There is nothing quite like being young, idealistic, and naive. Let’s face it, this is a fair way to describe most people in their first full time job out of college (or at least when it’s in their intended career path). Despite the number of grey hairs on my head, I have a rather vivid memory at times of my first few years as a youth director in a large church. It’s vivid in part because I was rather out of my league and I knew it. What 5000+ member church hires a rookie straight out of college when they could hire a veteran of at least five years? By God’s grace and design, this one did and I was the beneficiary. But now I am wandering off track and what I really want to accomplish here is to offer some suggestions of how we survive and thrive in these first few years. I am not sure they are in order of importance, but rather the order that they came to mind.
First, read every good book on youth ministry that you can. Few people have the luxury of a youth ministry degree (and I suspect it’s not really as beneficial as people believe) and so you are learning on the job. If you are not reading at least one youth ministry book per month, I’d say you are in danger. I would add to that reading books on leadership. Ask your supervisor and Senior pastor (if they are not the same person) to recommend leadership books to you. My Senior pastor was fond of books by Max Dupree and I learned a lot from them. It’s wise to understand leadership in the same way that your current leaders understand it. In doing this reading, remember that it’s for the development of your ability to lead students. So, don’t hesitate to include it in your daily office time. Too often we don’t think reading books is legitimate time spent in the office, but it is! Two things will emerge from reading books on youth ministry and leadership. One is a vision for what you intend to see happen. The other is a strategy to accomplish that vision. Without vision and strategy you are dead in the water!
Second, find a mentor or two and meet with them regularly. When you meet, ask lots of questions and bounce things off of them. I had a unique situation in that a former Young Life Area Director was on our staff heading up young adult ministry. I found myself in his office often and was able to call him at times just to say “here is my situation, what do I do?” He was more than eager to pour into me. I am not sure if he was just flattered by the opportunity or saw it as a chance to shape someone, but that did not matter. He was there for me. I also had a YFC director who attended our church and headed up a ministry that was vastly different from mine. Our conversations were incredible because he understood my situation well and he was many years older than I (and wiser).
Third, find out what your church leaders are excited about and figure out how it relates to your ministry. You need to be on the same page as the church leaders and what they are excited about should excite you. So if it’s evangelism and outreach, start figuring out how to do that with students. If it’s missions, direct some of your energy to youth missions. Your supervisor and the leadership of the church will be a lot more excited about you if they see that you are engaged in the things they are most passionate about.
Fourth, learn what the expectations of you are and work to fulfill them. In my first position, the church’s real desire was to see numerical growth. I had to make that a priority, and given my own conscience, I had to do that without sacrificing substance. We periodically created events to draw large numbers that I could report at staff meetings. I also reported on deeper growth taking place in the lives of students. If you are not meeting expectations, there is no reason that the church will keep you around. If you are not pursuing what the church leaders are excited about, you will soon be looking for a new job.
Finally, build strong relationships with key leaders in your church. Let them hear from you personally about your vision for the youth ministry and passion for students. Solicit their feedback on it as well. It may be that they already hear from your boss about what a great job you are doing, but that cannot be assumed! The elders, board or vestry members need to hear from you personally and unless you regularly get to report directly to them, you will need to make an extra effort to connect. I have met too many youth ministers who lost jobs because the top leadership group in the church did not see their effectiveness or relevance despite the pastor’s support. In the Anglican Church, the Rector is the only one who really needs to believe in you, but as soon as he is gone, the vestry will cut your job if they don’t see your importance. In other denominations the pastor does not have that power to keep staff regardless of what the board thinks. So, set up some lunch or breakfast meetings and share your vision and passion with the key leaders of the church