“Oh, and it’s important for you to know that I don’t date interns; there won’t be anything romantic here” was one of the last things said to me in my first official meeting with the youth minister who was about to oversee my summer internship.
It caught me off guard: Was this a mandated part of my orientation? Had I given off a vibe that I was attracted to this man (when I most certainly wasn’t)?
I immediately questioned whether or not I had done something wrong or made an impression I wasn’t intending to make. There was no category for me yet that honored the reality that I wasn’t necessarily responsible for the assumptions and misunderstandings of others.
In fact, this youth minister struggled with boundaries on many levels, and he ended up resigning just weeks later after he was sent home from a mission trip due to some misconduct. I was newly graduated from college and incredibly excited to dive into the world of youth ministry. So when his position was offered to me mid-summer, I gave a resounding “yes!” and was on my way to an incredible journey.
Fast forward to almost nine years later. There are so many things I learned in my six years as a female youth minister in a church setting, and my hope is to offer up a little of my experience to shed some light on how to care for female youth workers in general. So the following is a short list of things I wish I had known, or wish others had been aware of, when I was in that position.
1) For the single woman, this position can be really isolating.
When you are spending upwards of 60 hours meeting with students, volunteers, and families in addition to planning lessons, talks, and retreats, it can become easy to forget that you are a part of the broader church community. The times other folks spend connecting with one another through small groups or other activities are often coopted by the need for you to lead small groups or run leadership meetings. And Sunday worship is almost always a time when you are connecting with kids instead of peers. Youth ministers often aren’t available to attend retreats or churchwide service opportunities because they overlap with youth events. What would it be like to consider them in the planning?
2) If you’re not married, it can become easy to become married to your ministry.
This relates to number one and involves learning the wisdom of boundaries in life and relationships. There can be both external (job-required) and internal (self-derived and potentially even subconscious) expectations of single folks to offer up more of their time than the married staffer due to a misunderstanding that they have “less responsibility” or “less relational demands” on their hands. Individually, it becomes essential to make sure you are in healthy, vulnerable, supportive relationships of your own (E.g. a small group which is life-giving to you), and to recognize how much of your time, energy, and emotion you are offering to your ministry. Are you able to make the time to date if you would like to? Are you still able to engage occasionally in fun, life-giving activities with your own friends and family? Are you able to have conversations with the person or people over you on staff about their expectations of your use of time throughout the week?
3) Knowing your wants and needs is extremely important.
This comes more from my own story (and out of my own background) than anything else, but I wish I had been more in touch with what I wanted and needed (emotionally, financially, and physically, even) throughout my time in ministry. The question of what the ministry needs should not always trump your own personal needs (E.g. if you have just experienced a loss in your family and need time to grieve), and as tempting as it can be to always “put yourself second,” it is actually not always the most repentant, God-honoring, or Holy-Spirit-trusting thing to do. Martyrism can be an easy pattern to fall into because it seems “selfless” and “godly.” But it is often rooted in a much deeper self-protective/sinful pattern of people-pleasing, ingratiation, or codependency.
4) Asking for help is not only crucial but Biblical.
This is where you must first be in touch with what you need to be able to ask for help with it (which may take the advocacy of your pastor/boss/supervisor/a counselor). You are not meant to carry the entire weight of a ministry on your own shoulders, and you are made to engage the other parts of the body as a whole to support the youth ministry. It can be helpful for supervisors/pastors to check in occasionally and ask what the needs of the ministry are at the moment.
A word on being a woman and asking for help: There is great cultural stigma attached to the word “needy,” and as a Christian people, we need to look for the ways God is redeeming this reality. We want to be a people who are first and foremost aware of our deep need for Jesus Christ. Let us celebrate the vulnerability of the woman who admits and shares her need in community with others. It can be one of the most courageous things she does.
5) Every child is not yours to save.
As tempting as it can be to want to be a part of revealing Jesus to each and every kid, you must remember that their salvation is not up to you. Your desire to love each of them and see them come to the Lord is honorable and beautiful; however, your repentance is found in trusting that God is in control, and that He loves each of them far more than you do.
6) Befriend the spouses, families, or significant others of those with whom you work.
One of the things I enjoyed the most in having male counterparts in youth ministry was the opportunity to get to know their spouses, children, and significant others. The people that mean the most to your co-ministers are as important to your ministry as they are: Love begets love. Getting to include families and significant others in the youth ministry is an exciting part of seeing the body come together.
7) Know your own story in relation to the opposite sex and be sure to involve a mentor in navigating those relationships.
It is essential to understand your own struggles in relating to the opposite sex, and to have an older, wiser, trusted friend/counselor/pastor help you navigate these issues. Our culture has almost no concept of intimacy that isn’t sexualized, and if you find yourself sexualizing the intimacy you share with a co-minister, the best thing you can do is 1) Recognize it, 2) Avoid shaming yourself for it and adopt a posture of curiosity about it instead, 3) Prayerfully seek out the assistance of someone who can work through it with you. Trust and authority issues with the opposite sex are other potential topics you may need to work through, and the more support you can have in the process (from friends, family, and your superiors), the better.
A note: This article is far more practical and action-based than I normally write, and it begs for the reminder that I was learning about these seven realities throughout my ministry in the church. It took mistakes, hard conversations, therapy, and more grace than I could have ever imagined to come to many of these conclusions, and I trust that the great Redeemer of all things messy is at-work in your ministry/church just as He was in mine throughout my time there. Remember: He often uses your failures in more profound ways than your perceived successes. This is the backward working of the gospel. Praise be to God.