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Overcoming Immaturity in Youth Ministry

We produced this video for The Summit last fall which illustrates my point pretty well:

Lots of times you don’t even realize you are immature. You think you are doing the right thing when, in fact, you are doing the wrong things and no one is telling you.

I’ve fallen victim to my own immaturity a number of times, losing the war to win a battle.

About 15 years ago, while brand new on a church staff, my mentality was “fix what is immediately broken while evaluating the overall program for the first 12 months.

By the time I dug in my heals for this battle I’d already decided that the church was a poor fit for me. In the hiring process they’d wanted to hire someone who would create some outreach programs, start some drop-in centers for at-risk youth. This was a community with a raging meth problem, high dropout rate, and sky high teen pregnancy rate. In reality, the majority of the church wanted a youth pastor who would help parents protect their kids from the big, evil world. (They freaked out when I mentioned sex, much less talked about sex directly.) It took me more than six months to get leadership to even consider looking at places to rent to create a drop-in center… they barely gave me token acknowledgement that they’d promised me this was the number one priority in hiring me.

I pulled out my “fix what is immediately broken” line for their annual mission trip to Mexico. Traditionally, the youth ministry had used its short-term mission trip as an outreach, similar to  YoungLife camp. While the high school group was 10-15 students they regularly took 30-35 students to Mexico. These other teenagers, loosely affiliated with the church, would tell me flat out “I don’t come to youth group or have anything to do with Jesus or the church, but I love the mission trip.

I didn’t like this. My argument was that short-term mission trips were about discipleship, not evangelism to the participants. A short-term mission trip wasn’t for non-Christians, it was for Christians. So I changed the rules, requiring students going on the mission trip to be part of the youth group for the months leading up to the trip, and asking them to fill out an application.

I dug my heals in and fought. I explained my position to students, parents, the elders, and the pastor… all of whom said that they understood what I was saying but countered with, “That’s not how we do it hereYou just don’t understand.”

I remember the pastor coming to my office and asking, “How much is this worth to you? You can win but it’s something you shouldn’t win this one, let it go.

I dug in. By the time he came to talk to me I’d already made the decision that I needed to find another church, had already had preliminary conversations with a church that’d eventually hire me, so I felt like I needed to fix what was broken for the next person… to break an unhealthy precedent.

I’m not changing my mind. I said I’d fix things that were broken right away, I’m fixing this.

In the end I won and I lost. I made it about me being right and in the course of doing that I lost any traction or momentum I’d built. In some ways it didn’t matter. On the way home from the trip I was offered another job pending a visit and vote a few weeks later.

But it did matter because my own immaturity did more damage than good. I was right, I knew I was right, but it was immature to abuse my power.

How to Overcome Immaturity in Youth Ministry

  1. Time served. There’s really no way to navigate around this one. When you are new at a role you’re going to be immature at it. But recognizing this as a weakness is really helpful… you can be immature and wise at the same time!
  2. Context. Particularly true when you are in a new situation… it doesn’t really matter what you’ve experienced in other contexts, take the time to understand the context you are currently in before making serious decision.
  3. Slow down or speed up your decision-making. I have a natural tendency to make very quick decisions and then stick with them. I’ve learned to trust my intuition… to a fault. The danger for me is that sometimes I need to slow down the process of decision-making to get more information. The flip side is also true. If you’re tendency is to take a long time to make decisions, you might need to speed up that process.
  4. Levity. Really, you’ve got to learn to laugh at yourself and give yourself a break. The same is true with your ministry. Relax… mistakes are going to happen.
  5. Recreation. Perhaps the most obvious thing I see is youth workers without a life, poorly caring for their body, soul, spirit, and mind. Get a hobby! Make some friends who don’t care what you do for a living. Stop hanging out with church people all the time. And for real… you don’t go on vacation to visit churches or read non-fiction books about ministry! Without recreation you’ll burn out. Take it seriously.
  6. Get some friends, get some coaching. While I’m not directly involved with our Youth Ministry Coaching Program, I do read the evaluations and I do engage with lots of people in our cohorts. And let me tell ya… one of the great benefits of the coaching cohorts is that you’re going to get called out on some stuff in a great way AND you’re going to develop lifelong real friends who you can talk to about real life stuff.
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