Dealing with the Highs & Lows of Student Ministry

Happy Sad

If you’ve been in Student Ministry for longer than 2 days, then chances are you’ve experienced the emotional & spiritual roller coaster that comes with the job.  It might even start on Day 1…”Woohoo, I have a job!”  “Oh no, this is what I get paid?!”  Or possibly it’s a season, where attendance is high, support is strong, and you are just sitting by the phone waiting for a call from North Point.  Then there’s the season were attendance is low, apathy is high, and there’s a loud minority of complaining parents, and you update your resume on a weekly basis and wonder if UPS is hiring.

The problem, not just in Student Ministry, but in ministry altogether, is we too often desperately look to other people rather than God for approval and appreciation.  And it’s fun when it comes our way, but it’s depressing when it doesn’t.  And when it doesn’t come from other people, we can be our own biggest cheerleader or biggest critic.  The voices in our head tells us we are the best or the worst depending on circumstances.

Here are a few ways I’ve learned over the years to keep a level head in ministry:

1.  Don’t let circumstances or events determine your success or failure.

I’ve been there many times.  We have a highly successful event and I’m waiting for my pay raise to come next month.  I have a terrible event, and I question my calling.  It’s natural…and it’s sad.

Instead of focusing on circumstances or events, focus on methods and vision.  Everyone is going to have a dud event, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you have a dud ministry.  Events are a means to an end.  Our goal is to make stronger disciples of Jesus, not to have 1,000 people at a Nerf Wars.  Keep the big picture the big picture.

Where we can get in trouble is focusing on the inconsequential things so much that we pour time, energy, and budget money into it, in order to feel successful, not necessarily to make stronger disciples of Jesus.

If circumstances, events, and programs are always a failure in your mind, go back to the big picture drawing board.  Get the 10,000 foot view, get out of the weeds, and maybe start over.  The big picture drawing board always starts with prayer, and when that’s absent, you are definitely on your way to a dud ministry.

One thing I always keep in mind, is that God can remove me whenever He wants, and God can put anyone He wants in a position of leadership.  None of us deserve to be where we are.  We are here by the grace of God.  I do not deserve to be where I am, and I know it can be taken away at any time.  I also know that someone else can do my job and many can do it better.  But I’m honored that God has me where He has me, and I’m going to believe that it’s for a reason.  This keeps me grounded in what I get to do and how I get to serve God doing it.

Remember, the grass isn’t always greener on the other side.  Of course, God may be calling you somewhere different, but make sure you are running towards that calling, and not just away from a circumstance.

Make sure you’re running towards a calling and not just away from a circumstance.

2.  Don’t let a few loud voices determine your value.

Some people have a gift of complaining.  They’re really good at it.  And they do it really loud.  Often times the things that stick with us are the loud things.  But that can be true on the positive side as well.  Typically there are 5% that think you’re the best youth pastor on the planet, and 5% that think you should be fired immediately.  Which means there’s about 90% that we don’t hear from.  That’s obviously a majority, but we all too often focus on the 5% bad or good, which are extremes.

Don’t let the highs get to your head, and don’t let the lows get to your heart.

And let’s be honest, we’re biased.  We take a defensive posture when the negatives come at us, and we join in the praising (at least in our head) when the positives come at us.

3.  Regularly evaluate your ministry from an unbiased position.

I don’t know exactly what this may look like for you, but it’s crucial that you are always evaluating from an unbiased position.  This may mean having a core team of people that can be brutally honest with you, that you trust.  This may mean surveying leaders, students, or parents regarding the ministry.  Evaluate every trip and event.  Regularly evaluate your programming.  Make changes where changes need to be made.  Bring church leadership into the process.  Keep them updated, not just on the what you are doing, but the WHY you are doing it.  When church leadership understand your WHY, they will have your back and go to bat for you.  When they don’t know the why, they can’t back you up.  They may want to, but they don’t understand they why.

When people see that you are consistently open and evaluating, they will know you’re fighting for the ministry and not just yourself.

4.  Stay rooted in Christ.

This should be a given, but all too often it’s not.  If you are consistently praying for guidance and direction, ultimately God has your back.  And if He brought you to it, He’ll lead you through it.  The question we will always have to confront is, “Did God bring me to it, or did I bring myself to it?”  Consistent time in God’s Word and in prayer are crucial to staying level.  Our ministries will always need course corrections, and we get those directions from God.

The more level you stay spiritually and emotionally, the less the hills and valleys will impact you in an unhealthy way.

How are some ways you’ve stayed level-headed in ministry?

Read to Lead

Read to Lead

I’m not the best reader.  I always had a difficult time in school keeping up with all of the required reading.  I actually took a speed-reading class in college to get better, but I couldn’t keep up with that either.  Sometimes I wish that all the books I want to read would just be laid out as Facebook posts, then I’d for sure get through them in no time!  However, I completely realize the benefit to reading whether I’m a reader or not.  I know that if I’m not reading, then I’m not learning, I’m not growing, and I’m failing as a leader.  So, each year I try to set a modest goal of 6 books to get through.  The way I pick my books is based off the areas I want to be more effective as a leader.  These areas are 1) Leader in my Own Faith (sounds ridiculous, but often we completely rely on others to lead our spiritual growth), 2) Leader in my Home, 3) Leader in my Church/Ministry.  Here are some books that are on my docket this year:

