Your First Two Years in Youth Ministry: Book Review

186961-2A few months ago I wrote a post where I wrestled if it was time to leave my context or if I simply needed to take a nap.  In that post I concluded that I was called to stay, and instead of starting over, I am going to attempt to do the things that I would do in a brand new context, but do them with the 7  years of street cred I have earned here. Part of my plan was to watch and learn from our new staff hire to see how passion, hard work, and idealism are important ingredients in a thriving youth ministry.  Now that we have hired a new Jr High Director who has these ingredients in spades, I am ready for the clinic.

So far, I could not be more pleased with the gifted and godly man that God has brought to our church.  While he is hardly a youth ministry rookie, this gets to be his first position with some real authority, and a real opportunity for success.  As he has hit the ground running, I am mimicking his every move, every meeting, every plan, every interaction with students, and even attempting to mimic his hours.

Besides studying our new director, I have decided to add to my education a refresher on one of the Youth Ministry classics, Your First Two Years in Youth Ministry by Doug Fields.

No matter if you are just starting out, or have been doing youth ministry back when DC Talk was a useful ministry tool, this book is a worthy read!  For a book that has been around for over 10 years, I was really impressed with how relevant this book still is.  Besides a couple of references to answering machines, this book is a great road map for those who are new to this gig.  For me, I found this book a helpful course correction as I lean into this next season of ministry.

Here are some of the highlights:

Right out of the gate, Fields lays out his top 10 essentials.  His second word of his entire book is the year he started doing youth ministry.  1979!!! Yikes.  Once you get past his introduction, which is a good taste of the good 'ol days of Youth Ministry, he does jump right into the meat of his essentials.

These are Doug Field's top ten youth ministry commitments:

  1. I will move slowly.
  2. I will regularly check my motives and evaluate my heart.
  3. I will steer clear of the numbers game.
  4. I will not criticize the past.
  5. I will avoid the comparison trap.
  6. I will focus on priorities.
  7. I will pace myself.
  8. I will serve.
  9. I will be a learner.
  10. I will pursue contentment.

These commitments are worth buying the book.  Everyone of these, if implemented will make for sustained and healthy ministry.  As the book goes on, I found a number of gems that were good reminders, and some ideas I have never even considered.

Throughout the rest of the book Fields addresses matters of the heart, discouragement, and keeping the faith.  He walks through the dangerous mine field of dealing with pastors and parents.  And he gives practical helps to evaluate your programs and the development of your student leaders.

The truth is that we have the best job!

Keeping youth ministry fresh is a challenging task. And if we are not careful cynicism will take over.  If you want to do youth ministry for the long haul, then I recommend treating your job like it is always your first two years.  We need more passion, hard work and idealism, not bitter know it alls :)

May God continue to restore your vision and passion for ministry, and may we never get complacent or think we are above getting back to ministry basics.



Does a b.a. in youth ministry prepare you for success or set you up for failure?

A Hard Truth: Student ministry has a very steep, but short, learning curve. What I mean by this is that the job of a youth worker is incredibly challenging, but only at first. There are many skills that need to be learned and learned quickly. For many new youth workers it can take hours to plan a mid-week youth program, to put out a monthly--or even quarterly--calendar. Budgeting for trips, filing paperwork, communicating with parents and supervisors are all needed skills, and they are all needed at once.

This is why the learning curve is so steep. But the curve is short, because once you have these skills mastered, usually after two years or so, you are done with the basic skill set. And once these skills are mastered you are off to the real work of student ministry: loving on students and helping them love God.

Because the skill set is so limited and doesn't take that long to master, it brings into question the need for an entire undergraduate degree, let alone a masters' level degree, centered around this profession. I think it might be worth having an adult conversation about the cost / benefit analaysis of paying $80,000 for a job that earns on average $34,000 a year.

I know I have a limited perspective, but after all these years in student ministry I have started to see a noticeable difference between youth workers who were formally trained in a university setting, and those who endured the steep, but short learning curve in the field. These are just a couple of my observations:

Youth Ministry Is An Entry-Level Job:

While it is true that there are a wide variety of student ministry positions out there, the ones available to recent college graduates are almost all the same. You have the choice of either being the head person in a small church overseeing a small ministry, or being a small part of the machine at a larger church. As someone who has hired for both of these settings, I have found that the degree doesn't matter at all. People called to ministry have plenty of experience and positive feedback from their peers in a variety of ministry contexts.

Once you get those first couple of years under your belt, your movement up the youth ministry ladder will 100% be dependent on your performance, and not your degree. The skills needed to run a small ministry at a small church or to be a part of a team in a larger church are learned and perfected in the field.

