Monday, March 3, 2008

Our journey into a youth-pastor-less youth ministry

In response to Riddle's recent post on "The Insane Youth Ministry Solution," I wanted to share a bit about what our congregation has been doing recently in the area of youth ministry. Not so much to toot our own horns, but to share what has worked (read: what we think is currently working) for us.

It began a few months ago during the interim ministry period. There was basically one or two people both completely burnt out on youth ministry, with no desire, no time, no energy, and no physical wellness left to contribute. In October my ministry officially began here and right from the start there was a group of kids asking about having a youth ministry. They were asking me from day one when we were going to have a youth group, when we were going to take mission trips, etc..., etc... My response was simple: We'll have them as soon as, but not before, we're ready.

So we spent a couple of months meeting with the youth, the parents, and other people in the congregation learning their hopes and dreams for youth ministry in the church and having serious conversations about what it would really take to make these happen. Interestingly enough, "Hire a youth minister" was never spoken. This might be due, in part, that we couldn't afford the luxury of hiring out our youth ministry, but is also due to the close-knit nature of congregation and their desire to see their kids (literally their own kids and grandkids) participate in meaningful ministry.

For background sake I'll tell you: The old model at this congregation was to have one person in charge of everything, including recruiting other people to help, which was probably the most burdensome task. Immediately we recognized that the old approach would not work. We discussed needs for our youth and narrowed them down to a few: numerous significant relationships with adults who care about them, an environment that's open enough and safe enough for them to explore all aspects of their faith (including the questions), and a faith community that welcomes them, listens to them, and gives them a significant place (role).

Now, I can't tell you that we're doing so hot at all of these yet (the third will take quite some time and effort), but here's what we're doing. (Note: in our congregation youth is defined as Grade 3 through College.) First, we're defying the normal logic that youth ministry needs one specific person in a hierarchical leadership role as well as the logic that says you've got to program to death to build momentum. Recognizing that kids and adults alike are busy and prone to burnout, we built around a team ministry concept and an irregular schedule.

First, the schedule: We meet for "youth group" twice a month, on Sunday afternoons, with a meal, games, small group discussion and bible exploration, and some music. We have one monthly service/mission activity. And we have one specifically fun activity per month just to blow off steam and build community. We only do this four months in the spring and three months in the fall. Once per quarter we have youth led worship, also, and they have all the responsibilties over both our Saturday evening service and our Sunday morning service (including the preaching!).

Now, the team: We've identified a bunch of different people with different gifts, talents, and desires and given responsibilities over specific functions. Some functions share responsibility between multiple people. For any given youth "function" we have about ten to twelve people there helping...this is for a youth group of about nine or ten kids! Some people teach, or share teaching responsibility, some help with games, some with food, others with music, and others have hybrid roles. And the vision/direction/planning/whatever you want to call the administrative responsibilities falls to a group of people that consists of both adults and students, all laity. We have no professional youth minister and do not need one. (In almost a decade of dedicated youth ministry I told myself I'd vision myself out of a job--as far as youth ministry goes...I guess that happened.

My role, as the only pastor of this congregation, is really different than anything I've experienced. I help lend voice, direction, and training to the lay leaders, and I participate in cyclical responsibilities, just like any other volunteer in the group.

To this point we're achieving something good. The volunteers are enjoying their responsibilities and really getting creative with their planning. The kids are beginning to get into it and invite others. Last week we began planning our next youth led worship services and we had kids asking for responsibilities I'd not originally planned to turn over. But I'm turning over the reigns to their passion, voice, and desire to participate in the ministry of the Church.

We don't yet know what the future will hold for us...but right now we think we've found a better way, at least for us. We're no megachurch, no super para-church organization, and, as of yet, no books have been written about us. Maybe someday we'll come up with a reason we need to hire another youth minister, but right now, I think we've already got a lot of good ones.

I hope our story has been helpful for you in some way.


B.S. Collins said...

Dan, you have some really good insight here. I appreciate your focus on building relationships with the students in your group and creating a place where they can feel safe and explore about their faith.

However, it seemed like your post didn't include a lot about doctrine and teaching them biblical truth. I would guess you have this element, but just didn't emphasize it.

Please let me know what you do with this.

Dan Mayes said...


