Like, really hard.
When a program fails,
when kids don't show up,
when kids look like they aren't having fun,
when we can't get any adult chaperones,
when we're not sure we have enough drivers,
when we have to work 20 hours extra to make it work,
when a youth program is a huge success but adults still complain about it,
basically, when anything happens ever,
a lot of youth ministers blame themselves.
At least that's what I've found in talking to my colleagues.
And that's what I experience.
In past positions, when an event has failed,
My first thought is, "What am I doing wrong?"
What am I doing wrong?
Did I not advertise correctly?
Do they not like me?
Am I not cool enough?
Am I the worst minister ever?
Granted, some people are just the worst ministers ever.
But more likely, it's not you. More likely, it's the system around you.
I'm going to say that again to make sure it really sinks in:
It's not you.
I can't tell you how many times I've talked to colleagues in Youth Ministry
who are hired "Part Time" to do work that takes 3 Full Time Employees to achieve.
The Job Description:
Run the High School Youth Group single-handed.
Run the Middle School Youth Group single-handed.
Organize the entire Sunday School Program for kids ages 1 to 14.
Teach Confirmation Class.
Also create your own original curriculum for each program because we don't have enough money to buy one.
Oh, and by the way, we're only going to pay you for 10 hours a week, even the weeks that you lead a weekend-long confirmation retreat or a week-long mission trip, and we're only going to pay you $8/hour because that's all we can afford, and you're just playing games with little kids, so really, what are we paying you for? Plus, it's church. You should want to donate all of your time and money to the church even though you have tens of thousands of dollars in student loans and can barely afford to stay in your apartment, but golly-gee it's church and you should be willing to donate your time to church just like us even though you're a paid employee. Wait. What do you mean you're not available exactly when I want you to be available? Aren't we paying you? Oh, and don't forget about staff meetings every week that have nothing to do with you. And my kid is performing in the school play this Friday, so I assume you'll be there. And my youngest is second string on the football team, so naturally you'll be at all the games to watch him sit on the bench. And of course, you'll be able to provide sage spiritual advice whenever my kid is in need. And my teen hasn't been to church in a while. Do you think you could meet with her one-on-one to convince her to come? By the way, when you brought the little kids into church for communion, they were kind of loud. I found it a little distracting. Maybe they could have their own Communion time separate from the adults.
And that, my friends, is why sports are winning.
Because even the best ministers are often surrounded by the unhealthiest of systems, churches that say they want a thriving youth program, but don't put their money where their mouth is.
Have you seen this map that was going around online? It's a map of the highest paid public employee in each state.
In just about every state, the highest paid public employee is a football or basketball coach.
What was it that Jesus said about wherever you put treasure, there your heart shall follow?
Sports work because the system invests in their teams.
Sports succeed because the system invests in their leaders.
Sports dominate our culture because the system pays people what they're worth.
You might say, well of course schools pay coaches so much, winning teams bring in the money.
But sports weren't always this lucrative.
A lot of people had to work very hard a long time to make sports as lucrative as they are.
A lot of people had to invest A LOT of money to make sports as lucrative as they are.
So how on earth is a youth program supposed to survive when it's run by a college student getting paid nothing for a supposedly 10 hour work week that's actually a 90 hour work week?
My first foray into Youth Ministry was when I was a freshmen in college. I decided to check out a nearby church, it happened to be Youth Sunday. Having grown up in a vibrant and life-changing youth group, I took it as a sign that this was a good place to pass on those positive experiences I had inherited.
I found the ministers and asked them if I could help with their Youth Group, thinking I'd show up once every couple of months for special events as a support person. Turns out they didn't have a Youth program, but they were looking to start one. And don't ask me how, but somehow I ended up being put in charge of their entire high school and middle school youth ministry.
Keep in mind, I was a freshmen in college, and a young one at that. Some of their high schoolers were older than me. How on earth did that ever make sense to anyone?! But I didn't question it then because, again, I was a freshman in college.
