Sustaining Yourself in Youth Ministry Over a Long Period of Time
After 30 years in youth ministry there are a few things that have helped to sustain me. I offer these things to you as a guide not as a blue print. I want to unfold these under four key headings:
- Time for me
- Time to be
- Time with God
- Time alone
When I refer to youth ministry, it can be paid or voluntary. I have done both and the same principles apply.
John 15 5
“I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. If you do not remain in me, you are like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned. If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.
When God calls us into youth ministry (paid or voluntary), He invites us to “Go and bear fruit”. So we can go in confidence and not struggle or stress because we are connected to the Vine. When we labour in our own strength, we may perform really well and the young people might love us, but are we really bearing fruit? Therefore we must first and foremostly draw our strength, energy and direction from the Vine as this will help to sustain us both in the short and long term.
We must also regularly reflect and evaluate what we are doing. This is part of the pruning process. Sometimes we can waste so much energy on fruitless activities with young people when God may be asking us to prune. Slogging away at things for long periods of time saps our energy and it is not good for our long-term wellbeing.
People who perform in their own strength also find it hard to rest. Remember God invites us to lie down in green pastures (Psalm 23). That means we also need to take rest, not just when we get closer to the point of burn-out!
Jesus said that God would send us a Helper (His Holy Spirit). So we must not try to do the Helpers job! Instead we need to be daily inspired and empowered by the Holy Spirit. This is part of staying connected intimately to the Vine. If not, your Youth ministry might be exciting but it may not be inspired or truly fruitful and you may become disillusioned and give up.
The following four headings might offer you one or two insights or some inspiration.
Time for me
Youth ministry can be all-consuming, so do try to find something outside of this that has nothing to do with youth ministry. This will help you wind down, relax, and re-focus. I play drums and percussion in a funk band. While I am doing this I am not thinking about youth ministry. It doesn’t matter what you choose to do outside of youth ministry, but choose it because in energises you.
I also have a regular source of good books, not youth ministry books, to build up and challenge my faith, theology, and understanding of God. I know too many youth workers who only read youth work books or magazines.
Where possible try to stop running some of the regular youth-work sessions in non-term time (unless you are running a residential or camp). Everyone needs to press Pause occasionally! If you are constantly on the go, the ‘go’ will eventually sap the energy and creativity out of you and you will not be able to sustain yourself long term. I always try to book the day off after an event or residential to refresh myself.
Building a team is the best thing to enable time for me, as everything doesn’t then have to rely on me. This helps to lessen the potential for burn-out.
Time for me also includes time spent with family, friends and loved ones.
Time to be
All so often youth workers are busy doing (often to justify our existence) and forget occasionally just to simply be. Therefore you need to create the space and time to be as it is in this space that we sustain ourselves.
In the ‘be’ space you can be reminded of your calling or why you got into youth ministry in the first place. This acts as a good check and balance. It can also keep you in love with it. As a reminder I carry a beautiful picture in my work-bag that was drawn for me by the most challenging young person I ever worked with. He drew it whilst in a young offender’s prison. This reminds me that, although most of his life was destructive, God put the most amazing gift in him that showed his true potential.
Have the freedom to reinvent as this will give you renewed energy and help prevent you from becoming stale and repetitive. I know far too many youth workers who regurgitate instead of reinventing and this can lose freshness.
In the ‘be’ space you are more open to God and his direction, instead of just relying on your own skills, knowledge and ideas banks, as this can be energy sapping.
Time with God
All we do in youth ministry must flow out of our relationship with Jesus. If not we are just good youth workers. There is nothing wrong with this but we are not transforming lives of young people with the transforming love of Jesus.
Prayer is our daily conversation and connection with the Father which is vital in sustaining our daily walk with God for ourselves and for our ministry.
Being part of a Church community is vital in sustaining you as a Christian in community with others, even if you only get into the occasional worship service. It is so easy to feel on the outside of church if you do the youth ministry but you must make the effort to remain connected.
Unfortunately I know far too many youth workers who only read the Bible to prepare for youth ministry sessions. The Bible is our life blood as Christians and we need to immerse ourselves in it. One of the most influential youth workers in my life said we need to have a belly hunger for scriptures. By this he meant we have a belly hunger to eat food every day to sustain our bodies, therefore we need that belly hunger for scriptures every day to sustain spiritual and theological walk with God. I use the daily discipline of daily reading to help with this
We all need time alone as it gives us the opportunity to reflect, ponder, evaluate, and even pray. This is especially true in youth ministry. Longevity in youth ministry is not sustained by working at 100mph all the time. It is sustained by the moments we take to be alone and reflect. Jesus in his three years of ministry was probably full on most of that time. Yet we see glimpses of the bigger picture and the true nature of God when he took time out to be alone.
