The Reinvention of the Youth Worker

It was a curious request:  “After 20 years as a youth pastor, I’m feeling…,” he paused, a little embarrassed.  “…feeling the need to reinvent myself in youth ministry.  Can you help?” 

Something about the candor of this question shined a light on why so few youth workers stay in this business after the first 5 or 6 years: We fail to reinvent ourselves.

Most of us step into “professional” youth ministry with an abundance of time, adolescent sleep habits, and turbo-charged idealism, a combination that works beautifully for our first few years. Eventually though, the spouse, the baby, and years of required 8:00 a.m. church meetings put us on a crash course with this stage of youth ministry. Sadly, most don’t make the leap.

But it doesn’t have to be that way.

The folks I know who have stayed in the game for decades have done anything but do the same things the same way for twenty years running. All of them have found ways to “reinvent” themselves every 5 to 7 years, the pattern, incidentally, of the highly successful fast food chains that actually require a major remodel every 7 years.

The lesson shouldn’t be lost on those of us who believe we are called to stay in youth ministry beyond a single generation of kids:  Doing an amazing job at what we have been doing just won’t keep us in the game, at least not happily so. We need to find ways to reinvent ourselves.

But where do we start?

Start by Knowing Your Own Heart: What are those things you used to love doing that have now become more drain than joy?  You really can decide not to be present at every lock-in.  But you will have to reinvent yourself with a skill set that empowers a joyfully faithful team to carry those responsibilities.

Move to Knowing Your Story: This is the season to “listen to your life,” specifically by looking back over the key turning points in your own story in search of clues that might just point to what needs to unfold in your next chapter.

Consider Finding a Midwife or Two: Apart from meetings with my spiritual director, a “Quaker Clearness Committee” and with life coach Dan Webster (, I would be in the same place today as I was in 2002.

If you’re feeling a little crispy around the edges, maybe you just need a nap.  But maybe, this is a season to consider a little reinvention.  The longevity of your ministry and the collective depth and wisdom of our profession just might depend on it.

Originally written for Group Magazine

Dumbledore Was Right!

I had just begun an early morning two-hour drive when the phone rang.  It was my good friend, a senior pastor, talking so excitedly I was having trouble keeping up.

We had talked the day before.  He had shared how stuck he was feeling in the political dance his church was requiring of him, the church’s inherited unhealthiness weighing heavily on him.  On many days, he felt as if he were being dragged into battles he desperately wanted to avoid.


He had gone to bed the night before, enjoying a little recreational reading.  As he read, he had an undeniable sense that God was speaking–through, of all things, a Harry Potter novel (senior pastors can be weird like that).  The words hit him so hard that he actually woke up his wife, saying “You’ve GOT to hear this!”  Here’s what he read:

“[Harry] understood at last what Dumbledore had been trying to tell him.  It was, he thought, the difference between being dragged into the arena to face a battle to the death and walking into the arena with your head held high.  Some people, perhaps, would say that there was little to choose between the two ways, but Dumbledore knew–and so do I, thought Harry,…that there was all the difference in the world” (J.K. Rowling, HARRY POTTER AND THE HALF BLOOD PRINCE, p. 512).

As youth pastors, we will never be able to control all the surprising anxiousness or toxic dysfunction in our churches.  What we can do, though, is choose the way we enter into our ministries day after day.  We can fall into the all-too-natural stance of helplessness and hand-wringing, staying mired in the trivia-obsession around us.   Or we can choose, choose to bring a different kind of spirit than the one around us…

…bringing the light touch, taking the high road

…trusting that God’s success does not depend on our “winning”

…embracing the most powerful weapon we have—not logic, not argument, not power in any worldly sense of the word—but love alone

…and believing, sometimes against all odds, that love really does win

All of us with a “suffer-calling” (another word for ministry) would do well to internalize Dumbledore’s lesson to Harry.  There really is “all the difference in the world” between being dragged into our impossible callings and willingly embracing them.  It was true for Harry.  It was true for my pastor friend.  And it’s true for every one of us in youth ministry.

Hire Education — Tips From the Trenches on Finding (and Keeping) the Right Youth Staff

It’s that time of year again.  Hunting season has opened—the season when thousands of churches compete to bag the best and brightest and bring them back to serve as professional youth workers.  And most churches dive into the hunt with all the confidence of a desperate adolescent seeking a first prom date.

The desperation might be well founded.  In fact, by one estimate, a church that hires the wrong person can expect to quadruple its expenses simply recovering from a hiring mistake (footnote: Gary Macintosh, Staffing for Church Growth).  So for all those churches anxiously in the hunt, I offer a few “Secrets of Hire Education.”

