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

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.”


  • 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

Working With (or Without) Parents

Last night we ran a training session on working with – and without – parents in youth ministry. Here are some cliff notes…

You can download a copy of the worksheet from here:

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We first explored the history of youth work theories over the last four decades and noticed that parents work was a conspicuously absent element. Of those books and models that do mention parents work, it is often as an aside or necessary inconvenience.

This left us wondering how youth work has contributed to some of the ‘it’s just awkward to have parents and teenagers in the same room’ culture that is often the norm.

To contrast this, and to look for an ‘ideal’, we explored some Biblical passages that explicitly talk about parents in what we would see as ‘young peoples work’ in the Bible. Here is a simplified view of our findings:

  • Deut. 1:1-7 – It’s the parents job to saturate their children in God’s teaching.
  • Gen. 22:1-19 – It’s the parents job to lead their children in worship.
  • 1 Sam:1:10-20; 24-28 – It’s the parents job to pray for their children and partner with the church leaders.
  • Prov. 1:1-9 – It’s the parents job to teach and develop maturity in their children for specific life needs (check out Prov. 16, 18, 22, 24 & 31 for examples).

This looks a lot like youth work right? Those include many of the central aims and values of youth strategies. It might be missing ‘mission/evangelism’ but a deeper dig into both Deuteronomy and Proverbs would have added that element too.

So when you consider that our youth work strategies are found in the Bible surrounding parents, and then consider that the missing element from our youth work programs is often intentional parents work, you might agree that we have a fundamental problem developing!

Parents are simply essential to healthy youth ministry and working them into pivotal parts of your youth work strategy should be non-negotiable.

So How Do We Do It?

We recognised that just stopping everything and starting again isn’t always a sensible or viable option! 😛 So instead we looked at some incremental ideas that would start to develop parents work – and cultivate a healthier culture of parents ideology – within our projects.

We used ‘The Gospel Coalition’ article on moving parents from ‘absent’ to ‘equipped’ – this is well worth checking out.


Here are 5 ideas that come from Jody Livingston’s brilliant blog and podcast ‘The Longer Haul.’ I’ve simplified them somewhat below – but you can (and should!) read the whole article here.

  • Communicate! – Often and clearly.
  • Recruit! – Parents make great leaders and have experience, wisdom and insight that we don’t.
  • Retreat! – Plan events, retreats and getaways to serve and train parents. I’d also add ‘look-in nights’ to this when parents can see what you do with their kids.
  • Prayer! – Form a team of praying parents. They care and know about their kids more than we do.
  • Advice! – Form another team of parents to advise and speak into your ministry.

For good measure I added 4 more ideas:

  • All-Age! – Develop a culture of inclusive and quality all-age worship.
  • Talk! – Often with your young peeps about parents and their roles.
  • Meet! – Pickup & drop off points of contact before and after sessions.
  • Don’t! – Create standoff teaching / cultures where you set yourself up as better/wiser/more trustworthy than parents.

What About Working Without Parents?

The tragic reality is that this ideal doesn’t always work. Parents are not always around, and when they are – they are not always helpful.

We considered the ‘cultural landscape’ that our teenagers are growing up in, and specifically these statistics (the first two from the 2012-13 Office of National Statistics and 2011 Census Data, also ONS):

  • 42% of all marriages in the UK end in divorce.
  • Almost half of those effect children under the age of 16.
  • Every national statistic has Established UK Christianity in decline.

When you take these three component parts together, it’s clear that we can’t expect stable, symmetrical Christian homes for many of the young people we work with.

Parents simply may not be around physically, emotionally or physically – or in some cases ‘parent’ means brother, uncle, grandmother, two mothers or an institution of some kind. It’s just not as cut and dry as the ideal (above) would carve out for us.

5 Types of ‘Unhelpful’ Parents

We considered together 5 kinds of ‘unhelpful’ parents, and brainstormed how we can work with them and thier young people. I’ve only given a basic skeleton of this here, and limited it to two points per parent type, so you might want to spend some time thinking about these with your own teams too!

Caveat: What this doesn’t give are examples of how to teach / train unhelpful parents. Up until the mid 1940s, parents would learn much of their parenting skills from 1. their own parents living in the same house and 2. the church as a whole. Suggesting parenting classes can now come across very offensively – but it is worth developing in your church culture. I can’t teach them credibly (I have no kids!), but I would happily get in someone like ‘Care For The Family’ who do brilliant work!

1. The Absent Parent

Parents can be ‘absent’ for lots of reasons. They may be in single-parent setups, emotionally detached, psychically out of the picture (or at the pub). Sometimes for very good reasons a parent can appear absent – such as working to support their family. A little bit more complicated would be the parent who has one child with additional needs that requires more attention – leaving them somewhat ‘absent’ on balance from their other children.

