3 Ways To Have A Successful, Yet Unhealthy Youth Ministry

I’ve been an unhealthy, yet relatively ‘successful’ youth worker for a while now. My projects mostly work, events go well, and young people know Jesus – but stress, anxiety, headaches, insomnia, and blood-pressure problems have also accompanied those things.

Since the doctors started treating me, and my health has started to improve, I’ve wondered if whole youth ministries could look like that too: Successful on the outside, but bitterly unhealthy on the inside. Let’s just take 30 second to clarify the difference between those two.

Health & Success

A successful youth ministry, is measurably working. People are coming, moving through your strategy properly, and are even forming connections with Jesus. It looks great.

A healthy youth ministry is self-sustaining, stewards resources properly, creates non-dependent relationships, takes care of its leaders, works for the long haul and cultivates mature and independent believers. It is great!

Purely successful youth ministries often harbour deeper problems; ticking time-bombs that threaten to do real damage. At best, these ministries cannot outgrow or outlast their leaders.

Purely healthy youth ministries might not actually do any effective youth ministry at all! A little bit like the boy in the bubble, they can be too removed from the real world.

There are, as I’m sure you can imagine, plenty of ways of running both healthy, unsuccessful ministries (that’ll be another post!), and unhealthy successful ministries. We’ll take a look at jut three obvious examples today – with the hope of moving towards both heath and success!

This does go near the all too obvious examples of not respecting the Bible, not understanding the Holy Spirit, or not loving Jesus… but, y’know… think about them too!

1. Having a clear project strategy, but poorly executed projects

I’m a big believer in working through the big picture of what your youth ministry is there to do. It should be specific to your context, responsible to your resources and develop projects that flow our of your unique values and aims. (For how to create this, click here!)

If you’re like me, then developing a strategy is fun! It can include spreadsheets, brainstorms and coloured pens. At the end of the development time, you can have a glossy, bound strategy document that you’d be happy to present to anybody.

If you’re still like me, however, you’ll find actually applying that strategy to real life less fun. Motivating people to follow it and create a plan that works out in the life of your projects is much harder to do. It’s relatively easy to have a master plan, but then have no clue how to marshal the resources, grow the relationships or actually pull off the projects.

A ministry like this will look great on paper! It’ll help you get funding and will keep you slipping through the non-observant, eldership meeting net – but it won’t be healthy as there won’t really be anyone coming. Or, if they are, it will be a niche group that probably didn’t need your strategy anyway.

2. Having amazing projects, but a poor or non-existent strategy

This is usually more the norm of bigger and better funded churches. There are a couple of brilliant projects or events that look incredible. They attract lots of people, have a funky logo and – for all intents and purposes – are ‘working.’

But when you move past the honeymoon period – what are you doing with those young people? Why are they there – and how are you going to move them on with Jesus? What effect is this happening on the long term spiritual life of the whole church, or other churches in the area, or the local schools? How are you balancing discipleship, mission, worship, prayer, ministry, service, and church-connections?

Usually the ‘answer’ to these questions tends to found by looking for the next big, exciting thing to adapt the projects around. They travel sideways rather than forward.

Without a strategy behind it, all you’ll have is a short term bang made up of a lot of further short term or immature relationships. Usually you’ll have a burned out team and a string of broken leaders at the helm. These can also grow around purely student led projects without oversight or accountability.

If these ministries have been in play for more than three years (rare), then look for the fruit by seeing just how many people who passed through it are still walking with Jesus at Uni, in work or in the wider church.

3. Having amazing projects, a clear strategy but a poor team development plan

This is often the curse of the trained, or intermediately experienced youth worker. They understand the value of a clear strategy, and they can rock out quality projects. They don’t, however, have the life-experience of developing a long-term committed team.

These ministries are often understaffed, or they are filled with just one personality type (usually the same as the youth worker – or personalities that the youth worker can easily control).

These youth workers burn out quickly and become very frustrated because they are – technically – doing all the right things. Oftentimes, they end up in too many driver’s seats and as a result, are more likely to crash and burn.They simply don’t how how to develop the sense of ownership and support than comes from a team that can outgrow the leader.

Three tips for healthy AND successful youth ministries

So not so much tips as agonising, steep learning curves, but they are all things we should learn to do better.

1. Have a clear strategy

2. Learn to develop relevant, quality projects that flow out of that strategy.

3. Make sure team development is a key feature of both of those.

Here’s a few posts that might be helpful:

Writing A Strategy From Scratch

44 Models of Youth Ministry

The first of a 3 part series on working with different personalities

11 Lists That Successful Youth Workers Keep

Typical Nativity Headaches! (Comics)

P1040050A new set by our In House Comic, Chloe Perrin. Check out her work at chloescomics.wordpress.com

screen-shot-2016-12-07-at-14-37-36

screen-shot-2016-12-07-at-14-38-14

screen-shot-2016-12-07-at-14-37-51

I asked 40 youthworkers in 3 countries how many events they run – here’s what they said…

I have had a lot to say on the subject of youth events over the last couple of years. It’s not that I don’t like them, it’s that I think they are often flat-packed, overused, resource draining and strategy defining. I don’t mind them if they are a carefully considered idea off the back of a clear strategy… but yea.

I asked:

“How many one-off ‘events’ do you have in a year?
Classing an ‘event’ as something specifically youth ministry related, but less regular than a project, takes a whole lot of specific planning, and has an aim to bolster your regular ministry.”

Results:

  • 23 Youth workers said – 3-5 a year.
  • 10 said 6-10,
  • 5 said more than 10
  • 1 said 1-3
  • and 1 person said upto 1

Events ranged from $150 – $10,000 (USD) and often larger groups were associated with more events. Some of these were classic concert style, whereas others were special ‘pizza nights’ or trips out.

A few additional comments were left by people who now run less events than they used to, or now run no one-off events at all. The reasons they gave pointed to busy schedules, burnout, clashing with school, and the inability to form deeper consistent relationships.

Events can be very successful – but they do need to be carefully thought-though and cultivated within a clearly defined cultural context.

For a few more posts on events that add to this discussion, look here:

Do we really NEED another youth event?

Podcast: What’s wrong with youth events really?

Event planning and brainstorming (worksheet)

Event top sheet (worksheet)

Youth event generator