Personal Priorities for Youth Ministry

Personal Priorities for Youth Ministry
Paul Borthwick

I’m a compulsive list maker. If I want to get something done, I make a list of the steps needed to accomplish my task. On Monday mornings I make my list for the week. Sometimes I even write, “Make a list” on the top of my Monday-morning list just so that I will have something to cross out after the list is made. By crossing out item one, I feel that I have already accomplished something.

The problem with being a list maker is that I can convince myself that being organized is an end in itself. I once asked my friend’s five-year-old son what he was going to do that day. Jimmy had his list: “First, I am going to build some walls [with his blocks]. Then I will knock down some walls, and then I will play with my trucks.” The kid was organized; he had his list. But for what purpose?

I had to ask myself the same question. Was I organizing myself to accomplish a higher purpose, or was I simply making lists to feel organized? Was I simply building some walls and knocking them down?

Meticulous organization isn’t an end in itself. But good organization can help people to grow. Finely tuned programs can be used to lead students to a deeper knowledge of Christ. Highquality administration can help create a growth environment.

We all find ourselves faced with varying degrees of organizational responsibilities. Leroy Eims summarizes these responsibilities this way: “I am responsible for two categories of work: the kind I like to do and the kind I have to do. My tendency is to do what I like and leave until later what I have to do. The problem with that scheme is that undone, unpleasant work is always pulling on my sleeve reminding me it’s there.”)

To resolve the problems of doing the things we don’t want to do and the problem of seeing organization as an end in itself, we need to point to higher goals-priorities-the purposes behind the work we are undertaking.


Effectiveness in the organization of our ministries must come first from personal choices that we have made. As was stated earlier, our youth ministries will ultimately reveal who we are. If we are list makers who organize for the sake of checking things off of our lists, then we may plan great programs even if no one comes. If we are procrastinators who avoid the jobs that have to be done in favor of the jobs we like, then we may have a lot of fun in the youth ministry, but few higher goals (like spiritual growth or family ministry) will be accomplished.

To be effective as planners, leaders, or programmers, consider three basic priorities that youth leaders should choose.

1. Excellence. It is said that there are three types of people: those who make things happen, those who watch while others make things happen, and those who don’t know what’s happening. Any youth leader who aspires to be a leader who makes things happen must commit himself or herself to excellence.

Excellence, however, doesn’t start with the monthly mailer or the Sunday school lesson. Excellence starts in our personal lives. We begin with ourselves. E. D. Osborn has said, “If your aim is control, it must be self-control first. If your aim is management, it must be self-management first.”- Leroy Eims states it even more forcefully: “The inner life of the leader will either make him or break him.”

Daily time with God, a commitment to prayer, study of the Scriptures, and a sincere desire to grow as Christians should characterize our lives.

A speaker at a conference said to youth workers, “I am concerned about your commitments to excellence because so many of you are overweight.” Everyone looked around with a LastSupper “Is-it-I?” expression, but we knew what he was getting at. Our visible lack of discipline in our physical fitness would surely manifest itself in other ways in our youth ministry leadership.

Our commitment to excellence goes beyond our personal lives to our examples as leaders. We need to seek to follow Christ and exhibit our obedience so that we can join the apostle Paul in saying, “Follow me as I follow Christ.”

In youth ministry, excellence in leadership means being willing to prepare ourselves for ministry, to do our homework. We must say to our co-workers, “I will work harder than any of you; I want you to push yourself even as I seek to push myself.”

Excellence in youth ministry leadership means a commitment to the truth. In practical terms, this commitment means that we are more committed to lead than we are to our popularity-even with our youth group members. We summarize this commitment in our youth ministry by telling leaders, “It is more important to lead than it is to be liked.” We say this because the best decision is sometimes not the popular decision. Disciplining students who misbehave, punishing those who break the rules, and choosing spiritual growth over a party atmosphere is never easy, but it’s necessary for the long-term growth of our groups.

Excellence in youth ministry also means a basic commitment to maintain healthy relationships. Students, co-workers, fellow staff members, church leaders, and parents of youth all will be looking to the youth leader in one way or another. Excellence in leadership will mean a sincere commitment to keep these relationships unhindered by sin, consistent with the standards of Scripture, and full of love, forgiveness, mercy, and grace.

Excellence is high-demand commitment. It is also a lifetime commitment, but it is a goal to shoot for in our personal lives, our leadership, and our relationships to others. It is an underlying personal priority that can affect the people and programs of our ministries.

Be the labor great or small Do it well or not at all. That’s excellence-committing ourselves to do the best we can possibly do. It’s an attitude that will help us and our ministries to flourish.

2. Vision. Where are we going? Where is our ministry going? Effective youth ministry leadership requires us to be people with vision so that programs, retreats, or activities are pointing toward a goal. So what is our vision?

Before establishing a vision or direction for the youth ministry, we must again look at ourselves: what is our vision for our own lives? Where do we see ourselves going? Do we feel locked in to youth ministry?

In his book, Lectures To My Students, the great Baptist preacher Charles Haddon Spurgeon exhorts seminarians to avoid the ministry unless they had the feeling “I can do nothing else.” By this, he was referring to a God-given sense of calling that nothing else (no secular job) would satisfy. Unfortunately, some men and women have misconstrued Spurgeon’s urging; they stay in the ministry because they can do “nothing else.” They feel locked in, unable to get a job in the secular world, so they persevere in spite of frustration and in spite of a chronic lack of vision. If we are in this position, we owe it to ourselves and to our ministries to reevaluate. If we have no vision for our lives or ministries, both will suffer. Tony Campolo speaks to the problems of errant vision for youth leaders in his article “Hidden Reasons Behind the Revolving Door Syndrome”: “Many youth workers enter the ministry to satisfy emotional needs that characterize immaturity.

