4 keys to the mastery of youth ministry

One of the things I appreciate about my childhood is that my parents encouraged me to dabble: To try a variety of things in order to discover my interests, passions, and abilities. Throughout grade school and middle school, I dabbled in many things. I played sports, sang in the choir, and performed on stage in my school's plays (My performance as sheep #3 in We Like Sheep was truly stunning). When I was cut from the volleyball team as a freshman in high school, I stopped dabbling in sports and instead dabbled more in writing and fine arts.

By the time I was a senior in high school, my extracurricular activities reflected my passion for writing, music, and theater, though by this point, my theater involvement was entirely behind the scenes or in the pit. In college, I continued dabbling in these areas, which continue to be important to me as an adult. As an adult, I've also enjoyed dabbling in other things including skiing, hiking, and cooking.

Though I certainly continue to enjoy dabbling, as an adult I've come to the realization that I want to do more in life than dabble; I want to master something. For me, the one thing I want to master is youth ministry.

Before you think I'm arrogant, let me explain.

As I recently shared, in youth ministry, there is no standard for expertise. In the absence of such, experience, education, and authorship typically determine who the experts are. Don't get me wrong, I greatly value all three of these things.

That said, over the last five years or so, my husband's career in the software industry has expanded and reframed my understanding of expertise. My husband works for a growing software company that centers much of its practices, training models, and recruitment models around craftsmanship, an idea rooted in the world of apprenticeships.

Within this context, my husband and his colleagues talk often of mastery, a state that reflects comprehensive knowledge or skill in a subject. To achieve mastery requires more than just dabbling for a year or two in something. According to my husband's colleague, Paul, the humble pursuit of mastery requires sacrifice, practice, critique, and teaching. Though Paul writes about these traits in relationship to software, I believe they're equally necessary for those of who who want to pursue mastery in youth ministry.

In the youth ministry world, in order to pursue mastery we must listen first and foremost to God and secondly to other people, both those within and outside of the youth ministry world. Listening can take on many different forms – going to school, reading a variety of sources, attending seminars / conferences, hearing podcasts, and conversing with peers, mentors, and those who have already mastered our craft. Listening demands humility. When we willingly put ourself in situations where we're not the smartest people in the room, we learn from those who are. Listening requires us to set aside ministry envy, jealousy, and fear and intentionally pursue relationships and collaboration with others. It demands the admission of our weaknesses, the recognition of others' strengths, and the acknowledgement that when we do both, the body of Christ is strongest.

Mastering youth ministry also requires practice. According to Malcom Gladwell, mastery actually requires about 10,000 hours worth of practice, a number that translates into approximately 10 years of experience or practice. Of course, as author Paul Martin points out in his blog post on Mastery, practice is only helpful in the pursuit of mastery if you're practicing the right thing.

Beyond that, the humble pursuit of mastery requires the willingness to be critiqued. In his post on software craftsmanship, Paul shares how he came to value being relentlessly critiqued by both his peers and mentors any time his “discipline fell short of perfection”. No doubt, this practice is one that inspires fear in those of us who work for the church and are too often the recipients of well-intentioned but painfully critical e-mails. Even so, I dare say Paul is right. Mastery requires us to humbly receive critiques from both our fans and our critics. It demands that we seek out the nugget of truth amidst the litany of complaints. It also necessitates that we constantly evaluate ourselves and our ministry in order to become more effective at ministering to those entrusted to our care.

Lastly, mastery demands we willingly teach others what we know, a practice that enables God to use both our successes and failures for the good of his kingdom. Teaching also enables us to give back to our community. It fosters collaboration rather than competition.

What's more, as Paul says in his blog about software craftsmanship, teaching enables us to solidify our own knowledge, something that makes sense in light of one of the conclusions Kenda Creasy Dean draws from the National Study of Youth and Religion: “We take our cues from Genesis and speak our worlds into being... To be able to actually say what God has done in Jesus Christ, for the world and for us – and to confess what this means – is critical for Christian formation, whether 'telling Jesus' takes the form of reciting a creed, singing a song, preaching a sermon, offering personal testimony, dramatizing Jesus' life, death, and resurrection in liturgy, or simply confessing faith.” Whether by speaking or writing, teaching allows us to speak our faith into being.

Pursuing mastery in youth ministry may never result in fame or glory. That said, I wholeheartedly believe it will result in God's glory, the furthering of his kingdom, and more effective ministry to our teens. That's why even though I'm content to dabble in many things, youth ministry isn't one of them.

Jen Bradbury on Youth Ministry

Jen serves as the Minister of Youth and Family at Atonement Lutheran Church in Barrington, Illinois. A veteran youth worker, Jen holds an MA in Youth Ministry Leadership from Huntington University. Jen is the author of The Jesus Gap: What Teens Actually Believe about Jesus (The Youth Cartel), The Real Jesus (The Youth Cartel), Unleashing the Hidden Potential of Your Student Leaders (Abingdon), and A Mission That Matters (Abingdon). Her writing has also appeared in YouthWorker Journal, Immerse, and The Christian Century. Jen is also the Assistant Director of Arbor Research Group where she has led many national studies. When not doing ministry or research, she and her husband, Doug, and daughter, Hope, can be found traveling and enjoying life together.

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A Mission That Matters: How To Do Short-Term Missions Without Long-Term Harm

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Unleashing the Hidden Potential of your Student Leaders

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The Real Jesus

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The Jesus Gap

What Teens Actually Believe About Jesus

Based on National Research

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