  • Mentoring – Big Brother / Big Sister setups from America can be amazing! Looking for older team or church members to spend time with young people to help them develop around some sense of a parent figure can be very helpful. Remember boundaries and safe practices!
  • Support With Group Culture – this is more about helping the whole culture of your youth group take care of each other. Everything you do in your project presents values, make sure you are steering these in inclusive and supportive directions.

2. The Hostile Parent

Parents could be hostile towards you personally, hostile towards the idea of faith, or hostile to other young people. Hostility often comes from panic and insecurity.

  • Communication – It’s important to make sure a hostile parent has all the info clearly and upfront to help appease their concerns. It may also be worth a face-to-face meeting over coffee to create some more solid layers of relationship and credibility.
  • Clear Lines Of Respect Drawn – You will need to stand firmly on your values, and also not tip your hat to a young person dishonouring their awkwardly hostile parent. Set the right example.

3. The Apathetic Parent

On on side of the coin they could be apathetic towards what you’re doing; not caring what goes on, or what time their kids are home. On the other side they could be apathetic directly towards their child, meaning they give few boundaries, inconsistent praise and a general lack of direction.

  • Permissions & Followup – Apathy aside you cannot slide on your safeugarding policies, and (unfortunately for them) you will need a clearer lead from an apathetic parent to make sure you’re covered. This might mean getting on the phone or knocking on their door. Creating relationship should be worth the extra effort but, as always, remember to keep safe boundaries.
  • Reward & Share Culture – Make sure that you are regularly acknowledging and praising your young people for doing well. A well executed phone-call to an apathetic parent about how well their child is doing can start to reframe that parent-child-church relationship.

4. The Gossiping Parent

My least favourite – so much so it’s worth a short story: Once upon a time a parent believed that the reason I wasn’t letting her daughter play in the youth worship band was because I was sexist. She believed this enough to tell a few other parents, a few leaders and even a few of my young people. When I finally heard this and confronted her, I let her know that the real reason I wasn’t letting her daughter play in the worship band was because she didn’t want to play int he worship band. Perhaps if she talked more to her daughter rather than about her she would have learned this.

  • Guard Your Communication Consistently – My other hard-learned piece of experience is that parents who are easier to talk to can also sometimes be a little loose tongued. If you find youself sharing more than you usually would with a parent, it’s possible that other people do to, meaning they are a bulging vat of information that should be help in confidence. That’s a lot of temptation, and unfortunately sometimes open ears means loose tongues. Youth leaders like people to talk to – find a mentor/pastor rather than parent.
  • Control The Information Flow – Make sure you are in control of the information about your programs Communicate clearly, constantly and consistently to keep things transparent.
  • Confrontation & Conflict Resolution – It is important to nip these gossiping tails in the bud. Confrontation is necessary – done well through a clear (and sometimes mediated) Conflict Resolution Strategy. In March next year we will be having a training session on Conflict Resolution led by an expert in the field. Let us know if you’d like to come!

In the meantime, if you have an issue which requires conflict resolution – we are happy to offer free Skype advice or coaching. Get in touch if you’d like to take advantage of this!

5. The Abusive Parent

I want to gently bring this up last. One of the most common forms of abusive parent within the church is the ‘Spiritually’ abusive parent – which is also one of the hardest to prosecute. I once had to spend an evening with a young person after his parents and youth leaders tried to exorcise demons out of him!

  • Know Your Procedures – All I really want to say here is know your policy and procedures and make sure your team is trained. Knowing how to handle disclosures, objective note taking and procedural response within your safeguarding structure is very important.
  • Support In Partnership – Make sure you know (again, within your context and structures) what partner organisations you can work with (Childline, Social Services etc.). As much as I want church to handle everything, we do need and should ask for help.

Interested in Training?

YouthWorkHacks is passionate about training. We offer safeguarding training, youth program MOTs, First Aid and Skype coaching. We also provide free monthly training in North Wales. Please check out our training page and get in touch if we could help you!

Not All Young People Are The Same

Ali Campbell of the fantastic site, ‘The Resource’ put me on to this through his facebook feed. Have a watch!

Two things speak really clearly to me from this:

1. Not all young people are the same!

We say this a lot, but the activities, trips and projects that we set up betray what we really think. ‘We need a big music event, with xBoxes and cake!’ Sure, that’s probably fun for a lot for young people, but for some of them it will just be superficial fun, and for others it just won’t be interesting on any level. I wonder just how many young people we miss with these flat-packed projects? Do we assume they are in the minority – why?

2. Young people are longing to make this world a better place!

I really believe that young people are geared against the introspection that we expect of them. They want a mission and a purpose. That’s why Jesus called his young disciples together with the mission to fish for people. I’d love to make all of my projects release young people into activities and ideas that make this world a better place – rather than just entertaining them.

