Lessons Learned During My First Year of Youth Ministry: Leadership Takes Time
I came into my first year of youth ministry with one goal at the top of my list: change the time and format of the ministry’s weekly gathering. To me, the wisdom of this change was self-evident. The downside was negligible. Nevertheless, I was prepared to be patient. I would gladly wait six months if necessary to get everybody on board with this simple adjustment.
It would be six years before the change was actually implemented.
Although a number of factors contributed to this surprising (to me!) timeline, one lesson stands out in particular now: effective leadership in youth ministry requires earning trust and building credibility. And that takes time.
On one level, I already knew this when I started out as a youth pastor. But I needed to grasp the logic underneath this leadership principle. Here are three key ideas that have helped me do just that.
There is a Difference Between Formal and Informal Authority
When I started to experience resistance to my proposed change, I felt frustrated because I thought I had the authority to execute such a change. After all, I wasn’t looking to amend the church’s doctrinal statement or add an article to the by-laws. And when I looked at my job description, it said things about casting vision for the high school ministry and integrating the ministry into the life of the congregation—the very things I was trying to do with the proposed change! Why weren’t parents and church leaders jumping on board?
I was experiencing a gap between my formal authority and my informal authority. My job description laid out certain things I had the power to do, but my brief tenure meant that people were still assessing my trustworthiness as a leader.
Larry Osborne, pastor of North Coast Church, makes the following observation about pastoral leadership: “The first thing that the people will want to know before they turn the reins over to a pastor is whether he is as committed to the church as they are.” Osborne points out that a new pastor’s bold ideas for change are likely to be resisted if people suspect he might not stick around long enough to deal with the challenges any changes might create. If this dynamic is at work with senior pastors, how much more should we expect to experience it in youth ministry, infamous as it is for high turnover among leaders?
Simply put, a youth pastor will be able to lead differently in year five than in year one, even if nothing changes in his or her formal job description. A track record is built. Trust grows. A personal commitment to the church is demonstrated over time. Rather than bemoan this reality, I had to learn to embrace it and patiently work within its boundaries.
The Youth Ministry Does Not Belong to Me
In my first year of youth ministry, I could have waxed eloquently about how the ministry operated under the authority of our church’s elders. I could have articulated with conviction that parents are the primary disciple-makers of their kids. But when resistance to my ideas came from these very people, it was all too easy for my heart to operate as if the high school ministry actually belonged to me.
In my frustration with the resistance to my proposal, I would mull over all the ways that I thought my investment in the ministry was greater than those who disagreed with me. This is my full-time job. I moved my family to this town for this work. I went to seminary. I have spent more time than they have thinking about this issue. These self-serving comparisons added up to one ugly but unarticulated belief: I deserve to have my way on this.
I came to see that congregational ownership of the youth ministry is not a necessary evil, nor an empty platitude. The youth ministry actually functions best when its priorities and direction are set by the congregation.
In his book, Sustainable Youth Ministry, Mark DeVries talks about the value of visioning documents for providing structure for a healthy youth ministry. These tend to be less effective, however, when they are the private creation of one individual mind (i.e. the youth pastor). He writes, “If a visioning process is to set the course for a youth ministry’s future, it will involve a broad group of stakeholders in the ministry, including teachers, youth leaders, elders, you and parents.” This is not to say that you have to get unanimous agreement from every stakeholder to move forward, but the base of support needs to be broader than the youth pastor.
In the end, seeing my proposal through required a lot of conversations, meetings, and incremental measures to show people it could work. Rather than viewing these as roadblocks to progress, I came to see them as a means to helping parents and church leaders embrace the change for themselves.
The Gospel Helps Me Lead like I Have Nothing to Prove
Underneath my frustration with the slow pace of change was a nagging insecurity about my abilities as a leader. If I was unable to push through my top priority for the youth ministry, maybe I simply was not a good leader. This insecurity meant that disagreement felt threatening, resistance felt insulting. Everything was a referendum on my competence as a youth pastor.
In Philippians 3:1-11, Paul talks about two kinds of righteousness: a righteousness that comes from me and my own effort, and a righteousness found in Christ. Paul’s great discovery was that the righteousness available in Christ was so far superior that any self-generated version was rubbish by comparison.
Paul does not try to hedge his bets by claiming both kinds of righteousness; he must let go of his “confidence in the flesh” (Philippians 3:4) in order to take hold of the riches of Christ’s righteousness. He says, “For [Christ’s] sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ” (Philippians 3:8-9).
It is tempting to doctrinally subscribe to justification by faith, while at the same time retaining a residual confidence in your own performance to make you “ok.” Too often, I was looking to my skills as a leader to justify me. The more I embrace the good news of the gospel, the more I can lead from a place of peace and freedom; I can lead like I have nothing to prove.
The more I no longer need to be justified by my success as a leader, the more patient I can be with the slow pace of change, the more candidly I can face my own shortcomings, and the more readily I’ll be able to incorporate the suggestions of others. In short, as the gospel frees me from needing to be an effective leader, it is actually empowering me to become a more effective leader.
And like so many things, this too takes time.
 Larry Osborne, Sticky Teams: Keeping Your Leadership Team and Staff on the Same Page (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010), 89.
Mark DeVries, Sustainable Youth Ministry: Why most youth ministry doesn’t last and what your church can do about it (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2008), 64.