After a short 6 month stint in the Peace Corps, I’d easily estimate I heard the word “sustainability” over a thousand times. Sustainability is the buzzword in the international development community, and for good reason. The focus of aid has shifted from “giving” to “teaching.” For example, we underwent three months of training, covering cultural sensitivity, language training, and how to teach. We spent as much time learning how to teach teachers as we did learning to manage classrooms. The reasoning behind this is simple- we only had two years to make a difference in our communities.
We could spend the whole time being the best teachers to the students, inspiring two years’ worth of future leaders or we could pour our energy into the teachers who would stay there for years and years to come. The methods the teachers learn can be used in their own classrooms as well as passed on to other teachers at the school. It was all about taking the knowledge you already had and finding a way to pass that on before you left, allowing the future youth to benefit from your wealth of knowledge.
This is definitely an idea the youth ministry community stands to benefit from. The average youth minister lasts about two years in a ministry before moving on for a variety of reasons. Who is affected most by these changes? The students. These teens now have to deal with one or two leadership changes in their few years in a youth group, while they should be invested in and supported as they gain ground in a faith life.
How do we make our ministries sustainable, so that even if we leave, the youth don’t suffer?
Create a Paper Trail
From day one, it’s important to create resources for whoever may be taking over your job because, let’s face it; you won’t be where you are forever. As someone who just went through a quick transition, I recognize how difficult it would have been without the documents left behind for me. Forms, permission slips, semester curriculums, contacts, and so many other things. Dropbox is a great resource to save everything in an organized way. Storing everything on a flash drive is another way to create a resource bank for an incoming youth minister.
Providing a rough draft of a pass down that you can add to as you discover more and more about your job will make that transition even smoother as you leave. Being intentional about your actions and recording them will be a huge time-saver for any incoming minister and allow for a deeper consistency that will benefit the youth and the parish.
2. Step Out of the Spotlight
It’s time to stop making youth ministry about us. This can be tough because it’s calling us to directly confront our pride. As youth ministry talent begins to flood the market, many youth ministers are tempted to make a name for themselves, to stand out from the crowd. All too often, careers are placed in the way of pastoring to the youth. Ministry shifts from what we teach to what we wear, who has the funniest tweets, the most Instagram followers, the most degrees, who gives the best talks, and who was better than the last youth minister. It’s becoming a competition. These cults of personality that ministers are beginning to form are tempting because it often results in bigger numbers, and we think youth coming to church is better than youth not coming to church. But we have to look at why they’re coming to church, and what they’re leaving with.
If all you’ve done is convinced them to listen to this band or to wear this style of Christian clothing, you’ve created this impossible pit for the next youth minister to hurdle when you leave. If we focus too much on the teens’ relationship with us rather than their relationship with Christ, we are failing our teens and abusing our positions in ministry. How do you refer to your ministry? Is it your ministry or are you merely stopping by, grateful for the opportunity given by Christ to impact these youth? Are your youth aware of that?
Very rarely does a youth minister stay at a parish forever. We have to ask ourselves; at whatever point of ministry we are in, if we leave tomorrow, can my youth group survive? Would an incoming youth minister be able to pick up where I left off, or would they be hindered by my lack of foresight and humility? The best kinds of leaders are the ones who aren’t hated, aren’t despised, and aren’t universally praised. They are the ones who blend in, who lead others by helping them lead themselves. What kind of leader are you, and what kind of leader is God calling you to be? Are you leaving your youth and predecessor with a sustainable ministry?
–by Chris Johnson, youth minister at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Tyler, TX