What is REALLY worth my time in student ministry?

What is worth my time in student ministry?Last week Adam McLane posted a short video where he challenges youth workers to step back and reconsider where we spend all our time, and if it really matters. Since I’ve been struggling through a lot of those thoughts anyway, I decided to take his challenge and publicly state how I spend some of my time in youth ministry and evaluate each task on a scale of, “Absolutely worth my time; it changes lives” to, “Not worth my time; it does not change lives.” Of course, this list is not exhaustive — I stopped listing things after it was a page long.

My goal in this was: 1) to refocus on how I can best spend the limited and valuable time I have with teens while they’re still in jr. high and high school; and 2) to find what was in common with the tasks I felt change lives and use that common denominator to help focus and refine the ministry for our big launch in the fall. Not surprisingly, most of the things in the “Absolutely worth my time” category are relational and are not task-oriented.

You may disagree with how I rated some of my tasks, and that’s fine. I go back and forth on some of them myself. If you and I were able to sit down and have a face to face conversation, you could hear my heart and why I evaluate some things the way I do. For most of them, I just went with my first gut reaction without wrestling back and forth a whole lot. Otherwise, it would get way too complicated.

Regardless, I’d love to hear your reaction to some of the tasks below. How would you rate them for you and your ministry? What day-to-day ministry items are totally worth your time and what items are just busy-work to appease tithers, your sr. pastor, or even yourself?

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Posted on April 29, 2009

  • Bill

    I agree with your assessment that the most important things are relationships, but I think that you forget that some of the things you marked as "Not worth your time" are things that set up those relationship building times. If you don't do the office work, or the prep time, then you'll find that those relationship times suffer. So, its important to balance the time.

    • I actually didn't forget that. I'm just wondering WHY those things are necessary for setting up the relationship building time. Teenagers don't naturally do any of those things among themselves with their own peer groups, yet their relationships are more organic than the ones we try to put together at church. Maybe those things are only necessary for trying to build relationships inside a program-driven youth ministry. With our current approach to youth ministry, yes, many of those things are necessary, but maybe we need to make deep-rooted changes to our approach that would make the relationships more authentic, since that's what really changes lives.

      • Bill

        I understand what you're saying, and I think you're right to an extent. You're right that teens don't naturally plan out friendship times, but that is because most of the opportunities for kids to develop friendships as they grow up (playdates, daycare, church, school, sports) are planned and provided by someone else. Kids dont usually walk down the street befriending anyone they meet, and as teenagers get older they usually don't as well. Their friendships happen naturally (meaning no one is forced to be friends) but they don't happen without effort by someone (even though for the most part those times are not inherently meant for relationships).
        Someone needs to do the prep work so that life change happens. I know you're not arguing against that or anything. I am not wedded to a programming philosophy, and as a matter of fact just preached a sermon on using our gifts to change lives for Christ. Yet, at some level the prep work needs to be done, whether or not it is program driven or relationship driven.
        I think we're arguing the same side of the coin, though, in that we are saying that our programs are not the be-all-end-all to ministry. I don't think you can go wrong investing your time in people.

        • I think it used to be true that kids connect through planned events that are provided by someone else, and even today it's still true to a certain extent, but I don't think it's as necessary as it used to be. Even 15-20 years ago teens relied mostly on communicating whenever they were face-to-face, which placed a lot more value on youth events because the only time they'd see or talk to a certain friend from another school was at church. But that's changed a lot. Now kids are in constant contact, have various ways to communicate, more and more of them have their own transportation, and even those who don't can easily find ways to get to the places they want to be. It's not uncommon for teens to start text messaging each other at 10 PM on a Friday night to start figuring out their plans for the evening, which may change 5 times even over the course of the night.

          My idea is that it could be far more effective to be included somehow when those text messages start flying at 10 PM, maybe by having a kid on the "inside" who keeps you in the loop and includes you with their peers as a join effort to reach them for Christ. I'm still thinking through a lot of that, but I wonder if that would work — to join their world and bring Christ into it, teaching through your experiences together.

          Granted, youth events can still connect kids who otherwise would never meet, but I'm wondering if kids really need youth events for the purpose of connecting and building relationships.

          (BTW, thanks for thinking through this with me, Bill! I appreciate your questions and insights that push me to think deeper about these issues.)

          • Bill

            No problem. I love thinking through stuff like this. And, I know that our modern church setup is designed not to help people grow closer to Christ but because thats how its been done for centuries. We can do things better, but are we doing them the way Christ wants.
            The next question is, do we continue to work "within the system" or tear it all down and start anew? And where do we go with either option?

  • Eric

    wow Tim, you got me thinking about this now too….gee, thanks. (jk)

    Regarding some of the "not worth your time" items, I wonder if there is a way to turn those "unfulfilling" jobs/tasks into a potential relationship building one by involving others in the process – specifically some key students. For example, involve a student or two in some of the video editing/development, flyers, or emails and use that as a means to build relationships with them, and opportunity for more conversation or discussion. I've seen how this has helped ease my frustration with this sort of 'mundane' stuff, while also get students involved in ministry, AND get to know students on a deeper level.