I wanted to focus, in this post, more on our model...which is what we're getting down now. It's a big jump for us to think about and "do" the youth ministry the meat of what is taught was, of course, assumed.
We do sound biblical teaching in our Sunday School environment and in our youth group setting--during the small group lessons/discussions time. Our lessons currently focus on the text that the congregation has studied during Sunday School and during the worship service. Some have elements of object lessons, some discussion, some drama, but all come from our study. We have materials prepared for our teachers/discussion leaders that include exegetical work on the biblical text, then ideas for how to creatively teach and lead discussions.

I hope this answers your questions. Thanks for reading, and thanks for commenting!

mark said...

great stuff Dan!

Brenda! said...

Yes, this is a very encouraging post. More pastors and youth pastors need to be encouraged to try this approach, especially from one who is doing it. Please feel free to share anything you are learning at as a means to do that. Seriously.

Jonny McCormick said...

So do you think Youth Ministry can be done effectivley without an employed "Youth Pastor/Co-Ordinator/Worker...or whatever?

Dan Mayes said...


Yes! I absolutely do think youth ministry can be done effectively without an employed "Staff" person. In fact, I think some of the better youth ministries I've seen are done this way. But it all depends upon the congregation's perspective of ministry, the size of the congregation, the role that the pastor(s) assume, and a lot of other factors.

I don't want this post to be an excuse for some group of stingies not to hire someone just to save money. That should never be the motivation. And I don't want to say having an employed staff person dedicated to youth is wrong, either.

Really large churches probably could not completely do without an employed staff person just because the committment and time it would take would level an enormous toll upon the volunteers. Once you reach a certain size (who knows what it is?) you probably have to hire someone.

Youth ministry can be done effectively without an employed person if enough people in the congregation can take ownership in the ministry, taking it seriously and not pawning it off on a few overburdened individuals, if the size of the congregation allows for it, and if there is adequate support/training/etc...from the pastor(s) of the congregation. I think it does take all three of these elements and then some.

Great question!

grahameknox1 said...

Hello Dan,

Greetings from the UK. Thanks for a very stimulating post. I came to it by way of Brian at Rethinking Youth Ministry. Good to here of what you're doing. I think parental and congregational ownership of ministry to young people is essential in helping them become part of the whole church. Keep us updated.

Dan Mayes said...

Will do.

Bill Spangler-Dunning said...

Im honored to read your post. I think you are right on topic. As I travel and consult with congregations on this issue I wonder what you might think about how much of difference it has made that you have a youth ministry background? That this background might be an element in developing a youth ministry without a paid staff person... I see the paradox in my proposal here but I ask this question as one (which you know) often consult with congregations on how to start or save youth ministries in small to medium churches?

Dan Mayes said...

I think it makes all the difference in the world that I have a youth-ministry background because it has provided me with a context, or lens, for viewing youth ministry from the position of pastoral leadership. I think someone removed from that context has tendencies to see youth ministry as a "sub-set" or "special interest" in the church, rather than as a frame of context for congregational ministry.

This background definitely shaped my approach here. Spending all those years in youth ministry created within me a deep-seeded feeling that there was need for a new model. All my experiences of feeling like a hired contractor led me to realize just how much congregations are willing to pay someone else to do youth ministry for them. And what does that communicate to kids? That they're just important enough for us to pay someone else to take care of them. It's like I spent 9 years as a glorified babysitter.

Something different has got to happen. I'm not saying we've nailed it's still early and we already see many growing edges...but we're trying what I believe is a better model for our context...and I'm liking it.

Thanks for reading and commenting!

Dan Mayes said... more thought...
I do also need to say that my background in youth ministry provided me with some much-needed experience, insight, and training that is valuable in my new role.

I'm able to build this new model based on experience and lessons. I'm also able to coach and train out of my experiences...I can help volunteers proactively prepare for challenges/issues because I know what's likely to arise. I also know a bit about some of the more mundane but necessary things like how to talk to kids, building community & trust, etc...

My question is, with a model like this...without a "youth pastor"...and with someone without a background in youth ministry, can it really be done? I think yes, though it may be more difficult. I think the training materials/programs are there. If experience is lacked, there's only one way to get it. It may be rough, difficult work, and it may have many, many hiccups...many failures to accompany those successes. But that comes with the territory.

Matt Cleaver said...

Just found this post... thanks for your thoughts.