Have you ever stepped back and really thought about just how complicated your work as a youth leader in a faith community is?
Whether bi-vocational or full-time, you are paid to be a Christian and to influence and inspire teenagers to follow Jesus.
Maybe that’s an oversimplification.
But true nonetheless.
Don’t believe me?
Stop following Jesus, or stop influencing and inspiring teenagers to follow Jesus, and see if you still get paid.
I rest my case.
What makes your responsibilities even more perplexing is what seems like an ever-present tension between what you believe the next generation desperately needs and the sometimes unrealistic or irrelevant goals senior leadership sets for you as you lead the next generation in your respective faith community.
Our friends at Springtide Research Institute recently relayed to us the growing trend of youth leaders resigning from their respective roles because of unrealistic or irrelevant expectations of senior leadership. The result? An increasing void of emerging youth leaders committed to leading the next generation.
Our struggle to put important things first can be illustrated by the contrast between two tools that direct us: a clock and a compass. A clock represents our commitments, appointments, schedules, goals, and activities—what we do with and how we manage our time. A compass represents our vision, values, principles, mission, conscience, and direction—what we feel is important and how we lead our lives. The struggle comes when we sense a gap between the clock and the compass—when what we do doesn’t contribute to what is most important.
No matter how you spin it, that is the pressure you feel. Regardless of what you know is most true and most needed, you still have to meet expectations set by others. And sometimes, those expectations seem really out of touch.
Your compass and your clock are out of sync.
Think of it this way: if soccer matches measured how many times each player kicked with their left foot on the scoreboard, that’s what soccer players would pay attention to, not how many goals they scored.
Because what you are evaluated by is what you will evaluate.
And when what you are evaluating doesn’t make much sense . . . well . . . frustration sets in.
So what do we do with that? How do you set realistic goals that reflect the needs of the next generation you influence while aligning with the expectations of those who lead you?
I do not know, nor do I fully understand your context.
I do not know or understand your sphere of influence with teenagers in your respective community. I do know every place is different in some way.
So, I won’t attempt to tell you exactly what goals you should be setting or what you should be measuring in your ministry. Instead, I would propose that what most of us need more is to ask better questions. So, I would love to be a little more philosophical and extend three better questions that may help you as you wrestle with goal setting.
So, for your consideration . . .
Have you considered that your senior leaders are doing the best they can?
This is not a “bash senior leadership” session. On the contrary, you and I do not sit in their seat. We sit in the cheap seats. Depending on the context, your senior leader stands up every single Sunday with the responsibility of effectively leading and communicating to six or seven generations. The very best of us would struggle in that context.
Dr. Brene Brown is right: most people are doing the very best they can do. That includes those who lead you. So, instead of becoming adversarial, may I suggest investing time in helping your senior leadership understand how the next generation has and continues to change? Do your due diligence to become a lifeline between teenagers and their families and your senior leaders. Become an expert on student culture. Become a strategic leader. What you may find is that your attention to strategy will gain you leverage as it relates to your goals.
Have you given yourself the gift of self-awareness?
When our son Grant was a junior in high school, he and I met with his head football coach. Grant played at a national football powerhouse high school. Grant had the ability and the desire to play college football. I witnessed his coach look Grant in the eye and tell Grant that there were certain schools Grant shouldn’t consider because he was not good enough to play for those schools. He also said there were certain schools he could definitely play for, and he should focus on those schools. His coach trusted the relational equity he had with Grant and gave Grant the gift of self-awareness. And it changed Grant’s life in so many incredible ways.
Has anyone ever been that honest with you? Have you been that honest with yourself?
For way too many youth leaders, our ministry reflects our weaknesses rather than our strengths. Your fully utilized strengths are of far more value to your faith community than your marginally developed weaknesses. How much you are doing is not the issue . . . it is what you are doing that is the issue. Discover what you are not good at and begin the process of eliminating it from your schedule. Identify the areas in your organization where you make the greatest contribution, and give your best time each day to your greatest impact.
Lastly, are you zooming out for purpose? Are you zooming in for progress?
When short-term tasks feel trivial, lumping them into a larger goal makes them meaningful.
When long-term goals feel impossible, slicing them into smaller pieces makes them manageable.
Being strategic with goals means that you are constantly zooming in and zooming out for perspective. And way too often, we stay so focused on either the micro or macro levels that we miss areas where we need to grow.
And we may never understand that we are actually making more progress than we imagined.
One final encouragement
Statistically, you have the same shot at getting into The Juilliard School as you do at finishing your goals.
The Juilliard School’s acceptance rate is 8%.
So go easy on yourself.
And please don’t stop following Jesus.
And please don’t stop influencing and inspiring teenagers to follow Jesus.
We need you!
To learn more about setting goals for your youth ministry, check out the Rethinking Youth Ministry podcast!