How Not to Be a Youth Pastor 101

Youth-ministryIt begins with a lump in the throat, followed by a cold sweat and clammy palms, and it finishes with a sinking feeling. It’s the moment you realize you’ve “failed” in youth ministry.

Today I thought I would share some of my most cherished moments from the “How Not to Be a Youth Pastor” handbook.

1.  The "unbroken arm." Imagine your student who is “that kid.”  You know—the one who needs to push all of your buttons, and you are too proud to admit it? At camp I say four times, “Don’t stand on the trash can that is 5 feet in the air. We are playing basketball, and you could fall off.” Fourteen-year-old Malcolm ignores me. He falls, then grabs his arm, screaming, “It’s broken!” Me, in an award-winning moment: “No, it’s not. Go play basketball like you were asked.” Malcolm finally begs me to go to the nurse.

Begrudgingly, I take him, even though I think he is milking it. I go back to my group while he ices his arm. An ambulance comes. Four hours later he returns, waving a cast in my face, and says with an evil laugh, “It’s broken.”

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What I learned: It doesn’t matter if a student doesn’t listen; when they get hurt, you should not prove a point. Also, next time, don’t let them get on the trash can in the first place.

2. The "biking home" incident. Imagine taking your students camping. You bring bikes so they can explore on their own. Everyone else thinks a different adult told Freddy he could take a bike. So when everyone was supposed to meet back at 3 p.m., he was nowhere to be found.

Dinner came and went, but still no Freddy. Police became involved. I got to call home to tell Mom, who barely spoke English, that we had lost her son seven hours from home. Finally, somewhere around midnight, he was found, sunburned and dehydrated. Apparently, Freddy had attempted to bike home after deciding no one liked him.

What I learned: Taking students on trips for the sake of the event doesn’t really fit into my philosophy of “relationally driven” youth ministry. Also, losing kids is bad. Even in the age of cellphones, batteries die or they get turned off. Instead, I realized that going forward in all things, we would have one small group leader with three to five students every time we set out on any trip where they had “freedom.” The purpose? To build relationships. To be a family on a “family outing.” Since that time, you would be shocked at the depth of life we have learned from students in lines for roller coasters at parks and places where you can “go exploring.”

3. The "stump" incident. (This one comes to us via my hubby, but it's too good not to share.)

Camping trip. Youth leader sees a tree stump sticking out of the ground that can fit maybe four kids holding on to each other. Decides to have a team-building exercise, where 12 to 15 kids have to stand on the stump together. By the end of said activity, all the students are complaining and revolting so violently that lunch is withheld until they make it happen (although it was literally impossible).

What I learned: You need to have team-building that's actually conducive to building cohesiveness. Actually, the youth did unite—against all the adults. They had teens so angry from the event that parent meetings were held when the trip was over. Those youth, who are now in their mid-30s, make sure to bring up this activity, laughing, whenever they see us. The point? No activity can be about the leader needing to be in control of the teens. In addition, deciding they will “learn this lesson or else” rarely works as a model of youth ministry. Instead it’s about setting it up, allowing them to learn something (even if it isn’t what you intended) and knowing when to pull the plug.

I have many more failures over the years that I could share. Through these, I have learned invaluable lessons about honoring parents, teaching methods and having more compassion for my students, just to name a few. While there was a higher percentage of all-out blow-ups in the early years, I still fall down. It reminds me I am still learning, and it is the Lord’s ministry, not mine.

What about you? What’s your biggest mess-up as a youth worker, and what did you learn?

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