This is a great story – and well worth supporting. You can check out Campbells’ ‘Project 365’ facebook page here.

Staying Healthy At Soul Survivor

Soul Survivor is epic. Awesome. I love it! It’s not a ‘perfect’ camp, and has made some mistakes, but if it was perfect then I wouldn’t be allowed to go – and quite rightly. I’ve been leading groups to Soul Survivor for years now, and it consistently draws us together as a group, and deepens our collective and individual relationships with God. This will be my 9th or 10th trip leading… I forget.

One of the things I’ve learned the hard way is how to keep your group – and yourself – healthy! This is really important. I used to think ‘it’s only 5 days, and it’s camping anyway – let’s rough it!’ And there is ‘some’ truth to that. If you want your kids to have the fullest possible experience, however, there are some dangers to look out for.

Soul Survivor is a bit of a melting pot. Groups gathering from all over the country with all their local plagues in a field. And the ‘free hugs’ guy doesn’t help either! You mix cold, damp, lack-of-sleep, high-energy activity, emotional intensity and homesickness into that and you have a propagator for some real issues.

Bad health can also cloud and disrupt genuine experiences with God. God moves in powerful ways at Soul Survivor – but just a tiny bit of rational thinking will say ‘no wonder everyone’s crying in this emotional-physical-spiritual mass of bodies!’ God does move(!), but we should do all we can to keep people healthy so they can take stock and carry those God-experiences into the rest of their lives.

God always gives meaning and clarity to his experiences, but if all we remember is ‘the feeling’ without any content, then there was probably something else mixed in. Something easily preventable and solvable, that – as youth leaders – we can manage.

There are two ‘Ds’ that the medical tents deal with every year: Dehydration and Damp. I’m an experienced camper, climber and first-aider, and don’t exaggerate one bit when I say these two are the two biggest killers in the mountains.


This one sounds simple but gets really serious! Not getting enough fluid in – and loosing more through sweating (heat & activity) means your body’s natural mineral balance goes out of wack. The salts, sugars and natural joint lubrication deteriorate leaving your bodies immune system in overdrive.

This is often accompanied by vomiting… next to your cooking tent!

You know you’re dehydrated if you start getting dizzy or a bit lightheaded, tired at strange times, and are not peeing much – or when you do it’s a dark (and smelly) colour! Oh – and you might feel thirsty and dry too – but not necessarily.

So drink! Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate! We don’t let any of our group leave our camp village without seeing their full bottle of water or squash. They get into the habit right away and keep it all week. They have a full drink with each of their meals and go to bed with a full bottle too.

Even if you – or they – don’t feel thirsty. Have a bottle and sip, especially on those long hot afternoons.


I once had a lad get his onesie soaked in the rain – and – leave his tent windows open all day. He crawled into his damp sleeping bag with his damp onesie in a damp tent. He spent the next few days very ill. Mixed fevers, a bad head cold, dizziness – and had to be bought back by the medic van twice.

Getting and staying wet is a nightmare! At least you’ll get a cold and be uncomfortable for the week – but you could be looking at maceration too – which is when the outer layer of skin (especially on your hands and feet) gets so saturated it separates, cracks and blisters.

So a few basics. If you get wet (you will), then go get dry! Take off and replace all your wet clothes and leave them somewhere outside your sleeping area to dry. If your tent leaks, take everything out, dry it fully with towels, let it vent and then put things back in (once they have dried).

Make sure you have a clothes line and pegs with you – or a gazebo to hang things up in the rain.

2 More things: Sleep and Food!

Make sure you have everything you need for a comfortable nights sleep! When we meet with parents before our trips we go through sleeping-bag ratings and what insulation (mats etc.) to use. We teach the young people how to set up and manage their tents and we do insist on our curfews.

And if you’re one of those groups that doesn’t impose a curfew, and your group is still running around the villages screaming at 4am while your snug up in your tent. Please don’t come. 🙂 Thank you!

Food wise, we make sure that they eat a good breakfast and a carbs-heavy, slow-release-energy meal in the afternoon. We watch them for overloading on sweets and make sure they are having some kind of actual meal from the cafes/trailers in the evening. Soul Survivor is not an excuse to eat crap, and by day three you’ll notice if you have! Proper diet means you have a group that stays positive and open, rather than cranky and surly.

Where Have You Been YouthWorkHacks?!?

Have you missed us? Sorry. It’s been a crazy month of post-it-notes, cardboard boxes, A3 paper and cheap marker pens. Life is starting to slow down again though! We’ve been doing a few things like a podcast for The Longer Haul, writing a Grove Booklet, working alongside Pogim.org facilitating training, and running some big events.

So what can you expect now we’re back?

