i had the opportunity to write an autobiographical piece for Immerse Journal recently on transition in youth ministry and how to navigate it successfully. here’s what i said…
I just got my full-time gig in youth ministry. Well, that’s not totally true. I had worked for years as an intern in the church where I grew up, but that was different. There I had a youth ministry team I worked alongside, and although I had some authority, I still wasn’t really in charge. I looked, felt and acted like a youth pastor, yet I could always rest easy knowing that the buck never really stopped with me.
But now those days are behind me. Six months ago I was hired as the youth director at Jacob’s Well Church in Kansas City, and I thank God every day for the opportunity I have been given. I love my new students, staff and congregation, and every day I learn more about myself as a leader and how to navigate this transition into a new place. Who knows? Maybe my experiences will help you navigate your own ministry.
Pray for wisdom.
Disclaimer: I don’t really have a clue what I’m doing most of the time. In fact, I feel unqualified for my position. As I ponder the ministry I lead, there are numerous things I am convinced would cure me of my cluelessness, such as a larger budget, more volunteers and students, a dynamic worship band, an administrative assistant, etc. Surely these things would cure my lack of confidence and take my youth ministry to new heights. Right?
In 1 Kings 3, Solomon has just inherited the throne from David when God visits him in a dream. God tells Solomon, “Ask for whatever you want me to give you.” Solomon is a kid. He doesn’t know what he is doing. He’s a total noob to this whole concept of leading a nation. Admitting his limitations, he responds with, “God, I am only a child and I don’t what I’m doing. I need your wisdom—a discerning heart for choosing what is right for my people—because I don’t have clue how to do this on my own.”
Solomon isn’t qualified for his job either, but he is willing to admit it and ask God to intervene. Not one of us is truly qualified for ministry, but that is exactly what ultimately qualifies us. We are broken people who have been given the task of being Jesus’ perfect hands and feet on this planet. In admitting that we are flawed, we embrace our depravity and allow God to intervene on our behalf. When we admit our limitations like Solomon does, we are freed from the weight of our humanity and can enter into what God is truly leading us toward: himself.
Remember your calling.
One of my favorite movies is That Thing You Do. It’s the story of a ’60s rock band from small-town Pennsylvania riding the whirlwind of nearly overnight success. One day they’re playing chords in a garage, and suddenly they’re on national TV with a #1 album. As the curtain is about to rise on their biggest stage yet, the guitarist takes a deep breath and, in a moment of nostalgia, exclaims to the rest of the group, “Guys, how did we get here?!”
Think back to when you first felt the nudge toward ministry. Where were you? What were you doing? What led you here? How did you arrive where you are today? There was a point when you were called to youth ministry, and I pray that you remember it whenever you feel frustrated, tired, confused, lost and clueless. Remember that you are called.
I first felt the nudge into youth ministry while riding shotgun in a 15-passenger van. I was an intern, and we had just returned from a middle school retreat of some sort. A friend asked me if I’d ever thought about becoming a youth pastor. I had never truly considered it before. I realized that not only did I have the right skill set, but I had a desire to invest in the lives of middle schoolers and lead them in the way of Jesus Christ.
As I was going through the interview process for my position, I found myself wrestling with my calling nearly every day. Some nights I couldn’t fall asleep because I was so uncertain. I kept considering alternatives; I felt broken and unsuited for ministry and kept asking the question Moses asks God in Exodus 3: Who am I to lead anybody? What if I fail? But when I think back to that conversation in that 15-passenger van, I am always reminded that this is my calling and what I was made to do. Even as I write this paragraph I am filled with energy and joy.
Recalling this time of wrestling is crucial to your transition into your new ministry. Don’t just ignore those thoughts and push through without giving it the amount of prayer and struggle it deserves. Remember what got you into the youth ministry game in the first place and celebrate where God has already taken you on your journey. Because “he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion.” By celebrating where we’ve been, we can better look forward to where God is taking us.
Adopt the long view.
When I first arrived at Jacob’s Well, I felt an internal tension. I was expected to lead a group of students, but I didn’t have a clue who any of them were. I was called to enter into the lives of these students, but I didn’t yet know anything about them. I wasn’t able to truly love them without first learning their stories. Before I could be an effective leader, I had to learn who it was I was leading. But that doesn’t just happen overnight; meaningful relationships take time to develop.
Ministry is a marathon, not a sprint, so adopt the long view and take time to study your new culture. Spend the first six months being a cultural anthropologist, taking in your surroundings, learning the values, understanding the history and discerning what God is already up to in your ministry. Most importantly, give yourself time to develop relationships with your new students.
Unfortunately, your new culture doesn’t just grind to a halt because you need time to figure out your surroundings and establish relationships. This tension is just part of the transition you’ll have to fight through. Change is not going to be easy, and this is by no means a perfect formula. I pray it can bring you some peace, as it has me.