Defeat in youth ministry

According to Merriam-Webster, there are a couple of different definitions for the word defeat:

  1. to win a victory over (someone or something) in a war, contest, game, etc.
  2. to cause (someone or something) to fail

This dual definition was helpful for me as I wrestled with my greatest defeat in youth ministry. I spent sixteen years in the same local church. As you might imagine, when you are submerged in the life of a church for that long you will inevitably see the good, the bad, and the ugly. So when I think over my time in that local church and consider times that I felt I had been defeated in a contest, game, etc., there are countless examples:

  • There was my biggest defeat in the game department…Strobe light football.  It sounded like a genius idea on paper.  Strobe lights were in.  We were having a lock-in.  The gym had no windows and all the lights could be turned out.  Flag football as the strobe light flashed quickly would make it look like the youth were break dancing while we played football.  Surely this would be a game they would not soon forget.  11 and  a half minutes in, I realized it was not such a great idea as two young men had collided and bumped heads resulting in a trip to the hospital and 12 stiches…DEFEAT.
  • In the outdoor adventure area I could share of the camping/tubing trip that we took in a torrential downpour.  After two hours of roughing it and water running into and beating on  top of EVERY tent , our camp out abandoned the tents and piled into the vehicles we came and spent the night crammed into them like sardines…DEFEAT.
  • Getting 40 minutes down the road towards a GREAT day at Six Flags only to realize the tickets for our group were in the office…DEFEAT.
  • Or even worse, driving the two hours to Carowinds on a Tuesday only to learn that the park was CLOSED that day…DEFEAT.
  • There was also the time I had to call a parent from the other side of our state to inform a wonderful mother that I (yes I, the leader) had been the one using the nail gun on our mission trip when it malfunctioned and sent an 8-penny nail straight into her 16 year old daughter’s forearm…DEFEAT.
  • There was the family who was quite vocal that I, and our youth ministry,  wasn’t effective for the teens in their family because we were not being inclusive of everyone; that the kids in our group were judgemental and that I played favorites, and that we were geared only toward extroverts…DEFEAT.

As you can see, the feeling of being defeated came about on a regular basis for me as a youth worker, and it wasn’t just me. I had colleagues both near and far who experienced similar defeat and worse defeat at the hands of simple mistakes, or upset parents, or even upset leadership committees at churches. The repercussions ranged from embarrassment, to discouragement, and even to losing positions. The feeling of being defeated is far too common in the world of youth ministry.

Then I come to that second part of the definition of the word defeat:  to cause someone or something to fail.  No matter how many times I felt defeated in youth ministry, and as you can tell above it was often, I don’t recall ever having failed.  Why is that the case?  During the actual experiences, I would find reasons that defeat was only a loss and not a failure.  Sometimes it was my nearly eternal optimism that kept me from going from a feeling of defeat to a feeling of failure.  Sometimes it was the ability to find a silver lining in almost every situation that helped. Truthfully both of those helped a great deal in the moment.  

Having been removed from that specific setting of time and place in life and looking back from a distance, I realize clearly now that though those two character traits may have helped keep me from moving from loss to failure, ultimately it can be credited to my realization that God was at work in spite of me.  From the time I began in youth ministry, there was no doubt in my mind that the “work” I was doing was not just a job, but a calling.  The difference in my mind is simple.  A job is a task that a PERSON does by himself or herself.  A calling is a task that someone partners with God to complete. By realizing that God was there with me along the way, that it was HIS ministry that I was leading and building and not MINE, there was a sense that no matter what happened, God was at work in some way.  The defeats still hurt, the defeats still have an impact, but they never result in a sense of failure because I am confident, not in my power, but in the power of my God.  I am reminded when I remember all the struggles and losses that occurred in youth ministry for me the words of Paul to the church in Rome: “No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.”  (Romans 8:37).  That passage reminds me that even when I feel defeated or that  I have lost a battle, that I have not failed because I am more than a conqueror in Him.



Chris Lynch is a guest contributor for Youthworker Movement.

Chris LynchChris Lynch works in the Connectional Ministries office of South Carolina Annual Conference as both the conference staff person for youth ministry and a Congregational Specialist in the Spartanburg and Rock Hill Districts. After serving in one local congregation for 16 years as youth director, he has a unique perspective of the impact youth ministry can have in the lives of youth, adults, churches, and communities. Chris is married to Michelle, his wife of 17 years and is “dad” to three daughters Lindy (14), Cami (10), and Ruthie (7).  In his free time he loves to play golf, watch sports, and cook in barbecue competitions. 



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