What I Wish I Knew When I Started in Youth Ministry

Note:  Betsy Hanzelin is a Rock Star youth leader, and in these days when many youth programs are fragile, I invited her to be the guest blogger today.  How does she do it?  Read and learn.


These are my reflections after 22+ years of working with teenagers, churches, families and volunteers.    I didn’t go to seminary, but I’ve been in the trenches and figured some stuff out as I went along.

Relationships are key to your ministry, and your relationship with your students should not be at the top of your list.

  1. God: It goes without saying that you need to be working on your relationship with God. You can’t lead people on a journey that you’re not on as well.  All else stems from this (and sorry to be so cliché, but it’s true)
  2. Volunteers: Grow a team of people who love God and love teenagers to serve with you. I spend 40% of my budget and at least that much of my time and energy on building and maintaining relationships with my adult and youth volunteer team!    The time spent in teaching, planning and playing with my volunteers means I have people willing to return year after year because this ministry gives them a place to serve with people they care about and enjoy spending time with.  Younger youth look forward to the day they can be a staffer, because they recognize that we love each other and it’s a bunch of fun.
  3. Senior Pastor: When I have a great relationship with my Senior Pastor, I am energized!   I know I am free to try new things and he/she will have my back.  And when I fail, she/he is there to help pick up the pieces, encourage me to keep trying, and defend me when parents complain.   When I don’t have that relationship I feel afraid to try things, isolated and alone and my ministry suffers.  Seek out regular time to check in with your Pastor and be honest about the joys and sorrows of your job.
  4. Parents are often super busy and details like permissions slips or trip deposits are way down on their to-do lists. Cut parents slack and look for ways to support them in the task of parenting teenagers (which is really rough).   Hold events where they can be included and they don’t have to pay, cook, clean or give the right answers. (parent dinner night; mom/daughter conversations about beauty, self-esteem, acceptance;  A family Capture the Flag night; etc.)  Communicate through emails, texts, Facebook posts, postcards, calendars, the church newsletter, etc. on the off chance that one of those might catch their attention and keep them informed about church stuff.  Answer their phone calls, emails, texts.   Don’t view them as adversaries, but as partners … even when they don’t live up to your expectations.    Parents are the #1 influence on the spiritual lives of their children and they need your help and support!
  5. Students: It may be surprising that this is so far down my list, but besides knowing everyone’s name and some of what makes them tick, I can’t be expected to have close relationships with all my students.  And they don’t necessarily want that either.  That’s why I rely on my volunteers!   They can attempt to forge those relationships with everyone.  I do have close relationships with some of my students, there are those who are naturally drawn to me and who I “click with” deep down.   My goal is for every student to have that “someone” and know that when they aren’t there their absence is noticed and they are missed.  It just can’t always be me.

My Stuff

Be authentic.  Teenagers always turn away from people they know are full of crap.  They respond and are drawn to people who are real and honest about who they are, what they love, and where they falter.  Admit when you’ve made a mistake, apologize often, accept the consequences of your actions and don’t hide any of it.  Be willing to say, “I don’t know, but I’ll try to figure it out”.  Tell stories of your successes and failures.  Speak of your strong faith, and those areas were you are uncertain and/or doubt.  (But also set healthy boundaries … don’t overshare or burden your team or students with stuff that isn’t appropriate).

Take care of yourself.  I’ve met many youth workers who are a hot mess.  You weren’t called to this ministry to kill yourself.  Sabbath is not a suggestion, it’s an imperative.  Hot baths are good, long showers are good, chocolate is good, catching up with an old friend is good, time with your spouse or partner is essential.   Eating well (so hard, I know) and exercising are good.  Don’t be that worn out, tired, mentally frazzled person that shows up when too much is going on.  Be that beloved child of God who needs to take care of themselves so they can do the work they are called to.

