Fighting Ministry Fatigue

Last summer, I followed up an incredible week at a CIY Move conference with my High School students with a week serving a mission called 3:18 Ministries on a reservation in Arizona. Despite the heat, fatigue, and variety of creepy-crawly “hosts”, that week was a great one as well. Driving across parts of 4 large states at the end of that two week trip, I was filled with a healthy feeling of satisfaction and pride in my students. They really are an amazing group of people (I’m sure yours are, too), and I was honored to be able to have such a great seat to watch God work in their lives.

A couple days at home provided enough time to wash clothes and re-pack for a week of camp with my Jr. High students up in the Black Hills. It’s a setting I look forward to visiting every year. But I’d already covered over 2000 miles in a full church van over the previous 13 days. After the week surrounded by Jr. High campers, I was out of gas. Which wouldn’t have been a big deal, except…

I still had one more week of camp to go!

This would have been a huge problem had it not been for a great couple of volunteers from our church who were going to be at camp serving in other capacities. They were willing to add to their list of duties, so I was able to drop them all off Sunday and come back to get them on Friday. They had a great week without me!

The pace of last July was the most solid example I’ve encountered (next to the gray hairs and balding spot on my head) of the fact that youth ministry takes something out of you. As rewarding as it is, there’s no denying that it can be draining as well. It’s critical that we don’t let ministry drain us completely. I’ve noticed a few things that can help us continue to have something to offer.

Plan the calendar with Christ as the center. If you and I don’t plan our time, someone else will, and they won’t necessarily have God’s mission for us in mind. Parents, students, Lead Pastors, friends, coaches, and pretty much everybody else have something they want from you and your ministry. If we’re not careful, we will fill our schedules with every body else’s expectations and our traditions and neglect to plan around what God wants. If you’re doing what God wants, He’ll provide the fuel. But why would He fuel a flurry of activity that doesn’t have Him at the center?

Work your way forward with a team. The workload of a normal, healthy youth ministry will overwhelm you if you try to drag it around on your own. So please don’t try. Find some other adults in your church who care about the next generation, build them into a cohort that is intent on discipling students, and do everything you can to equip them to do just that. Pull away from your regularly scheduled youth ministry schedule a few times a year to refine the vision of your ministry with your team and share some tools to help make that vision happen. Learn to lean on each other as God knits together His Body.

Stay connected with Christ. Your youth ministry is not about what you can accomplish. It’s not even really about what you have to offer. It’s about Jesus producing fruit in you that will sustain the life of His movement to redeem and reconcile the people around you. He does that when we stay connected to Him. I have to admit to some pretty dry stretches from time to time when I was only cracking my Bible open to get fodder for the next lesson I had to teach. When prayer was a token offered up at bedtimes and meals. Apart from Him… I could do nothing. But when I am consistently renewing my mind by feeding on His Word, I can both hear His voice more clearly and am given the power to respond to His call more confidently. When we stay connected with Him, He continually fills us no matter what life and ministry take out of us.

Don’t forget your first church. It’s easy to get busy with any job and neglect our families. In ministry, we can also lull ourselves into thinking it’s ok because we’re doing important, God-honoring work. But (if you’ll forgive the paraphrase) what would it profit a youth pastor to gain the best youth group ever known to man and lose his own family in the process? One of the most exciting things for me right now is to see my own kids leading out in our student ministry. 3 of my 4 kids are old enough to be part of our youth ministry and I love seeing how God is working through them within our groups. But I wonder how they’d be feeling if I’d let my ministry steal me from them when they were younger…

There are sure to be times that are more taxing than others. But youth ministry doesn’t have to drain you. Determine now what God wants to do through your ministry and plan accordingly. Develop your team, keep each other connected, and never lose sight of those God has placed most firmly in your sphere of influence. 

Then, go make disciples.

20 Observations at the Beginning of My 20th Year in Youth Ministry

This month, I began my 20th year working full-time as a youth pastor. I’ve had a lot of odd jobs here and there and some regular part-time work to make ends meet, but since April of 1999 my full time work has been for a church. How about 20 observations from the past 19 years?

