Jesus was a terrible youth minister.

I hate May.

It’s my most despondent month in ministry. It’s the month where all of my critical self-assessment of our ministry comes to a head. It’s the end of the school year, which stumble-starts (in our community) a downturn in participation through the summer. Worse, another group of seniors is headed for the door, so you have to deal with that.

The seniors. Living testimonies to your failure as a leader. Forget for a moment the 400 different opinions about how you ruined senior Sunday. In your heart you know that you didn’t do enough in their lives. You had these kids in your care for X number of years and just look at them. Completely unprepared for life. Infants in discipleship that can’t quite feed themselves yet. But that’s all you get with them; tomorrow that infancy hits the street of “real life” which, statistically speaking, will erase your influence from most of them anyway. Sure, there are one or two that seem to have a grasp on things that really matter. But that’s easily chalked up to the quality of the individual; no point in taking credit for them. Freaking May.

So for most of May I avoid human contact whenever possible. The first week of June I get to go on a mission trip and that usually evens me out and I get approachable again. But last night at a vespers service in Chattanooga, my mind rabbit-trailed from a sermon’s main point to this ray of light:

Jesus was a terrible youth minister too.

I mean, they weren’t youth he was dealing with, because youth hadn’t been invented yet. Kids became adults back then in what is now middle school and didn’t have the opportunity to hipster-whine their way into their late 20s. (I just saved you a semester on adolescent development.) Jesus spent three years with his disciples, about twice as long as the average youth minister sticks around. And after 4 canonized Gospels of miracles, parables, small groups, betrayal, crucifixion, resurrection, and reappearance over the following 40 days his disciples high-five him and in a single question prove that they’ve learned nothing:

“Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?”

Idiots. And now I have to leave,” had to run through Jesus’ mind. All of that effort and they still thought he was here to overthrow Rome. All of that example and they still didn’t get that his was a kingdom of love. “Alright, guys. Let’s make sure we’ve got our pics turned in for the disciple slide show.” It was probably nice, apart from the betrayal and crucifixion bit, not to have to deal with the accusing stares of a finance committee just before the ascension. “Jesus, you’ve been with these guys for three years and we’re just not seeing the results we were hoping for. Not sure if you’re a good fit for the direction we’re headed.”

It’s easy to forget that in youth ministry we’re not usually end-gamers. We’re launchers. And if we’re really honest–we’re mostly observers. There are certainly ministries that exist as primary spiritual influences in the lives of youth, but for most of the middle-class mainstream youth ministry that goes on we’re supplementing what spiritual development goes on at home. I think this is why I don’t enjoy particularly enjoy ceremony or marking occasions (apart from in general being a grumpy jackass). Nothing is really ever complete; we’re always moving forward. Particularly in Christian living, there is always a “next thing.” A next wonderful opportunity to live in service to others. Another opportunity to meet God in community.

But at the end, the disciples got it. After Jesus left, they grew. This time they didn’t go back to fishing.

So while we may not always get to see the fruit, let me encourage you in your planting, tending, and watering. You get glimmers here and there; maybe see a bloom or two or shoots of new growth. And don’t forget that those in your care are on individual journeys; they’ll be making decisions beyond your influence. Be present. Be faithful. And remember that June is coming. The clatter of rising 6th graders is at the door.




  1. I cannot tell you how much I needed this today. I’ve been feeling like a complete failure as a youth minister and this reminded me that I’m not alone in struggling through this time of year. I love and hate senior Sunday. I love and hate watching my students get older. And some days in general I just love and hate my whole job. I try to remember the people who discipled me when I was a teenager. I would be willing to bet not a one of them would have thought that I’d be in ministry now or that I would be anything other than a raving lunatic. We can’t know what God will work in these teenagers lives. I just hope that I’ve done my best for Him and trust that even in my shortcomings His work is still being done. Thanks for the post!

  2. Kevin,
    Thanks! It really feels this way right now. The sense of “oh my gosh, where have I been for the last four years..and has it made a difference..and have I been faithful to calling” is singing a loud tune.
    So, thanks for naming. Thanks for reminding. Thanks for gently turning me back to the model.

  3. As a one-time youth minister who has moved on, I thought this was awesome. These days, it’s great to run into balding, pot-bellied forty-somethings who, with misty eyes, tell you that you made an impact in their lives. To all you current youth pastors, let me tell you, hang tough.

  4. Holly Dittrich

    I really struggle with this here in the hospital – I often just get to visit once or twice and then send them back into the world (and sadly, many of my patients do not have regular spiritual guides/companions in teh journey in their lives). Just read a great blogpost by Jason Valendy yesterday about the difference between growing fruit and growing vegetables. However, I have really been thinking about this, particularly in the life of spiritual formation/Christian formation in the local church. So often we focus on our programs in a year, and then move to the next year (growing vegetables), as opposed to remembering that we may never see the full tree, OR the fruit that it bears, during the time we are tending that tree. Neither is better or worse, but we need to pay attention and balance how we cultivate each, and pray for the next farmer to come along. Read it; I am not do it justice here, but think it is another great metaphor for what we do.

  5. Melissa Ricketts

    Thank you so much for this. We are planting seeds that someone else must water.

  6. Kevin, that was incredible.

    Humble with a dash of cynicism.

    I’m a youth minister at a small church in Georgia, and I think where I shoot myself sometimes is when I ask what the topic of Sunday’s class was.

    They don’t know. They don’t care, well generally. 🙂

    And, when I think back on my time with the youth ministry that I grew up in, I couldn’t tell you any of the best lessons. But, I can remember the entire process.

    We must take the good with the bad, and avoid finance committees. 🙂

  7. Great encouragement. I was thinking about this same concept recently & wrote a post about what would get Jesus fired from youth ministry:

    I also always have such mixed feelings at graduation time. It’s hard to wonder what that kid who’s still such a mix of stupidity and potential and passion is going to do as they ‘step out on their own’. Then I remember what a mix of conflictions I still am almost 20 years later… So grateful for God’s grace.

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