Fun is not a bad word.  For the middle years of my ministry, I outlawed the use of the word “Fun”. Fun could not be the goal for a lesson or event.  After all, I only have them for six years and there is so much that I want to teach them before they leave for the scary, secular world of college!  Jesus didn’t die on a cross for us to have fun or be happy!  But I was ignoring my number one goal … building relationships.  I’ve learned that fun is not a dirty word, and that providing opportunities to just have fun together is what binds us together.  My most favorite activity is our yearly Work Camp Nightly Volleyball game.  Everyone plays, no score is kept, each person gets to serve, it doesn’t matter how many are on your team or where you stand on the court, and if you don’t know how to serve, someone will take a 5 minute game time-out to teach you (and you get 20 tries before we move on).    I never set these rules, they just organically happened when I allowed space for fun to take over.   And Jesus might have been willing to die on a cross for these types of all-inclusive games to occur! Don’t always take yourself and your job too seriously.

Grace is the word.  Give it like crazy.  Give it to your Pastor, the parents, your volunteers, your students, your congregation.   Cut people breaks.  Give your volunteers time off.  Forgive when people screw up.  And give grace to yourself as well.  Don’t just preach it, do it often and without hesitation.

Congregational Stuff

Keep your Congregation informed.  When they don’t hear about the good stuff we are doing and the challenges we are facing, they write us off.  You are the advocate for teenagers to your church.   If you need more money, volunteers, resources, space, etc. you will have a much easier time with those requests if your congregation is invested in your ministry.  But they aren’t going to walk into your office and say, “Tell me about the youth”.   Cheerlead for your youth, make spaces for them to participate in worship, hang pictures in the hallways of their crazy activities, feature a student each month in the church newsletter, and ask them to write summaries or give talks following meaningful trips or retreats.  Anything that helps the congregation know and care about who they are and what they do will help when you need them to back you up and invest in your ministry.

Getting youth to worship is a difficult battle.  Churches often believe their youth ministry is weak if they don’t see youth in Sunday worship.   I’ve tried for years to think about ways to get my youth to come the hour or so early to attend worship before youth groups.   But they just don’t, and often times their parents don’t either.    Teenagers like to sleep in when they can and often Sunday is the only day they are not scheduled like crazy.  IF they do go, their friends aren’t there and they often get dirty looks if they are dressed in t-shirts and jeans.   Traditional worship isn’t touching them down deep.    But none of this means teens are not faithful, deep, inspiring or in touch with the living God.     They are, they just don’t often find that in worship.  Choose your battles wisely on this one.

Youth doesn’t have to happen on Sundays.  Tap into the pulse of your families and find out what works for them.  The traditional models aren’t working anymore in much of the country and we need to be in touch of the demands on students and their families.  Be creative and willing to try something new.    If you need to run things through a Board or Committee, bring those results and preferably a few parents with you as your present new models, dates, and times for approval.  Congregations who are unwilling to meet the needs of families are losing members and frustrating Youth workers.

Good luck, God bless and be ready for the best job ever!
Betsy has been the Director of Youth Ministries with Flossmoor Community Church in IL since 1992.  The image is a stained glass window from their sanctuary featuring Jesus going out into the world.

7 responses to “What I Wish I Knew When I Started in Youth Ministry

  1. Pingback: » What I Wish I Knew When I Started in Youth Ministry

  2. Yay, Betsy! We at FCC appreciate what you do to help our youth grow. .


  3. Great post! Sabbath isn’t a recommendation, it is imperative! Words for this pastor too!


  4. Oops… Suggestion!


  5. Pingback: This Week’s Links « Timothy Siburg

  6. Eleanor Truex

    I’m one of those no-show parents, so I appreciate your understanding. But I do try to keep you abreast of Events in my children’s lives and I think I’ve succeeded in that. I am deeply appreciative of the loving guidance FCC Youth has shown all my children; they are better adults (and adults-to-be) for being a part of it.


  7. Pingback: What I Wish I Knew When I Started in Youth Ministry | Alex Becker

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