I had all these visions of creating a thriving youth group like the one I knew growing up. I had visions of 20 kids and 5 cool adult advisors sitting in a circle playing games and talking about things that matter.
So when I only had 3 kids who would show up ever, it kind of bummed me out. That's an understatement… It made me question my value as a human being. I was burned out putting all this effort into a program that had no traction and I thought it was all my fault. There must be something wrong with me that I'm not as amazing at youth ministry as my own youth minister growing up.
Of course at the time, I had no perspective because, again, I was a freshmen in college running a high school youth group. I mistook my feeling that I was called to ministry someday for the egocentric excitement that I could do that ministry now. My youthful arrogance made me believe I could do the impossible.
The image of successful Youth Ministry I had in my mind, the thing I was comparing myself to, was run by a full-time professional minister who had been running that Youth Group for 25 years in a large, wealthy, family-filled town in Connecticut at a church in its prime. I was an 18-year-old with no training, trying to start a Youth Group from scratch as a volunteer in a church with dwindling membership and lacking substantial resources, a church with ministers who thought it was a good idea to put an 18-year-old in charge of their entire youth ministry program.
I wish someone had been able to give me this perspective then. I wish someone had grabbed me by the shoulders and shook me awake saying, "It's not you." I wish someone had told me, "Re-adjust your idea of successful youth ministry, because successful youth ministry looks very different in a church that only has 3 teens to start."
In talking to my friends and colleagues, I find this kind of negative experience is shockingly common. People are thrown into situations for which they are unprepared, for which they are not properly trained and for which they have zero support systems.
So what's changed? How did I go from an absolute failure of a youth leader to leading a group that pulls in 50+ kids?
Later on, I'll talk about my training, my Masters, my time working at camps,
But to be honest, it has nothing to do with me.
I always like to say that our ministries are successful both because of us and despite us.
Before I was hired,
the church I serve spent two full years and hundreds of thousands of dollars completely renovating the parsonage.
Before I was hired,
the church took a vote to reaffirm that they wanted to fund a full-time Associate.
Before I was hire,
the church made a special push in their Stewardship Campaign to make sure they could afford the best candidate possible.
The success of my Youth Group is only in part due to my leadership.
The success of my Youth Group is 100% a direct consequence of a church investing a meaningful amount into their Youth Ministry, a church investing a meaningful amount into their ministers. It's a recognition that a thriving ministry requires serious support, and that thriving ministers need to be taken care of by their churches.
All too often, when churches want to take on a new project or introduce a new ministry, they try to find the cheapest path to getting it done, instead of trying to find the most successful path.
But you don't get to the SuperBowl on a shoestring budget.
Teams that take care of their players and pay their coaches attract the best players and the most die-hard fans.
If you want a Youth Group that gets a couple of kids together for pizza once a month, then recruit a volunteer to babysit.
If you want a Youth Ministry that changes lives, then you've got to put life-changing amounts of money into it.
Pay people what they're worth.
If you pay them for a 1/4 time position, you're going to get 1/4 of a program.
If you pay them for a full-time position, you're going to get a full program.
And remember, even professional athletes paid millions of dollars for their talents still have off-nights.
Even LeBron James loses some of the biggest games.
The key is to set appropriate expectations for the amount of work a church can get for their investment in a Youth Minister.
So, here's a very general guideline to what you can expect to get for what you pay (or the amount of work you should put in for what you're getting paid):
If You're Paid for 10 Hours of Work
Option 1: You only have time to run one program. That's it. And by one program, I mean like one Youth Group gathering a week. 2 hours of quality programing takes 8 hours to plan, prep, recruit, and advertise. That also means no retreats, no worship leading, no mission trips, UNLESS YOU ARE COMPENSATED FOR THE EXTREME OVERTIME YOU ARE PUTTING IN.
Option 2: You can train existing volunteers to run 2 different programs. That means you're not running the program in any way shape or form, you're just helping to coordinate lay leaders who are running the program.
