While student ministry may be an incredible job and an even more incredible calling, there are so many hidden land mines that have caused untold damage to the life, heart, and even careers of some of the most gifted youth workers I know.
At the same time, with the right tools, (i.e. mine detector) one can learn to not only navigate these dangerous terrain, but actually thrive.
What are the land mines? What is the mine detector? I am glad you asked.
POWER is the hidden land mines, and your position relative to that power is your greatest tool in surviving and thriving in ministry.
It is easy for many younger and idealistic youth workers to think that youth ministry is simply a calling by God and that they are accountable only to God and should be free to live and work however they want. We are the church, and Jesus is the head, and there shouldn't be any hierarchy.
That is a nice thought. The truth is there is always POWER, and the worst part of this reality is that you are at the bottom of every power structure.
1) POWER of the Pastor. You have a boss. For many of you, this is the lead pastor. They are the head of staff and everything you do is under their authority. They have a vision, a plan, and often students don't even make the top of that list. That really isn't your concern. You have been hired to love and care for students at your church. Your ministry, your philosophy, your structure all need to be in line with what your pastor wants.
As soon as you realize that you are an employee and work at the pleasure of your boss, then everything else comes into focus. Your job is to support and serve your boss. When you do, you will grow in trust and in stature, and sooner rather than later you will get the freedom to do the things you long to do. But trust and respect must come first, and the trust and respect begins with you toward your boss.
2) POWER of the Parents. You are not the parent. Parents are the ones who love their kids and carry the weight of their kids emotional, physical, and spiritual safety. It is easy to think that you care more and even know more about their kids and their kid's spiritual development. The truth is that this could not be further from the truth. You have a job that gives you a little slice into the lives of students. And that is all we get. Parents hold all the cards in relationships with students. We will have zero access unless we first win over the parents.
As soon as you realize that the parents have the power and that your ministry is a service and a gift to parents, the sooner you will be able to be in good relationship with them. Parents hate nothing more than being patronized by someone half their age who has never raised a kid before. You are not an expert parent. You may be an expert at the spiritual development of kids, but not of specific kids. Parent partnerships are even too strong of language for this sort of relationship. At best you are a resource for parents, so be the best resource they have ever encountered!
3) POWER of the Powerful People. Every church has people who are not your boss, and may not even be parents, but they sure have a lot of power. They have a ton of access to people, they talk a lot, they are respected by a bunch of people. I don't even really understand how these people have so much power, but they do. And if these people are not happy with you, whether you realize it or not, your ministry will be in danger. So, I recommend you do a little observation and reflection and find out who these people are. In my experience these people have been the secretary, chair of the building committee, children's ministry director, choir director, or certain families. Every church has different powerful people, but every church has them, and you must figure out who they are.
As soon as you realize who they are, your job is to win them over. Be friend them, learn about them and what they value. Find ways to serve them and address their concerns. When you win them over, you win over their sphere of influence, and if they are truly power brokers, then you have solidified your place in your church.
EVERY CHURCH HAS POWER STRUCTURES, AND YOU ARE AT THE BOTTOM OF IT
It is foolish to think that you are above politics. You would be even more foolish to try and manipulate the power structures. But if you own that you have no power and are at the bottom of the power totem pole at your church, then you are free to do the job God has called you to do even better. You see, when you see yourself as a servant to your pastor, a servant to the parents, and a servant to the powerful people at your church, you will actually grow in stature and influence in your own right and will be given freedom to love and serve students in the unique way that God has called you to do.
Who knew that the Bible would actually be right in that whoever wants to be great must be the servant of all.
May you not get too caught up in increasing your power, but may you recognize your power, or lack there of, and find freedom in serving your church with all of who you are!