Lessons Learned the Hard Way my First Year of Ministry

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May 16, 2013 by Will Ray

The first week of 2013 I entered into my fourth year of youth ministry at Celebration Church.  I don’t boast, but I am pleased that I’ve surpassed what industry experts estimate is normal tenure for youth ministry of about 9-18 months.

When I look back on that first year, there are plenty of screw-ups to smile about (now – they weren’t funny then), and some great lessons learned.  With this post I hope I can share some insight that will spare some poor new youth leader a few of the self-imposed challenges I faced.

1) Don’t change things too fast.

About two months in, I unilaterally (more on that later) decided and announced that we’d be changing the night of our regular youth group meeting.  Big change.  Lots of parents, leaders, and students weren’t thrilled with the change, and our numbers dropped for a while before recovering.  We came through it, but it set us back for a while.

If you’re making major changes in the first 6 months, you’re moving too fast.  You’re new; you’re likely just getting to know the people to whom you’re ministering and the culture of your church.  You have to build some real relational capital and really spend some time getting to know your crew before making changes like that.

2) Listen to the leaders who have been there.

Going hand-in-hand with lesson #1 above, I made that big decision while giving the team an opportunity to speak, but I didn’t really listen to what they had to say.  I had to have a tough conversation with one of my volunteer leaders, who helped me understand that leading was more than just making decisions by yourself and having other people go along with them.

Had I given their advice real consideration, the change that I wanted to do may have come about more smoothly, and we would have likely had a better outcome, without as much setback.

3) This youth ministry doesn’t have to mirror your youth ministry experience.

I had a great youth ministry experience.  I had an incredibly dynamic pastor, who preached very well, created incredible events for us, and (in my mind) did everything right.  He was a major force in my spiritual formation, and my experiences in my youth ministry were awesome.

Newsflash: Your ministry – the one you’re serving in – doesn’t have to mirror the experience you had growing up.  Your current ministry may do some things better or worse than the one you grew up in.

I never went to summer camp with my youth group.  That’s just not something we did.  So when I heard that we were going to summer camp, and that I was leading it, I was already negatively predisposed to it because it was out of my frame of reference.  It didn’t have to be that way (with other things) but I was thinking that the experience for these students had to mirror mine exactly, and it doesn’t have to be that way.

4) Take your message to the parents – the real decision-makers.

From late high school until I took the job at church – about seven years – I made my own plans and dealt directly with people who made their own plans.  So, not having any youth ministry experience (and maybe not thinking things through all the way) I spoke and communicated primarily to the students for the first few months about events, curricula, and new things.

Another Newsflash: 11-16 year-olds don’t make their own decisions.  Duh.  You have to open up lines of communication with parents ASAP if you want them to buy into your vision, bring kids to your events, and have their general support (and you do want all of those things).  Create an email list, get a Facebook page, set up a Google Calendar, get a presence on your church website, send take-home cards with your students.  All of these things will help you take your message to your students’ parents.

That’s not all of the mistakes I made the first year – they’re the the big ones, and the big lessons that came along with them.  Hopefully you can avoid these better than I did.

Question: What’s a lesson you learned the hard way in the first year of your job/ministry/work?

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About me…

Youth minister, financial coach and part-time wedding photographer, based in Raleigh, NC

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