    • Yeah, I already do a lot of that kinda stuff. But I go back to my main question, "Why continue it at all if it doesn't change lives?" I am not married to anything in our ministry — anything and everything is game for elimination. I know a lot of these things youth ministries traditionally do because we're program-oriented, task-driven ministries that (let's be honest) mostly evaluate ourselves based on how many people are participating. All of us know, however, that just because people are enrolled in programs or involved at church doesn't mean they're actually growing spiritually because of it. Busyness in church does not equal spiritual growth. So let's be brutally honest and evaluate everything, not just the programs, but the values, methods, and reasons behind everything we do and strip the ministry down to, "What changes lives?" and rebuild from there. The tricky part is that ultimately there's NOTHING we can DO to change lives — it's 100% a work of the Holy Spirit. So the question becomes, "How can we beset partner with the Holy Spirit and create an environment that is most conducive for His work?"

      If you're as discontent with youth ministry as I am, then you're not content to just make little surface changes like delegating the same things to new people and hope that impacts the people in your ministry, ya know?

  • Thankful

    Great food for thought!

    I am a parent and youth ministry volunteer. What actually made me sad, was your unsurety of the value in preparing the lessons… I do realize it is a thankless job but there is SO much eternal value in them. On a personal level, just the time you spend with God in that can be the best "quiet time" moments as well as the study/research time and the opportunity for God to speak to you & reveal more of himself and truths through that time. If you follow Jesus's model of ministry – his time was spent teaching/preaching to the masses as well as the small groups & individuals. If there was little worth or life changing value in that, I don't think Jesus would have made that such a big priority. My kids, our students and I have all had some really great revelations as well as valuable equipping through the teaching our youth pastor's lessons. My walk with God, understanding of who he is and my relationship with God and consequently my ability/capacity to disciple others is a direct result of what I learned from my youth pastor's teachings!

    • My push-back against teaching lessons isn't that I find them invaluable, it's just that I'm not convinced that the way we currently teach God's Word is the most effective way of doing it.

      Think back to every life-changing period if your life. If you're like most people, it wasn't due to a sermon you heard or even a discussion at some small group meeting. People's lives are shaped by experiences, and unfortunately, usually the negative ones. So my thinking is that I want to be more intentional about capitalizing on either creating experiences or being invited in to the ones kids are already having, and then using those experiences as opportunities to integrate God's Word. I'm not really sure how to do that right now, but I do know that as I hear 56 jr. high testimonies from my ministry over the past couple weeks, not one of them mentioned as sermon or a lesson I taught as being the life-changing moment in their walk with Christ — it was always someone who entered into an experience and spoke God's Truth into it.

      That's not to say we eliminate large teaching times or even small group discussions — it's just that I'm unsure that they have the incredible amount of value (and time) churches place on them, in comparison to what I've described here.

      • Thankful

        You make a vaild point in that the "WAY" we teach is important! It is important to take into account my perspective based on how I have experienced "lessons" to be. Cadre Ministries has some great tools/training on how to teach effectively and relevantly. And my youth pastor's teaching is not "preaching" but active & relational learning… I can't think of a time where her lesson was not in some form kinetic as well as interactive discussion whether as a group or in small breakouts. It is the experience that drives the message home. To encourage you… my youth pastor has developed some great relationships by choosing a small group to shepherd them to become leaders through training & modeling for them effective ways to plan lessons, study God's word and then make it applicable to their audience. That CAN be life changing.

      • Thankful

        Oh and I did want to clarify that my response was not to beat you up, but to encourage you that your time is not wasted by investing in planning and that there are some great opportunities, value and relationships that can come from using your time in that area. (I do get that you aren't necessarily calling a "waste" of your time & that you are just tyring to prioritize what is most effetive). How you prepare may just need to be re-shaped to be more effective. I have seen or heard of many occasions where our students have taken what they learned & used some of the same lessons in the groups/clubs that they have either started or a part of on their campuses.

  • jamie

    Hey Tim,

    I've been struggling with this as well as I'm planning for next year. (as I would assume most of us are).

    There are things that we do that "run a ministry". Things that deal with in a large part with communicating the ministry. Those things don't directly change the lives of students but they communicate what the ministry is about, what happens in the ministry with I would hope sooner or later does good things for the ministry….and in turn come back around to add to the changing to student's lives.

    So I'm stuck here trying to analyze what's important and not important as far as what are the most important things to be doing….then do the other things fall off the plate, do those other things get delegated to others because they still need to be done?

    Youth ministry seems so simple…but it quickly get's complicated…..WHY?