  • New comics by Chloe – coming soon!
  • A video-cast training series made with some epic friends on public speaking & clear communication.
  • Some interviews with fab people throughout summer. Just you wait!
  • A ‘how to’ guide on running RE Conferences that schools love!
  • Some brainiac round table commentary on Christian ministry with really smart people.
  • A bunch of wacky posts on games, activities and culture-creating ideas.

So stick around, subscribe and enjoy!

So … You want to set up a youth cafe?

Great to have another post on Premier Youth Work blog this week. This time I was talking about the immensely popular ‘Youth Cafe’ project, how to make it work, and why you might not want one.

Check it out here: http://www.premieryouthwork.com/Read/Youthwork-Blog/So-you-want-to-set-up-a-youth-cafe

Advent in the Youth Group.


Every week I run a small group of between 10-25 young people called ‘Redefine.’ It’s aim is to disciple believers to embrace seekers and grow seekers into believers. It’s a group made up of young people from 8 or so churches in North Wales and has a strong family ethic. Each session includes food, Q&A time, Bible-Study, ice-breakers, worship through music, prayer, reflection and response.

What makes Redefine slightly different from many other Christian small groups is the broad age range, a peer-mentoring model, a mix between Christ followers and seekers, and a high focus on participation and serving. This group regularly designs and leads services and events in Churches locally.

As my background pre-YFC is Church of England youth ministry I thought this year I’d have a stab at Advent. The aim is to learn from the first people who worshiped Jesus in the flesh, and see what each set of worshipers revealed about the nature and character of the Jesus we worship today.

Broken up it’ll look like this:

Week 1. The Magi.
Week 2. The Shepherds.
Week 3. The Angels.  (Special ‘invite a mate’ worship driven night).
Week 4. The Parents.  (Hopefully some kind of ‘midnight mass.’)

What makes Advent slightly different from other weeks for Redefine will be some focus on ritual (lighting candles, communion on week 4) and some Christmas ‘class’ with a weekly Christmas toast and souped up carols. There will be a strong focus on application, particularly how we can make Christmas a time of lifestyle worship.

So I will be blogging-up each session breakdown on here to say how it went and give some idea how this can work. These will not be Bible Studies per-say, but with some ingenuity I’m sure you could adapt them if you wanted.

Also – I’d love to hear how you play Advent with your youth group – or why you don’t. Send me a message, or leave me a comment.

I’ll bob the first session up tonight. Thanks 🙂

3 Things Better Than A Youth Worker


So you’re Eldership board have finally let you spend some money on a youth worker – fab! Great news. I’m full on behind you. But let’s take a lean back for a second and look up at the giant 22nd Century looming before us… is a youth leader really what you need?

I’ve got to be careful here or I’ll render myself unemployable, but I’d like to argue that there are three roles other than a youth leader a Church could spend some money on and might even be more effective long term.

So first off, why not a youth leader. Well we’re flaky, generally restless, and don’t stick around all that long. Sometimes we add young people to the church, but usually in a polarizing way. We’re also a little naive and grumpy, and we’ll probably break a lot of windows and leave a mess in the office. There’s also great Charities that employ area youth workers and interns that you could plug in to (YFC, Urban Saints, SU, YWAM, YoungLife, TFG, Oasis etc).

So where else could you put your money? Well here’s three options. If you can – get all three; they’ll make a great team!

1. A School’s Worker

This could be part-time and even better, could be shared among several churches – ‘winner!’ says the treasurer.

Any church based youth ministry that isn’t fed from schools work in 10 years time will simply not exist. School is where the action is and more importantly it’s where the young people are! All after-school clubs (church youth groups definitely included) are falling in popularity, and when they’re not they tend to be inward focused rather than feeder groups.

An effective school’s worker will be able to connect with young people, parents, teachers, and the community in one swoop. A school’s worker needs to add quality content to the life and curriculum of the school and creatively engage with any opportunity they afford.

There’s nothing stopping a school’s worker running an after school club too y’know!

2. A Family’s Worker

This role takes seriously integration, mentoring, all-age worship, and community. All Churches need to thrive off these things!

An effective family’s worker will simply help community happen. They will oversee Children’s and youth activities, engage with parents, coordinate all-age services, and have the umph and perspective to grow these things together. They will help with parenting courses, church socials, trips away, and regular visiting. They are also the ideal people to set up peer-mentoring programs.

A Family’s worker could also have a youth cell group! Why not, eh?

3. A Social Worker

A church based social worker will help families and individuals engage properly and healthily with their circumstances. This can also be part-time.

Trained social workers are just what the church need today; they are people-centered, wise, discerning, personally motivated, and well educated in how the world works. They can offer family mediation, grief counseling, debt advice, benefits consultation, homework help, careers direction, home-bound visits and all sorts of other real-human-life-type help.

A great social worker can also train and release people to work more like the Body of Christ by helping people love and serve each other more effectively.

Hey, they could even do some one-to-ones with teenagers!