Starting in student ministry is very similar to starting as a barista at Starbucks. I have heard from many Starbucks employees that the first couple of weeks on the job are so challenging and remembering everything is a challenge. But soon that steep learning curve proves to be short and the entry level job is born. It would be a waste of time to devote your entire college career to being a barista. It would make much more sense to major in business or something else that would further your career after the job of barista.

In a similar way, I think the choice of education needs to have a little more forethought to prepare for not just the immediate future, but the long term future. Thinking that youth ministry is the final resting point of your career is short-sighted and limiting. A B.A. in Youth Ministry seems to only solidify this world view.

The Pitfalls Of Doing Student Ministry In An Ivory Tower:

Spending time with people who are majoring in student ministry often proves to be a personal challenge in patience and grace. The college students that I have talked with in interviews, at camps and conferences who are majoring in Youth Ministry seem to all have a similar, narrow, and idealized worldview surrounding ministry.

The biggest problem is that ministry cannot be taught in a classroom setting. Classrooms are for theology, ecclesiology, missiology, any -ology. But ministry is about relationships and programs. And when these things are brought to the classroom, there is bound to be trouble.

Calling is another thing that can't be taught in a classroom. Many students are taught about calling in an academic setting and about how important that is. But calling can't be worked out sitting down. It must be worked out in community, and in a ministry context.

In the midst of their conversations about calling, there is also little conversation about the fact that youth workers are at the bottom of the employment hierarchy in a church. They are taught that their calling is on par with the calling of their pastor, who has completed at least a masters' level education, followed a call process that has taken years, and is now the head of staff.

They are presented with an idealized version of the church and world,  where 22 year-old youth workers who enlist the support of their students can, and should challenge all of the status quos in the church. Everything from worship style and presentation to justice and compassion issues, to basic ministry philosophy and execution, can and should be challenged. There seems to be little respect or humility toward the institution of the church and the call of the senior pastor to lead it.

The angst towards the institutional church, specifically the suburban church, is a favorite whipping boy in the towers of academia. But these are the only churches out there that can afford to pay for youth workers. As someone who hires interns and associates, it becomes quite a challenge to hire someone who knows more than me about my church, my philosophy of ministry, my students, and has the best plan to reach them.

In order for someone to thrive in student ministry they need to fall in love with the institutional church, learn from the pastor, and develop the natural skills and talents they have been given in their unique context.

If Academia Is Your Thing:

If you are a smart person and school is your thing, then you should take your education seriously. We need educated people in student ministry, and we need educated people contributing to the conversation.

Chances are that if you value education and you want to be a well educated Youth Worker then you would consider majoring in it in college. But because you are smart, you will have masted everything you need to know in no time at all.

Those of us in youth ministry need to be sharpened by others in ministry. We need your voice to help us do our job better. In this increasingly complex, post-Christan world we are living in and doing ministry in, we don't need more experts in student ministry. We need experts in sociology, anthropology, psycololgy, theology, and missiology.

Don't waste your time on reading Doug Field's books in a college setting. (And if your school poo poos Doug Fields, then re-read Section Two. His voice is still just as vital to the youth worker in a church setting. ) Use your undergraduate and graduate studies to prepare you for a life of ministry; to be a contributor to the conversation.

The Best Place To Learn Student Ministry Is To Just Do Student Ministry:

Student ministry is a strange and unique profession. It is practiced by college kids, grandmas, involved dads, and 20-year professionals. It can be as simple as a small group of students at your house for bible study to managing paid staff and dozens of volunteers. Where you end up will be entirely dependent on how you do on the job, not your degree. And like I said before, for all entry level jobs, your degree means very little, compared to the ministry experience you bring to the table.

So how do you learn how to do student ministry?

1) Just do it: Find a ministry right now that you can be volunteering in. As you do, your natural gifts and talents will surface and be noticed by the youth worker. If vocational youth ministry is your desire, then get involved in ministry, campus ministry, camping ministry, church ministry, para-church ministry, any ministry. The more you do, the more you will discern your call and sharpen your skills, so when you graduate from college you will be ready for a job.

2) Spend your first year after college in an internship: This is the best way to see if vocational youth ministry is your bag. It is one thing to love kids and to love Jesus. It is entirely different pulling that off within the chaos and bureaucracy of an institutional church. There are a ton of great churches with great opportunities. You won't make any money, but your experience will be invaluable.

3) Find a mentor: Youth ministry is still ministry, and like all ministry it is done through discipleship and mentorship. You should always have people ahead of you pouring their lives into yours, while you pour your life into someone elses. Hopefully some of those pouring their lives into you are youth workers who can walk with you through all the chaos of student ministry. A good mentor is the number one way to survive for the long haul in this job.

