What I wish I knew when I started out


At the start of 2015 I started a new role as Senior Pastor at Bracken Ridge Baptist Church in Brisbane after spending the last 12 years serving in youth and associate roles. I look at my time in youth ministry as some of the most rewarding and affirming moments in my ministry so far, but if I did have the chance to go back knowing what I do now, what are the 5 things that I would tell myself? (other than becoming a gazillionaire because I’ve placed bets on outcomes of footy games!)  

The top 5 things:
Number 1   “Young Dano, your going to do alright.”  That’s the first thing I would say to my younger self. Why? Like so many new youth pastors I placed upon myself sooo much pressure comparing with other leaders, watching their ministries flourish and me seemingly having no idea what I was doing. As a young leader I wasted tons of emotional energy thrashing around how I’m going to go about doing ministry, whether or not I’ll be ‘successful’ or become another statistic of failed youth pastors. Young leaders particularly are insecure (it’s normal) as they are developing skills and learning about themselves and so if I could, I would go back and just tell 22yo Dan to relax, your going to do well. Not perfect, but God is going to use you because He’s called you and He’ll equip you. So settle down you incredibly handsome man and enjoy your time in youth ministry. This is the best time of your ministry life… it’s incredibly fun, with high energy, and teenagers are more ready to hear and respond to the Gospel. So enjoy!

Number 2  “Invest in the people first, then the programs.” As a senior pastor i can see the value of a program for youth, kids and children’s ministry programs as it provides structure and opportunities to engage with God and others. Parents are also more able to connect into a local church if they can trust that their kids are safe and in a trustworthy environment. However as a new youth pastor, I was so keen to get the program to be the most attractive and cutting edge that I can see that I potentially used people to contribute towards my desires for success. Having a great youth program isn’t wrong, it’s just not as important as the wonderful students and leaders that I need to invest in. As I spend time engaging with people, then the program/model will become clear.

Number 3  “Use your time well (do only what YOU can do).” I pretty much started as a full-time youth pastor, one of the lucky ones I guess, but many youth coordinators and pastors are 3 days pw. If that’s you, consider this kind of time allocation:
– Spend AT LEAST a quarter of your time in local high schools. The legacy of Rivers Church of Christ from pioneers like Mick Cross (who influenced me as his successor) is to spend as much time as humanly possible in our local schools. Why? A couple of reasons: firstly it shows priorities to your church and students. This is a cultural thing… youth ministry is not about babysitting on a Friday night but engaging with students in their everyday life and encouraging them to be disciples. Secondly you spend only a couple of hours weekly with your students on Friday night… if you remain JUST there, you will miss many opportunities to connect and build relationships in their natural environment- like school. Finally if youth are less and less likely to step into a local church (recent figures suggested 6%?), imagine setting up youth ministries in local high schools! Our chaplain at a school in Caboolture, is a former youth pastor at our church. Now he’s establishing youth ministries in his school. Brilliant. As a youth pastor I would be supporting the shiz out of this!
– Spend a quarter of your time connecting and discipling key leaders and youth (including student leaders). Yep Jesus had multitudes of followers but still prayerfully chose 12 to invest in, then 3 key leaders (Peter, James, John), then 1 (Peter). By identifying and investing into young leaders you create a culture of leadership being important and something to aspire to.
– Spend a quarter of your time investing into the youth ministry program because it’s still important. HOWEVER, it has be to intentional and useful to helping students know Jesus and connect with others. If it’s not then scrap it and restart (make sure you bring your senior pastor and parents along that journey though. Just a little heads up there). And lastly,
– The last quarter is engaging in the minutia of church-world (staff meetings, reports etc). No great youth pastor likes this last one but it is important. Building influence with peers and those your accountable to is important. Part of that whole lifelong-learner stuff.

 Number 4   “Don’t ignore and neglect your family.”  When I started in youth ministry, on my very first week, my ‘very ancient’ ex-Youth Pastor Steve Drinkall told me that my priority in ministry is to my wife Anita and new family and I took this advice as from the Lord and treated it very seriously. Years later Anita and I have been married for 17 years and have grown stronger as a family because that’s where my heart is. When I lean too heavily into work it’s my family who misses out… the stats are full of PK’s who no longer engage with Jesus and His church because of poor modelling by their parents.

Number 5  “Dano, take more risks!” I can’t believe I’m saying this but I would expect youth pastors to be pressing the limits of what’s kosher within your local church family. The best youth pastor I’ve ever seen is a guy named TJ (formerly New Pen Baptist in Vic and now Tear Vic Coordinator). TJ created lasting moments with the students, including them on his spear-fishing adventures, camping, surfing and skating shenanigans. These moments created memories, which creates momentum in youth ministry as he shared the stories of what happened. The students loved hearing it and wanted to get caught up in it!
Now sometimes he did go too far… like quite often. Like the time when he got up on the roof of the church building and threw water bombs at the kids aka Space Invaders. But the conversations and crazy things TJ and the kids did… one time he and another great young leader Jimmy took a whole heap of kids down to the local shopping centre at night and just started ninja car-washing cars. People would drive up, park, and go into the shops. When they come out their cars are spotless. And there are heaps of other examples!
I would say to young Dano to take students on adventures. Let them experience life and I think about this now… teenagers are going to go and create experiences with or without me. So why not go and create meaningful experiences with me as a youth pastor because at least I can help steer and ‘mop up’ with parents!

You may have other additions to these… please feel free to add them in the comments section below. I would like to just finally add that youth ministry is an incredibly valuable part of your church and youth pastors, workers and leaders are on the frontlines. Well done guys and please don’t stop pushing the boundaries of church and bringing some mess!

Written by Dan Lyons, Senior Pastor Bracken Ridge Baptist Church.


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