    • Again, I'm thinking that the way we "run a ministry" has to change. (See my reply to Eric above.) If we keep going on the same track we're going, then yeah, we're using a lot of our time to run programs and get keep kids involved, which doesn't necessarily lead to life change. It does for some, but that admittedly a very low percentage in my youth ministry. We hear, "Well, if only one person comes to Christ, then it's all worth it." Yes and no: I'm glad that one person came to Christ, but I'm not content with only one person! And I don't think Jesus is either. For the number of people we have in our church who claim to be fully-devoted followers of Christ, we should see a LOT more than just one person come to Christ or experience life-change every couple weeks, right? I mean, God wants people to come to him and experience life-change even more than we do! In a sense, He wants every church to grow to capacity and overflow its building, not just get stuck in the same ol' same ol' being content with lots of busyness that keeps a ministry running.

      So again, I'm evaluating youth ministry from a much deeper perspective.

  • I'm going out on a limb here and share my first thoughts about lesson prep being under the "Unsure" column. I agree with the previous poster on their thoughts. I know for me as a teacher/speaker my time spent prepping those lessons/ messages help me to dive in and grow deep myself before I even convey it to the students. That time I put into the lesson prep has also become a tremendous tool that builds the relationships I have with students. You mentioned under the "Absolutely worth your time" that you "Facilitate theological discussions among teens" but how can we do that if we're not teaching it and we can't teach it unless we prep for it.
    I think this is a good post but I just don't agree that prepping lessons should be under the "unsure" column. :)

  • PJ.

    thanks for being honest man. maybe you can put "putting on a front to make sure no one thinks differnetly of me" on the not worth your time pile :P

    • lol! That one didn't even cross my mind, actually, but you're right. I honestly feel I'm pretty straight-up about most things, which is usually a good thing, but sometimes it gets me in trouble, too. ;-)

  • Some things may not directly be a great spiritual value but they have to be done to facilitate things of spiritual value happening. Such as screening volunteers… Having volunteers is good. Sending a sex offender to a lock-in is bad. So, logically, screening volunteers would be a good task…
    The issue is whether or not it has to be done by you.

    Side note: I struggle with delegating the tasks I hate to do. I feel bad asking for people to do them. For example, I have a lady that serves who is a secretary and LOVES tracking receipts. I cannot comprehend that and feel so guilty asking her to do anything. She keeps asking for more and says she feels useful and enjoys it. Tough for me to delegate that kind of stuff to her.

    • Yeah, you're right — some things aren't life-changing but still necessary, like screening volunteers. I put that in the "does not change lives" category, though, because it ultimately does not change lives. I promise we'll keep that one in place, though. :-)

      And BTW, I delegate almost everything that doesn't have to be done by me. i.e. event planning, fundraisers, phone calls, keeping track of stuff, etc. My list above is more things that are a part of our ministry that I'm responsible for and is it worth our time investment, not necessarily things that I personally administrate myself.

  • Yeah, I hear ya, Brian. Check my response to "Thankful" above.

    As for lesson prep being a good time for personal devos, I personally think lesson prep and personal time with the Lord should be separate. That doesn't mean I can't have personal times with the Lord while doing lesson prep, but that shouldn't consist of my only time with the Lord. Otherwise, my time with the Lord is focused on a task of putting together an outline that's ultimately an assignment I need to complete to teach to others. I like having prep time and personal time separate so God can do whatever He wants and show me anything He wants to without me feeling like I have to accomplish something with the time as an assignment for my job, ya know?

  • Also thought I'd mention that I went through this list with the pastors at my church in a meeting yesterday. It might be a good idea to do that, especially before making any major changes to how you spend your time.

  • Tim, thanks for putting it out for all of us to see. Good post to challenge us. I will be doing this at the end of May. The staff at our church is doing a time in motion study together for the month to evaluate our time. It's good to see how I will be able to punch those numbers in for effectiveness after I am done. Taking it to the Next Step!

  • Great stuff as always Tim. Really feeling the same way about much of what you have on this list. So how do we make the necessary changes in order to better connect with teens? How do we better model a life that is being transformed by Christ that will speak much louder than any message we could speak?

    • I dunno, Kevin. I'm still thinking through a lot of this. Fortunately, there's several other people around me who are, too, including the pastors on staff at my church who are thinking about a lot of this within their own ministry context. Other youth pastors in my community feel the same way. I know there's a lot of push-back around here (and online, too) from people who have never thought of youth ministry outside the box of the church busyness they're used to, but that's okay. We'll keep praying, thinking, trying new things, and do our best to follow the Lord to the best of our ability. I really think He's making us discontent for a reason.

  • Julie

    I haven't had a chance to read through all these comments (I will come back!), but I am brand new (6 weeks in) at a new church and am considering printing out something like this to hand to my senior pastor BLANK to gain an understanding of what things HE values in my position and then compare results. My senior pastor is very vision and relationship oriented and so I think this could be a good tool for gauging expectations and starting the conversation not of what my position has been in the past but what it should be for our changing church. But… something in me is hesitating on wondering if it is wise to jump into this? Thoughts ?

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