5 Mistakes Youth Workers Make That Will Kill Their Ministry
No one wakes up in the morning, puts their feet on floor, and says, “You know what? I think today is the day I’ll make a ministry-killing mistake!” I mean, I don’t THINK anyone says that. I’ve been in and around youth ministry for over 20 years. I believe that the overwhelming majority of youth workers are passionate, committed people who want to do their best to see their ministries thrive.
And yet, there are mistakes we make, inadvertent mistakes, that if we’re not careful, can kill our ministries. I’ve seen it so many times over the years. And so, what I want to do is to share the five mistakes I have seen youth workers make over the years that can be sure-fire ministry killers.
Mistake 1: Not Having Any Boundaries
Boundaries are important. How else do we keep ourselves (and our students) protected? There are two important boundaries we must think of: our work-life balance and our relationship with students.
Work Life Balance
One of the places where I see the least amount of boundaries is in the area of work-life balance. Now youth ministry is far from an 8-5 job. When we deal with the things we do (student’s lives, relationships, struggles, dreams, fears – the list goes on) it is difficult to “turn it off” and just stop caring about our students. But you cannot let this prevent you from separating your youth pastor responsibilities with your personal responsibilities.
I don’t know where you are in your life. Maybe you are married. Maybe you are single. Maybe you have kids or grandkids. Maybe you are a dog or cat mom. At the end of the day, you have to have clear boundaries where you take off your youth pastor hat and put on your family hat and step up to those responsibilities. If you don’t, I guarantee you will eventually find yourself experiencing burnout, jeopardizing your ministry and your calling.
Youth ministry is certainly a calling, but it is not your life.
Boundaries with Our Students
The immediate feeling you may have when you read this was “Oh, I am a woman in youth ministry and I need to make sure I have well defined boundaries with the male students in my ministry,” or vice versa. While this is 100% true, and while you better make sure this is in place, what I actually mean here is in the same spirit of what I said above about work life balance. Even if we consider how we interact with students who are the same gender as us, it may not be in your best interest to make yourself available to them 24/7.
Again, this “available at all times” mindset may feel like it is you pursuing your calling and being there for your students. But this can lend itself to you placing your relationship with your students above your own best-practices for spiritual, physical, and mental health.
Mistake 2: Thinking That You Don’t Make Mistakes
Think about the stereotypical youth minister: millennial, rolled up jeans, always wearing a cool tee shirt. But, millennials, man we love you guys, but there is a tendency to think “I don’t ACTUALLY make mistakes; I just work with grumpy parents and people who aren’t on my level.”
Youth ministry is about constant conflict management. When I feel wronged, I’m more likely to defend myself, and in doing that, I don’t listen to the concern of the person raising the issue with me because I’m more focused on defending myself. But, here is the kicker: when you don’t listen to the concern brought by a parent, they WILL lose trust in you. And when they lose trust in you, their student will strangely stop showing up to your meetings and miss out on the life-changing message that you might have been able to speak into their life that day.
I encourage you to embrace a spirit of humility instead. Instead of defending yourself, listen to the concern of the parent or volunteer or student, and make them feel heard and respected. You will be glad that you did this, and you will find yourself setting your ministry up for long term success instead of killing it.
Mistake 3: Building Your Ministry around Yourself
Never, ever, EVER build your ministry around yourself. Time and time again I’ve seen youth ministers unintentionally make themselves the center of their ministry. Now, let me clarify, I am NOT saying that you have intentionally decided to kick out God and make your ministry about you. No. I’m saying that if we’re not careful, we can create a culture where we make ourselves the reason that students show up.
I find this is more of a potential problem with people who are gifted, charismatic leaders. If you are a charismatic leader, you have a gift of exciting and engaging people and that is awesome. But you have to be careful that the youth ministry isn’t just an extension of yourself. There are a couple different things that happen if you build your ministry around yourself:
What happens when you leave? When God calls you to your next church or next opportunity, will your students continue to attend with a new youth pastor who isn’t you? If you are the center, and the center moves, everything else will fall apart.
Recruiting and empowering multiple leaders gives students multiple points of connection. We all have that certain student that we can relate well to. It’s probably the student who is most like you when you were in high school/middle school, or maybe it’s even someone who is the exact opposite of who you were in HS/MS? If you have built your ministry around you, and there is a student who does NOT relate well to you, who are they going to for help? Instead, build in other people into your ministry, probably start with someone with an opposite gender, or different upbringing. All of this ensures that your students have someone who relates to them well.
Mistake 4: Having a Lack of Perceived Organization
Look I get it: some of us are organization-resistant. But we have to approach things with humility. Don’t take the bait and fall into the, “I’m not organized, but I don’t have to be because I am passionate about my students” or “Time spent organizing could instead be spent on growing with my students.” These are both dangerous mistakes to make.
If you do or do not have an organized schedule, system, discipleship strategy, one way or another, everyone is going to see it. There is no hiding that. So how can you fix this?
Find an organizational system that works well for you. Ask yourself questions like:
“How far ahead do I need to plan?”
“How often do I need to host a parent meeting?”
“Do my parents feel like things happen last second or months in advance?”
Really take this as an opportunity to humble yourself and assess how your parents perceive your organizational skills.
Mistake 5: Failing to Communicate
This is connected to number four and it follows it on this list on purpose. When parents, volunteers, or students are misinformed or in the dark, then you are not leading anyone, you are just taking a walk down the street by yourself.
Your parents deserve to be on the same page. There is nothing worse than a parent coming to an event expecting something and getting a different thing. This will set you up for a rocky relationship with your parents and can end up killing your ministry.
I know that in my years of ministry, I have failed, you have failed, we have all failed. And, here is the good news: you can fix any of these issues. It is never too late! But you have to make a focused and conceded effort to fix these issues! It won’t come naturally.
Also know one other thing: YM360 is here to support you. We are honored for the opportunity to come behind you in your ministry and equip you with the knowledge and resources needed to ensure your students are being affect by the gospel and that you are leading them well.