  1. April Fools Day may be an odd time to roll into a new town, especially when Easter is a couple days later and will be your first Sunday on staff.
  2. We were finding hidden chocolate eggs all over the house as we moved in… and didn’t find others until 6 months later when the furnace kicked in and melted them!
  3. There were other options, but God was clear when He sent us to Auburn. It was a great place to learn how to function as a church leader and I’m grateful for the patience His people showed us there as we grew together.
  4. Clarity doesn’t always make things easy.
  5. Clarity isn’t God’s highest ideal – and He won’t provide it if it will stifle your faith.
  6. One of the Jr. High boys on my first day thought I was his big sister’s new boyfriend. I wasn’t… No one makes that mistake anymore.
  7. I could not have done what I have been doing without LuAnn.
  8. It was funny to think about how differently I began to process what I was saying to students when my own kids got old enough to be a part of the student body!
  9. No matter how much influence you or I think the youth pastor has with a student, Mom and Dad still set the tone for discipleship of the next generation.
  10. A lot has changed in the youth ministry landscape. Much of it for the better… but so has youth culture. We can’t afford to just keep doing what we’ve done.
  11. Every church can rescue the next generation.
  12. God will often use the students who’ve tested us the most to make His Kingdom most visible to the world around them. Some of the most spastic, broken, hyper, depressed, and maladjusted kids I’ve known have faithfully grown to be great leaders of churches, families, & businesses who display God’s love everywhere. Very few would have picked them for this when they were young. God did.
  13. Youth ministry is still looking beyond what a student presents on the surface to see what God sees inside and then helping the student see it, too.
  14. Some of my favorite moments in youth ministry are still the roadside communion stops on the way to CIY Move or 3:18 Ministries in Arizona. Some of the most meaningful ministry happens outside… Outside our walls, outside our plans, & outside our routines. I need to get outside more.
  15. I’ve only worked full time at two different churches. Both situations held surprises I could not have imagined. Prepare to be surprised.
  16. Many students are almost absolutely unaware of how loved they are by God and that He is, right now, at work in the world to show them that love.
  17. One of the most important things we can do is to open doors for them to see Him.
  18. Youth ministry will not lead to lasting transformation of young lives without teaching students to dig into the Word of God for themselves.
  19. Students who gain the tools to read and understand the Bible will not only lead the church some years down the road, they will lead us now.
  20. The best is yet to come.

Oh, What A Tapestry He Weaves…

Somewhere in about 2005, I got to attend a leadership conference called Origins at Mosaic. I remember sitting up in the balcony of the Mayan Theater downtown L.A., a million miles from anyone I knew, hoping the crowded solitude would help me find whatever I needed from God in that moment. I wasn’t quite sure what that was, but I knew I needed something or I was done. Exhausted from banging my head against the same walls over and over, I think what I was hoping for was permission to quit… to take my young family and walk away from the life we’d built to start another. (That’s not what I got, by the way.)

As I waited for the first session to start, I noticed a familiar face, milling through the crowd a few rows away. It was only familiar from the back covers of a couple of my favorite books, An Unstoppable Force and The Barbarian Way by Erwin McManus, pastor of Mosaic. Actually, I think the title he used was Cultural Architect and I loved it! We shook hands and when I said I was a youth pastor, he introduced his young daughter, Mariah. I had no idea what their relationship was truly like or what she would make of the life God had given her, but it was great to see a pastor of an incredibly innovative church, leading a conference and writing and talking about the art of ministry and leadership in ways that others didn’t (in ways that resonated deep within me and continue to shape how I work and lead) with his daughter by his side. I noted that whatever else he was pouring into us, he seemed even more intent on developing the leader in Mariah. It was only a moment (one I’m sure neither of them remembers); a glimpse that revealed very little about the actual dynamics of how that would happen, but it was a moment that left a mark.

