Michael E. Guerra
Youth Pastor, Youth Ablāz Student Ministries
That was a pretty legit email signature. At least I thought it was. For years I had labored in Student Ministry, often without any kind of title at all. I had been Head Van Washer, Door-Locker, and Backup Babysitter. I had done it all from scrubbing toilets to mopping floors to scraping gum off of the carpet. Finally, after all of that, I had a title!
It was so cool to go to Youth Camps and church conference. I would introduce myself, shortly followed by “I’m the Youth Pastor at my church.” To be honest (and it’s a little sad to admit), it seem that it gave me instant street cred. People that didn’t care a lick about what I had to say before now seemed to hang on my every word. I found myself in a circle of people that had never let me in before. It was a great feeling.
And honestly, it went to my head.
It didn’t happen at first. My first 6 months, we were off to a great start. Somewhere after Youth Camp that year, though, I remember looking around and thinking, “I’m going to make some big changes here.” I started putting plans together. I started trying to figure out how I was going to make changes to the Youth Team. I was going to do some things in our Youth Room we’d never done before. I was going to book the biggest-name speaker that I felt like booking for our Youth Week. I was going to get our students involved in some activities we’d never been involved in before.
I started to put my plans in motion. Then things started going south.
Within a span of 2 months, I was in the pastor’s office several times. Phone calls were pouring into his phone from concerned parents. Youth team members stopped showing up to Youth Service. We started having problems with students that had never been a problem before. It even got so bad that he felt the need to defend me to the congregation on a Sunday morning. Finally, it all came to a head one night when the pastor’s wife showed up to a fellowship event, and was appalled with some of the entertainment I had allowed in the sanctuary.
I’ll never forget sitting on the altar with her. She was firm, but kind as she expressed her disappointment. Tears flowed from my eyes (she’s always been good at making me cry). I wanted her to fire me on the spot and save me the embarrassment of trying to dig out of the hole I put myself in.
I learned that night…it was not my youth group. I may have been the Youth Pastor, but I wasn’t the Pastor. And even if I was, I wasn’t God.
After that, I let these principles guide me.
When in doubt, check in…and always be in doubt. Every time I did something new or different from then on out, I always spoke with the pastor before implementing it. As he grew to trust me more, he even told me this was unnecessary. However, I wanted the safety of knowing his blessing would be on whatever program or change I was bringing to the Youth Group.
Include the pastor in the planning process. I didn’t just want to be in alignment with my pastor on events, but in the mission, vision and direction of the youth group as well. Every year when I put together our annual planning meeting, I provided an advance copy of my plans to the pastor for his review. I’d then meet with him and go over anything he wanted to tweak, eliminate, emphasize, etc. I wanted to make sure I had his sign-off before I set direction, because ultimately our vision needed to be aligned with his.
Be Spirit-led. This should be a no-brainer, but it isn’t always. We all know to be Spirit-led when we are preaching, counseling or teaching, but we need to be Spirit-led when we are planning and fellowshipping as well. I’ve found that when I feel uneasy about an idea, it’s probably best not to implement it. It’s normally the Holy Ghost telling me something.
Stay in your boundaries. For must of us, Student Ministry is our first church leadership position. As such, it’s our first time seeing behind the curtain, and finding out how ugly church business can be. We learn that sometimes other department leaders make decisions with only their department in mind. We learn that sometimes money is not used wisely. We find out that the pastor is human, and sometimes makes a bad decision. Sometimes this frustrates us, especially when we feel like all of this is limiting our effectiveness. Whatever you do, though…DON’T VENTURE OUTSIDE OF YOUR BOUNDARIES. Yes, there will be some who will take the “I’d rather ask for forgiveness than permission” approach, but don’t let it be you. Never, ever speak or act negatively toward someone else in leadership. Your students will see it, and they will emulate it. Although your plans may be temporarily derailed, God has a way of overcoming obstacles to reach your students. Be patient, and let the Spirit work.
If God be for us, who can be against us? They’re God’s students, and He has your back if you follow Him and stay in submission. I’ve never once seen my students suffer because I was obedient. Trust the process!