I’m intrigued by a statement I read earlier today. While building his case for more intentional use of practical theology in student ministry, this particular author claims that being a youth minister is “fairly easy.”
Excuse me? Apparently this comment came from some fantasy land I am yet to encounter. I was about to put this article down (or maybe burn it), but thankfully read further.
The author went on to explain that “keeping his job [n youth ministry] was a relatively simple affair,” and unpacked a scenario I know too well. According to the writer, if we keep senior leadership, church members and parents happy through effective behavior management and sufficient programming for our students, we will likely keep our jobs – the equivalent of “success” in this particular scenario.
Do we truly believe “success” in ministry is really about keeping people happy for the sake of keeping our jobs?
If so, then I agree youth ministry can be “fairly easy.” Keep those plates spinning. Keep those kids busy. Keep those parents happy. If you have the energy, a little creativity, and some average people skills, you can spin plates till Jesus returns – and only sometimes lose your job. Because that happens too. Even great plate-spinners get a raw deal in ministry from time to time.
But we’re not called to be great plate-spinners. We are called to make disciples. When we evaluate our ministries based on discipleship (as opposed to programming and people pleasing), what implications might we find for the way forward? Maybe we discover it’s time to drop a plate or two out of that rotation.
I just wrapped up a long weekend of student ministry. Without getting too detailed, let me just summarize in broad terms. From early Saturday through late Sunday evening I worked hard to deliver an annual program for our student ministry – because it was expected, because it’s one of those things “we’ve always done,” and because I knew people in all of the above categories would be upset if our student ministry did not deliver. We delivered, all right. We spun that plate ferociously, and with great skill. We worked hard, we created an enjoyable experience, and we satisfied the majority of people involved. (No surprise here – we’ve become quite good at spinning this particular plate.)
Student ministers know the satisfaction and relief that accompany the completion of such weekends. We return to our offices the next day and therapeutically cross those dates off our calendar. We did it. It’s over! The plate never once bobbled. Now just twelve months until we have to do it all over again
In recent years, I’ve longed for reprieve between the completion of one project and the full-throttle pursuit of the next big event on our calendar. Sometimes I do get a 24-hour window without discussion and planning for the next thing ahead, but this is unusual. Typically, I find myself discussing the next calendar item (against my will) as we sweep up from the event just completed. That’s how plate-spinning works. Often without evaluating the potential for actual disciple-making in or around our vast array of programs.
Does any of this sound familiar? If so, why do we do this to ourselves? I hear the truth in the words I read this morning: we know the formula for “success” (keeping our jobs) in student ministry, and we fear the implications of challenging “what has always been” for the sake of something potentially better. Spinning the plates we know is much easier than dropping a plate to create space for new and potentially healthier modes of ministry. Sadly, this is reality for many of us in student ministry.
Imagine with me for a moment. What if we went back to the drawing board and gave honest assessment of our time and energy in ministry as related to our ultimate goals in ministry. Not just keeping our jobs or keeping people happy. The statement made earlier suggests our “goal” in ministry is merely staying employed. Should this ever be our goal? Wouldn’t we agree that our goals should actually revolve around disciple-making? Leading non-Christians to Christ and current believers toward deeper commitments? There may be some quality plate-spinning involved in this process, but the colors, shapes and sizes of those plates could potentially be very different. (And I’m guessing there could be fewer plates in general.)
Amen, you say! Great – we are on the same page.
Now, let’s be honest with ourselves.
What if we evaluated our time commitments and budget expenditures based on the goals outlined above? If our goals – our actual, long-term, Kingdom-building goals – were more about making disciples than simply making people happy, what would this mean for our ministries? Could you drop a plate or two? Could you make a few people unhappy for the sake of potentially making more disciples?
If I truly practiced what I am preaching here, I would strike a handful of annual events from my calendar and literally redirect thousands of dollars for alternative uses in my ministry? I honestly would. Tomorrow. And yet I don’t. Probably because I’m afraid of the fallout. I would take a lot of heat from people, and I don’t really want the conflict right now. (Just being honest.)
Today we begin work on the next expected offering from our student ministry. This event will require weeks of planning and preparation, draining my ministry budget and emotional reserves as the date approaches. I do this almost blindly; a routine I’ve learned well over the years. I’ve become proficient in keeping people happy; I’ve been mostly successful in keeping the critics at bay. I keep a full calendar and I spin those plates like a champion.
Sadly, despite my masterful efforts in plate-spinning, I’m not convinced I’ve made many disciples.
To be fair, I’m painting a fairly bleak picture here. Your ministry and mine are already more than simply programming and activity, with the end goal of job security in mind. Right? Surely we have scheduled our events and activities with clear purpose and great intentionality. Surely we have arranged our budgets with discipleship in mind. Surely we are willing to challenge what has “always been” in pursuit of what is best moving forward. Right? We have done all this, haven’t we?
Ministry friends, hear my prayer:May we fix our eyes on Jesus, never on job security. Click To Tweet
May we plan, prepare, evaluate and budget in our student ministries based on what matters most. May we be disciple-makers, not merely plate-spinners. May we boldly question what has “always been” in search of what may be more effective. May we not live in a hopeless cycle of events designed to please and placate others. May we be agents of love, grace, mercy and peace. May our ministries bear fruit as we are faithful to God alone.
Take a look at your calendar. Take a look at your budget. What are you doing out of fear; out of blind allegiance to the status quo? Maybe it’s time to stop spinning some of those plates. What’s the worst that could happen? Maybe you do lose your job. Maybe keeping that job has never been the goal to begin with.
DAVE BLANCHARD is the Director of Student Ministry at the West Houston Church of Christ. He is a 15-year youth ministry veteran who has worked in Oregon, Michigan and Texas. Dave has been married for 18 years with three kids and two pug dogs.