Personally, I’ve made all of these mistakes at some point and in some way. I’m a firm believer in Students buying into a program, not just attending youth group. When teenagers buy in and take part, then change happens and great things get done. Enjoy the article.
It was midnight, and the students from my student ministry program had been working all day in Northside, Richmond, VA—an under-resourced area of town. I was tired, they were tired (sort of) and it was about time for us to go to sleep. We had decided to spend the night at the church that night, 175 students crammed into two rooms, because we had to wake up early and go back to work the next day and it made it feel like more of an event. As I was walking to the bathroom, I saw a group of kids surrounded by a massive flight of stairs cheering one another on as they slide down on an air mattress. Of course I put an end to it as soon as I saw it and quickly stormed to the office, where the rest of the staff was congregated, and I asked, “Did you all know students are riding down stairs on an air mattress?”
One person responded, “Yeah, doesn’t it look fun?!”
“NO” I said, “It doesn’t look like a lot of fun, it looks dangerous and a good opportunity for a lawsuit.”
Quickly my wife looked at me with disapproval and said, “Steve (A patronizing use of my name to show that I’m being lame), relax—they’re just blowing off steam and no one is going to get hurt.” Quickly I realized that I had become everything I hated in student ministry—lame. After being shamed with my lameness, I decided that I would go back to the students, who of course were acting as if they still weren’t going down the steps as I rounded the corner and took the next ride down. I was a hero, and the student ministry was better that night.
I think if we’re all honest, we want to make our student ministry better. So I’m going to give you four common mistakes student ministry pastors make (and how to avoid them). These are things I wish I had been told early in my student ministry days and I’m going to pass them on to you!
Mistake #1: You Lack Self-Care
You’re busy, I get it—but you have to have self-care. This is the most overlooked aspect of ministry. The pastors see themselves as the givers of grace to others but forget to experience daily grace themselves. Lacking good self-care causes burnout and forces poor ministry decisions which affects those around you. I’m tired of hearing stories of student ministry pastors defaulting out of ministry because of poor decisions, stress, and no accountability. God has called you to a place of leadership and when we’re given leadership—we must be healthy. Self-care ensures longevity and solidifies emotional, spiritual and physical wellbeing.
Good self-care starts with God and ends with you. Creating space in your life for God to minister to your needs is essential to movements towards Grace as a leader of students. Self-care involves taking time for you, and creating space in the margins for you to refuel and to enjoy life. Make sure you’re setting aside a weekly day off, where you can completely check out from being involved with students. Creating space in your margin allows you to spend time in spiritual disciplines that will lead you closer to God. This is so essential to providing yourself with health and stability.
Mistake #2: You Make it All about the Rules
This might be my favorite. Too often, the church isn’t known for what it’s for, instead only for what it’s against. It is because of this that students are terrified to step foot into a church. Would you want to go to a place that you felt out-of-line? Rules do little to promote a relationship with Jesus.
Do you want to have a dynamic student ministry? You have to allow space for people to experience Grace – not just a ton of rules. Students need to know that you’re for them to succeed in all areas of life, not just faith. Don’t turn a student away from a retreat because they turned in a form on the day of; MAKE IT HAPPEN!
I would recommend doing away with rules and only having suggestions. Your students will listen to you if you have strong relational equity and healthy spiritual relationships. If you have that one kid who is a “trouble maker” and clearly putting herself or himself at risk—pull them aside and ask them to take a larger part in leadership. I will never forget when my youth pastor pulled me aside and said, “Stephen, what are you doing? Every freshman here looks up to you; you are a leader to them. When they see you talking and acting nuts—they are going to follow you. What are you going to do with your influence?” I was blown-away; in that moment my leader, someone I trusted, pulled me aside and gave me leadership without explaining rules. That was a game-changer for me, and I changed the way I acted (and in a small way caused me to go into student ministry many years ago). Which leads me to number 3.
Mistake #3: You’re Creating Followers Instead of Leaders
Delegating a task doesn’t create a leader—it creates a follower. The church could use fewer followers, particularly in high schools and middle schools. We need folks who will be leaders. Wipe the word “delegate” out of your leadership vocabulary, and give away appropriate responsibility for leadership. When we delegate, we are merely acting as a dictator with our vision. Delegation takes the onus off your student or volunteers and creates zero buy-in. Your entire goal as a leader is to multiply. The only way to multiply yourself is by investing in other’s leadership and giving them an opportunity to grow. What takes place when your volunteers and students are given leadership is that they are now owners of your student ministry. They have invested interest in what happens and what takes place on a daily basis. You have just created more leaders.
You will be surprised with how quickly your ministry will grow if you start to empower others and you create space for you to rest—see how this is all connect? And…even better, you will have someone to talk about sex to your students (just kidding, you still have to do that yourself).
Now, a few things I’ve done to create a leadership culture in the past is to have clear roles laid out and give people a brief one-sentence job description. I also spend ample time creating a student leadership curriculum that helps prepare students for the challenges and the expectations of the culture. Most importantly, you have to lead with actions and not words. Your words are powerful, but your actions communicate in ways that your words cannot. When a leader doesn’t live into the full responsibility of leadership, it damages the ministry and your influence.
Mistake #4: You’re Ignoring Human Sexuality
Human sexuality is often deemed a taboo by many Christian circles. Because of its taboo nature, it’s often overlooked in student ministry, thus leaving your students ill-equipped to engage in a topic that is being explored everywhere else in culture. When we do muster up the courage to have a curriculum or a sermon on sexuality—we often err simply on abstinence without any connection to the “why?” We love to parse that dreaded three-letter word—between body and soul, favoring one over the other.
It is not enough to simply offer cliché rhetoric and platitudes to tell someone to stay abstinent; this trivializes God’s gift of sexuality. You have to show that God has created a physiological connection that takes place when we engage in sex with a partner. We don’t get to choose whether sex is meaningful or meaningless. God has designed our bodies to make spiritual connections with others using our flesh. You cannot choose to parse out body and spirit; the two are intertwined with one another.
On a related note… allow me to suggest that we not miss our opportunity to engage the LGBTQ community—or our youth who have questions about LGBTQs—with meaningful dialog. While it’s true that people may leave such a conversation feeling as if nothing has been answered, it’s important that conversations are at least begun around a topic that matters to our students and their friends in their day-to-day lives. In my experience, the best way to allow the Spirit to move the conversation is via creating space for discussion and communal reading of Scripture. Whatever approach you take, the one that definitely won’t work well is turning a blind eye and hoping this topic will just go away. The Bible and the Church absolutely have so much to say about grace, sin, forgiveness, acceptance, decision making, love, lust and The Bigger Picture, so why NOT let our voice be heard by engaging in patient, heartfelt, meaningful conversation?
Have you found this helpful? What are some things you’d suggest student ministry folks to avoid?
Stephen Poore is a recent Masters of Divinity graduate from North Park Theological Seminary. He lives in historic Richmond, Virginia where he gets the opportunity to help churches achieve excellence in media. Stephen loves creating space for others to experience God through creativity and communication.