The first ministry assignment I had was taking over for a student minister who had been in the position for over twenty years. He had developed a culture within the ministry, and he was highly regarded by the church. I bombed it because at twenty-five years old, with youthful ignorance, I wanted to move as far away as I could from that previous culture. I thought it was for good purposes: I wasn’t Bob*, and I wasn’t going to do ministry like Bob. Bob and I were thirty years apart in age, from different backgrounds, and had different philosophies of ministry. But my mistake was in moving away from the culture too fast.
One incident stands out in particular, after I’d been at the church for only six-months. Traditionally our student ministry had the same plan every summer: camp at a nationally recognized camp ministry, and a mission trip with a nationally recognized missions group. Both of these were good things, and they were opportunities many alumni of the student ministry could trace back to significant faith commitments they had made. But I saw these, along with some other long-held patterns as mere traditions, because I felt that people were putting too much value on things that weren’t totally necessary. And because I felt they were mere-traditions, and directly connected to my predecessor, I wanted to make a clean break, so I could form my own legacy of student ministry at the church.
The cat got out of the bag that I was already making plans for the next summer, and that it would not include these traditional trips. We would be going to a different camp ministry, and working with a different missions group in a new area. The backlash was immediate and harsh. There were ugly things put on Facebook, snide comments, angry parents demanding to know why I was messing up the student ministry, and a note left on my car (by a student who wrote the note on an old test from school, God bless him).
In hindsight, here are lessons I learned, and would invite newer youth pastors to consider:
I went too fast. I wanted to move away from things I viewed as mere-traditions in the church, and pushed things much quicker than I should have.
I didn’t build consensus. I had communicated my plans to a few people, but I never held the parent meeting to state the vision and provide clear explanations.
I took it personally. I got mad at people who didn’t buy in, thinking they were disloyal or part of the old-school sinking ship.
I was about me. I had gotten tired of being compared to the guy before me, having everything put under the microscope of how Bob did things. But this was a very self-centered approach.
So, if I were to write a letter to my twenty-five year old self, here is what I’d say:
Dear younger Scott,
Remember that you are called to equip the saints for ministry (Eph 4:11-12). You are not primarily an event-planner or babysitter, and it doesn’t matter if you get compared to the previous guy. Your calling is to equip them for life outside student ministry.
It will be helpful if you learn how to prioritize. If you walk into an emergency room with a gushing wound on your head, you’ll get seen before the guy with a broken pinky. In the same way, you need to prioritize what your ministry is about, and how you’ll address things. Stuff that is urgent needs to be dealt with quickly, but if it is not serious or threatening to the Gospel or health of the church, relax and take it slow.
Which leads me to my next point: Change is good, but have a plan and work slowly. SLOW DOWN! Unless there’s a moral or legal issue, most problems can be dealt with patiently. A finishing hammer and a sledgehammer will both put a nail in the wall, but one won’t leave a giant hole.
And, do build consensus. Don’t go out on the edge alone. Make sure you have a team of people (youth volunteers, pastoral staff, and especially parents) on board with what you’re doing.
Last but not least, focus your ministry on the essential things, and allow the peripheral stuff to take care of itself. Build your student ministry on teaching the Word, missions, and developing mature Christians, and use the events, camps, and other stuff as means towards those ends.
Your wiser, older self