1) Build the Dance Floor Before Hiring the Dancer

The typical church expects its (typically inexperienced) youth worker to step onto the job and give the church its vision for youth ministry.  “Dream your dream,” the church says, “Build your vision.”  Though it may sound noble and liberating, placing this expectation on new staff is neither reasonable nor responsible.

Show me a youth ministry that hires staff with this expectation, and I’ll show you a youth ministry that has little chance of sustaining momentum.  The first youth worker might be “purpose-driven,” the next “worship centered,” and a third (my personal favorite) might joyfully scrap all vestiges of previous ministries and call it “family-based.”

To expect a newly-hired 23-year old to define the church’s vision for youth ministry is an abdication of leadership.  It is the church’s consistent vision, not the changing emphases of serial staffers that offers the greatest chance of ongoing sustainability.  Sure, hire a great dancer, but build your dance floor first.

2)    Fish Where the Fish Are

The most common complaint we hear from searching churches is “There are so few fish in this pond!”  My response: “Then maybe you’re fishing in the wrong pond.”

Most churches we’ve worked with have spent almost all their time trying to find ponds filled with experienced superstars who are willing to stay around for a decade and happen to enjoy working for peanuts. Those ponds simply don’t exist.

But once a church has clarified its own vision for youth ministry, there are ponds stocked with those who can implement those visions.   One of my favorite fishing holes is the one filled with engaging, winsome mothers with school aged children.  Most churches are filled with dozens of these experienced multi-taskers who combine an infectious spiritual enthusiasm and a deep love for youth.  Another well-stocked pond is the one filled with idealistic, energetic, recent graduates with a passion for serving Christ.  If supported and mentored by a caring clergy supervisor, these young adults can have an immense impact on students (My own children—23, 18 and 15—give me a daily reminder of just how effective this approach can be).

3)    Tell the Truth Even If It Hurts

Unfortunately, the old joke, “How can you tell a search committee is lying?” (Answer: Their lips are moving) is not far from the truth.  Sometimes, search committees in their eagerness to woo “the right” candidate will shade the truth about their church just a bit.  Here are a few of the most common search committee white lies:

  • What is said: We don’t care about numbers.

What is meant: …Unless you don’t produce them.

  • What is said: We just want you to bring your own vision for youth ministry and implement it here.

What is meant: …Unless it doesn’t work.

  • What is said: This church is willing to do whatever it takes to build a top-flight youth ministry.

What is meant: …unless it involves hiring more staff or increasing the size of the youth budget.

Giving prospective candidates information you wish were true will not help them or your future ministry.  In fact, when interviewing staff for our own youth ministry in Nashville, I start by telling them all the reasons they wouldn’t want to work here.  After 10 years or so of this kind of interviewing, not a single candidate has been scared away by my honesty.  And my staff has been able to enter into the challenges of youth ministry with eyes wide open to the immense expectations that will be placed on them.

Happy hunting.

First published in Group Magazine, 2004

Why You Can’t Seem to Put Your Cell Phone Down… And What You Can do About it.


It’s becoming more and more normal.

I see a couple on a date, or a family out to dinner, and one of them is engrossed, captivated…not in person with them, but (you guessed it) in their cell phones.  They are checking email, texting, otherwise disengaged from the real life right in front of them.

It leads me to wonder, “Do I really need to know what today’s Groupon is within an hour of its arrival in my in box?!”

I know.  It feels so responsible to be “on top of” all those emails and messages.  But those who buy that lie, who give in to the siren’s song, wind up “staying on top of” the trivial and neglect the essential.

A Modest Proposal

I’ve got an antidote to the insanity.  It starts with creating for ourselves two very different kinds of “time off”: Non-Porous Time and Porous Time

Think of it like the difference between a rock and a sponge.  The porous sponge is open to everything, absorbing everything around it.  The non-porous rock, keeps everything out.

A little detail…

Non-Porous Time Off is time when we are essentially not reachable, when we don’t respond to emails, when we never answer your cell phone (if it’s an emergency, we can listen to the message and call right back).

Imagine non-porous time off as an appointment with the president.  We wouldn’t be available for interruptions, except in the case of the most dire emergencies (and we sure wouldn’t be checking your cell phone for the latest emails and texts!)

Susan and I, early in our marriage, decided that 6 non-porous slots a week would do much to protect our family.  We started with the three slots of the Sabbath (morning, afternoon, and evening).  We added another 3 non-porous, “presidential” slots at other times during the week.

