Let me run a few scenarios by you to see if any sound familiar:
- Your church is aging. The leaders have decided that to save the church, youth must be a top priority.
- The only paid staff members are the pastor, the admin, and a part-time music person.
- The pastor begged you to be the youth leader, because . . . well . . . no one else will do it.
- Oh, and you’re not going to be paid, either.
- You’ve never done this before, but no one cares about that, because you’re young—or young at heart.
- No one seems to know how to get the youth-ministry party started—least of all you.
If any or all of these apply, you might be a new youth leader in a small church. If so, you’re probably wondering,
“Really? How did I get wrangled into this?”
Let me tell you how: First of all, someone in your church saw something in you that made them think you’d be great with teenagers. Maybe the students even asked for you. Second, don’t think you need to be a professional youth worker or have been to seminary for this to be a ministry call from God. You were called, and you answered, “Yes. Here I am, Lord.”
So what have you gotten yourself into? The best ministry job in the world.
Middle and high school students are old enough to strike up meaningful conversations with you about life, liberty, and love. You get to watch them grow! Yet they’re still young enough for goofy gab—the kind that happens in church vans or after lights out. You know, those one-liners that will go down in your youth ministry history, such as “getting chick’n wid it.” (You probably had to be there . . . but it was hysterical for at least a year after that trip to Ichthus Music Festival.)
What else is in store for you during your first run at being the youth leader? Frustration!
Church leaders often have all kinds of growth expectations that go unspoken until the leaders don’t like what you’re doing. Parents tend to judge the quality of your program based on the experience of their own teens. (You can see how that could go either way.) Often, the admin at your church isn’t happy about what you’ve turned in and how close to the deadline it was. And don’t even get me started on what happens if a student spilled a drink in the ladies’ parlor or if you accidentally put away their plastic tablecloths still wet—thus creating a new breed of mold that appears the next time they go to use said table covers for a funeral luncheon. Not that I ever committed this particular felony . . .
So what are you to do?
Just get started. One foot in front of the other is best. Pray a lot. When someone is upset about some decision you’ve made, learn to never say, “I’m sorry, but . . . “ Always respond with, “I’m sorry, and . . . ”
Here’s a list of practical, tried and true tips to get started:
- Even if you’re just a volunteer, ask for a job description.
- Never use the excuse “Hey, I’m just a volunteer.”
- Meet with church leaders and ask what their expectations are for the youth ministry. If they don’t know, spend time setting goals together. The youth ministry is the church’s—not yours.
- Begin a database of all youth in and around the church. Hunt down contact info as if you’re looking for the proverbial pot of gold.
- Build your youth ministry team. Find one adult for every five youth you expect to join you. (You don’t count in that one-to-five ratio, by the way, because you have to do leader stuff.)
- Survey families/youth about days to meet, length of time, frequency, and components of each meeting. Then make a decision that works for you and your adults.
- Don’t let anyone talk you into “trying a youth meeting just once a month in the beginning,” because you’ll never gain traction that way.
- Don’t make comparisons between what you’re doing and what other churches are doing—unless these churches are really similar to yours.
- Don’t write your own curriculum. That’s just silly . . . unless you’re a professional youth-ministry writer.
- Before you even start, have the following game plans in place: First-timer follow up, missing-in-action follow up, and a communication/contact plan.
There’s so much more to say, but I don’t want to make your head explode, so I’ll leave this right here for you to think through. Good luck, blessings, and I’ll be praying for you!
STEPHANIE CARO has been involved in ministry for more than 30+ years. She’s the senior consultant for Ministry Architects and the director of their Small Church division.