"For Those Who Are Passionate About Reaching The Younger Generation"

Youth Ministry Topics Personal Life of the Youth Worker

How To Thrive Long Term

Kevin Lawson Dave Keehn

Dave is a veteran youth pastor who loves teenagers and enjoys his job. But years of high-energy ministry have taken their toll. He wonders how much longer he can keep up the pace and still give the best of himself to his growing family. More and more, he suspects he?s simultaneously short-changing his ministry, his wife, and his children. He feels like Kevin Costner?s character in For Love of the Game?life in the "ministry game" has been good, but now he?s got to scrounge for the strength to stay in it.

Is Dave this close to flaming out?

No, but he?s certainly not thriving. Surviving is more like it. To make it long term, he?ll need to regain his sense of direction and purpose. And he?ll need to rebalance his personal and professional lives.

It?s for people just like Dave that I launched a two-year research project to discover the secrets of pastors who are thriving in their ministries. I targeted more than 500 associate church staffers from 14 North American denominations (more than 100 of them youth pastors) who are clearly thriving in ministry. As I identified and studied their common threads, eight keys to ministry satisfaction and personal health surfaced. These critical truths have since helped Dave Keehn shift out of survival mode into a once-again thriving ministry life. I asked Dave to "crash" this article by adding his field-tested insights into the eight keys?look for his thoughts in numbered links scattered throughout the article...

1) Remind yourself of God?s calling on your life, and draw strength from it. When you?re called to youth ministry, you have a passion for reaching young people that others outside your close circle of co-workers and friends find hard to understand. For us, youth ministry is not an option?it?s a God-placed "have to" in our hearts. But the noise of ministry can, and will, drown out the quiet urge of our calling if we?re not vigilant.

Thriving youth pastors take time to reflect on God?s calling, especially during times of stress and adversity. Ministry difficulties drive them to prayer?seeking strength, wisdom, and courage from God so they can do what he?s already directed them to do. As they persevere in remembering their calling, they break through into new levels of joy and fulfillment.

2) Remember attitude is everything. Everyone faces struggles?our attitude toward them determines the outcome. Long-term, thriving youth leaders are characterized by these four critical attitudes...

*They?re convinced their work is making a valuable and eternal impact?Thriving youth pastors know their work is vitally important?even when other church ministries clearly receive more support and attention.

*They persevere with patience?Ministry is no vocation for instant-gratification junkies. It can take a lifetime for the seeds we plant to germinate in a young person?s soul.

*They value people over programs?We have an intrinsic need for proof that our work is making an impact, and smooth-running programs seem to promise that proof. But thriving youth pastors know that well-functioning programs simply don?t have the satisfaction "kick" that comes from the tiny, progressive evidence of God?s work in kids? lives.

*They?re committed to longevity in their ministry?Thriving youth pastors have decided they?ll need a mountain of evidence that God is moving them out of youth ministry before they?ll jump ship. This mind-set undergirds their ministry. It helps make contentment, patience, and perseverance possible.

3) Work to build a nurturing environment churchwide. Your ministry environment can make a big difference in your ability to hang in there. Obviously, no church is perfect?but the good news is your church doesn?t have to be perfect for you to thrive. You can help by...

* Nurturing staff unity?Be a fan of other ministry areas in your church. Focus on your common ministry calling.

*Empowering your ministry helpers?Hand off significant ministry responsibilities to your adult leaders. The more they own the ministry, the less turnover you?ll have, and the longer you?ll stay motivated.

*Communicating your ministry?s goals and activities to the whole church?If you want churchwide support for your ministry, you must find ways to make your purpose and activities memorable to congregation members. Give them regular cause-and-effect updates: "Here?s what we did, and here?s what happened."

*Gaining your congregation?s trust through faithfulness?In the parable of the talents, Jesus basically taught that faithful people earn the right to be trusted with ever-increasing freedoms. If you want your church members to trust you with new ministry ideas, gain their confidence through faithful ministry.

*Sharing your needs?Most church boards honestly want to know how to best support you. If necessary, recruit an advocate?either your senior pastor or a designated lay leader?to present your needs for you.

4) Strengthen your work relationships. Your work relationships can make your ministry a joy or a misery?but you already know that. Staff relationships that deteriorate into animosity or indifference suck the joy out of a thriving ministry. Remember Romans 12:18?"If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men." Here?s a menu of "possibles" for you...

