The alarm wailed, wailed, WAILED to tell the world of my big oversight. We were set to bob for apples, decorate pumpkins, and laugh over pie-eating contests. The fog machine was supposed to set the scene for trick-or-treating in the hallway. Except for that darn smoke detector. Whoops!
Youth ministry should be humbling, and I felt good and humiliated. The smoke eventually cleared, and during my first year of youth ministry, many other lessons followed, some small and others significant. All were valuable. As a newcomer, I want to share a bit about what I learned this year, hopefully in the process giving other rookies someone to relate to and challenging youth ministry veterans to reconsider our call to this great work. So, here you go: lessons from a first-year youth minister.
Lesson #1: It’s personal.
In October, a mom pulled me aside to advise that I should continue printing nametags each week for the teens. Her son, she said, had been waffling on whether he wanted to return to our Life Night after he had attended for the first time the week before. He was a freshman new to our community. He didn’t know many people. He wasn’t too eager to come back. Then, she said, he overheard that nametags were out for all the teens that had come the week before. He checked just to see if his name would be there. Behold, a simple nametag, but also a beacon of light to a teenager searching for belonging. That teen stayed and came consistently through the year because of a nametag. Something so simple and yet profound.
Teens need to know their presence means something. Nametags are good, but personal contact with a Core member or another teen means infinitely more. Teens need a personal touch, whether you remember their name or something they were doing that week. They need to know someone cares and that we notice when they come.
Lesson #2: Satan is real.
Just as Jesus came to heal the sick and not the healthy, so does Satan come to do the opposite, inflicting those who earnestly pursue God. Satan seeks to twist the lives of youth ministers and those who could lead others to holiness. Satan wants to sway our lives with doubt. Doubt that we can reach teens. Doubt that we can make a difference in the lives of our young people. Doubt that we are worthy of this work. Doubt that Jesus abides.
Be not afraid, Pope John Paul used to tell us. “Even when I walk through a dark valley, I fear no harm for you are at my side; your rod and staff give me courage” (Ps. 23). Being a youth minister, I felt Satan attack me in ways I had never experienced. But I also felt I could better recognize deception in my life because I became more immersed in the Sacraments than ever before. If we want our teens to be holy, we must strive to better ourselves every day as a testimony. That means daily practices of prayer, including attending Holy Mass, visiting the Confessional, reading Scripture, seeking out a mentor, praying the Rosary. God calls us to renew ourselves daily, take up our cross, and follow Him.
Lesson #3: There is Help.
Midway through the year, I felt a real disconnect with the teens on my Leadership Team. They started to disengage. The same thing happened with my Confirmation Core Team of adults. Both groups felt underutilized.
I failed to realize my primary role. I had become centered on the youth ministry program instead of the people. Youth and volunteers need to feel empowered. For our community, that meant more participation in the planning, more distribution of the duties, and more organic brainstorming for Life Nights. I learned to spend less time on Life Nights and more time connecting people to the resources, encouragement, and prompting they needed to develop as individuals.
Lesson #4: They Are Leaders.
I am 23 years old. Not long ago, I was a teen myself. I feel like I can relate to teens fairly well. However, nothing I say or do will make me a teen again. I can’t give peer testimony to my teens. Neither can any adult volunteer.
We need our teens to be leaders, to rise up as a generation that seeks to be pure and strong of heart, mind, and body. Teens need the lessons of the Church. They need the big theological concepts to explain why the Eucharist offers eternal life and why we have a communion of saints who offer prayers alongside us. But they also need other teens bringing those ideas to reality. They need to see their peers making the decision to come to Church on a weeknight for Adoration, to wear modest and appealing clothing, to study Scripture at a coffee shop, etc. We must seek those teens out and let them know of their value to our communities. Give them big and small opportunities to witness to and serve their peers.
Lesson #5: I am Watched.
Have you ever thought about whether people notice your tithing? When you choose your attire for Mass, do you consider how your teens will perceive you? If you dislike a given activity, do you show enthusiasm anyway for the sake of your teens participating?
I never realized that youth ministers live beneath the microscope of teens until I started this work. Every action I take, every dollar I spend, every word I speak – whether at Church or on personal time – helps to define my character and ultimately the example I show to my teens. Even if no one says anything, teens notice.
Teens are very perceptive, and as adolescents, they constantly search for examples to follow. What sort of example are we setting as youth ministers? How often do we examine our lives closely and change our habits and lifestyle to better show the love of Christ? That’s lifelong food for thought and prayer for even the most experienced youth minister.