This month back in 2007 I drove to Memphis to meet with a church that I'd been talking with for a few weeks. During that weekend I met with church leadership, the student ministry, and got a lay of the land. It all capped with a "trial sermon" where I shared my vision and dream for the student ministry. I was 25, inexperienced, and really hoping things went well (this was the position I'd prayed for so Carrie and I could finally live in the same city!) to start a new chapter in God's work in my life.
Reflecting back on that 8 years later, there's so much I wish I could tell young dumb 25 year old me what 33 year old slightly-graying me has learned over the years. These 7 suggestions are more than that, I really believe these are helpful for anyone getting a start in student ministry.
Hold tightly your convictions, loosely your methods - Your convictions are your deeply held beliefs that ground the philosophy of your ministry. Stick to those, because they are your rudder to keep your ministry going towards what God has called you to. For our student ministry, they have shaped our core values: We teach the Bible systematically, we raise leaders, we develop a culture of missions, and we build Gospel-focused relationships. Methods are how you get to your convictions, and those change. I think student ministry has an 18-month shelf life on methods. What worked 10 years ago probably won't work now. I saw that play out on a college campus, where free food wasn't enough to draw a crowd. I remember commenting that in 2000 when I was a college freshman you could've gotten me to show up to anything with food. Always evaluate the effectiveness of your methods. And don't love them enough that you keep doing the same thing and expect different results. Be open to change, and don't be scared to revise and change what you're doing--so long as your end game is the same.
Be comfortable saying no - I wrote on this earlier. You can't do everything, be everywhere, or try everything. You have to know the difference between what's good and what's great, and be willing to say no to the good so you can say yes to the great. One pastor I served under said after his retirement "I wish I'd done less so I could have accomplished more." It also matters how you calendar and plan things, which is an important step in learning the difference between good and great.
Pick your battles - Not everything is worth stirring up a stink for. Sometimes you have to let things slide and let time work its problems out. I have a few things I'll fight for: sound theology, purity, and missions. When The Shack came out, I came out strongly opposed to it because of its heretical portrayal of God. I remember the disappointment and some anger when I announced we'd no longer use NOOMA videos in our student ministry. Those were worth fighting over because there were major doctrinal elements involved. It's not always worth it though. I almost got fired for making a statement against teenage dating. Probably not worth fighting over in hindsight. So choose wisely, and lean on your parents, volunteers, and pastor for wisdom to know what's worth it and what's not.
Be the champion for parents - "Mom and dad say I shouldn't listen to this CD, what do you think?" I remember that question clearly, and I remember my response as clear "As long as you live under their roof and they're paying your bills, do what they say. I'm not ever going to go against your parents, unless they want you sacrificing cats or something." Parents, especially of teenagers, do not have an easy job. You were a teenager once, remember all you put your parents through? Build a library of resources and communicate that to them regularly (I use our email newsletter to send links to articles on marriage, parenting, technology, trends, etc.), pray for them, and give them encouragement or affirmation.
Support your pastor - Your pastor is dealing with stuff you can't even imagine. When you're over every ministry area, there's no one else to pass the buck to. Chances are he's fighting discouragement, he's stressed, and he's feeling overwhelmed. Make it a point to pray for him on a regular basis, and occasionally with him. Be his champion to critics. Don't even entertain gossip or dissension. And if you hear it, rebuke it. It won't be fun, but your pastor needs it. Be available to make hospital visits and the other daily activity in ministry. I did my doctoral work on the pastor/associate dynamic, and the healthiest and most effective leadership teams were the ones that had a solid foundation with the pastor.
Keep reading - Finishing seminary isn't an excuse to quit reading. You need to keep yourself in the literature, attend professional growth experiences, and network. Find out what other student pastors and church leaders are reading, and keep sharpening your mind and heart to be a more effective pastor. Revisit the books you once read that really shaped you (Desiring God and Knowing God are two of mine), and ask your church if they would pay for you to subscribe to journals/magazines on student ministry (Youth Worker Journal is a great one).
Remember to keep your family first - I'm going to be blunt. You're not that important to your church, your students, or your ministry calendar. You are that important to your spouse and kids. The church can always find another student minister, but your kids can't find another mom/dad, and your spouse can't replace you. Don't sacrifice your family on the altar of ministry. Two things I've learned to do on this are 1) Let my wife take the last look at the quarterly schedule, 2) Involve my boys in student ministry activities. I want my wife to see the schedule to catch any blind spots, over-extensions, or to catch any dates we may be double booked! And I want my boys involved because I want them to love ministry and see why Daddy does what he does--to tell the "Big Kids" about Jesus.
Scott M. Douglas
A blog about leadership and the lasting legacy of family ministry.