Like most pastors, my schedule was wacky when my kids were little. But the discipline of those six slots almost every week (without email or meetings or phone calls) protected the relationships we said were most important.

Now Porous Time Off is different. It is time off when we are interruptible, though largely disengaged from work.

Though I might plan to be off during this time, I can be more flexible and interruptible.  There might be a meeting at church, a preparation for the next day that puts me on my computer, or a phone call or two that needs to be returned.

Once I have our 6 non-porous slots scheduled and protected, I (and my family) can flex with those times when I’m home, but interruptible.

More and more people in ministry are beginning to embrace the ancient idea of Sabbath.  But sadly, few seem to include cell phones or emails in the category of “work.”  Most people treat their “Sabbath day” as porous time off.  And failing to make the distinction can have enormous consequences for our family, our ministries and our own health.

One thing I learned from marathon training is the dramatic impact of training rhythmically.  Great runners don’t just run long distances every day.  They include a rhythm of strength training, speed work, different ways of working at different times.

Great leaders do the same thing.  They build rhythm into their lives, treating different times differently.

So try it for yourself this week—start by identifying your porous times off and put your cell phone away.

More Than Kid Stuff

Jed loved working with teenagers. And he was great at it.

He’d shoot baskets all afternoon with the guys, followed by great conversations about life, girls, and faith. He could hang out for hours at a high school football game and never grow tired of it. Wherever students were is where he wanted to be.

The perfect candidate for youth ministry, right?

Well maybe…

This was Jed’s first youth ministry job, his first full-time job of any kind, and he was more than a little surprised and even a little resentful when his job began to feel like…work.  We had an inkling that Jed might not stay in his position very long when he said, “This is starting to feel like work. And when it becomes work, it stops being ministry.”

(His comment reminded me a little bit of the groom who assumed that if he ever had to work at his marriage it wasn’t real love).

For lots of people, getting into youth ministry feels like falling in love.  But long-term youth pastors will tell you that this call can also feel, a good bit of the time, like labor pains!

Jed, like most new youth pastors, loved the relational stuff—as long as the students came to him. But when the pastor asked him to be accountable for reaching students who didn’t show up, or for a 12-month calendar, or for a game plan for training volunteers, Jed simply didn’t see those priorities as “real” ministry.  Sadly, when he left, he left dozens of broken-hearted, confused teenagers in his wake.
Years ago, when good friend Jeff Dunn-Rankin was considering a move from being a volunteer to becoming a paid youth director at his church, I asked him a hard question:

“Which of the following statements describes you better:

  1. I want to spend lots of time with teenagers, or
  2. I want to manage a ministry that reaches more teenagers than I could reach myself?”

“If you choose No. 1,” I said, “you’ll be happier staying in your role as uber-volunteer. If you choose No. 2, you’re ready to consider the profession of youth ministry.”  It was another way of asking, “Are you willing to give up some of time you spend doing youth ministry in order to lead a youth ministry?”

It’s the same question every person considering a call to youth ministry must ask.  Answer that question before you get hired, and the teenagers and families you work with will be the better for it.

(First published in The INDISPENSABLE YOUTH PASTOR Column of Group Magazine, 2011, SUBMITTED 4/11/11)

An Exercise in Missing the Point

“You and I just have totally different philosophies of youth ministry,” the frustrated intern told his youth pastor boss.

“Really?  Tell me about that,” his boss replied.

“You are all about programs.  For me…it’s all about relationship.  I’d be happy just hanging out with kids one-on-one, without any programs at all.” 

Wouldn’t we all?

Wouldn’t it be great if we, as youth pastors, could go back to a simpler time when all we had to do was hang out with kids and help them discover their faith, one conversation at a time?

The truth is… we can.

All we have to do is shift from being a paid staff person (or the person in charge) to being a volunteer. Once we join the ranks of paid staff or take a point leadership role, our responsibilities shift from simply building our own relationships with kids to creating those opportunities for other adults.

The sentimental fallacy behind the “relationships-only” philosophy of ministry is obvious:

  1. Program-free, relationships-only youth ministry only exists in the imagination of the inexperienced.   Ministries that attempt this approach almost always wind up with the vast majority of the youth leaders “doing relationships” with a select few kids who are easy to be with, eager to grow, or who pursue a relationship with us, ignoring the harder-to-reach kids God has given into our care.
  2. Anarchy is not a philosophy of youth ministry. At first blush, it seems so like Jesus, doesn’t it—just “do relationships”? But take a closer look—Jesus had a very specific, uh, program for exactly how he would make disciples.
  3. Youth ministry is not, first and foremost, about youth workers doing what makes them “happy.” It is often about swimming upstream, doing the things no one else is doing, building like no one else is building, in order to reach the kids no one else is reaching.

