Growth Changes Everything (Part 2): The First Things to Go
As our youth ministry has grown there have been a few things that we’ve had to let go. Some of them were difficult to let go while others weren’t so hard. Some things had to do with our program, some had to do with the congregation’s expectations, others had to do with my own view of youth ministry. Below are a few that come to my mind most readily.
Doing the Ministry Myself
At some point I had to come to terms with the fact that I can’t be the one who does it all. I can’t be the one who responds to students’ every crisis. I can’t be the one who plans every game during youth group. I can’t be the one who teaches every class. I can’t even be the one who makes every decision. I have to release things more and more. I have to allow other people to join the ministry with me. In my earlier days, I was guilty of complaining to my youth ministry peers about the lack of volunteerism. But the reality is that I was the one who wasn’t recruiting & releasing. I was holding on to everything…mostly out of emotional convenience, a sense of maintaining control, feeling intimidated by older adults or peers, or even a fear of rejection. My guess is that most other youth pastors do the same. I think this is the first thing that has to go.
“Hanging Out” with Individual Teens
There also came a point somewhere along the way where I realized that I couldn’t afford to simply “hang out” with kids anymore. My time with them became much more intentional and strategic. I stopped “building relationships” via playing video games, basketball, and snowboarding and started making appointments to talk about particular issues and started pursuing specific students of influence and potential for the sake of developing their ministry-mindedness and leadership abilities. On the flip side, I started meeting with more adults who were on our team, supporting them as they ministered to teens. I still go to choir concerts, football games, baseball games, etc. And, showing up at school lunches is still something that I would like to put back into my routine regardless of how much we grow (right now, though, it just doesn’t work for my schedule). The point is, casual relational ministry is now primarily in the hands of small group leaders and interns.
A Relaxed, Do-What-I-Want-When-I-Feel-Like-It Schedule.
I realized pretty quickly that I couldn’t sustain a weekly schedule that was spontaneous and flexible. I found that the weekly responsibilities of the program were always too last minute and either produced stress in me or killed the experience for students and adult leaders. I now operate on a weekly diet of strict routines. I work on a regular schedule of weekly meetings, planned blocks for lesson prep, correspondence, ministry projects, “balcony times,” meetings with volunteers/interns/parents/other staff, and frequent engagements in crisis response. And, our program runs on a weekly diet of checklists and deadlines.
A 40-Hour Work Week
Ministry just is not a 40 hour work-week job. I don’t clock in. I don’t clock out. I’m always on. My head’s always in the game. My time is always in demand. I figure I work approximately 50 hours each week (sometimes more) yet I still pick up my kids after school and am home with them every day, take time for the entire family on the weekends, and do my best to date my wife. At first this was a huge struggle for me because I’d often do computer work after they went to bed late into the night. However, I’ve recently discovered the beauty of getting up at 4:00AM. This can add 8-10 hours of focused uninterrupted time for getting work done. I can get a lot of my personal study, planning, correspondence, devotional, and balcony time in without taking time away from my family.
Knowing the Names of Every Student
I know, I know. It sounds horrible. How can a youth pastor be a youth pastor and not know even the names of his students?! Well, it’s just not possible here. We have 270 students (6-12) active in our church plus another 50-60 college students plus a total of about 60 volunteers (6th-college) all the parents and siblings, student mentors, adopt-a-student families, church lay leadership, and other members of the congregation. When you add them all together plus community connections and personal friends and family, it’s just too many names to keep track of (let alone all their lives). Look at my iPhone. I have 1800 contacts in my address book. I share none of this to brag. In fact, there are lots of churches out there with gigantic youth ministries. I reveal all of this simply to share the reality of how overwhelming it can be to be expected to know everyone. And then to have some people both in the church and the outside critics of large churches criticize us for not being more relational can actually be downright hurtful. So…no…I don’t know even the names of some our students. Again, for this I rely on the small group leaders to make relationships with the kids their primary ministry.
