Five years ago today I officially began my job as the Youth Director at Hope Lutheran Church, my first job after graduating from John Brown University in May 2006. I thought it would be helpful to reflect on what I learned over the past five years about myself, ministry, and my context. I reserve the right to add to this list.
- Theology still matters. While still an undergraduate I had a hunch that if I took youth ministry seriously as an act of practical theology I would be able to live with myself and still be “successful.” Others will have to judge me on my success, but after five years of trying to do theologically-grounded youth ministry I have no regrets. Youth ministry shapes the theological imaginations of our young people, whether we like it or not, so we might as well take that particular task seriously and embrace our roles as theologians.
- Being a good listener is better than being culture-savvy. Some people tend to think that in order to relate to teens you need to watch the TV shows the kids are watching, read their books, go to their movies, visit their websites, and on and on. I’ve found that simply listening to the youth in my midst makes me a teen expert.
- Listen to the wise sages. As I read books, blogs and magazines and watch interviews and listen to lectures, there are some voices that can only be described as having “weight.” The weightiest voices in my life have been those who seem to be filled with the most wisdom. There are often loud experts touting their methods (with acronyms) but before long their voices are drowned out by the next. Someone who speaks with wisdom stands the test of time. Three of my favorite wise sages to read and reflect on for ministry: Eugene Peterson, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Parker Palmer.
- In faith formation, the local and particular trumps large, one-size-fits-all events. Since coming to Hope, we have never gone to a youth event with more than 300 people. On a rare occasion we will go on a retreat with a couple hundred other youth from the area, and even then I sometimes wonder about the effectiveness. More regularly, we have our own retreats planned and executed in-house. I can make sure the material fits into a comprehensive plan, I can make sure that my kids are interacting (instead of staring at a stage), and I can tailor each specific event to my kids. I haven’t seen any ill-effects from not attending huge stadium-style events and so I’ll probably continue to do without them.
- Good teaching comes from depth, not gimmicks. I have been told by different youth over the years that I am a “good teacher.” I seldom use curriculum and more times than not my “lesson” gets thrown out the window as the discussion develops around the topic or passage at hand. One unforeseen question can move things off track for the rest of the session. In order to mold a lesson on-the-fly, there has to be a deep well to draw from. I need to know scripture well, to be grounded theologically, ethically, and pastoral-ly in order to bob and weave through where God is leading us as we are studying the scriptures.
- I have to teach cyclically. I am just now beginning to really catch on that as new people join the youth ministry, usually as they get older, that I need to go back and re-lay some foundational teaching that I have covered in the past. My mind naturally keeps wanting to build on what I’ve done before, but as seniors graduate and new kids come in, I have to start over again.
- I have to read. This is a personal observation that helps me gauge my level of creativity, initiative, and depth. When I am not reading something, my whole ministry seems to suffer. There is something that is prodded within my mind and soul when I read that permeates everything I do. If I do not take time out to enter into learning and personal growth through reading I am almost certainly in a ministry “lull” within a few months.
- The dynamics of the youth ministry are constantly changing. As certain fads wear out, technology moves forward, and the actual students in the youth ministry change, the dynamics are always in flux. Certain things that worked with one group may not work with another. Just about every summer I have to rethink what the next year will look like given the teens that are in my midst.
- Denominations are dying. I have never been a part of a church that was a member in a large denomination until I came to Hope. I have learned much about denominations, especially the ELCA since I have been here, but it is obvious that denominations are dying. The world has changed, and future generations will not be nurtured in faith through massive bureaucracies.
- I’m a thinker, not a doer. I like to analyze, hypothesize, and dream, but I’m not so good at implementation. I need to work on this.
Here’s to many more years of learning.
Loved this! You have learned in five years what it has taken me much longer to learn. I’m so glad you are in youth ministry.
I appreciate the encouragement, Paul.
On another note, are you involved with Rooted?
@ Matt, yes, I am working with Cameron on Rooted. His is a good friend and fellow youth worker here. Any chance of you joining us for the conference?
Paul, Cameron asked me to be on the Rooted advisory committee. I was on the conference call last week. I saw a Paul Martin copied on the emails and was making sure I had my Paul Martins straight. Apparently I do!
So, yes, you could say I will be joining you!
Erin Haligowski says
Matt, I really appreciate your thoughts here–and it is encourage to know that I’m not alone that I’ve learned much of the same things. Impressive that in your five years in an ELCA congregation you have managed to avoid the ELCA national youth gathering. I have missed it every time, too, and don’t feel that my youth have lost out in not attending–I definitely share your feelings there on large gatherings.
Thanks for the encouraging words and wisdom!
Erin, thanks for the comment. Thankfully I didn’t have a lot of pressure from my congregation to go to the National Gathering, otherwise I might have gone.
You have a great blog of your own! I subscribed.
thanks for another thoughtful post Matt! Congratulations on your 5th anniversary! But you forgot the about significance of a well “scheduled” sabbath retreat. God Bless you today!
@Jerry… you crack me up.
To those wondering about Jerry’s comment, we went on a sabbath retreat for youth workers in our area that was over-scheduled with sessions where we talked about sabbath and rest, but never had time to practice it. Ironic.
Drew Hill says
Matt, Thanks for your great insight. They were all good reminders, especially the reminder to listen to kids more than to be culture-savvy. I struggle with that temptation, to read every blog, article, tweet, etc… and appreciate your encouragement. I’m a youth pastor and volunteer young life leader and keep a blog myself (www.YoungLifeLeaderBlog.com) and i’d love to share some of your thoughts on that blog with young life leaders. Thanks, Drew Hill
Drew, thanks for commenting. Feel free to share things from my blog on your own. All I ask for is attribution and a link back to my site. Also, please don’t copy a whole article, but you may quote it at length. Too much duplicate content isn’t good for Google.
I’m just gonna be real with you. I almost didn’t read this. I thought, “Five years? That’s not very long to be learning lessons of consequence.” God shoved my arrogance in my face, and He sent your words straight to my soul.
Thank you. I especially was challenged about not needing the large flashy stuff. I wonder to myself, “Are the big things we go to training them that those things are more godly than the local things? Am I merely being lazy as I am going to an easier-to-plan thing?”
My question to you is: do your kids feel as if they are missing out on big events they are hearing about? Should such a feeling even really matter that much?
Tucker, thanks for taking the leap to read my preliminary youth ministry lessons. I admit that five years doesn’t mean that I have arrived, it just means that I have learned something, and I wanted to reflect on that. Blogging is a way for me to process through what I am doing and thinking in a public way that allows for engagement and critique (and thus more learning).
For more thoughts on big events, I wrote this in 2007: http://mattcleaver.com/2007/11/11/neo-youth-ministry-methods-local-and-contextual/
To answer your question: no, it doesn’t seem as if my students feel like they are missing out on big events. First, they don’t hear too much about them, and second, they are sustainably growing and maturing in faith without them.
Wow! I was going to say, “You learned something in five years. I know guys who have been in youth ministry more than twice that long who learned nothing.” Way ahead of the curve.