A few years back I had a conversation that really impacted me, and caused me to ask some tough questions about how I viewed my role as a youth minister from a kingdom perspective. One of our shepherds asked if I knew why one of our senior girls had not been around in a while. I explained that she had become involved with the youth ministry at her boyfriend’s church. I then went into further detail explaining that she was still regularly attending church services, there was no bad blood between us, and judging from our last conversation, she was doing really well from a spiritual standpoint. I was very clear that she was not a ‘senior dropout’, she was simply at another church.
This did not seem to ease the concern of the shepherd. He asked me if I could, “get her back before we completely lose her”. I asked him what he meant by this, and he said very bluntly, “we want her here”. I asked him about the boyfriend and he responded, “try and get him here too”.
I was kind of surprised by the serious change in tone. I also wanted to be very clear on what he was saying. “So it’s okay if the boyfriend comes here, but it’s not okay if she goes there?”
We headed off to our perspective classes, but those words stuck with me. Over the past few years that conversation has been a linchpin in a major attitude shift in my ministry. When we were starting from scratch last year, I knew that I did not ever want to have that conversation again. It took me a while to put the reasons for that feeling into words. What helped with that realization came from completely separate conversations I was having at the time.
Not long after the conversation with the shepherd I was approached by one of the other youth ministers in town. He came into my office one day and introduced himself. That day we had a great conversation about faith, life as a youth minister, and he let me know of a network of local youth minsters that was forming, and offered me an invite. This was the guy who ‘stole’ my senior girl. He comes from a much larger church, a much larger youth ministry, and was supposed to be my competition for students. The only problem is that he is an awesome Godly man, and a phenomenal youth minister. I quickly realized that I no longer wanted to have an attitude of competition with him, I would much rather be a friend. After all, we are both on the same side.
A few weeks later I had a conversation with another local youth minister. God had been pulling on my heart for a while to meet this guy. He’s another phenomenal youth minister with talent to spare. His youth events attract a lot of students from the area, sometimes that includes other churches. Some of our students had been to their events and had come back with ‘why can’t we be like _______’ questions that used to fastpass me into jealousy mode. After spending just a few minutes with him I came clean that I needed to apologize. I had viewed his ministry as competition and I didn’t want to do that any more. We talked for a while, and the more I shared the more I felt God comforting my heart. The feelings that had been wrestling material for the soul transformed into the words that I needed to say to release me from that competitive spirit of ministry.
A few months later all of our youth ministries participated in an event for every local church in the area. I remember standing by these guys (and a few other new youth ministry friends) during the worship time and feeling like this was how youth ministry was supposed to feel;
We are allies, not competitors.
Over the past year or so, our group of local ministers has continued to meet, and grow closer to each other. We’ve also worked on a couple of big projects together. They have become more than just a group of friends or coworkers for me, their presence, spirit and passion for youth ministry have benefited my youth ministry tremendously. They are assets.
Here are a few thoughts, suggestions, and lessons I’ve learned when it comes to creating allies and assets that might be of use:
-Don’t play the numbers game. Different churches of different sizes all serve the same purpose; to bring people closer to God. Period. Judging another youth ministry by their numbers is like judging a person’s faith by their height. It really doesn’t make much sense.
-Find the common ground. Doctrine, methodology, programming, etc… there are so many ways to divide and categorize churches. I love talking with the different men and women from our group about their beliefs etc in a one-on-one setting, but when it is time for us to come together, we all strive to focus on the common bond we have through Christ and youth ministry. What’s cool about this, is when we do work together on a project I find we agree on almost all of the weightier matters of the law, it’s the subtle nuances that provide our diversity.
-Learn, do not copy. I cannot recreate the (very successful) programming from the church down the street. We have different students, families, needs and working conditions. We have a completely different ministry model, and look to meet similar goals in somewhat different ways. I have learned to ask questions and seek advice from other ministers, but in the end, I am responsible for leading our program in the context of our church. Trying to duplicate another youth ministry will inevitably lead to unhealthy comparisons, and competition. ‘Who can do this ministry model better?’ is not a question that needs to be answered.
-Utilize each others’ gifts. One friend has become my go-to guy for questions about building a healthy structure. Another has performed with his band at our church. Another friend has become a great resource when it comes to discussing practical (is there impractical?) theology. Yet another simply listens to me rant, and has helped me process a lot of big decisions over the past year. I try and give back to these guys as well. I’ve spoken at a youth event for one, and have another lined up in a few weeks. I’ve provided art work for another, and I still consider myself indebted to the others.
-Keep an open mind. We might not agree on everything, but I’ve never met a group of people who did. Hearing another attitude or perspective causes growth, even when you don’t necessarily agree.
-Lastly, recognize that there may be another youth minister, or youth ministry out there that is better quipped to meet the needs of a particular family or student. It’s tough for me to admit sometimes, but our youth ministry program isn’t the best option for everyone in our community. Recognizing that the other youth ministries in town are also outposts for the Kingdom takes a huge burden off my back to create a program that pleases everyone. It’s also a huge blessing to be able to meet someone who is plugged in at another church and say, “I know the youth minister there, he/she is awesome”.
If you are interested in starting, or becoming a part of a local network, please check out the National Network of Youth Ministries.
One love, one heart.