1.  Giving Up Gimmicks:  Reclaiming Youth Ministry from an Entertainment Culture by Brian H. Cosby

2.  Strong Fathers, Strong Daughters:  10 Secrets Every Father Should Know by Meg Meeker

3.  Excellence in Preaching:  Studying the Craft of Leading Preachers by Simon Vibert

4.  The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership by John C. Maxwell

5.  You Win in the Locker Room First:  The 7 C’s to Build a Winning Team in Business, Sports, and Life by Jon Gordon & Mike Smith

6.  The Five Dysfunctions of a Team by Patrick Lencioni

7.  Celebration of Discipline:  The Path to Spiritual Growth by Richard Foster

That’s it.  There’s always more books I want to read, but I know my limits.  If I can get through these in 2016, I’m confident that I will be a better leader in the areas I am led to lead in, either that or my brain will explode.

Are Your Students on the Jesus Diet?

Are Your Students on the Jesus Diet?

Who likes diets?  I mean seriously, I cannot think of anyone who likes them.  The best thing about diets is that the very nature of a diet is that it is temporary.  Usually whenever I go on a diet, I do a 10, 20, or 30-day diet.  I can typically handle a diet, because I know that soon, I will be off the diet and back to my normal eating.  My goal is to lose weight and get healthier, so I tell myself that I’m going to do that in an allotted timeframe.  The only problem is, when the timeframe is over, I go back to eating what I want and not exercising, and I end up with the same unhealthy lifestyle I began with.  And my life becomes this endless cycle of short diets to enable me to eat the way I want for a time until I need to diet again. Essentially I diet to prevent death, not to be the healthiest me I can be.

Unfortunately, many students in our ministries follow the Jesus diet.  In fact, many people in our churches follow the Jesus diet.  No, I’m not talking about a literal food diet, like what would Jesus eat.  I’m talking about a spiritual diet.  I fear that our ministries and churches sometimes even foster and enable people to be on the Jesus diet.  What is the Jesus diet?

The Jesus diet is just like a physical diet, yet it’s a spiritual one.  It’s when we feel compelled to enhance and better our spiritual lives for a time being, yet after that timeframe, fall back into our “normal” ways.  It’s a natural thing.  We hear a convicting message, we get back from an awesome conference, we go on a mission trip.  Essentially the results of these things is a Jesus diet.  We become compelled to change, and so we change…for a week or two.  We become compelled to serve on a mission trip or even days after, but then stop.  We’re compelled to change after a conference or camp, but we eventually tire of the diet and go back to pre-diet days.  We want to better our spiritual lives, until we get tired of it or hit a goal, then we go back to where we were pre-diet days.  How can we, as leaders and pastors and volunteers motivate lifestyle change instead of dieting?

I think we need to teach…

1.  Consistency Over Intensity

If I was serious about getting healthier, I would stop dieting and change my lifestyle to incorporate health and exercise throughout, without putting a timeframe on it.  Dieting is typically super-intense and then stops.  I don’t have to be super-intense with my healthy eating and exercising, I just need to be consistent.  It’s the same for our spiritual lives.  The days following camps and mission trips and messages can be super intense only to fizzle out.  Too often we (myself included) base a lot of our ministry around these things.  This promotes intensity.  And while I don’t believe intensity is a bad thing, I do believe that intensity rarely sustains.  I believe our ministry should be equipping students for consistency in their relationship with Christ, and that means

1) Teaching them to live and grow their faith daily in their normal environment.

2) Giving them tools to study the Bible on their own and have an effective personal quiet time.

3) Showing them ways to serve people they’re around everyday.

4) Equipping them to talk to their friends about their faith.  It’s much easier and more normal to talk to people about your faith when you’re living a consistent one.  It’s typically the intense, inconsistent Christians that scare people away or repel them from Jesus.

I believe consistency is more effective than intensity…just ask the tortoise and the hare.

We always witness how camp is a mountain top experience, and weeks following coming off that mountain top, our faith fizzles, the intensity wears off, and we end up taking a spiritual nap.  It’s because of the intensity of the week, we cannot sustain it!  The ones that do gain from weeks like this are the consistent ones.  They’re not going from zero to 100 in one week trying to sustain that pace.  It gives them a boost in their faith, but not at unsustainable speeds.  The thing about mountain top experiences, it suggests there is a top, which in turn suggests there is an end.  Then the rest of their life is spent trying to reach that top again, only to be let down.  Let’s help students see that there is no mountain to climb, only a narrow road to travel.

2.  If You Mess Up, Don’t Give Up

When I mess up on my diet, I usually call it quits.  Try again next go-around.  I feel like a failure, and that there’s no use to try to continue it.  If I miss a day or two of working out, I just stop.  Once I lose momentum on my diet, it’s very difficult for me to continue it.  Unfortunately, many people feel this same way following Jesus.  A sin or a mess up, and we give up.  We miss a day reading our Bible, we put it back on the shelf for a while.  Missing a few days is better than missing them all!  When following Jesus is a lifestyle instead of a diet, we won’t feel defeated when we mess up, but instead learn from our mess ups, and seek to grow stronger from them.

A mess up becomes a blip on the screen instead of a roadblock.

I believe that our students (and ourselves) can benefit tremendously by getting off the Jesus diet and living the Jesus lifestyle by being consistent and not giving up every time we mess up a little.  Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go get back on the treadmill.  I seemed to have fallen off 3 months ago.