In 1992 I signed up as a volunteer Sunday school teacher for our joint junior and senior high class. I took the volunteer spot out of a sense of obligation to the church. The youth needed some consistency, not a different teacher every six months to a year. But, as a pastor’s kid, I had zero desire to work in full-time ministry.
After a couple years teaching youth, going to camps, and leading trips, I had an “Aha!” moment: this was what God wanted me to do with my life. Here I am 24 years later, still serving as a youth minister. I have been in my current position at the same church for almost 16 years.
How do you survive lock-ins, camps, mission trips, retreats, angry parents, apathetic students, middle school boys, and so much pizza? Last week I sat down with (here comes a name drop) Sean McDowell, assistant professor in the Christian apologetics program at Biola University. He asked if I was a youth ministry “lifer.” This was my answer: “I’m not sure I know how to do anything else.” Student ministry has been my world for all these years, and even after I retire, I plan to work with student ministry in some way.
So how do you last in youth ministry?
Take Geritol. Just joking. Here are nine ways to make sure you don’t burn out after only a few years working with students.
1) Don’t do it alone. Always make sure you have other adults who care for and love students serving alongside you. Invest in and serve with a team long enough and they become like family. Whether you have five students or fifty students, you need a team to serve with.
2) Find balance. Have a life outside of youth ministry. Find hobbies that have nothing to do with youth ministry. Take time to invest in friendships.
3) Make family a priority. If you have a family, make sure your spouse and children take priority over your job. Don’t give them the scraps of your schedule. Make your home your fortress of solitude—a place you can go to take a break from professional ministry.
4) Take breaks. God took a day off after creating our universe, and we need to follow his example. Use your vacation time. Take a day off each week to disconnect from the ministry at your church. Each month go find some solitude to read and pray at the beach, on a mountain trail, in a state park, or even in your backyard. Our church has a sabbatical policy for pastors. Look into taking a sabbatical every five to seven years at your church.
5) Keep learning. Don’t stop learning. Read books, study the Bible, go to conferences or retreats, and continue to grow both spiritually and professionally. I found LeaderTreks’ Refuel Retreat and a recent retreat at The Cove to be two of the best youth ministry conferences I’ve been to.
6) Pray. Pray for your students, your team, your church, and the staff you serve with. Make prayer part of your daily office schedule.
7) Listen before you speak. Think before you talk. Our words can build up or they can tear down. We can encourage or we can cause damage. Be extra careful when you vent. Make sure you have a trustworthy person or network outside of your church to whom you can speak freely about your ministry struggles and the things that bum you out.
8) Don’t forget your calling. We can get so busy organizing, planning, and doing administrative work that we can forget what God called us to do in the first place. We need to make sure we are investing in students’ lives. Go to the occasional ballgame, sit down for a meal with some students, find out how you pray for them. Find good curriculum you can use for a series. This will give you time to write your own series, but will also free up some time to spend with students. We don’t have to reinvent the wheel, especially when it keeps us from the students we’re called to minister to.
9) Press on. We all know ministry has highs and lows. If God has called you to a lifetime of youth ministry, you can do it with his help and strength. Youth ministry in my upper 40s is so much better than youth ministry in my 20s.
“I press on to reach the end of the race and receive the heavenly prize for which God, through Christ Jesus, is calling us.” –Philippians 3:14