It never seems like we have enough time in youth ministry, right? I can’t count how many of my fellow youth workers I have heard stressed out about the lack of time they have to get everything done. What if I told you that on average I actually work my 40 hours in youth ministry (Not 40+)? What if I told you that I got to spend a good amount of my work hours most weeks doing the things we actually got into youth ministry for like meeting with youth, having coffee with a parent or leader, and even having an active reading/devotional/prayer time in my work week. Some weeks I even had time to zone out, take a break, recover from a trip, and do a bit of writing without feeling like I was going to pay for it later!
If you are wondering how I perform this modern youth ministry miracle it is not because I magically hide paperwork in the youth closet or have a legion of unpaid interns doing the work for me, it’s because I make it my goal to operate a year ahead of schedule. I do this by running what I call the 3-6-9-12 month strategy and it has not only given me room to breathe for many years in youth ministry it has also made the work I do better.
I would like to run you through how I do this and hopefully you can use it as a model to help you regain control of your time, life and ministry as well. Let’s assume that in ministry we all: run and plan Sunday School, run and plan a midweek program, make a youth budget, have at least two weekend retreats a year, run 6 big events in a year, run a week long summer camp and a youth missions trip. The truth is that we do much more than this as it doesn’t include meeting up with leaders, hang out with kids, talk to parents do things as part of the church staff etc. Unfortunately, when you are behind many of these other things feel like burdens rather than the life-giving things of our ministry. When your stressed that surprise visit from a youth to your office feels like an extra burden rather than the awesome, exciting fact that a youth wants to hang out! So, let’s look at getting organized and operating a year ahead of schedule.
3 Months ahead %50 of my work week
I always try to have the next three months of my ministry completely planned out. I want all of my talks and lessons written out to the point that I could give them if I needed to at any moment. I know a lot of youth workers who don’t write their talks until the week before and can spend an entire week working on a 1 hour lesson. The next thing I take care of are any major meetings for this 3-month period. Parent meetings, agenda planned and written. Mission trip prep meeting, all essential information covered ahead of time. Leaders meeting planned out with room to just talk or hear what they have to say. Then the rest of this time I use to cover any major trips or events. Making sure payments are made, forms are completed, catering is sorted, schedule and lessons are covered etc.
I want to emphasize this I what I aim to do normally. There will always be exceptions and some weeks where what is coming up next might take %100 percent of work week. But, I want those to be rare. I want to be planning ahead and taking care of things far enough out so that I am not constantly chasing one thing after another. Of all the things, I do in this time that help me most it is definitely taking a couple of days to write my talks and lessons. I usually wait till I am feeling motivated and then I write like a madman. That way I don’t lose time to days or weeks where writers block takes over. Giving 20 hours to 3 months of lessons isn’t actually that grueling especially if it saves you from spending a full week struggling through what you are going to teach on Sunday.
6 Months %30 of my work week
I always like to give about a day of my work week to looking ahead. This might be things like confirming a spring retreat way in advance, contacting entertainment for the overnight and finalizing contracts, finalizing travel plans for the summer mission trip, or working on the schedule for summer camp. Doing these major things way ahead of time allows you to finesse details as they get closer because you have already done the leg work in small amounts.
Again, not every week will play out this way. Some weeks you may not have anything to really work on for a 6 month out project. But other weeks you may be all caught up on your 3-month work and you can charge ahead and get things done. This is especially helpful to protect you from busy seasons like Christmas, Easter, or right before a big trip so that during those seasons you are already on top of an event or retreat that falls during those times.
9 months 10% of my work week
Taking care of things 9 months at a time may seem crazy but for me this can be the most fun I have in my planning schedule. This is where you get to think up great ideas ahead of time! Discovered a cool new game or event put it on the summer schedule ahead of time and write down a plan to run it. Want to hype up the next summer super hero movie and tie in a summer Bible study to it? Plan ahead and set the dates. Have a brilliant idea for next year’s Sunday School curriculum? Write it down now and start making an outline!
These are the type of things you can do in a half day of your week. Maybe that’s Sunday in between morning and evening services. Maybe it’s what you want to do to end your work week. Ending each week by looking ahead and getting excited is not a bad routine to get in to!
12 months 10% of my work week
This is really just about dreaming and visioning your ministry! Occasionally you can do something practical like booking the same weekend for a retreat right after you finish it. Most of the time though this can just be thinking about what is going on in your ministry, praying about where you think God is leading it next, and sharing ideas with those involved to start dreaming about where you all are going.
Now I know you may be reading this and thinking it is all impossible or that it just isn’t realistic for you right now. I have never started with a whole year plotted out. At every church, I have worked in I have to start by finding my feet and just getting one step at a time. In my first 3-6 months in a new position it may be likely that I work 50+ hours a week until things slow down. Eventually it does slow down and once I have breathing room I start to develop a pattern and I start to work ahead. Planning a few weeks out leads to getting the next month figured out. That leads to getting a 3-month plan which leads to 6 and so on and so on.
You may think this sounds too rigid and that I am not leaving room for things to change but the truth is that is the exact opposite. By getting myself in this routine I am freeing myself up to be flexible without being stressed. I have changed mid-week talks the day before because of a major event or issue. I have suddenly had trips fall apart because the retreat center has closed. I have had a youth in crisis need special attending and I have abandoned everything I was working on so that I could support them. Because I was prepared and planned I was able to be flexible and to be open to what God was up to in my ministry. Because I am prepared I am able to rarely get tunnel visioned. This has helped me have a long life in ministry and I hope it can help you too!
Denny Burda is the Senior Youth Minister at St. Paul’s Howell Hill in the United Kingdom. After over a decade in youth ministry in the States, Denny, his wife Merina and their cat Elliott followed God on their big adventure of a new life in a new culture.