I hope you’re as weary as I am with the simplistic polarization between relationships and programs, as if someone can take responsibility for ministry to more than a handful of kids without both. Intentional programs multiply relationships.

Youth ministry is still about one adult investing in one kid at a time. But as youth ministers, we are called not just to build relationships but to create systems (some might call them programs) that allow other adults to have the thrill of investing in one kid at a time.

Recipe for Distraction #1: I’ll Just Write It Myself

It was mid-summer and Jim, the church’s two year veteran youth pastor, still hadn’t finished recruiting his volunteers for the fall.  He hadn’t had time to make a personal connection with the new 7th graders and their families.  And he still had no clear youth ministry calendar for the coming year.

But one thing he wouldn’t give up: Writing all the curriculum to be used by his volunteers.  After all, he reasoned, all the curriculum resources out there are mediocre at best, and they all require leaders to spend far too much time making those resources useable.

Jim was right on at least one front: Youth ministry curriculum generally falls into one of two categories: Mediocre or Worse.

But on another front, Jim was forgetting a few foundational facts:

  • Even if the curriculum he writes is consistently better than what he would be able to purchase, Jim is living in fantasyland if he thinks his teachers will no longer need to spend the same amount of time making his curriculum their own.
  • Effective teaching is driven far more by well-equipped teachers than by an ideal curriculum.  Great teachers consistently do a great job with lousy curriculum.  Weak teachers won’t likely be helped by even the best curriculum.
  • Jim will have expended a great deal of sideways energy and make absolutely zero forward progress for the ministry.  And if we’re honest, it’s not just zero progress, it is actually more like “regress,” ministry in reverse, since the hours spent on the rabbit trail of curriculum creation take away from those that could be applied to managing first priorities (like those in the first paragraph above).

Don’t get me wrong: It’s not youth workers should never write their own curriculum.  But until the first foundational priorities are taken care of, spending time on sideways priorities (like writing curriculum) always hinder strategic progress.  C.S. Lewis was right (again):

[well]”You can’t get second things by putting them first; you can get second things only by putting first things first. … What is the first thing? The only reply I can offer here is that if we do not know, then the first, and only practical thing, is to set about finding out.” — C. S. Lewis, God in the Dock[/well]

With this article, I’m beginning a new series called “Recipes for Distraction.”  In each article, I’ll try to keep youth ministers and youth ministry search teams away from the red herrings that can take their attention away from first-level priorities, in hopes of moving from erratic activity to deliberate progress.

First published in Group Magazine, Sept/Oct 2008

Don’t Mention It: 3 Things Not to Say in Your First Year

I wish someone had warned me just how damaging a few words could be, how a few innocent statements could sabotage my efforts at getting a new ministry off the ground.  I call them the Unmentionables, words that have a way of eroding our credibility and alienating the very people we most need as partners as we start in a new position:

Unmentionable #1: “Back in My Old Church”

Instead of saying,

“Back in Rosedale, we used to…”

Try this:

“What if we…?”

The second statement allows us to get our ideas on the table without rubbing our listeners’ noses the superiority of our previous church.  And if we repeat this phrase enough, the stakeholders in our new ministry naturally begin wondering why we didn’t just stay…“back in our old church.”

Unmentionable #2: “This Church Just Doesn’t Get Youth Ministry”

Instead of saying,

“This church has been trying to do youth ministry the way it was done in the seventies.  News flash!  This isn’t the seventies any more.  And all those things you used to do don’t work any more.”

Try this:

“There are folks in our church who have been praying about this youth ministry for years, people who are open to what God wants to do here.”

We will get what we focus on: Focus on the clueless morons who ran the youth ministry before you arrived, and watch them multiply before your eyes.  Focus on the willing hearts of those who long to see their kids grow in Christ, and they will start coming out of the woodwork.

Unmentionable #3: “I Don’t Have Time”

Instead of saying,

“I’m not trying to be rude, but frankly, I don’t have time to go every kid’s activity!

Try this:

“I sure want someone from our team to see your son’s play.  If you can get me the schedule, what I can do is…”

By focusing on what we can do instead of on what we won’t do, we honor the input of those asking something of us and strengthen our partnership with those doing ministry alongside us.  Of course, there will be plenty of times when we don’t have time, but using the “I don’t have time” excuse can come across as if we think that our busyness is somehow more important than the busyness of those requesting our time.

So the next time you’re tempted to speak one of the unmentionables, don’t mention it. 

First published in Group Magazine 2008