5 things I have learned on how to stay healthy as a youth leader

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Written by Arek O’Connel
A full-time youth pastor in the Grand Rapids, MI area

I’ve been in full-time youth ministry for eight years and much of that time has been a steep learning curve for me. The following five things I am writing today would look drastically different in year two and I can only hope I learn more in year 15. But for now, here’s what I’ve learned helps me stay healthy as a Youth Leader in the local church.

Guard Your Heart

It’s cliché, but it’s cliché because it’s true. Perhaps the most impactful lesson I’ve learned in the last few years is that I cannot reasonably expect to lead a student to a place I myself am not willing to go. This could be applied to many areas, but none more so that guarding your heart.

Ministry is hard, it is demanding, and it is easy to neglect your own heart against the backdrop of tending to so many others broken hearts. Young people can sniff out a fraud a mile away! You’re at your best as a leader when you’re at your best as a person.

Don’t neglect your heart. Spend time in the word, pray often, and find ways to let God speak to you. Don’t just encourage other’s to cast their yoke upon Jesus, show them how by being an example! Once you make a habit of ignoring your heart and your own time with Jesus, burn out might be right around the corner. And if you don’t believe me, ask any youth worker who’s done this longer than me. I’m fairly confident they might be even more adamant than I am.

Lean on Others

It was the year before I became a full-time youth pastor, I was a $10/hour intern on our summer retreat. I was arrogant and thought I knew everything there was to know about ministry. My boss (the youth pastor of that church) called the volunteers and I around the fire to debrief the day and the retreat as a whole. It took all of 2 minutes before he began to cry (only time I ever saw him cry) out of overwhelming gratitude for his volunteers. “I couldn’t do this without you, you are the lifeblood of this retreat and ministry.” I remember thinking “ya, maybe you couldn’t but I sure could.”

To this day I don’t know that I’ve ever been more wrong in my life. Without your volunteers, you can’t do ministry. Most people think becoming a youth pastor means you are on the fast track to become every high school student’s best friend. We trick ourselves into thinking being the youth pastor/director means we have ascended to super small-group leader. When in reality, one of our greatest responsibilities is to equip, encourage, and empower our faithful volunteers.

Lean heavily on others, learn their gifts and use them well, encourage them often, and never try to go at it alone. You may think you can do a better job by yourself, but I promise you your best ministry will come in the context of a team.

Prioritize Parents

Think for a second, if you have a ‘perfect week’ of ministry with a student, how many hours would you spend with one student? 5 hours? 10 hours? If you get really lucky 20 hours? Guess what… that’s less than one day out of their entire week.

Do you know who spends more time with your students than anyone else? Their parents! Just about every major study has shown that parents are far and above the most important and formational spiritual influence in a student’s life. In fact, Fuller Youth Institute has compelling research that suggests we youth workers don’t even beat out coaches and teachers in that department.

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Regardless of where we are in the pecking order though, parents (and family) are always at the top. So let your practices and ministry reflect that reality. Spend time getting to know your student’s parents. Communicate with them often (at least once a week via email) and try your absolute hardest to never change the schedule unless it’s absolutely necessary. Create a weekly routine of being available for parents to come chat with you in your office.

NEVER talk bad about them to your students! Be their champion and advocate and constantly be pointing your students to Jesus first and their parents second. As much as we think we know and love our students, their parents will always beat us in both those categories. Prioritize them in every aspect of your ministry, they’ll notice and you’ll be glad you did it.

Learn to Say No

This is similar to point one, but it deserves it’s own headline. Write this down, engrave it on a piece of wood, burn it into your memory.  Saying no is not a bad thing! In fact, saying no to one thing always means you’re saying yes to something else. Part of the reason we became youth leaders in the first place is because we love to serve people. Celebrate that! But don’t overdue it.

Nothing will burn you out faster than saying yes to everything and everyone. Find a routine that makes you thrive and protect that routine. Allow that routine to be derailed from time-to-time when necessary, but for the most part, learn to be okay with saying no.

If you have a hard time discerning when to say no, talk to a family member, a trusted friend, or spouse and give them veto power. One of the smartest things I ever did was give my wife veto power over my schedule. I’m liable to spread myself thin and she knows that and keeps me accountable.

It’s okay to say no!

Network with other Youth Workers

Not many people tell you how being a full-time youth leader can be very lonely at times. A lot of people depend on you to lead them to many different places and depend on you to lead and shape their youth community. Doing those things takes time, and often that can result in us neglecting relationships that benefit us.

You’re not alone, there are other youth workers around you who are struggling through the same difficulties, who are experiencing similar victories and need to talk to someone about it. Pick up the phone and cold call the church closest to you and ask to grab coffee with their youth leader. Drive to a church nearby and introduce yourself to them. Ask around and see if there is a local youth leader network already in place and join them at their next meeting.

Some of the most life-giving seasons of ministry have been when I’m regularly networking with people who know what it’s like to do our line of work. As much as you might want to talk to a fellow youth-worker, there are three others (at least) within 15 miles of you who feel the same. Find them and start talking.

I am a part of an active youth network in my area. Live around Grand Rapids, MI.
I invite you to join us!