I have to confess something: I’ve never had a class in youth ministry. I never went to Montreat or Triennium as a youth. If we want to play to stereotype, I can’t even play the guitar; I’m useless musically unless you care to wheel in a baby grand. I never intended to be engaged in youth ministry. I went to seminary planning to be an academic; I accepted a Lake Fellowship in Indianapolis intending to become a better preacher. I had different plans, but it happened that the job description for the call God placed in front of me included a short phrase: “Be a theological advisor to and oversee the youth program of the church.”
Youth ministry was the part of the job I dreaded as I packed my car up for the move south to a new city and new ministry 15 years ago, and yet I came to love it. I am not the first minister to land in an accidental vocation and I won’t be the last, so I’d like to share with you some lessons learned from my decade among the 12-18 year olds.
Get to know their parents.
“But wait,” you may be thinking, “I thought I was reading about youth ministry.” Yes, you are. But parents are entrusting their children to you and the ministry you lead at a formative and sometimes fragile time – for the parents and the children. They know (or they should know, at least) that their children will be developing questions about faith, sexuality, politics – the sorts of things that adults think about. So, they need to know your values and what you will generally be sharing with their children. They also need to know your boundaries – what you will and won’t share with them from your time with their children. My policy became that I wouldn’t share with parents what their youth shared with me unless it represented a danger to themselves or others. I also made it clear to the youth that neither would I lie to cover for them. I was their advocate and a friend, but I was an adult friend, and I was also a minister – and that meant carrying those identities together.
So get help! Recruit the most talented, engaging people in the church to be youth advisors.
I will readily admit it: I would have fallen flat in this aspect of my job if not for Katherine Lambert. She is the person you want your youth to grow up knowing. She is also a formidable force to be reckoned with. She is an elder of the church, and she cared passionately about keeping young people engaged through these years. She herself had good boundaries with the youth, but she also loved to have fun with them. I’m only writing in the past tense because she has hung up her spurs after 17 years as a youth leader. Which leads me to my next point: The best advisors aren’t necessarily the youngest adult members of the church. A key component to being a good youth advisor is the ability to have fun and share faith while remaining the adult in the room.
The best youth advisors also aren’t necessarily the most pious people in the room – in fact, the most pious people are sometimes insufferable youth advisors. The best youth advisors I’ve ever known have been strong but quiet in their faith and more than a little bit rebellious against stodgy structures – in other words, they are adults youth understand they can trust.
Let me share an anecdote from Katherine: She did that thing that most advisors do, namely, telling the youth that if they get in a fix, they can always call for help, any time day or night – no questions asked at the time of the call. Soon enough, a young member of the church engaged in underage drinking at a party and called her in the middle of the night to give him a ride home. She answered, agreed to pick up the young person, reminded him that how he explained the absence of his car to his parents was his responsibility and got the address. She says, “I got off the phone and thought to myself, ‘I agreed to drive him home, I didn’t agree not to embarrass him.’” So she drove over in her pajamas and pink bunny slippers and collected the suitably mortified and considerably intoxicated young man. At all times, she maintained appropriate boundaries: She would not lie to cover up for the young man, but she would help him extract himself from a dangerous situation.
Know your boundaries, enforce them and only work with other adults who have appropriate boundaries.
I have mentioned boundaries twice now – once in reference to the parents of youth, and now with reference to the youth themselves. Youth are notorious boundary pushers. Everything in their lives is changing – from their bodies to their curfews to their classes to their knowledge of self and others. With so much in flux, it is only natural that they push the limits of their situations. Not every youth will – but some will. This comes back to the line I wrote earlier: You and the advisors have to be the adults in the room. If you have the misfortune of having an advisor who systematically can’t do so, they must be contained and sidelined – and that may mean having to find allies with other youth advisors. You can’t all fail to be adults at the same time!
Know when to laugh.
Teenagers are goofy and they do funny things. Sometimes the right response is to laugh. Sometimes it is not. The key is to know the difference. Some of it is intuition, but if you get to know the youth themselves you will learn their tolerances. Youth ministry can be tremendous fun – and you may yourself be the subject of much laughter. I’ve never lived down driving all the way from Charlotte to the mountains of North Carolina after leaving my ski clothes in the trunk of my car in the church parking lot. I was the best-dressed skier on the slopes as I raced down the hill in Brooks Brothers wool slacks! And then there was another time when our rather progressive youth group wound up at a fundamentalist campground – and the kids were very much the odd ones out, which they learned to take with humor both during our program and afterwards as the differences were most surely exaggerated beyond reality!
And between us, some behaviors deserve to be laughed at – among the adults, when the youth are not present. Among the most amusing behaviors you will observe as an accidental youth minister is the reality that many youth genuinely believe that they are capable of putting one over on intelligent, engaged adults. The results of their attempts are often hilarious and harmless.
Know which ditch to die in.
Everything is not worth the battle. Young couples will try to break away from the group and sneak a kiss; this doesn’t call for public shaming, but it does call for bringing them back to the group and reminding them privately of the rules. It honestly didn’t bother me to foil the plans of attempted misbehavior and even let the kids think they got away with it sometimes – but in our youth group, there was a zero tolerance policy toward bullying behavior. They could laugh at the advisors and at me, but if you brought alcohol on a church trip, you had an instant ticket home at your parents’ expense. We would even take a little lip from frustrated adolescents, but outright lies were not allowed.
Be a tireless advocate and be frank with church leadership about what it costs to do good youth ministry.
You can’t build a good program without generous scholarship aid for youth and their families for whom activities are a financial hardship. And what’s more, churches value what they invest in and invest in what they value – so stick up for the youth program in the budgeting process or else plan to be a very effective fund-raiser – maybe both. Don’t be afraid to try things or to decline to do them again if they aren’t effective. Personally, if I never host another church garage sale, it’ll be too soon.
What I learned over time was this: Youth ministry requires the same energy, intelligence, imagination and love as any ministry, whether you trained for it for years, fell into by accident, or are somewhere in between. The skills you learn in ministering to youth are exactly the same skills you need in virtually every ministry: laughter, boundaries, collegiality and friendship, and clear understanding of what it takes to sustain the ministry.
Baron Mullis is senior pastor of Morningside Presbyterian Church in Atlanta.