Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Youth Ministry Networks: Three Ways They Suck, and Three Ways They're Awesome

I'm a believer in networking and connecting with other youth workers. Some of my best relationships are my friends and partners in youth ministry. Being a part of different networks in the past, I've noticed some aspects of youth ministry networks that can be really unhealthy. There are also deeply valuable traits in networks that are life-giving and refreshing. I didn't take any polls or use scientific methods, but here are some humble observations I've made about how youth ministry networks fail and succeed.

Three ways that youth ministry networks can suck:

Whining. When networking becomes a big whine-fest about how hard this job is--grumbling parents, uninterested teens, frustrating senior pastors and elders, etc.--it ends up feeling like a terrible sort of group therapy session. Yes, this vocation isn't easy. Yes, many churches have unhealthy leadership structures or cultures. Yes, many youth workers are hurting. But I didn't give up valuable time I could spend with my family or community so I could hear you play the victim card for 30 minutes, with no resolution or apparent desire for advice or change.

Comparing. How big is your youth group? I have a friend who calls this question "comparing chenises." They're like little boys who whip it out to compare sizes. That may sound crass, but it's accurate. We compare youth group sizes, number of volunteers, years in ministry, even the similar events that we do. You took 80 kids to Magic Mountain? That's great! When we did it, we took 120 and had 5 kids come to Jesus. The motives behind comparing usually stem from a personal insecurity (my youth group sucks compared to yours) or pride (I'm an awesome youth pastor, and you should probably know that). There is little in the way of celebrating what God is doing, and more about celebrating earthly kingdoms.

Peddling. Subscribe to the latest newsletter, read my latest blog post, or buy my newest book. Some networks I've been to have had that one youth worker who was always selling something. Sometimes the resources were legitimately useful, but it often felt uncomfortably like a sales pitch. If you're my friend and partner in ministry, please don't treat me like a marketing device. I care more about hearing your story and being part of your life, not listening to your podcast. (But if you're a genuine part of my life, I might give your podcast a listen!).

Three ways youth ministry networks can be awesome:

Encouragement. The difference between whining and encouragement is subtle. Whining doesn't require relationship or accountability; encouragement is built around trust, humility, and grace. I experienced this in Marko's YMCP during our times of personal sharing. We would share what is happening in our lives and our souls, which was usually pretty raw stuff. This required a vulnerability from the sharer and a deep compassion from those listening. Questions were asked, and encouragement was given, but it was never in the form of platitudes or shallow wisdom. We prayed for one another, pointed out flaws or fallacies, laughed at inside jokes, and offered words that sprang from the well of truth and life. We started as strangers and become friends and partners in ministry. These people cared about one another. We still do.

Equipping. The community of youth workers has a ridiculous amount of knowledge and experience to share with one another. This requires the humility to be able to listen and learn from others, and the confidence to be able to share ideas, books, websites, and other resources. The difference between equipping and peddling again has to do with motivation. Peddling is all about me getting my name/product out there; equipping is about seeing the youth ministry world become more mature and Jesus-y, including myself.

Collaboration. We can do far more together than we can alone. A group of Arizona youth workers in the Phoenix valley recently gathered to discuss networking, and created The Youth Summit, a new regional network. I think this description from the website captures the beauty of collaboration:
We believe that by working together we can find support, knowledge, strategy, encouragement, and innovation beyond what we would find on our own.  And we don't have to pay a ton of money to fly to Atlanta, Chicago, or California to get those things.  Some of the most brilliant people are investing in the lives of youth at churches we have never heard of right here in AZ.  You may be one of them, and there are more like you.
One of the best youth ministry experiences I've had was inheriting the leadership of a junior high summer camp when I first moved to Arizona. Around 15 churches banded together to create their own summer camp program in order to keep costs down and create a personalized camp experience for our churches. Churches from all over Arizona participated, in different sizes and denominations. It was a beautiful picture of the kingdom of God. It wasn't about comparing ourselves to each other--I led the group, but I wasn't part of the biggest church, and certainly didn't have the most experience. It was about seeing what God was doing in our midst and being more like the kingdom together.

Do you see any of these present in your experience with youth ministry networks? Are you part of a network? If not, who can you invite to be a part of your life today?

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