My own daughter was only a few years old (maybe 5), back at home with my wife and with wide open possibilities ahead of her, but I remember praying that day that whatever else happened in my life and ministry, God would help me develop a relationship with my little girl that would see us sharing hope and life and light together. I hoped that someday, she could look at me with the pride and admiration and hope that I saw in Mariah’s glance at her dad. Later, when he had her come up on stage and sing, I was again struck by the poise and confidence she showed (not to mention an incredible voice). I hoped I would raise such a confident girl.

Today, my “little girl” is about ready to graduate high school, enrolled to start a worship arts program in a few months, and skipping school today to attend the Outcry, a worship conference where one of the featured leaders is none other than Mariah McManus. I am beyond proud of who Emily is and who she is becoming. Last night, as she led our student ministry in a moment of musical prayer, she’d chosen a song co-written by Mariah McManus and it struck me how God has been moving to answer my father-hearted prayers for my kids. And even more so, how He is orchestrating great things for His kids, inviting us to run in faith into a symphonic display of His love that will bring great hope and light to the world. It’s amazing what He does with our faithful response to His heart!

The song has quickly become one of Emily’s favorites. It speaks to the song that we are all made for; the song of Jesus’ greatness and strength and love. The darkness and fear that keep us from singing His song are no match for Him! God is moving. Whether you’re in small town Nebraska or the heart of Los Angeles, He is weaving tapestries out of our lives in ways we can barely comprehend. We are made to proclaim Him, and I can’t wait to see how she will lead others to do that with all of her life.

Whatever you think you need from God right now, take heart. Jesus is greater than whatever you’re facing. You may be facing it for the sole purpose of learning to live in that reality. Let Him breathe in you and show the life that only He can give. The world needs to see it.

A Better Way to Live

Current popular sentiment seems to be that the world would be a more peaceful place if we would all just let everyone do what they want and stay out of each other’s way. Just mind your own business and stay out of mine and we’ll all get along just fine. With a collective denial of any sort of objective truth, people are just left to do whatever they think is right.

It seems like some kind of utopian ideal that would lead to a beautiful world, doesn’t it? Doesn’t it sound like absolute freedom? Given a full head of steam, wouldn’t this idea (to let everyone do what they feel is right) lead to great things? Like respecting each other, and valuing each other’s differences, and celebrating diversity, and lots and lots of positive reinforcement…

It might…

If it weren’t for us.

It turns out that the whole “live and let live” mentality is just putting a nice pretty facade on death and destruction. Even when we intend to do what we think or feel is right, we don’t always actually do what we think or feel is right, do we? Honestly?

You don’t. I don’t. Neither does anyone else you know. When we set our own standards, it’s easy to justify violating those standards without any consequences. The entertainment industry has decided to give us an ugly glimpse this year of the double standards we allow for ourselves. The political realm has jumped in with both feet as well, with allegations and statements that would cause the rest of us plebeians to lose our jobs, even if we were lucky enough to stay out of jail. History is littered with heroes with indiscretions we just don’t talk about to avoid knocking them from their shiny pedestals. (Unless of course, they’re from the other party, then we want that crap splashed across every front page we can point to.)

This is not new. I’ve just been reading the book of Judges in the Old Testament, and it’s a disgusting exhibition of how horribly things can turn when everyone does “what’s right in their own eyes.” When you read this bit of Jewish history, don’t make the mistake of thinking that’s the culture God intended. The book is full of people forgetting what God had done for their nation, rejecting His standards, and replacing them with whatever they wanted to do. The results were a mess. Just like they are today.

There’s got to be a better way to live.

Doesn’t there?


Thankfully, one of Jesus’ own brothers has left us with some great wisdom for living a life that’s not just a false veneer on the inevitable death that is coming. [Here at WestWay, we’re digging in to his letter over the next several weeks and I’m excited to see the transformation from death to life. If you’re in the Scottsbluff area, come check it out at 10:15 on Sunday.]

Also check out this overview from The Bible Project.