4) Ask questions: There is nothing new under the sun, and this is for sure true for student ministry. There are only so many things you can do with high schoolers, so many ways to run a retreat, so many ways to interview volunteers, so many mixers that can be played, so many ways to structure your student leadership. Don't be a fool and think that you are going to find the silver bullet, the newest and best way to do whatever. Chances are it has already been done. So ask around, walk down the path that has already been worn. Then you can spend your time and effort on the most important part of student ministry--loving students and helping them love God.

Like I said earlier, these are just my thoughts. I have many good friends who teach in youth ministry degree programs, and many friends who have graduated with this degree. I don't intend any disrespect. But I would love your thoughts and corrections :)

off to get my orange on in atlanta!

what is orange

Later this week I have an amazing opportunity! I am flying to Atlanta, Georgia to not only attend, but also participate (in a very small way) in the Orange Ministry Conference. In case you have never heard of Orange, or are not yet going Orange, I highly recommend spending some time around their website. Here is the basic gist: "Orange is a strategy for combining critical influences in life to fuel faith in the next generation. Orange is a path, a strategy that combines the strength of two - yellow and red - to create the brilliance of another, Orange. By combining the critical influences of the light of the church and the love of the family, the Orange strategy synchronizes efforts and shows a generation who God is, more effectively than either could alone."

A Curriculum That Matches My Heart and Values:

That is packed paragraph. But this little paragraph has given words and affirmation to something that God has been doing in my heart for a long, long time. My heart is fully wrapped up in walking with students so that they will become adult followers of Christ. And the longer I have been doing this, the more I see how little my piece of the pie really is in accomplishing this goal. It is me, it is the church, it is the family.

For me, the Orange philosophy and strategy is relatively new, in fact I came across it totally by accident. My children's ministry director and I were looking at some curriculum choices for the summer. And as she was searching, she came across the Orange website. As she looked at all the information and the videos, and the resources, she became convinced that this would be fun for the summer. But as we talked and prayed about it, it became clear that Orange is not going to be just for the summer, but is going to be the direction we need to be implementing in for our children's ministry, and in our student ministry.

Right now we are in the end of the planning stage for launching Orange in our ministry context. We have done all the reading, we have bought the curriculum, we have educated our team, and now we are implementing. We gave ourselves the summer to figure it out and work out the kinks. But because it is so helpful and the Orange people are so supportive, it is all coming together faster and smoother than expected.

So, this upcoming week I am getting a last minute crash course in Orange before we jump in with both feet! While I am in Atlanta, I will also be learning from the best in the children and student ministry. Doug Fields, Andy Stanley, Ron Hall, Reggie Joiner, Sue Miller, Kara Powell, David Kinnaman, Chap Clark, Mark Matlock, and a ton more. But here is the crazy part:

I Also Get to be a Very Small Part of the Story:

Because of you, I get to go not just as a spectator, but a participant. I have been chosen, along with a couple dozen other people to be a "guest blogger." You might be asking yourself, "What is a guest blogger?" That is a great question. Because, before I was asked to do this, I never really considered myself a blogger at all. But apparently I have crossed over and I am now a blogger. And now I get be a guest one at that.

As a guest blogger I get full access to the entire conference. I will have an opportunity to rub shoulders with some of these speakers and ministry leaders. I am encouraged to meet as many people as I can, interview as many people as I can, and share my experiences with you. Because of this great opportunity, I am going to spend this entire week on this blog dedicated to Orange. Now, I am new to the Orange movement so I will be engaging this entire conference as a rookie. I have a ton of questions and a ton of excitement as I spend time with people who share a heart for bringing Christ to the next generation.

I look forward to sharing with you my wrestling with this strategy as we try and implement it in our context that is unique and challenging. I look forward to sharing and reflecting on the main stage speakers and break out sessions. And mostly I look forward to connecting with new and old friends as we all strive to be faithful to this unique call into student ministry.