*Be cooperative?Show respect for other staffers. Look for ways to help, listen to their ideas, and cheer on their successes. Look for ways to share scarce resources equitably.

*Be loyal?Keep ministry disagreements private. If you tolerate people who complain to you about other staffers but never confront those people directly, expect to receive the same treatment when you?re not around.

*Be honest?Respectfully share your needs, concerns, and disagreements with your supervisor. Loyalty requires honesty in private and?sometimes?silence in public.

*Be competent?While a supervisor?s mentoring may be welcome, sooner or later you?ll need to prove you?re capable of carrying out your own ministry decisions and actions.

* Be trustworthy?Be faithful in your responsibilities. Keep confidences. Be a faithful steward of church resources and squeaky- clean in financial matters.

Pursue spiritual vitality. Real thriving flows out of your relationship with God, where you?ll find the grace to meet your life and ministry challenges. But the stress of vocational ministry can drain you and crowd out your times for spiritual renewal. Don?t delude yourself into thinking you can stay healthy on a spiritual Slim-Fast diet. Thriving youth pastors say their own spiritual nurture is critical to their success.

6)Build a personal support network. Thriving youth leaders gain strength from others who encourage, challenge, pray for, and believe in them. These people become stewards of God?s grace in their lives. The more intentional you are in building these relationships, the more God can move through them to strengthen you for the long haul.

Most thriving youth pastors report that they have prayer partners or some form of peer support. These relationships are typified by mutual discipleship?holding each other accountable for faithful living.

No matter how long they?ve been in ministry, thriving youth pastors benefit from ongoing relationships with mentors. Connections to people who have more experience, wisdom, and grace can quash a rash decision before it backfires.

Who do you turn to for counsel and encouragement?

7) Care for your family. If you?re married, your spouse is critical to your ability to thrive in ministry. And if you?re a parent, your children can be a surprising source of encouragement and support.

All youth pastors face seasons of grueling time demands and breakneck activities that keep them away from their families. The work is often emotionally draining, and that can sap your energy for family activities. Here?s how thriving youth leaders have balanced ministry and family demands...

*Ask for flexible scheduling?Because your schedule includes many evening and weekend responsibilities, ask permission to take a morning or afternoon off to spend time enjoying your family.

*Schedule family nights and dates with your spouse?Because your schedule fills up fast, you must plan time for family activities first.

*Minister together (some of the time)?If your spouse or children are interested, find creative ways for them to join you in ministry?it?s fun and deeply satisfying.

*Take time to get away with your family?Schedule time for real Sabbath rest. Don?t fill the time with chores?enjoy doing something fun and refreshing together.

* Every day, make sure you eat at least one meal together?It?s important to take time each day to connect and pray together. Doing it over a meal works well.

* Be smart about how and when you "dump" ?It?s tempting to simply unload the stress you collect at work on those who love you?they represent a "safe" place to dump. Because they love you and have no ability to change your circumstances, indiscriminate dumping sets them up to be angry at your church, your co-workers, or your kids. When you?ve had a hard day, find someone to share your stresses with before you talk about them at home. And help your family see how God is working to resolve your struggles.

8) Savor the joys of ministry. Ministry "highs" are often fleeting. That?s why it?s important to somehow capture those moments and draw on them for encouragement when things get tough. Thriving youth leaders say when they take time to revisit these experiences?thanking God for his grace?they get a wonderful boost. So crack open that scrapbook, or get started on one today.

May this moment be a marker for you?the day God started moving you from surviving to thriving in youth ministry.


Kevin Lawson is director of the Ph.D. program in Christian Education at Talbot School of Theology in California. He?s the author of How to Thrive in Associate Staff Ministry, published by the Alban Institute.

Dave Keehn is an associate pastor of youth and families in California and an adjunct instructor at Talbot School of Theology.


Used my permission, Group Magazine, Copyright May/June, 2000, Group Publishing, Inc., Box 481, Loveland, CO 80539.

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According to David Skidmore, "Each issue is a feast for hungry youth workers." This quality magazine comes out six times per year, giving us input from others on the front lines of youth ministry. Includes lesson ideas, well-written articles, relevant news and new resources. Find them online at www.youthministry.com, where they offer lots of free online resources.