In either option, general staff meetings and Committee meetings are extremely questionable uses of your very limited time. Only do one or the other, not both in a single week. I might even say, don't do either.
Another important thing to keep in mind: If you are paid for 10 hours of work, you are not the visionary of the program, you are the hired hand. Your job is not to envision what could be, your job is to enact what is.
If You're Paid for 20-25 Hours of Work
You only have time to run one program yourself and oversee volunteers to run a second program. That's it. You're not running High School Youth Group AND Middle School Youth Group. You're running High School Youth Group and acting as a consultant for the lay leaders running the Middle School Group. And definitely say no when they ask you to ALSO run Sunday School. The woman in charge of our Sunday School program works 25 hours (in theory she only works 25 hours. It's probably more like 30, and that's JUST the Sunday School Program). You can consider hosting and leading overnight adventures like lock-ins or super local service projects. But by no means should you lead a weekend retreat or week-long mission trip. You can help do prep work. You can train lay volunteers to run the show. But you shouldn't even consider actually going unless you are either being paid significant overtime or are given serious comp time off. When you lead a week-long mission trip, that's a 24/7 job. That is 168 hours of time. Even if you take off sleeping time (because any youth minister can tell you that you're on duty all night) that's 120 hours of work time. That's worth 6 weeks of work time. Are you prepared to take off 6 weeks extra to make up for the extra time you're working (not vacation time, 6 weeks of comp time)?
Again, your time is extremely limited, so Committee meetings and general staff meetings should be rarely attended if ever. Instead, have a lay representative you trust to present your monthly report to the Christian Ed Committee, or just e-mail it.
I get that it's important for team cohesion and to sell your programs to committees for you to attend staff meetings and committee meetings, but if that's the kind of time they want you to commit to the church, then they should be prepared to compensate you for that time. Which brings us to the next category:
If You're Paid for 30 Hours of Work
Again, you only have time to run one program yourself and oversee volunteers running 2 or 3 other programs. Some people might say, 30 hours gives you enough time to run both High School and Middle School groups yourself. To put that in perspective: I am a full-time employee and I only run the High School Youth Ministry. We have lay volunteers running the Middle School Youth Group. I still help provide some visioning and support and occasional presence, but that is of my own choosing, not my contractual obligation. And that is another reason why the structure surrounding me has played into the success of my Youth Ministry more than anything else. The church is committed to taking care of me as a minister, which means not placing too high a demand on my time, and in turn, I can apply all of my passions and skills without burning out on them.
At 30 hours a week, you can start to consider weekend retreats and week-long mission trips. But if you lead any big adventure, you should be compensated in a serious way either with extra money or with extra time off. 120 hours of work in a Mission Trip is worth 4 weeks of work time.
If You're Paid for 40+ Hours of Work
I'm struggling for how to write about expectations for this level of work.
And I realized that's because there are so many successful models for how to make a successful Youth Ministry happen when you invest in a full-time person. But there are also plenty of ways to fail even with a full-time employee. Even churches that invest financially in their youth ministries don't always invest enough emotion, openness, passion, volunteers, etc. etc.
There's also always the question of whether you are being paid for 40 hours of Youth Ministry exclusively or some portion youth ministry and some portion general ministry. That's for another post.
Some things to remember about being full-time employee:
Full-time doesn't mean they own you completely. A full-time work week is 40 hours. Don't get sucked into doing 60+ hour work weeks. If this is the case, either ask for more money, more support, or let some balls drop and reduce your hours.
Just because you're there does not let the laity off the hook for doing the work with you. Your job is to create a sustainable program, which means a lay-led program, not a you-centric program.
Just because it's advertised as a full-time position doesn't mean it comes with a full-time worthy salary. Don't be afraid to negotiate to get paid what you deserve. If they can't offer you more money, ask for some non-financial benefit instead, like more time off.
What's really important for a full-time person is to really ask the question what kind of ministry do you want to create and what kind of minister do you want to be?
And when you feel like you're failing, read my next post, "Losing with Dignity"……….