Last Minute Planning
We couldn’t survive on week-to-week last minute planning. Everything is now planned out well in advance. Calendars are established by the year. Retreats are planned by the quarter. Topics and curriculum are planned by the year, refined by the month, and distributed to small group leaders a week in advance.
For the Ministry:
Social Activities (Planned by the Youth Pastor)
It’s been years since I planned an all-nighter/lock-in, taken kids bowling, or planned a game night, movie night, or mystery night. I came to the point where I realized that I couldn’t be the social planner for our students’ calendars. Furthermore, I was beginning to attract certain types of kids for these activities and missing out on a lot of other kids who had full calendars already (like kids in sports, show choir, theater, AP classes, etc.). Lastly, I just couldn’t afford the time to coordinate the logistics of how many pizzas we would need, who’s driving, and who got missed in the phone tree. This is now the ministry of our small group leaders. They plan their own sleepovers, bowling nights, salon nights, fishing trips, and other community building activities. And it’s great!
Having the Youth Pastor Lead Youth Group
We’ve always been committed to splitting middle school (6-8) and high school (9-12). And, because we’re also committed to a simplified family calendar (church is Sundays and Wednesdays with gatherings for all age groups at the same time) we’ve run the two youth groups simultaneously for a few years now. In order to sustain this commitment, we’ve had to release leadership for multiple components in the program to be run by lay leaders and interns while I try to remain relationally and programmatically connected to both at different points. It’s been logistically difficult but we’ve done it. Now we’re running three youth groups simultaneously – Middle School (6-8), JV (9-10), and Varsity (11-12) – with different people teaching and leading at different times. I’ll write more about this some other time.
Mission Trips (temporarily)
For a while, there, I had to give up mission trips so that we could keep up with our weekly priorities. I loved mission trips! But now, I haven’t taken our kids on a major mission trip in 5 years. We would send them with other groups or ministries but not take them ourselves. But then we picked up going for a weekend entry-level mission trip through our denomination which was pretty easy and cheap but I didn’t and still don’t lead it. We always send other adult leaders with a group of about 20-25 kids on this experience and they love it! I’ve learned that I don’t have to be the one to lead mission trips, coordinate the fundraising, or manage the money! Woohoo! Now, we have a lay person is very passionate about missions working with me and our church’s missions committee to develop a new strategy of missions which, for the sake of this posting, are primarily lay-led trips. I’ll write more about this some other time.
For the Congregation:
The Youth Pastor Spends Time with My Son/Daughter
This is really is the biggest thing the congregation has had to let go. Some couldn’t make that transition. Over the years, we’ve had a few families leave our church for another, smaller church because I wasn’t spending enough time with their son/daughter. It was sad to see them go and even a little hurtful in some ways. But, most families seem to be understanding of the new paradigm. After time and repetition, the idea of the small group leader as the primary spiritual care-giver is finally sinking in.
The Small Church/Youth Group Feeling
A lot of Christians seem to really long for that small church feeling. We used to be able to provide that, but not any longer. Some families have left our church because of it but most have either let go of that expectation or never had it to begin with. This can be a very difficult transition for some people to make. But my thinking is that the church’s primary mission is not for creating a close-knit community of friends like some would argue. While community is an important aspect of the Body of Christ, the primary mission of the Church is the share the redemptive work of Jesus Christ with the lost, the hurting, and the needy. There are billions of them out there. We can’t be afraid of growing large.
So we’ve had to let some things go in order to make this transition. Quite frankly, the biggest ones came from me. I had to personally change the way I understand and do youth ministry. And, it’s a fairly difficult process. During the transition, I experienced a lot of guilt for not being able to spend time with more kids and not being able to teach or lead everything. I also experienced internal struggle as I’ve been forced to release more to lay leaders. And, my own selfish desires for control have really been exposed during this process.
Yet, regardless of how hard it’s been to work through this transition, I rejoice in knowing that almost 100 students have become new Christians through our ministry in the last 5 years, are currently en route to becoming fully devoted followers of Jesus in caring communities of small groups. Furthermore, many of them are bringing their parents along for the journey, as well! And it’s all because we’ve learned to grow just by letting a few things go.