In the summer of 2003, following my first year of youth ministry, I was invited to give a talk to some ym’s who were just getting started in the field on what I’d learned. I put together a top-10 list of the things I learned that year – from simple things like paying better attention to the calendar (and not booking the Archbishop to visit while the Eskimos played the Grey Cup) or remembering to put my contact information on a flyer, to more profound lessons like the need to take Sabbath time or the fact that temptations would increase and my weaknesses be exposed, it was (I felt) a pretty important list of things to know to survive a first year of this. You can read that whole list by clicking here.
After ten years of parish youth ministry, it seemed kind of appropriate to put another top 10 list together- what those ten years have taught me- some are similar lessons to what I saw in the summer of 2003, but many have changed:
#10. No youth ministry program or resource is more effective than your own holiness. I twice found myself in confession hearing a priest admonish me (due to my inconsistent prayer) “Would it not be a tragedy if the young people came to you looking for Christ and only found you?” Effective youth ministry starts on your knees and grows there, too.
#9. The same principle goes for your leaders: they, too, need to grow in holiness. It is crucial to invest in their spiritual well-being as well, leading them in prayer (real prayer- not always just a quick prayer to start or end a meeting, but some deliberate time on your knees growing in relationship with God), giving them resources to study, engaging in conversations about their faith based questions, and walking with them on the journey.
#8. Young people crave relationships. As our ability to connect digitally has grown exponentially in the last decade, going from MSN Messenger to text messaging, and from MySpace to Facebook & Twitter, there is still no substitute for your own real presence with young people. Twice a week for the last ten years, I’ve spent a lunch hour in high school hallways, visiting with, joking with. listening to, and talking to teens. When I have spent time with other youth ministers who’ve lamented the small numbers in their groups, often it has been their inability to spend time with youth on their own turf (in the words of Young Life: earning the right to be heard.) I cannot overstate this: this time spent is time well spent, building relationships with young people. It is at the heart of youth ministry.
#7. Don’t get caught going through the motions. There are a lot of things that compete with us for teens’ attention – and the marketing machines behind them don’t take a night off. It is therefore critical that we give them our best – that they see that not only do they matter to us, but that the life-giving message of the Gospel matters to us as well. Week in and week out, these teens deserve our best.
#6. You need parental involvement. The Church talks about parents as the ‘primary educators of their children.’ This is not simply lip service, but comes from a wisdom that recognizes no other person has a more direct impact in shaping who a teen is going to become than their parents. Any way you can better engage them will only serve to strengthen your youth ministry, and will have a lasting impact on the teens and their families. Also, as I’ve discovered – they are only too happy to help.
#5. Be creative! Youth ministry is a lot of fun. In the last 10 years, I’ve had teens smash pianos, spit fruit loops, style each others hair with shaving cream, had marshmallow and wet toilet paper fights… I’ve seen them weeping in adoration and laughing at a skit where Jack Bauer from 24 ensured the safe birth of Christ on Christmas morning. We turned our parish welcome area into Narnia, built other rooms into boxes, and made a giant cardboard cutout Batman. There is a lot of fun to be had in youth ministry, and no shortage of ways to do it. Don’t be afraid to think outside the box and do something absolutely ridiculous- especially if it has the possibility of helping enhance their experience of their Catholic faith.
#4. The more I understand the Church, the more I love her. I came into youth ministry as a Bible School graduate, completed a Bachelor of Theology during my time here, and am currently working towards my Masters. I’ve discovered truth and beauty in my Church. There seem sometimes to be some rough edges in the practice of our faith, but I can honestly say the more I read, study, and discover in the Church, the more I grow to love her (much like my wife: after 7 years of marriage, and knowing her strengths and her weaknesses better today than I did the day I met her, I love her far more now.) The Catholic Church has good resaons for all that it does… far too many people make assumptions about her without ever bothering to find out what she teaches or why she teaches it.
#3. Some teens will break your heart. This is the toughest part of youth ministry- seeing teens who showed a deep love of their faith wander away suddenly or gradually, or hearing/seeing some of the decisions they are making in the way they live their lives. It is heartbreaking at times, because you know the damage they are doing to themselves, but they are often determined not to listen. In the end, all you can do is entrust them to the hands of God, who loves them more than you do. (And keep calling them back!)
#2. Many more teens will amaze you. There are days where I have sat in awe of the young people God has sent to me- whether it be the depths of their faith, the sincertiy of their service, or the magnitude of what they’ve overcome in their lives- so many of them have blown me away. It is a recurrent reminder for me of the fact that it is God who is working in their hearts far beyond the scope of any event I am putting on, and I am thankful for the glimpses he offers me of their amazing potential.
#1. It’s not about me. The work of evangelizing the world has been going on for thousands of years, and will likely continue thousands of years after I am gone. As much as I’ve carried anxiety about this event or that, and nitpicked over the details on so many things, it is God who sits at the center of all of it- inspiring, guiding, and bringing to completion the good work he began in the hearts of those He loves. My job has always been to act as His instrument, going where He wishes and serving whom He wills. Quite often, it’s not what I envisioned… but that’s why it is His Church, His youth ministry, and His teens that I have been serving in the parishes I’ve been blessed to work, and in the schools that I serve today.