What Would I Do Differently If I Started in Youth Ministry All Over Again

my newest column for Youthwork Magazine (UK) is now in print. hope this stirs your thinking. what would you do differently??

Recently I was interviewing someone for a ministry position while noshing on a fantastic Monte Cristo sandwich. We had a great conversation about life and ministry; but it was one-sided: I was asking the questions and he was responding.

But at the end of our time, the other guy asked if he could pose a question to me. Then he asked, “If you could go back and start in youth ministry again, what would you do differently?”

Before diving into this, I should probably make it clear that “going back” wouldn’t merely be a year or two. I’m 53 years old, and have been actively involved in youth work since I was 18. For the mathematically challenged, that’s 35 years. It takes imagination for me to remember anything from 35 years ago that I haven’t recently seen in a photograph (and, yes, we had color photographs back then).

I thought for a minute while chewing on a tasty bite of that sandwich made of French toast, ham, Swiss cheese, and raspberry sauce (props to the semi-crazy chef who thought of that!).

First, I acknowledged the easy stuff: I was an immature punk, overly confident on my natural gifting and under-reliant on Jesus. With that framing, I would make changes to significantly shift the focus off of me.

More easy stuff: 35 years ago was a different era. I did what almost everyone else did at the time—focusing too much attention on hype and events and entertaining teenagers. So, sure, I would change that. But so would most others.

Then it dawned on me, what I would really change if I could go back 35 years and start over in youth work: I would change me, my values, my priorities.

I’ve come to see something that many others have articulated in other spaces: The quality of ministry is first-and-foremost dependent on God. But next to that truth is the reality that the quality of the ministry is integrally linked to the inner life of the leader (or leaders).

With that in mind, here’s what I would do differently: I would actively and intentionally develop two parallel tracks for growth.

The Spiritual Vibrancy Track

Over and over again, I’ve seen good (but not great) ministries lead by youth workers with massive skill sets and a lack of personal spiritual vitality. And over and over again, I’ve seen amazing ministries helmed by leaders with B-level skills sets, but an interior life that is overflowing from a growing intimacy with Jesus.

If I could start again, I would pursue spiritual vitality over skill development. I would retreat and pray and seek mentors and read books and schedule down time all to the end of Jesus overflowing from my life all over every aspect of my ministry.

The Leadership Growth Track

In the coaching work I do with youth workers, I regularly get a glimpse into the reasonable ways one might separate good youth workers from great youth workers. I could parse that many ways, I’m sure. But I find that more often than not, the differentiation boils down to self-knowledge and the ruthless pursuit of growth.

Simply put: you can become a great leader by growing in self-knowledge and pursuing growth in a host of leadership character traits. Conversely, a great leader won’t stay a great leader if they’re coasting, if they’re decreasing in honesty, if they’re lazy about growth. After all, the most important aspect of leadership isn’t leading others, it’s leading yourself. And you’ll suck at self-leadership if you don’t know yourself, if you’re not honest with yourself.

If I could start again, I would put bring others around me to help me grow in self-knowledge. Then I would chart an intentional course of growth – in character, first; then in understanding about how leadership works.

Honestly, I have zero desire to go back 35 years and start again. Instead, my challenge (to myself, and to you) is to put these values, these practices, in place now so that in 35 more years, I can look back in celebration about all that God has accomplished!



2 thoughts on “What Would I Do Differently If I Started in Youth Ministry All Over Again”

  1. Wow, you have been doing Youth Ministry one year shy of my lifespan! Thank you for speaking into my ministry and personal growth along the way. You have confirmed, once again, where I need to be heading in Christ and Leadership.

Leave a Reply