stuck on the youth ministry highway?

Highway Engineer Pranks

Permission to use granted by xkcd.com.

My friend, Brian Aaby, posted an great question on a youth ministry Facebook group yesterday.

Meeting with another Youth Pastor tomorrow to discuss some “long term planning” aspects… on average, how many months in advance do you have the specifics of your ministry planned (not just big picture, but who’s doing announcements, leading the game, which game, etc.)?

The sincere replies nearly caused an aneurysm for me because they typified much of what has us driving around in circles on the proverbial youth ministry highway.

I weighed into the conversation, but I deleted my brief response this this morning to avoid sounding like a complete, insensitive jerk. So I’m going to take some time to share my thoughts in detail—which will confirm that I’m a complete insensitive jerk.

framing the right questions

Brian’s thought-provoking inquiry opens the door to my favorite activity—coaching youth workers. I want to share a strategy for answering Brian’s question that allows you to bring out the gifts, talents, and passions of students without feeling the need to provide all the answers.

I’ve discovered in 24 years of youth work that my job is very simple, if I follow this principle. I prepare saints for service; I don’t prepare services for saints. (Ephesians 4:12).

Timothy Eldred | Whiteboard BoundariesThat formula puts everyone—including me—in their proper position as integrated members of the Body of Christ. Instead of calling plays, I determine to only define boundaries. This image illustrates it well.

Last week, I sat down with our student leadership team to address some needs we’re facing. I took the time to describe upcoming obstacles from my perspective as their advisor, coach, mentor, and guide. Some of the items on the agenda I distributed were weekly issues, others monthly, some annually. A few were simple. Some complex. We discussed each aspect, and they accepted my POV that these were important matters that required attention. Then I exercised the most critical element of my job—I left the room and gave them time to problem solve on their own.

Six trained, capable, emerging teens wrestled through every item until they created an action plan for their ministry. They presented it to me for input and troubleshooting. I asked a few questions they failed to address, but in the end, they owned the outcome.

My responsibility in defining boundaries is to clarify WHAT needs done to ensure that lifelong discipleship and leadership development is taking place in context of a youth program. Providing a safe space and place for young people to answer the HOW, WHOWHERE, and WHEN of the what empowers them to enact a ministry and mission they own, as they experience God working through their lives.

Perhaps we’re stuck on the youth ministry highway because we have too many good answers for problems we don’t need to solve. Let’s begin asking more and better questions of the youth we serve. Train them in a messy environment where their voice matters and has meaning. In the end, it will produce the outcome we desire—a generation of youth in ministry for Jesus Christ.

free resource download

Endeavor | Seven PromisesDownload this simple, 7 Promises, poster. Print it and hang it on your wall, as a reminder of your real role of releasing young potential.

how do professionals perceive youth workers?

I was reminded of this article I wrote in 2007 during a conversation last week with a youth pastor in Columbus, Ohio, who was disturbed by the lack of professional etiquette by his peers during a recent meeting with government leaders in their community.


I will always be thankful for Rob Smith. He was an elder in a church a served in my first few years of ministry. Quite often on Friday mornings, Rob would call and ask if he could come by my office and talk. This usually occurred about once a month (the morning after church board meetings). When a church elder calls and sets up an appointment with you there could be reason for alarm; however, I quickly learned that Rob’s motives were in my best interest.

Professional Image | Timothy Eldred

Before long, I learned to await our morning meetings with anxious anticipation. His words were not always kind, but they were loving. His honest criticism taught me invaluable lessons that I carry to this very day. We could all use loving leadership like that.

Diplomatic and Tactful

How often do you think those two words are used to describe youth workers? There was period in my ministry when I would have never asked that question because I honestly didn’t care. After all, a youth worker’s job is to reach kids for Jesus Christ, and we must do any and everything possible to accomplish that purpose, right? Yes, but any and everything without diplomacy and tact only causes us to get burned-out, worn out, or thrown out.

There are two ideas I want to look at today about professional perceptions: First, how do local professionals in your community view you? Second (and just as important), how do you look at them?

Many youth leaders (paid and volunteer) give little thought to the professional people in their community until they need something from them (i.e. – money, supplies, food). This is very unfortunate.

