Reflections from a Wanna-Be Youth Pastor: “Success”

Being a volunteer small group leader can have more ups and downs than being a stock market broker.

One week, I can lead an excellent Bible study where students speak up and open up about their lives. Another week, we spend the majority of the time laughing and joking and sharing about what went on in the past week. But another week will be spend in awkward silence as I ask questions that no one answers, and nothing good seems to come of it.

The idea of “success in student ministry,” while always a murky concept, has been discussed and debated in pretty much every book on youth ministry in recent history. But a hole that I’m beginning to see is that we as youth pastors can have an idea or a vision of success in our ministries that, while murky for us, is at least somewhat defined. We see the big picture more so than our volunteers. So while our concept of success may be evolving and fluid, we’ve at least sat down and thought about it, maybe even wrote some of it down.

“Success in student ministry” is a concept that I think gets lost to a lot of volunteers. Perhaps we as youth pastors are not sure enough of our own big picture idea of success to share it with our volunteers. Or maybe we’ve just assumed that the questions we hand our leaders each week and the discussion guides we give them and the yearly contract they sign is enough. But I can’t think that it’s a small minority of volunteers that leave our weekly events wondering what they’re doing and why they’re doing it. Without a compelling vision of success on a large scale and for individuals interacting with students weekly, discouragement, confusion and misguided focus can creep into the spirits of your volunteers.

As youth pastors, we need to give our volunteers a picture of what success looks like for them in their specific role. Define success for our whole ministry, and then paint the picture for your volunteers in real and vivid terms. Again, in order to do this, we must shift our focus toward seeing ourselves there to set up others for success, rather than propping up a ministry on our own merits, like-ability, or creative ideas.

More attention has been drawn to this need in recent years, thanks in part to the work of Mark DeVries at YM Architects, who advocated in Sustainable Youth Ministry for results-oriented job descriptions for all volunteers as a way to convey this idea of success. While a results-oriented focus does give leeway to the volunteer to accomplish their role in his or her own unique way, it can be tricky when we stalk talking “results” with students’ spiritual formation. But a written and understood concept of where an individual fits in the ministry is a good step toward defining success on an individual basis.

Define success for your ministry and your volunteers, and then celebrate it when you see it. This is more behind-the-scenes work that I think many youth ministry upstarts don’t often see as part of their job description, but when this definition is in place, the intangibles of “student ministry” can be brought into greater focus. If your ministry is all about reaching the lost through evangelism, celebrate with your volunteers when they lead someone to Christ. If you’re all about social justice and service, tell stories to the entire ministry when a small group of guys goes out on a weekend and helps at a food bank. Tell stories.

“Success” can be a loaded term if we don’t approach it with the right focus. In the discussion surrounding what “successful student ministry” is, I wonder if we aren’t inadvertently really talking about the perpetuation of our ministries (and thus our jobs). Successful student ministry has to always point students to a life shaped by a pursuit of Jesus. That’s not as easy to measure as statistics, conversions and mission statements. Our volunteers are entering our ministries coming from a world that defines success in numbers and measurable results. Part of our role in leading and pastoring volunteers in their ministry to students is helping them break out of this mindset, giving them eyes to see the less tangible realities of presence, formation and the “long obedience in a single direction” that marks the spiritual development of all of us, but students in particular.

It could be that some of our volunteers are one more silent small group discussion away from reconsidering this whole thing. Let’s not send them out on a mission without giving them some idea of where they’re going.

How do you define “success” in your ministry? And how do you communicate and encourage this vision of success to your volunteers?

One thought on “Reflections from a Wanna-Be Youth Pastor: “Success””

  1. Great post. One of the ways I help my leaders see success or “wins” in ministry is by urging them to earn a spot on a student’s radar – being someone who has their trust, someone they want to share their life with outside of the church setting. It opens up a whole new avenue of ministry beyond the few times a week we meet. This has helped them see that it doesn’t all hang on what happens in the small group room or in service – its an ongoing relationship that spills over into phone calls, hang out times around town, etc… Looking at ministry as a journey with our students and not putting ALL of our chips in the basket of our structured meeting times has helped leaders a lot – they know that if our group has one of those “off” nights, there will be more opportunity to sow into their lives.

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