Friend, it has been a long time since I was a new youth minister. But one of the glories of staying in ministry is getting to look back and see what has changed (which is almost everything) and what has not (the truly important things). If I could sit down with you and give you a list of everything you should expect to encounter, that list would be a mile long and would probably just keep growing the longer we looked at it.
Instead, I want to humbly offer some advice that I hope will shine a light on things that might be happening in your heart, and I want to encourage you in the things that might not yet make sense.
First, do not forget your first love. When the Apostle John wrote down his revelation to the seven churches, I wonder if he felt the conviction in the writing that we feel in the reading of it. Jesus speaks first to the church in Ephesus, “But I hold this against you. You have forgotten your first love. Remember the height from which you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first” (Rev. 2:4-5).
This passage is damning if you read it and then put your Bible down and walk away. Yet for those who sit with it, this passage points to something true and real about our hearts – we are prone to wander, to forget where we have come from, and to act like we can go the rest of the way on our own. Friend, let me warn you now, in ministry your pride will be your downfall. Cling to the humility that allows you to always be learning, rather than the prideful voice that says you should always be leading.
The Evil One will convince you the same way he convinced Adam and Eve. He told our first parents there was more than what God was offering them in their intimate relationship with him in the Garden. They believed they could be better without God. The truth is, they could not, and neither can you. The warning to “remember the height from which you have fallen” is a gift to our sinful pride that would tell us we are better for our students than Jesus is.
Secondly, don’t give into comparison – but give honor where it is due. In my first 3 weeks of being on church staff, I had 4 different meetings with parents who wanted to tell me everything the last guy did wrong. As we have hired additional staff for our youth ministry, the same has been true for them – and I was still on staff! Even if you are the first youth minister a church has hired, I doubt you’re the first in your city. Our culture of consumption leads many families to attend various churches for different events, which means there is a good chance your students have experienced at least some youth ministry outside of the one you are leading. Be prepared to be compared to the person who held the job before you, or perhaps to other youth ministers in the area.
You may have heard that “comparison is the thief of joy” – let me tell you now, it is. In the book of 1 Samuel, a young David approaches King Saul and volunteers to fight the Philistine giant, Goliath. After King Saul finally allows it, scripture tells us that “Saul dressed David in his own tunic. He put a coat of armor on him and a bronze helmet on his head” (1 Sam. 17:38). If you remember the story, you know the rest – David couldn’t wear another warrior’s armor, even if it did belong to the king. Instead God used him to win victory through the gifts and talents that David already possessed.
Friend, what was true for David is true for you as well! When we keep our eyes on our King Jesus we cannot help but be emboldened by the Holy Spirit to do the work we’ve been called to and to use the gifts we have been given. He has not given you man-made armor, but in his sovereignty he has bestowed you with gifts and talents that are exactly for your specific ministry and its time and place. Be faithful to the calling you have received. Not only will that faithfulness combat the jealousy of being compared, but will provide you courage as you lead students and their parents to look to Jesus more than to human leadership.
Meanwhile, it’s wise to spend time learning the history of the ministry you have inherited. Because of Jesus there will be beauty amidst the thorns. Be sure to honor those who have come before you in the way you speak about them to others.
Finally, seek gospel-centered community for yourself, even while you build it for your students. A gospel-centered ministry is one that is built on the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. By immersing ourselves in a gospel-centered community, we are being intentional to find rest in the perfect life Jesus lived for us, forgiveness in the death he died for us, and redemption and hope in his resurrection. Building a thriving, gospel-centered community for your students to be a part of may feel like second nature because we are made to be with other people, so of course community is a staple of every youth ministry! But while we work toward building relationships with and for our students, we often can neglect the call to be in a similar community ourselves.
Ministry is an incredibly lonely job. Period. So whatever your life stage, single or married, kids or no kids, be intentional to build a community inside and outside the church in which you are serving. Those inside the church will know your struggles and successes in a way that others won’t. Those outside the church can hold the struggles that you don’t feel comfortable sharing when you’ve disagreed with a fellow staff or church member. Jesus is not only better for your students than you are, but he is better (and actually the best) for you as well. Find friends that will remind you of that daily.
As you begin this new season to which God has called you, be intentional to set realistic expectations:
First, CELEBRATE! This is a beautiful calling you are stepping into!
Expect to love it.
Expect to question it.
Expect to mess up.
Expect to be wrong. Expect to be right.
Expect it to take a while to build community.
Expect your theology to grow and deepen. If you’ve been to seminary already, you did not learn everything. If you haven’t started seminary yet, know that you’re going to be learning a lot on the job. Our theology should never be stagnate. It is in fact a relationship with God, which means it should always be growing and shifting.
Expect to not always want to study God’s Word. Look for new ways of interacting and being “with” God.
Expect that people won’t always take you seriously, maybe due to your age, or to the unfortunate stigma that being a youth pastor is not a real job.
In all these expectations (whether ones you have put on yourself or others have put on you), know this to be true: You are not the Savior – your students need Jesus and so do you. I hope you will pursue him as your King, acknowledge your need for him daily, letting your students see it, and cling to him as your first love.