If you have any questions about anything Orange or are looking for a little inside scoop, let me know and I'll get on it. Well, that is about it. It is about time to pack my bags and head off to Atlanta to be a "guest blogger." :) For one week I am going to lean into the blogospher and live into what ever that means. Thank you for your love and support in this writing thing. I recognize I would never have this experience without this unique and strange blogging relationship. Come next Monday, I will settle back into the average youth worker God has called me to be, and back to the unique and amazing students in my specific context. But for now, bring on the freebies :)

One More Thing:

I almost forgot. If you are at all interested in this Orange thing, check out the Orange Leaders website. They will be pod-casting the entire thing, so grab a coffee and enjoy. You can also check out some of my fellow guest bloggers posts and give them some love too. PEACE!

why we sit on our butts and miss out on our calling part 1: poor theology

I don't know about you, but it is easy for me to watch other ministry professionals' career take off and soar and wonder when it is going to be my turn. This feeling has plagued me throughout my entire career. It has looked differently over the years. Why did I get passed up for that job? Why is my group stagnate while the church down the street is booming? Why don't I get to preach more? Why did that guy get picked to speak at that retreat? Why did they get to be a part of that cohort, and I wasn't? Why did they choose her to write that article and not me? Why did my proposal get turned down, and theirs was accepted? I recognize that at the core of who I am, I wrestle with envy. Now, part of this is of course sinful. Watching what others have and wanting that for myself. That part is part of my flesh that I must die to every day. But if we are honest, part of this battle is that there is a real vision of the person that God has made me to be, and I am in the birth pains of trying to work that out.

If you can humor me for a minute. Assuming that we have done the hard spiritual work of dying to our fleshly envy, what is left is some unrealized vision of who we might be if we were fully living into the person God made us to be. And what I want to do is figure out who that person is, and then run after it with all my might. So when I use terms like, "advance" or "move upward," I am simply saying that there is a larger call that is being pursued.

What I have noticed is that there are some poor theology, laziness, and fear of failure that justifies why many of my colleagues and I are stagnate in our professional development and not living into the larger dream God has put in our lives. This is what I mean: Poor Theology: When I look around at my peers and see the fruit of their ministries, the opportunities they have to speak, the invitations to be a part of special cohorts, the books and articles that they publish, I think that it must all be spiritual. These people are faithful to their calling and God has blessed them. Now while that is entirely true across the board, what is untrue is that it is simply a spiritual matter that they are advancing in their careers.

A book that has changed my life is Malcolm Gladwell's book Outliers. In this book, Gladwell challenges the assumption that it is simply hard work that moves people along the path of career advancement. And in the Church we can add, God's will. But what Gladwell observes is that people are born into unique settings with unique connections that allow for certain kinds of success.

Going back over my list of people who I am envious of, I realize that many of them have had very unique opportunities based on their unique connections. Working at a mega-church, or being friends of a well known and connected pastor, or being related to someone connected are the easiest and main ways people advance in careers in ministry. On a side note, once you are given the opportunity, it is imperative that you come through and do a good job. But if the connection is made and you can adequately accomplish the task given, doors begin to open for you.

Now you have opportunities to speak at camps and retreats, present at conferences and trainings. And as you do this well, more and more doors will open up to you.

But what about the people who did not land in a context that allows them to make connections and advance in ministry. There are many youth workers who are in this camp, who excel in their small-unconnected context, faithfully serving. For most of my career in ministry I have found myself among the unconnected. God has given me a vision of what kind of youth worker I can be, what unique things I can bring to the table in my local context and beyond. But if I land in the place where I actually think that it must just be God's will to only do X or only be Y, then I am afraid I will be missing out what God actually might have in store for me.

I love the story of Joseph who had a vision of himself where he was going to be someone respected and bowed down to by his brothers. It was a dream given to a spoiled kid. Because Joseph shared that vision of who he was going to be in an immature way, he paid the price. He was sold into slavery, wrongly accused and spent years and years in prison. But sure enough, as God was refining his character, the vision of what God originally put in his heart, finally came to fruition. A similar account happens with David who was anointed at a young age, but doesn't live into that anointing until years later. Even Paul was given a vision of who we was going to be in the church, but it took years of trials and testing until that was proven true.

I firmly believe that God gives us certain visions of who we are to be in the body of Christ. There is no hierarchy of visions or places God calls us into in His body. The body of Christ is so diverse and made up of so many unique parts. The vision God has given me will be different the vision God has given you. So, no mater what the calling God gives us, we are to be faithful to pursue that calling with all of our hearts and will all of our strength.

Too often, we simply affirm that God has given us a vision to do something or be someone, and then we sit and wait for our big break. We can not be passive in this pursuit of our calling. God rarely grabs passive people waiting for him to show up. We all know that it is easier to steer a car in motion then one standing still, and the same must be true as we work out our calling. We cannot rely on poor theology and passively stand by as our our dreams wither and die. We must get off our butts and work hard to pursue God and work out our calling.

Next we will look at our natural bent toward laziness and the status quo and how that squashes our abilities and opportunities to advance toward our call.

Part 2: Laziness Part 3: Fear of Failing