Healthy youth ministry is not based on a single charismatic leader, says an expert in the field. It requires congregations to invest in staff and create a vision.
“Sustainable infrastructure” might not sound like the most exciting rallying cry, but for Mark DeVries, an advocate for youth ministry for more than 25 years, it’s the key to success.
“Our dream is to see churches develop thriving youth ministries, and we believe that happens as you build a sustainable infrastructure -- ‘system’ is our key word,” he said.
And everyone in the church -- from judicatories to seminaries to senior pastors -- has a role in creating a system that expresses “what the life of discipleship is in the church in a way that resonates with the heartstrings of the next generation,” he said.
DeVries has been the Associate Pastor for Youth and Their Families at First Presbyterian Church in Nashville, Tenn., since 1986. He also is the founder of Youth Ministry Architects and Children’s Ministry Architects.
DeVries, a graduate of Baylor University and Princeton Theological Seminary, has written or co-written a number of books, including “Sustainable Youth Ministry,” “Family-Based Youth Ministry,” “Before You Hire a Youth Pastor” and “The Indispensable Youth Pastor.”
DeVries spoke with Faith & Leadership about the roles that congregations, judicatories and seminaries play in creating healthy and sustainable youth ministry. The following is an edited transcript.
Q: Why is youth ministry important? What’s at stake?
In many ways, youth ministry is not about youth ministry; it is about the church.
I think the reason it’s so crucial right now is because we’re observing this pretty frightening phenomenon of kids exiting the church in droves and not returning. And whatever it is we’re doing, we’ve got to reshape the way we express what the life of discipleship is in the church in a way that resonates with the heartstrings of the next generation.
Q: On your website you say that “thriving, sustainable youth ministries can never be built on a parade of young, enthusiastic leaders trying to piece together a disjointed collection of ideas from popular models, books and seminars.” What problem are you talking about there, and what’s your solution to it?
Our organization really grew out of churches not being able to sustain thriving youth ministries. In fact, our very first church that we worked with was a pastor who had himself been a successful youth pastor but, in 20 years of being a senior pastor, had never, ever had a thriving youth ministry -- or even what we might call glimpses of healthy youth ministry.
And so we’ve seen that story repeated over and over again, where churches will have a desire to fulfill the church’s baptismal vows on behalf of its teenagers. But the only answer seems to have been, “Let’s hire somebody who has very little experience but a lot of enthusiasm.”
We hire somebody with great relational skills and then they end up having to run what amounts to a $100,000 operation with lots and lots of volunteers and lots of logistics to coordinate, and these people were hired, not because they were good at coordinating logistics or volunteers, but because they’re great with kids. Those are really two different skills.
So our dream is to see churches develop thriving youth ministries, and we believe that happens as you build a sustainable infrastructure -- “system” is our key word. Just like the body is a system of systems, churches are as well.
We also think it is the church’s mission to have its own vision for a youth ministry. They ought to have that in place and invite a staff person to steward the church’s vision rather than asking that person to import a vision that will last as long as they do, which is, latest stats, about 3.9 years. They’ll keep it for 3.9 years, and then somebody else is supposed to import a new vision.
It’s important for the church to say, “We will take responsibility for setting the vision,” and then hold the staff person accountable to steward that.
Q: What are the hallmarks of the structures and cultures necessary in local churches for the sustaining of healthy youth ministry?
It’s really not terribly measurable. But one of the things is there’s just a general joyful confidence and enthusiasm. Parents, kids, volunteers -- they feel like this thing’s going somewhere.
We look for leaders who lead with a non-anxious -- using that family-systems language -- a non-anxious playfulness.
On the opposite side, one of the unhealthy patterns is a victim mentality, where a youth pastor says, “Nobody ever volunteers. We just have a church where [heavy sigh] it just doesn’t work.” (I hope you get that in there -- my sigh.)
Sometimes a church will invest at 1x level and expect results at 10x level, and then they’re really surprised. And the youth pastor is often fired, or criticized, or ostracized, because they can’t perform miracles.
Now, part of the reason churches stay hooked on that crack is because they have in the past had a superstar -- and the superstar stayed usually 18 months, maybe two years. They inflated the ministry beyond what was sustainable, and then that person left, often in a huff, often with some conflict.
But then the church for the next decade or more looks back on those glory days and says, “We used to be able to have 100 kids with one person here; I don’t know why we need more than that.”
And so instead of building a system -- building a staff and a budget that’s sustainable -- churches keep thinking, “Well, I remember …” And often senior pastors who did youth ministry remember selectively, and forget why they’re not doing youth ministry anymore.
Our recommended ratios are about 1 to 50, one full-time staff person to 50 active teenagers. Lyle Schaller back 20 or 30 years ago said youth ministry is typically the most expensive per capita kind of ministry.
In the 250 churches we’ve worked with, it has been pretty consistent to see expectations are not the things that drive results; investment is what drives results.
Q: How can pastors support youth ministers?
In one study of 10,000 teenagers, they were asked, “What makes you want to come to your church?” And the first two answers, not surprisingly, had to do with kids’ relationships with their peers, and they said it’s a place where they can be themselves. Those were predictable.
The third one was a huge surprise. More than 50 percent of kids said, “I want a senior pastor who knows, loves and understands teenagers.”
