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5 Lessons Learned in Youth Ministry

This week, I concluded six years of serving as teen ministry leader at my church. 

As a teen ministry leader, I helped teens grow in their faith and closer to God through prayer, reflection, retreats and various activities. Over the years, I have been blessed to help teens receive the sacrament of confirmation, served as a confirmation sponsor and have been at the Easter Vigil to help welcome teens fully into the church. 

These last six years of youth ministry have been filled with prayer, retreats, lock-ins, pizza, laughs, movies, icebreaker games and s’mores. The teens have taught me about the latest songs, popular dances and the youth’s perspective on current events and hot topics in the church. We’ve bonded over our favorite Pixar films and how difficult the season of Lent can be.

Working in youth ministry is challenging, but comes with many rewards. While it was my job to teach teens about God and their Catholic faith, they have taught me so much about what it means to be present with others, the importance of conversation and the many layers of our faith.

In youth ministry, you’re with young people for a short time of their life. But your time together can have a lasting effect on who they become. Here are a few lessons I’ve learned working in teen ministry for the last six years. 

Empower their voice

Teens are old enough to do more than they’ve ever been able to do but have yet to achieve full freedom. And in these years, they will test their boundaries. It was important to me that they felt a part of the ministry’s success. Anywhere I could be flexible, I gave them options. This included movie selections, games and discussion topics. I wanted them to know, as said in “A Different World” by Whoopi Goldberg, “I am a voice in this world and I deserve to be heard.” 

Before the end of the fall semester, sessions would feel more collaborative versus them just being told what to do. I enjoyed this because I knew the teens felt empowered to take part in Teen Ministry and make it their own. 

Teens are capable of great things

While they need a bit of structure, teens really are capable of more than the credit they are given. The ones I had the blessing of working with are all intelligent, talented, determined and giving. Too often teens are labeled “difficult” by adults. And I’m sure the parent-to-child relationship is a bit different. But when given the room to grow, I was always amazed at how teens can fly. 

One year, I had a male student who wanted to be anywhere but in teen ministry. He was new to the parish and his grandmother forced him to join the ministry. He had a huge curly afro, which he used to hide his face. For the first few sessions, he was NOT having it. But by the end of the school year, he had made friends and cut down his afro so we could see his face. And underneath his disdain hid a wonderful young man filled with talent and swag. On his last day, he told me he had a better time than he originally expected. I was so proud not only that we had a program he enjoyed, but also that the teens embraced him. 

Community is essential

Teens need to feel support and encouragement not just within teen ministry, but from other parishioners at their church. I always encouraged our pastor and deacons to join us in teen ministry as they could, because I wanted the teens to know that the parish community was supportive of them.

Because of the teen’s interests and comfort within their parish, many of them participated in other ministries of the church. This included altar serving, being ushers and singing in the choir. Teen ministry is just one of many ways teens can incorporate themselves into the parish. 

Once a year, before our teen lock-in, we would attend the Saturday Vigil Mass. Toward the end of Mass, the pastor and church community would extend hands and say a prayer for the teens and leaders. That’s a memory the teens will keep forever, knowing that their parish cares about them and their faith.

Leaders never have all the answers

By the time you become a teen ministry leader or are involved in youth ministry, you will not have all of the answers about your faith. Sometimes the teens will ask you something that you can’t answer. And it is okay to say you don’t know and follow up with the answer at a later time. 

One of the best ways to teach the faith is simply by living it. Share your personal experiences, Share how you incorporate your faith into daily life and how it applies it to difficult situations or circumstances. Share how your faith in God pulled you through a difficult time in your life. Not only does this create a connection, but it shows the power of what faith can do. 

Also, don’t be afraid to reach out for help. Other youth ministers have ideas and tricks that you can use. Your volunteers also have ideas. Find programs and retreats for youth ministers to help make your program the best it can be.

Just be yourself

You don’t have to wear special clothes, learn all the new lingo or dance moves every week. The teens just want an authentic you. Of course, it helps to learn their interests and what engages them. But you don’t have to take on all of those things. Just show a genuine interest in them and your relationship will grow.

If you’re in youth ministry long enough, you will meet other ministers who have amazing gifts and can do amazing things. Some youth ministers are great at planning trips and activities. Others are good at keeping the energy high in sessions. Some have the gift of coming up with great games. And others are good at leading discussion topics. And just like them, you have unique gifts to bring to your ministry. 

To all of the youth ministers out there, thank you for every weekend, Sunday night and planning time you sacrifice for the youth. Thank you for bringing young people closer to Christ. I know firsthand all of the talents you bring make such a difference in their lives.

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