I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard that phrase in my years in youth ministry. And while on the surface it sounds like a tremendous, heart-warming compliment, a few years back I realized that the context of the statement was rarely attached to anything that I would think of as core to good youth ministry. But perception is 9 tenths of reality. The following are a few examples of praise-rendering scenarios:
He turned in the list of graduating seniors.
This is an annual accolade. Drawing upon countless hours of training, somewhere between October & February I pass along a list of names of seniors to our church’s men’s group. They can’t believe how well I do that. The experience crescendos into a May senior Sunday experience. More on that in a moment. At the conclusion of that service, Bibles successfully handed out, the Methodist Men collapse in a delirium of relief and appreciation. Many handshakes. He does such a good job with the youth. Which immediately leads to…
He fed my child a meal.
Our senior Sunday culminates in a lunch. It’s hosted at a local restaurant. We provide a headcount and write a check a week later. This action seems most appreciated by the senior families that I never met, oddly enough. Every year a senior we never knew emerges from the darkness of the pews and briefly flickers in the light of receiving a Bible, watching the senior slideshow, and eating a meal before vanishing again. He does such a good job with the youth.
He talked to me in the hall.
This is one of my favorites. I’ll have conversations with people that know nothing about our youth ministry. We don’t talk about the youth ministry. But because I am friendly, their interaction with me somehow translates to he does such a good job with the youth in their minds. Great success.
He went to a basketball game.
Churches have many active families with youth that have incredibly busy extra-curricular schedules. There are many kids that I see at school or occasionally during Sunday worship that don’t have time for youth. The parents of these kids don’t have great expectations of our program times, because their kids don’t come to them. Where our youth ministry really hits a home run with these families is when I show up to a sporting event. No spiritual moment, no depth required, just a butt in the stands. He does such a good job with the youth.
He intends to do something to benefit me.
That’s probably over-summing, but you get the idea. This is the thousand conversations or so that you have when someone has an “idea for the youth.” The “wouldn’t it be great if the youth _____” list. Some of them are good ideas. Some are good ideas for someone else to do. Some are just bad ideas, regardless of who does it. But in the process of fielding those requests, I repeatedly encounter the he does such a good job with the youth sentiment. Whether we ever get around to doing whatever it was or not.
So what’s the point?
None of these things are going away. They’re not even bad, necessarily. There’s community to be found in most of them. But they can become an unhealthy distraction for a busy youthworker. I don’t even mean just for praise-hounds–in the natural course of trying to keep your job, it can derail your ministry goals if you forget the main thing and start focusing on all of the little places that you think people are judging your ministry. I didn’t even get to “he got X number of youth to come on Wednesday.” Any time someone offers praise (or criticism) they’re expressing an underlying expectation that’s either being met or missed. If you’re a people-pleaser (and to some degree you have to be), it’s super-easy to default to trying to keep your praise/criticism ratio in balance.
But there’s a question you’re neglecting to answer if that’s where you let things lie:
What does God want from your youth ministry?
I don’t mean that like a heavy-handed spiritual reality check. Like you, I spent Sunday night forcing candy into the hands of small costumed children. I know there are surface things that have to be dealt with. But youth ministry is a calling. How often do we stop listening to the call after we get the job?
If you’re not letting your call direct your ministry decisions, what’s guiding your ministry?