What If You Could Do It Again?
Back to the Future: Youth Ministry Edition
By Pastor Scott Russ
When I was in high school I still remember taking my girlfriend (who is now my wife) to go see a movie at the local mall. All I knew about the movie was that it was a Steven Spielberg movie starring Michael J. Fox. These were two very good reasons to see a movie in 1985. Little did I know what I was in for. It turned out to be one of my favorite ‘80’s movies. The concept of going back in time 30 years to help change the future was a great concept. Of course, Marty McFly was trying to help his parents who were teenagers in 1955. But I often wonder, what would I do if I could go back 20-25 years and find the young version of myself just starting out in ministry. Knowing what I know now, what would I say to the 1990’s Scott just starting out in youth ministry?
First, I would begin by saying, although you have studied youth ministry and biblical studies, and you are super anxious to try out everything you have been studying in college and seminary, learn to appreciate and support your parents of teens! When I first started out in ministry I was slightly resentful towards my parents and adult leaders. I always felt like they thought I was not fully capable of understanding teenagers until I raised my own. I felt slighted by this in that I have spent years studying adolescent development, adolescent psychology, adolescent spirituality, adolescent culture, and a heaping dose of biblical studies. I was proud of the knowledge I had. I believed that I spent more time studying the modern-day teenage experience than most parents have even had teenagers in their own home. A little prideful, I know. But now that I have raised 4 kids of my own, and have had all of them go through their teenage years, I get it now! There is nothing that college can teach you when it comes to parenting your own teens.
Secondly, parents are not your enemies! They can be your greatest allies. Understand that their lives are crazy trying to manage their teenager’s life. Many of them are going through their own issues when it comes to marriage, parenting and work in that any help that they can get would be awesome. Minister to your parents by regularly communicating with them, providing resources to them and using them to help with the ministry. Some of the best youth leaders I have ever had have been parents of teens.
Third, teens’ lives are crazy busy and it is even more crazy as each decade passes. Be careful to not put even more pressure on them than they already have. Allow youth group to be a place of rest; an opportunity in their lives where they can take off the masks, let go of their responsibilities and just be themselves for a few hours. In my early years, I was so busy trying to make teenagers even more busy doing church stuff. Now I admit that there is a place and time to get them doing ministry, but they also need downtime just to be themselves. And what better place to do that than in youth group.
Fourth, GRACE, GRACE, GRACE! Do not take things personally and get resentful towards teens or parents if they are not showing up or getting involved in the way you would like them to do. Realize that many times they are trying to figure out life themselves. You may not agree with their decisions or choices but always err on the side of grace and love. Don’t show preferential treatment to your “fanbase” and snub the others. Instead, show grace and love to everybody, all the time. Always leave the door open for any and all teenagers to come back and get plugged into the youth group. Go to where the teens are. Go to their games, performances and recitals! Show that you care even if they are not regularly involved in your ministry events.
And finally, BALANCE! Give equal time to all areas of your life. To have the greatest youth ministry of all time is not worth it if your own family is in shambles. Make time for just you and your family. Make time for you personally doing things that you like to do that will recharge you. Make sure you are investing in your marriage. You will see way too many couples divorce when their teenagers go off to college because they stopped making time for themselves and invested all their time into other things. Once the teens left for college then the couple realized they didn’t really have a relationship anymore. If you are in a church that demands 60-90 hours every week then get out. Busy weeks throughout the calendar year are inevitable and always work hard during those times. But it is vital for you to find a church that sees the importance of you and your family development being just as important of a “job” as the ministry you are being hired for. You are going to want your own biological teenagers to love the church. I promise you they will not if they feel like they are ignored because all your time is given to the church and you have no time for them, that is, until they are in your youth group. But by that time, they will be resentful of the church and you have defeated the very thing you would want for your own kids!
Ministry can be tricky. And it can play with your thoughts and emotions. But keep a balanced life and always, always, always be full of grace and love! I wish I could go back in time to convince my young self of these things. Sometimes I wish I could have a do-over. But thankfully God continued to work in me and bring me to this point in my life where I feel proud and honored to be a husband, father and minister to teens!
Pastor Scott Russ
Scott is the Pastor of Youth Ministry at Epiphany United Methodisit Church in Cincinnati, Ohio. He gets to work with Junior High, Senior High and College age students. Scott grew up in Northeast Ohio and is a huge Cleveland fan. He and his wife, Shelly, have been married for over 25 years now. They have 4 kids!