Ever had an aha moment? An “aha moment” is defined as “a moment of sudden realization, inspiration, insight, recognition, or comprehension,” according to Merriam-Webster. I remember exactly where I was driving in my car when I had that crazy aha moment and realized as a young sales professional that not every adult wants to spend their free time volunteering with junior high students, and that perhaps God was calling me to youth ministry, a life changing aha moment for me. Sure it sounds a little obvious that not every adult likes working with youth, right? And that’s the unexpected element about an aha moment – it’s when you finally get something important to sink in, even if that idea seems pretty obvious to others.
This January, I was invited to help lead the SMU Perkins School of Youth Ministry Foundations Track. As it turns out, if you stick with a single profession for long enough you become an “expert” in the field. This level of youth ministry expertise sneaked up on me slowly over the last 18 years. When combined with my youth ministry colleagues, Dara Bell, Rod Hocott, and the Rev. Walt Marcum, the Foundations class faculty had a combined total of over 140 years of youth ministry experience. I hate to think what that translates to in hours spent at youth lock-ins!
How the class works: The PSYM Foundations Track is designed for students in their first 2 years of youth ministry and is divided into 14 separate class sessions. Sessions cover topics including working with parents, working with volunteers, self-care, communication, administration, safety and more. The Foundations Track has been described as trying to drink from a fire hose of information, and participants leave with a huge notebook to process in the coming months. Each faculty person was responsible for teaching 3-4 of the class sessions.
As a new faculty member, I was surprised by 3 things Foundations students considered as their own “Aha!” moments in the class – the importance of relationship building in ministry, a new outlook on working with parents and the critical value of self-care. Like my aha moment about not all adults wanting to work with junior high students seems obvious to others, I was surprised how these elements that seem obvious to me, were aha moments for the class. With all of the material we covered, I did not expect these to be the most important lessons learned.
Aha moments on the importance of relationship building in youth ministry
When you take youth ministry down to its most basic level, it is about building relationships. You build relationships with youth, of course, but also volunteers, parents, pastors and fellow youthworkers. If you are new to youth ministry or new to a church, it is more important that people know and trust you than it is to have a fancy program. John C. Maxwell famously said, “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” Here is what one youth director has said about relationship building since taking Foundations:
“The youth at the church and I continue to develop trust. That seems to be where we are right now. I haven’t been here all that long so that, I think, is what is most important… well – as Rod highlighted – relationships are most important. That is the crux of ministry if ministry is walking along side folks during crises and everyday life.” (Matt Bell, Kessler Park UMC, Dallas, TX)
Building relationships with other youth workers is important for your long-term sustainability in youth ministry. As Kathy Sanford of FUMC Cheyenne, WY, said:
“I have had a hard time picking any ONE thing that benefited me the most from PSYM. Overall – I am more than grateful for the experience. It truly did help me immensely to get to meet others who have the same passion and desire to serve God in this particular area. The best thing for me was probably just a sense of confidence and assurance that I really can do this. I know I was not alone in my uncertainty and it is so true that sometimes just knowing others struggle with the same insecurity helps. Those “Me, too!” moments are so precious. You all gave us a wonderful tool in our binders full of information that is practical and relevant. And a network of people we can go to with experience and a genuine desire to support each other. I truly pray that I will get the opportunity to attend next year….and more.”
Aha moments on working with parents of youth
My 12 year old son became an official youth last summer. Nothing quite changes your perspective on a youth ministry program like putting your own child in a church van for his first youth trip. Parents are not adversaries to youthworkers. In fact, parents are the number one spiritual influence on youth. They usually just want to know that you love their child, that their youth is turning out okay and that you’ll keep their child safe. By and large, parents of youth want to be reassured that they are doing a good job at being parents and that somehow, together, we can raise youth into young Christian adults. As a person in youth ministry, you are also in ministry to parents.
“The most helpful area for me was the info on parents and volunteers. The permission slips, the teenager prayer, the parent small group idea and what not. This stuff had not crossed my mind and I’m thinking, ‘Aha!’ this is one area I could really grow!” (Matt Bell)
“It was very helpful for me to talk about parents… that has been one of my most difficult things since I have started and to be given insight on how to minister to them as well as their youth was awesome! I need a big attitude adjustment in that area.” (C.J. Rice, FUMC Farmersville, TX)
Aha moments on the critical value of self-care
If you are serving in youth ministry and do not make your own spiritual health and growth a priority, you are on the road to burnout. Your church loves you, but it is rare to find a church that has someone making sure you are taking care of yourself. This is what Foundations students had to say about the session on self-care:
“I really appreciated your honesty with us about your burnout. I think that we all had heard about the importance of taking care of yourself but hearing it from someone who has personally experienced it made the situation a reality. I got thinking about the things I do for pleasure and realized I only got to go hunting once in the past year, which is something I truly love to do. It was a real gut check to me because I have a terrible habit of working 60-80 hrs a week when I have something big going on, and then not taking any time off once that project has passed. I guess for me that seems natural because that is what I saw from my dad growing up, but I really did appreciate your honesty with us on that because it was a little bit of an eye-opener for me.” (Taylor Ory, FUMC Quitman, TX)
“It was nice to hear your lesson on self care. People are trying to pull us in a million different directions and wanting us to cater to them and it’s so important for us to take time for ourselves. During PSYM, I attended the lunch bible study and I forgot how great it was to have biblical and spiritual conversations with ADULTS! I am now trying to seek out a group that I can join so that I can get spiritually fed with people my own age.” (C.J. Rice)
It doesn’t hurt to be reminded once in a while that taking care of yourself is a good, healthy thing.
What have been your aha moments in youth ministry?
If you could give advice to a new youth worker, what would you say is most important?