Your First Two Months in Youth Ministry
"Back in my day we had to walk uphill both ways in the snow." I grew up hearing stories like this from my parents and grandparents all the time, and my eyes seemed to be in a perpetual state of rolling. It's a funny thing, though, how the older I get, the more I crave hearing stories about their past. It almost gives me a way to connect with them in a new way, and I have a new perspective to cherish their wisdom. It's also amazing how the more I deal with younger generations; I find myself using this phrase as well, "Back in my day…"
I’m greeted with the same blank looks as their eyes begin to roll. Maturity brings understanding, and no one uses this phrase to simply take up air. Each time we reflect on our pasts, we begin to better prepare for the future. As we sat in our office, thinking of topics to cover, we began thinking about you: the new youth worker. You could be new to your church, new to ministry, or simply trying out this thing called youth ministry. We looked around the table and saw 40+ years of collective youth ministry experience. We then asked the ever-important question, “Back when you started, what do you wish you would have known?” I couldn’t agree more with this list, and I’m excited for you to have these at the start of your ministry journey! Let’s jump in!
Get to Know Students’ Names
I want you to take a second and think about the last time someone didn't know your name. I'm not talking about the person who perpetually calls everyone "buddy" (don't worry that one drives me crazy too), but the person who saw you and panicked. They quickly pulled out the dude, or man, or hey girl, what's up? Oh, how painful it is to not be seen, and your students feel the same way.
You may think to yourself, well, they are just kids. What do they know? I've got so many important things to remember. The next time you think something like this, I want you to find a mirror and as you look yourself in the eyes, give a nice solid smack to your own face. THIS IS YOUTH MINISTRY. The people we are called to minister to are YOUTH. We need to find space to get to know our student's names and, better yet, try and find space for their friend's names as well. It's a powerful moment for a guest to walk in the doors and be greeted by name at a church they don't attend. When I visited lunches and games, I would sit in my car and pull out a note I had on my phone, writing down every student's name I just met. Why? Because I wanted them to know they were seen. If I can't remember their names, how will they ever feel I care about them. I can promise you that it's really hard to care about someone in a meaningful way when you can't even remember their name.
Now let's take a second for those of you with an obvious comeback here. "Robbie, I am actually the worst at memorizing names." I'll give you my tried and true hint to learning names, and that is nicknames. Every single student gets a nickname, and they never have to know these nicknames. By associating a personal or anecdotal attachment to their name, I promise you'll start locking down names even faster.
Get to Know Key Parents
What do I mean by key parents? Every parent is a key parent, so try and get to know as many of your parents as possible. HOWEVER, some parents are a bit louder than others…and not in volume. These are your parents, critical volunteers, or even parents who always seem to push back on what the youth ministry wants to do. You'll find out who these parents are sooner rather than later, and it never hurts to sit down and have lunch with them early on.
Getting these parents in your corner, letting them know they are heard, and giving them time early will be critical for your ministry's success later on. I'm NOT suggesting you take all of their advice and do everything they suggest. You are the one who is called to lead this ministry, and you'll need to use proper discernment and judgment to tell what is the right course of action. We’ll talk about the value of change later, but let me confirm that these early conversations with key parents will be your first step in securing large amounts of change for the future.
Meet Other Staff Members
There are several members of your church staff you should meet, and there are a variety of reasons you should meet them. The first two are your Senior Pastor and Worship Pastor. I'm not saying you should meet them for the first time. Hopefully, you've already done this before getting hired for your current role. I'm saying try and find a time to go to lunch with both of these leaders at least once a quarter. This will ensure they know what's going on in your ministry, and I can guarantee they'll have some nuggets of wisdom for you. A youth worker backed by the Senior Pastor will change the world…or at least the youth space.
The second two sets of people I would get to now are your finance team and your custodial staff. You'll likely be a headache for both of these parties in the future #youthministrylife, and so getting on their good side early will do you well in the future. I remember one Sunday where we cooked 50 pounds of bacon during Sunday School, and there was grease flowing everywhere. I couldn't get the area cleaned, so I reached out to the custodial team. They were up within minutes, and I know their speed was only due to the months and months of relationship building I had done in the past. You move from another clean up to helping a friend status real fast!
Get Organized, and Do it Fast
Speaking of fast, you need to get organized. One youth ministry stereotype I can't stand is the disorganization of youth pastors. Many stereotypes are undoubtedly true, but there are a loud few who ruin youth workers' perception for the rest, and I'm determined not to let you be a part of that problem. If you don't have an organizational system or task management system, get one.
If you are new to ministry, you'll find things have to be done much earlier than you thought. Plate spinning will become a constant struggle, and your organizational prowess will separate you from being a dud to a stud! Camp, although it happens in summer, is started in the fall. Your fall retreat is planned during spring, and your spring break mission trips are planned during the summer. Not to mention, you have to have Sunday School, mid-week services, and small groups as well. You'll also need to do expense reports, go to meetings, and, if you have time, meet with some students to do life together. Are you starting to feel overwhelmed? There's no need because the right system will help you know when and how to use your time to do all of these things.
Which system should you use? That’s up to you. There are tons of calendar and task management apps out there because it’s all personal choice. The only important choice is just picking one of them and sticking to it!
Change Nothing, But Question Everything
I’ll never forget one of my first bosses giving this analogy to me. “Change isn’t just an idea in ministry, it’s a currency. Whenever you want to change something, you’ll need enough of that currency to make it happen.” How do you gain this currency? Time. There have been so many failed youth ministries due to someone arriving, exacting their will upon this unsuspecting youth ministry, failing to see it through, and then leaving. You deserve better, your students deserve better, and together we can do better.
When you are working through your first two months, do your absolute best to change nothing about how the ministry is currently running. Do you disagree with the Thursday night ice cream party being hosted every week? Great! Don't change it. Instead, take some time to ask around about why people do the ice cream party. Guaranteed, you'll find one of two things. The first is that no one knows why they do the party and in fact, most people dislike it, but they go anyways. You'll look like a hero for canceling this eventually. The second thing you'll find is a real and personal reason why this party occurs, and that it has a deep connection to the heart of the ministry. You would be a cruel, heartless individual for ripping this up, and by simply waiting and asking questions, you saved yourself lots of angry parent phone calls.
As a philosophy major in college, I always enjoyed the Socratic method. When you operate with just questions, you'll find change and answers come organically. Your knowledge and the knowledge of those around you grow, and it leads to even more positive experiences. Question everything in your first two months, change nothing.
Back in my day, we didn't have articles like these out there, well actually, they probably did exist. I just didn't look for them because I believed I was fully prepared. Here at YM360, we know we don't have all the answers, but know that we will do everything in our power to help you as you invest in students each day. Youth ministry is hard, but we need it now more than ever. If there is anything we can do to help, we are only one call or website chat away! Thank you for what you do, and thank you for reading! My prayers are with you as you begin this journey, and ALWAYS make sure you have that nerf gun loaded.