As they outgrow these immature emotional needs which they have gratified in youth ministry, they find that youth work loses the capacity to excite them”. As their vision for themselves changes and matures, they may find that they entered youth ministry under the wrong pretenses. When their personal vision is better established, they know how to proceed.

All of us need to be willing to work through our sense of personal vision as it relates to youth ministry. Our sense of calling to youth ministry can’t be a disconnected appendage to the rest of our lives. We must be integrated people.

Our personal visions then should be combined with our ministry vision. Our commitment to our vision for ministry is often the thing that will keep us going. Long-term youth worker Les Christie addresses one of the perpetual problems youth leaders face: “Usually a youth worker starts out with great intentions. But sooner or later he gets so bogged down in meetings and programs that he no longer has time for the young people who are the object of his youth ministry.

What keeps us from getting bogged down? Our sense of ministry vision. Others might use words like goals or objectives or purpose statements, but the meaning is the same: we need to know the target; we must try to establish an end result toward which we are aiming.

Some people establish their goals or vision on numbers: “We would like a youth ministry with 150 students.” Others use more spiritual terminology: “Our purpose is to instruct students how to walk by faith.” A proper answer probably lies somewhere in between. Quality (measured by things like witnessing at school, involvement in discipleship groups, or service to the needy) is balanced by a vision for quantity (having twenty-five percent of ourSunday school attenders witnessing on a regular basis at school). Disciplining oneself to establish a ministry vision is a crucial priority because it offers direction. A ministry without goals .. .

… covers too much ground
… majors in the minors
… has a tendency to ramble
… may not be related to life needs
… has few or no results,

David Jacquith has observed it another way: “Good results without good planning come from good luck, not good management. ”

We need to see where we are going-both personally and in our youth ministries. We must commit ourselves to developing our sense of vision. It must be a priority.

3. Endurance. Although teenagers love to he associated with
leaders who are dynamic or funny or charismatic, I believe that
students’ greater need is for leaders who will stick with them over their adolescent years. Effective leadership and organization in the
youth ministry calls us to make endurance a personal priority.
We’ve already discussed some of the external things we can do to foster our own longevity in youth ministry, but the personal commitment to endurance must come from within. To “finish the course” (2 Tim. 4:7) with youth ministry (and by this I mean a minimum of a three-year commitment) requires an active choice on our part.

We must learn to endure in spite of apparent failures and setbacks. Throughout my years as a youth worker, I have drawn great strength from the example of Abraham Lincoln: He grew up on an isolated faun and had only one year of formal education. In those early years he was exposed to barely half a dozen books. In 1832 he lost his job and was defeated in the race for the Illinois legislature. In 1833 he failed in business. In 1834 he was elected to the state legislature, but in 1835 his sweetheart died, and in 1836 he had a nervous breakdown. In 1838 he was defeated for nomination for Congress. In 1846 he was elected to Congress but in 1848 lost the renomination.-In 1849 he was rejected for a federal land officer appointment, and in 1854 he was defeated for the Senate. In 1856 he was defeated for the nomination for vice-president, and in 1858 he was again defeated for the Senate.

Abe Lincoln was one of our greatest presidents because he endured. He didn’t let defeat or failure keep him down.

Many of us in youth ministry know defeat and feelings of failure. Like parents of teenagers, we can sometimes look at the students we are supposed to be influencing and say, “Where am I going wrong?” But we can endure because “He who promised is faithful” (Heb. 10:23). God will bring about his good purposes in our lives and in the lives of the young people we are working with-even through discouraging setbacks.
Making endurance a personal priority has special meaning for
me because it is this basic commitment that enabled me to stick it out in youth ministry. I didn’t have the stereotypical youth
ministry gifts-music, athletics, joke telling, speaking. I followed a youth minister who did, so naturally I was nervous about the comparisons against which I would look weak.

Nevertheless, I committed myself to the youth ministry. At the outset, I committed myself to seeing one generation through high school. There were plenty of failures, some hurtful moments, some times of doubting, but endurance has paid off. In the past tun years, I have seen students grow to be pastors, missionaries, effective husbands and wives, and solid Christians who are leading
others to Christ and discipling them. Perhaps I would have seen it happen in a shorter period of time, but for me, the joy of hearing “that my children are walking in the truth” (3 John 4) has made
every hour of endurance worth it.


Sticking with youth ministry for a long time has many positive

• Effectiveness with young people will increase because the students trust you. Students who have come to our youth group from other churches with unstable youth ministries have said, “It’s just good to know you’ll be here.”

• Results (a hard-to-find commodity in youth work) will become more apparent as those who have graduated return to join the youth team. When students come hack after two or three years of college and tell how essential the youth group was in their growth, it has motivated
me to keep working with teenagers.

• Parents will grow in their trust, which builds more continuity between family and youth ministry.

• Lay leaders will be trained over a period to time with one consistent philosophy and strategy of ministry. This allows for greater unity and long-term growth.

• The youth minister will be a professional who is, in effect, the church’s expert on adolescents.

As we commit ourselves to personal and ministry excellence, our organizational responsibilities will take on new meaning as we try to grow. As we commit ourselves to the development of a personal and ministry vision, our administrative responsibilities will become important because we can see where we are going and where we would like to go.

Our final commitment-the priority of endurance-will help us see our programming and management as a progressive task. We can look to the long-term results of weeks or years of ministry rather than to the “miracle-meeting” syndrome that expects everything to happen in one meeting or through one program.