell students about how they should be doing relationship evangelism and inviting their friends to church. The backwards part of this is that the people saying this are often ministers who have no non-Christian friends. This can be challenging but I strongly recommend intentionally maintaining relationships with unsaved people. Not only will this give you an outside perspective on things, it will help you to understand how very hard it is for your students to have evangelical relationships. If you did not grow up anywhere near your church, this is tough. However, if you try, you will find something. Within a year of living in Pittsburgh, I was a part of an Ultimate Frisbee Summer League and my wife was coaching Field Hockey. These were both huge time commitments, but they extended our lives beyond the four walls of the church and allowed us to have a leg to stand on when we told kids about how they can have a positive influence on non-Christians.
I hope that this was helpful. As I mentioned in the intro, I don’t pretend to be an expert and I am still learning. However, I want to help young ministers have the most successful first couple of years in ministry as possible. Please feel free to share advice or thoughts in the comment section.