Youth Minister, You Need to Empower Lay Leaders

Within a semester of becoming our church’s first youth minister, I single-handedly dissolved the structure of the youth group and got close to spiritual burnout. All with the best of intentions. All while smiling…until, of course, I wasnt smiling. Heres how it happened.

The church was only two years old at the time, and the youth ministry was already flourishing thanks to a group of committed lay leaders. I was hired to lead the leaders, expanding the bandwidth of a team that was feeling stretched. I mean, the math is simple: 1 + 1 = 2, right?

Unfortunately, the math ended up looking like this: 1 + 1 = 0.

With the best of intentions, I took over. Brandishing a brand-new MDiv and brimming with a heart full of love for the students—eager to see them discipled and unleashed—I essentially stole the baton from the leaders and ran the race I set before me.

The effects werent obvious at first. As I became the center of everything, those nearest me were growing in their faith. Both students and parents appreciated my work. And the leaders did appreciate the burden off their shoulders of preparing studies and hosting at their houses week after week. They had busy lives! But then…these leaders started dropping out one by one. With perfectly sound reasons.

I think I could find more use in a different ministry now.”

Thanks for leading, Justin—I think my season here is over. Time for the next chapter!”

With very few leaders remaining, I really started to feel the weight of the ministry. But the students felt the loss most of all. Most weren’t being discipled. What God had intended to be an addition to the youth group (i.e. me!) became its chief limiter. If a student was inside my direct sphere of influence (one who either felt pursued by me or made sure to sign up for every function, retreat, and mission trip), then he or she flourished. But everyone else withered. It was like trying to water 100 plants with a single cup of water. How could I get more water?

It wasn’t until our lead pastor sat me down and (graciously) shot me straight that I understood the way my leadership was limiting the spiritual nurture of our students. I was humbled. Embarrassed, even. Yet, at the same time, I experienced a rare sense of freedom and hope. There was a way to “water” more students than ever—by reengaging the leaders who had been faithfully discipling our students. There is hope for you, too. Here are four truths for empowering lay leaders in your ministry.

Its okay to multiply yourself.

Dont be shy. God has gifted you: to each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good” (1 Cor. 12:7). You are the minister for a reason. God isnt wishing it were someone else. What a disservice to him to not recognize and lean into the unique strengths hes given you. What a missed opportunity to neglect to sow those gifts into others. In the areas youre strong, seek to fortify those God has placed around you.

At the same time, recognize that God has also limited you. At the end of the day, you only have five loaves and two fish. Jesus didnt disciple a thousand people. In His humanity, he had the bandwidth for twelve. But think even of that! He didnt hit the rabbinic preaching scene as a lone ranger. He multiplied himself. Then those twelve took on disciples of their own. So while you cant disciple your whole youth group, you can multiply yourself by investing in other disciple-making leaders.

Equipping leaders is just as important as equipping students.

Your leaders are your ministry, too. I’m sad to say that at the start, I saw our lay leaders as optional at best and as a hindrance at worst. What pride and folly!

When Paul commanded Timothy to equip the saints for the work of ministry” it was for building up the body of Christ” (Eph. 4:12). We equip the saints for their vocations and homes, yes—but also for them to build up the local church. A mentor of mine once said, Justin, even if youre never an elder, be a man qualified to be one.” Similarly, Ill offer this challenge: Even if your lay leaders never serve in vocational youth ministry, equip them to run a youth ministry. That mindset will bless everyone involved.

Your leaders have different awesomes” than you do.

Yeah, I made up that word. Here’s my point: Like Paul you can become all things to all people (1 Cor. 9:22). But you are not all things to all people, at all times, everywhere.

Personality types are real factors. So are life stories and experiences. The lay leader who played college baseball, or was adopted, or loves Fortnite—he or she is going to relate to niche kids at a level you just cant based on your own story and interests. Dont block Gods providential work by thrusting yourself into every relationship. Practically, encourage youth leaders to pursue the students they naturally vibe with.

You follow Jesusexample (and humility) by delegating.

You and I are expendable. There, I said it. God doesnt need you or me to accomplish his plan. And yet…here we are. Laboring away. Thats because he has humbly delegated the task to us. Hed do it better than we will. Surely then we can delegate students, details, and plans to our leaders. It will humble us. Because we’ll need to die to self. Some things wont be done our way. While some things will likely be done far better than we would do them, others may not be done as well. And yet, somehow (it really is a mystery!), itll all be grander. Such is the beauty of an apprenticeship with Jesus.

Zooming in, this is a story of a mistake I made early on in ministry. By no means have I arrived,” but I have grown. All of us need to zoom out every once in a while—because this is also a story of a humble God who doesn’t hoard the work. He not only delegates it, but graciously invites us to labor on while tethered to him. Hear his words anew: “Come to me all who labor and…take my yoke upon you, and learn from me” (Matt. 11:28-29).

So if you’ve got a white-knuckled grip on your ministry like I did—even with the best of intentions, clear giftings from the Lord, and a heart filled with love for the next generation—you’re safe in Jesus’ kingdom of grace to admit it.

Look to Jesus’ model, and then relax and release some things to others. Our Lord wasn’t kidding when he said, “Whoever believes in me will also do the works that I do; and greater works than these will he do” (John 14:12). I believe this is true, in part because of delegation.

When we do things Jesus’ way, both our ministries and our souls will benefit.

Justin Talbert serves as the Student Pastor at Christ Community Church in Little Rock, Arkansas. He received his MDiv from Covenant Theological Seminary. Justin and his wife, May, have three sons: Soren, Aksel, and Isen. He loves reading fiction, writing non-fiction, and living somewhere in the middle. You can find him providing small, daily wins for dads with their sons on his Instagram: @sonfortified.

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