I was recently asked why the youth program at our church was so amazing. Between you and me, our youth ministry really isn't amazing. Numerically we are right there in the 10%-13% of big church attendance. Our program is fully mid-1990's, and the guy in charge used to be me. I may be a lot of things, but I am for sure not a pied piper when it comes to student ministry. I love students and love walking through this season of life and faith with them, but I feel awkward when I show up on campus, and struggle with one on one contact time. Two years ago I finally tapped out, and brought on an incredible couple to carry on our church’s student ministry tradition. And while I am no longer implementing our student ministry, I am overseeing it, championing it, and clearing the way for our student ministry directors to crush it!
As this parent and I talked, I began to reflect on his impression of our youth ministry and realized that our success in student ministry actually has little to do with me, and comes from the leadership of the church and lead pastor long before it comes from me.
The Fallacy of Big Personality
Many churches, especially in our context, hire the young, amazing, attractional, extroverted youth worker. These superstars actually turn into supernovas within two years. Before they implode, these youth workers work long hours for little pay and have very little divide between personal life and ministry. They do a great job of gathering students and begin to get some momentum. But sooner or later these youth workers get tired, burned out, graduate seminary, realize they can't support a family with this salary or some combination of these factors and leave. They are then quickly replaced by the next great personality. But after a few short cycles of this, the students as well as parents become reluctant to give their hearts to a new person who will be gone in a year or so.
It's All About The Benjamins:
I hate that this is true, but what separates amazing student ministry programs from the flash in the pans seems to come down to money. And like everything, you get what you pay for. You may be able to get away hiring a superstar youth worker for peanuts, but as soon as they realize that they are a superstar and could be making double, they are gone. If you pay bottom of the barrel salaries, you will get bottom of the barrel youth workers who will stay too long, or great youth workers who will leave too soon.
When a church invests serious resources into their student ministry program, they will enjoy a huge harvest from that investment. It can be a difficult sell to ask the church to direct so many resources towards students. Especially because students don't contribute financially, and tend to break things. But when churches see that an investment investment in students is also an investment in their families, then you can begin to make some progress.
When you invest in students you communicate to parents in children's ministry that this church is serious about the spiritual development of their kids for the long haul. It helps those parents land and commit to the church. It, of course, is blessing for the parents of students who are at the end of their rope and need all the help and support the church can give. An investment in student ministry blesses 11-18 year-olds, and parents in their 30's-50's. That is a lot of love from a specialized ministry.
Longevity Beats Personality:
After thinking about this parent's comments for a while, I had to come clean and confess that our student ministry is pretty great not because I am so great, but because for 50 years our church has invested a significant amount of resources so that they could hire veteran youth workers and pay them to stick around for a long time. And the truth is, I am simply in line behind some really amazing youth workers who have gone before me and did great ministry for a long time. And besides their legacy, I also have worked for a lead pastor who "gets it" and advocates for students and our budget. And now, I get to be that lead pastor as I advocate for the next generation of youth workers.
It is true that my personality is a little bit lacking. But the fact that I have been around for a long time and am planning on sticking around longer brings stability in the most unstable season of life. What makes our student ministry great is not that I make great videos, play hip games, or gather dozens of kids around a pizza on campus. For parents and students, what makes our student ministry great is that they know me and my team, they know what to expect, and trust that I will be walking with their kids for the duration of adolescence means that I have a pretty amazing youth program.
Thank you Marin Covenant for loving students and their families for over 50 years!