Do you ever take time alone to truly reflect on the young people you serve? When I have done this I am usually brought to tears, and it is in these tears that I find the passion and commitment to go on because my heart is broken afresh for those God has called me to serve.
REFLECTION & LEARNING
Youth ministry is the most incredible privilege that can be so fulfilling and rewarding. It is also
time-consuming if you are fully committed to it and invest the time it requires. However, I know so many youth workers (paid and voluntary) who have given themselves whole-heartedly to serve young people but forgotten about giving time to themselves, their loved ones, or more importantly to God. And long term this is not sustainable.
Time for me, a few tips
If you are able to identify something to do outside of youth ministry, start with something once a month or something that is time limited. In doing so you can build on this rather than it becoming yet another thing to fit in the diary.
If you plan and produce a termly youth ministry programme, identify the school holidays and build these in to your programmes as time off, or identify times when you do something different that requires less planning. During school half-terms I always plan one Sunday off and the other Sundays are called ‘Tea & Toast’ where we have hot drinks and toast and hang out together chatting. This way it becomes a priority to plan some ‘down time’ for you and other team members. I also always try to book the day off after an event or residential to recharge my batteries.
If you are in a position to be part of a team, try to ensure that each team member gets one session off per month. This allows enough time to build and maintain relationships with the young people but also gives you a break, especially as most youth ministry takes place in evenings or at weekends.
At the start of each term, try to book things like date nights and family time (if relevant to you). I also try to plan a rough time when I want to go on holiday. If you don’t you will end up planning your holidays and times with loved ones around your youth ministry programme.
Time to be, a few tips
Time to be doesn’t have to be hours or days long. Sometimes you just need a few moments to stop and reflect, or time to do nothing. I spend a lot of time being very busy doing but occasionally I will just watch rubbish TV programmes to escape, or have a bath away from my phone or laptop, or my wife and I go for a walk around our village. Remember you are a human being not a human doing!!!
Carry something with you in your wallet, purse or bag that reminds you of your calling to youth ministry and every so often reflect on this. This might be after a session that bombed and you want to pack it all in, or when a session has gone amazingly well and you want to celebrate.
As I said in the introduction I have been in youth ministry for 30 years, I reckon that every 5 – 7 years I have taken time before God to reinvent. At these times one of the options has been to stop but the reinvention has inspired me to keep going. Never be frightened to reinvent as it could be the very thing that inspires you to keep going!
Time with God, a few tips
Invest in your relationship with Jesus on a daily basis and your life will reflect Jesus. This includes regular prayer and intercessions for yourself and others, being part of a church community where you grow as a Christian alongside other Christians, and ask God for a ‘belly hunger’ for scriptures so that all your life reflects His word in your words and actions. If you do all of this it will first and foremostly sustain you as a Christian. Secondly your youth ministry too will be transformed because of your relationship with Jesus.
Time alone, a few tips
I find it hard to be alone because I am easily detracted by being busy. An old youth leader who is sadly no longer with us gave me a tip. She said when you take time out to be alone or alone with God, that I needed to create space for him. She taught me to repeat the words in my minds from Psalm 46:10 “Be Still, and know that I am God, “Be Still, and know that I am God”. This simple yet deeply spiritual act has been one of my saving and sustaining graces over the past 30 years. Use it if it works for you.
I only want to offer one bit of further information. I flit between two Daily Reading notes as part of my daily discipline of spending time with God. They are both on my phone so I have no excuse!
The first is Scripture Union’s ‘WordLive’ : https://www.wordlive.org/Session/Classic
The second is: Sacred Space https://www.sacredspace.ie/
Get your daily walk right with God and He will sustain you and your youth ministry. It is not rocket science!
Tony Cook is currently an Assistant Director in the Education Department at the Diocese of Bath and Wells where he has worked for 18 years. Before this he worked at Bath Youth for Christ. Tony has written a number of training courses for youth and children’s leaders including The Key, he also co-wrote the confirmation course called Live Life. In 2014 Tony was seconded in to write a national resources for the CofE called Learn to Listen to help churches listen to the voices of children and young people. In his spare time he heads up the youth work in his church, he plays drums and percussion and mentors young musicians. Tony is married to Jacqui and they have three grown up children (Rosie, Jay and Harry).