It is important to remember that youth ministry is an extension of the church, and the local church is part of the community. The students we work with are either neighbors, customers, or future employees of local businesses and their owners.

Ask this question with that in mind: Does the youth ministry have a major impact on professionals? You bet it does. The lessons we teach as we help young people grow to be serious leaders in this world have everything to do with local business and economy. Youth ministry is an asset to the men and women who run these institutions (or at least it should be). It’s time for us to start recognizing their value and the value we can be to them. Until that happens, don’t expect them to esteem the ministries we lead either.

Another aspect of today’s questions deal with how professionals literally look at youth leaders. Image is important! There are many young youth leaders who do not give this a second thought because they only care about how their students view them.

Unfortunately, some have grown into older youth leaders who haven’t learned to appreciate the value of public persona. Whether we are vocational or volunteer youth workers, I challenge us to be professional. The community we minister within is full of skeptics and cynics who see us as overgrown teens who have not grown up, yet. Honestly, many have not.

The relationships youth workers have on local business professionals should not be taken lightly. In most cases, these people were there before us, and they will be there after we resign, retire, or run off. What are we doing to raise the level professionalism in our ministries?

Three Suggestions to Consider:

  1. Pray: Create a prayer team in your ministry who intentionally prays for local businesses and their owners. Do not hesitate to let them know of your desire to see them succeed. Actually, let them know of your prayer team. Take the time to make a prayer guide and ask these individuals how you can pray for their business.
  2. Play: Is there a local Lion’s Club, Rotary, or Chamber of Commerce in your community? These civic organizations are made up of local professionals who tackle community issues all the time. Join them in their work. Serve on their committees. You will end up playing together and building important relationships.
  3. Plan: Many youth ministries are viewed as teens who take more than groups that give. Your local businesses have projects that you could possibly assist with. Perhaps there buildings that need painted, lawns that need mowed, or sidewalks that need swept. Your ministry should plan to help with those needs free of charge.

Rob Smith taught me to pay attention to my image. In order to accomplish this I had to watch my life: my ways, my words, and my wardrobe. My unwillingness to consider people’s perception of my personal behavior would have been much like holding on to the childish things Paul talks of in today’s text.

When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me. (1 Corinthians 13:11, MSG)

While teens are our target audience, there are countless individuals in the community who can impact their lives. Those people listen to other’s perceptions of us and the youth ministries and congregations we serve. It is time to start paying attention to what they are saying. Our commitment to professionals and professionalism will have an long-term effect on the work we do in God’s Kingdom.

Blind. Deaf. Dumb.

At age 44, there are parts of me falling apart. And I can’t do anything about it. Last summer, I added a hearing aid to to my life. Last week, I gave it a friend — bifocals. Both are teaching me valuable lessons.

deaf, blind, or just dumb.

“Can you turn up the TV, please?” Or, “What did they say?” Those words are no longer part of my vocabulary. I can now hear birds, wind, and conversations. I’m so glad my wife is persistent to push me (or parent me). “You need to schedule an eye exam, Tim.” I drug my feet but eventually got my butt to the optometrist. Now, I can once again see — near and far.

“Oh, that’s just a bird. What was I thinking?”

I need nudged from time-to-time — reminded to remember what leadership is really about — putting myself in a position where I can hear and see their hearts and hurts of people. Often, I get so busy being visionary that I’m blind to the needs of others right before me. Too worried about the weight of my own words that fail to listen to other voices.

Maybe you’re in a similar position. Tasked with seeing the big picture. Determined to hear the cries of the masses. You must know that both are impossible until you’re determine to see details among dreams. Hear whispers within roars.

Effective leadership requires intentional relationship. Being successful in the broad is a byproduct of being mindful of the miniscule.

I can wear bifocals and appear blind. Utilize hearing aids and function deaf. Tools are effective only when I am not dumb to neglect my need of them.

Here are 4 simple ideas to help you with this matter in your ministry:

  • Look for details.
  • Listen to whispers.
  • Linger in the little.
  • Leave the large up to God.

Please take a minutes to share your secrets of how you practice these priorities. I’d love to read your comments.