Learning from the Gurus

Learning from the Gurus
Danette Matty

Conventional wisdom says youth ministry is for young people—but the overwhelming evidence suggests over-30 youth leaders have learned what it takes (really) to make a lasting impact in kid’s lives. I’m 41 years old and have been a youth minister since the early ’80s. I’m at the midpoint between hip and a hip replacement. “Mature” is no longer a rip on my age—it’s a savored compliment. I have many friends who are my age—we talk about parenting and politics, and we order things off the menu that are way outside the pizza food group. I don’t have the time or energy I had in my 20s. I don’t understand much of kids’ lingo, and some of it I can’t pronounce. And I’m not only enjoying youth ministry more than ever, I really like it.

I’m not alone, either—I know many over-30 youth worker friends who feel like they’re just hitting their stride in ministry. They have something to give now that they didn’t have 10 or 20 years ago. Melanie Warriner, 48, is the youth and young adult pastor at a church in Nebraska. She says, “I feel the big generational gap here—I’m really not up on what’s hip. But when they’re in crisis, my phone rings. I know what to do—how to stay calm and offer the wisdom they need.” Warriner says she may not be “quizzed up on their music, but I’m quizzed up on the effects of pornography, sex, and drugs.”

Jonathan McKee, longtime youth pastor and creator and president of The Source for Youth Ministry, says, “I know 23-year-olds who don’t have a clue what it’s like to be a teenager in our culture today. And I know 40-year-olds who are kid magnets because they understand kids, notice kids, and know how to talk with kids. A 50-year-old who knows how to engage students in conversation is worth three young studs who can’t interact with kids.”

I think over-30 youth leaders are a diamond mine for life-changing ministry wisdom. To prove it, I surveyed over-30 youth worker friends, practitioners, and professors and extracted some real gems from them.

1. Team Is the Only Way to Go

It’s a cliché, but true nonetheless—younger youth pastors try to do it all themselves. Sooner or later, we all discover that it not only doesn’t work, but it short-changes kids. Build a team of adult and student leaders, then release them for ministry and trust them to do their part.

Wes Black says relationship-building with volunteer youth workers is crucial. “They are the front-line troops who teach and influence the teens on a weekly basis. So send them birthday cards, get together for fellowships and parties, visit them when they’re sick or hurting, greet them personally at church, and send them tips on how to be a better leader.”

2. Make Organization More of a Priority

When I first started in youth ministry, I didn’t have forms for anything. Out of necessity, I spent a lot of time reinventing the wheel every time I planned a new event or activity. Not smart. Now my file drawer of prepared forms makes the administration side of my job so much easier, and that frees me to do what I love best—spending time with teenagers.

3. Question-Asking Doesn’t Make You Lame, It Makes You Real

When you confess your obvious ignorance about [insert pop culture influence], you’re giving your kids the privilege of explaining their world to you. So ask questions about words you don’t understand, fashion trends that come out of nowhere, music that seems repellent, and movies or TV shows that are outside your entertainment zone. Kids can see you’re old, so it’s okay to ask questions. Target your questions about why something is important, rather than details about what it is. Your goal is to get a peek at how your kids are thinking and believing.

4. You Need Rejuvenating Connections with Adults outside the Church

Get involved in a community organization—look for ones that are outside the Christian subculture. Community groups often welcome pastors as volunteers—you’re just the kind of person they’re looking for. And you’ll get the chance to have fascinating conversations with people outside your normal orbit, develop like-minded relationships that don’t have your church at the hub, and create opportunities to live out your deepest calling as you impact non-Christian adults.

5. Find a Younger Youth Minister or Intern to Mentor

When you pour your knowledge, skills, experiences, and passion for youth ministry into another, you’re living biblically. Like the parable of the talents (Matthew 25:14-30), if you bury your treasure (your wisdom!), you’ll lose it all in the end. Give away what’s precious to others, and you’ll be given even more to give away.

Also, it’s vital that younger and older pastors work together. Youth is the voice of passion, risk, and relativity. Age is the voice of caution, wisdom, and experience. When the two intersect, you’ve got something really powerful. Young pastors who have no input from older peers make mistakes that will hurt them later. Older pastors who shy away from younger colleagues will miss out on opportunities to adapt their methods to a changing culture.

6. Train, Equip, and Respect Parents to Be Their Kid’s Primary Spiritual Influencers

Older youth leaders have learned that no youth leader, no matter how talented, is central to effective youth ministry. They know parents are more than food or transportation providers—they ultimately make the greatest impact on their teenagers, bar none. So help them grow as parents and Christian guides for their young people. No matter how old you are, you can plan creative, non-threatening events that help parents pass on their faith to their kids.

7. Exercise and Eat Right

Weight Watchers can teach you how to gain portion control and still function as a youth worker (miraculous!). The older you get, the more important it is for you to take care of your body and your diet. If you haven’t noticed, age (and especially children) will sap your energy like a stealth mosquito.

8. Stretch Yourself

Your body isn’t the only thing that need exercise—your mind is desperate for it. I once heard a youth leader say, “The person you’ll be in five years is in direct relationship to the books you read and the people you spend time with.” Older youth leaders recommend reading books not related to youth ministry—good fiction, biographies, and autobiographies. Use your library and save your bucks for other luxuries. And be on the lookout for new challenges and new skills to learn. Seek out those who think differently from you and seek to understand their point of view (especially in the areas of skills, planning models, and ways of organizing).

9. Rediscover Non-Church Loves and Hobbies

As a young youth minister, I suppressed my artistic inclinations because I felt so overwhelmed trying to do it all (see tip #1). Last year, after a rich sabbatical, I decided to re-explore my artistic side, and feel like I’ve reconnected to a part of myself that’s vital to who I am. Along the way, I’ve found many new ways to reconnect to my own youth, and that’s offered new connection opportunities with my youth group kids.

10. Reinvent Yourself Every Three Years or So

In terms of what you’re doing and why you’re doing it, you need a fresh start about every three years (I don’t mean you need to leave your church or position every three years!). Surround yourself with people who are on top of things that are relevant; who are flexible in method but know what they stand for. You’ll avoid the silent killer of youth leaders if you do—it’s called Well-Worn Rut Disease. Adjust to new ideas, laugh at your own mistakes, and don’t take yourself too seriously (but take the message seriously). Exercise your sense of humor every day—it’s the lubricant of life.

11. Keep Your Senior Pastor Consistently Informed

Many younger youth leaders don’t get this. You don’t want a teenager’s parent going to your pastor with an issue that forces him to respond, “I didn’t know about that.” Consistent communication will build a trusting relationship, and help with your job security!

12. Your Youth Ministry Doesn’t Operate In Isolation

You may think you’re spinning your plates unnoticed in a corner somewhere, but it’s not the truth. If you want people to respect what you’re doing in youth ministry, you’d better respect and encourage what they’re doing in their ministry. Sometimes it’s worth it in the long run to sacrifice aspects of your agenda for the good of the church. Whether or not you know it (or like it) your ministry is intricately connected with all the other ministries in the church.

13. Take Care of Your Family

Veteran youth pastors have learned (usually the hard way) that they must balance church responsibilities with family commitments and priorities. If you give your all to the work side of your life, you’ll have nothing left for the most important people in your life.

This article “Learning From The Gurus” written by Danette Matty is excerpted from Group Magazine the 2004 May/June edition pages 85-86. It may be used for study & research purposes only.

This article may not be written by an Apostolic author, but it contains many excellent principles and concepts that can be adapted to most churches. As the old saying goes “Eat the meat. Throw away the bones.”