Senior pastors often think that they don’t play any role in youth ministry. But the truth is, when the kids feel a connection to the life of the church, it is because they have a sense that the pastor knows and understands and loves them.
There are simple things -- not easy, but simple -- like knowing kids’ names, greeting them in the hall by name, every now and then in a sermon speaking to kids, telling stories in which the kids are the protagonist or the antagonist in the story. All of those things are ways that pastors can influence the culture and the sense of welcome for teenagers.
Pastors also often have the power to determine what the structure of their staffing is going to look like. So we suggest that pastors be informed about what it costs to run a youth ministry and match their expectations with the investment.
Sadly, few youth pastors have annual evaluations. There’s just a sense of, “We’re so glad you’re doing whatever you’re doing with the kids; keep doing it,” rather than saying, “Let’s move this thing forward according to the church’s vision.”
Q: When you’re talking about youth ministry and vision, what kind of visioning are you talking about?
We work with churches to create four visioning documents. One is a mission statement. Another is a set of values, which is the non-measurable spirit with which we’re going to go about accomplishing our goals.
If I want my kids to clean their room, that’s a goal, but if I’m angry, bitter and resentful in trying to get them to clean their room, I’ve got a value problem, not a goal problem.
Then we have them develop measurable goals, usually 8 to 15 goals -- a three-year goal with a one-year benchmark that’s annually reviewed and reset.
We also have them create an organizational chart so it’s clear who owns responsibility for leading the different parts of the ministry. Those are the four visioning documents.
Let me give you our mission statement in our church as an example. It’s a little longer than I’d like, but it is what it is: “The Youth Ministry of First Presbyterian Church of Nashville exists to engage 100 percent of the students under our care, to train them to live independently in Christ and to send them out as exceptional godly men and women of integrity who will transform their homes, their schools, their churches, their workplaces and their worlds for Christ.”
Nowhere in there is a vision that says, “Our goal is to get kids to come to youth group.”
Q: What support or guidance can leaders at the judicatory level offer?
Youth ministry has become a casualty of budget cuts and reorganization and restructuring, and so it often becomes the purview of a volunteer committee, and as most of us know, when something is handed to a committee, it’s usually handed to no one.
Sometimes there’s enough momentum from previous history so they’ve got these camps or conferences and four or five events they do every year, and they’ve got an infrastructure in place, and sometimes that can coast for several years.
Our first recommendation is there’s got to be a point person and not a volunteer if we’re going to do anything significant in the judicatory. We would say what you’re looking for at the judicatory level is someone who can function as a general contractor.
That person can midwife two or three key priorities and initiatives. Maybe we want to grow the number of kids going to mission trips, or maybe we want to increase the number of kids going to camp, or maybe we want to create a student leadership program that’s for all the kids in the conference.
Have two or three targeted initiatives that that person takes responsibility for moving forward, in addition to pointing people to resources.
And when I say resources, I mean things like, “OK, if you need to do a website but you can’t afford a $15,000 website, here’s a template for you that we have built for all the churches in our diocese, and for $100 a year, you can use it.” That kind of thing.
We are excited about the partnerships we’re beginning to have with judicatories. Because if a presbytery -- or a conference or judicatory -- can create a culture where youth ministry is valued and cultivated, they create this pipeline of folks that want to do ministry, not just youth ministry.
Q: What role do you think seminaries play in the training and support of youth ministers?
I like what we’re seeing in terms of there’s an increasing number of schools that are providing a creative seminary option. So I’m here at Duke teaching in the Master of Arts in Christian Practice course, which is for people who are practitioners -- they’re still in ministry, but they’ll come five or six times over two years, do weeklong intensive courses with an online component that follows it.
I think that’s a much more accessible approach to folks in youth ministry than the typical, “You’ve got to come be a resident for three years.”
We’re also seeing schools like Princeton do a youth ministry forum that exposes primarily un-ordained folks to richer theological reflection. Several years ago, they had Jürgen Moltmann as the speaker for the youth ministry forum. Well, he’s no small potatoes theologically and probably doesn’t know much about youth ministry, so it’s not like going to a vocational class in how to be a good youth minister. It’s how to get a theological context for youth ministry. And I think seminaries can do that.
But I continue to believe that seminaries uniquely are positioned to prepare the brightest leaders with the greatest education in youth ministry, the Ph.D.’s. I’m concerned that our budget challenges are going to keep us from producing Ph.D.’s to lead youth ministry programs.
There are few institutions of higher education that provide Ph.D.’s for folks who would be teaching in youth ministry. And so when there are very few roads to develop senior faculty in training the next generation of youth ministers, there’s a pretty low ceiling on the sort of academic rigor that we’re going to be bringing to the training of youth ministers.
Q: What are some other issues vital to the future of youth ministry?
As we think 20 years down the road, the folks that are dying who are in our churches now and tithing to our churches, they have a very different ethic about giving to the institution of the church than the folks now in their 20s and 30s.
These folks have never significantly been taught to tithe as a part of their normal giving pattern. They give, but they give to clean water projects and they give to parachurch organizations; they don’t give like the generation before them.
So we may be in a season where, like Joseph said to Pharaoh, “we’re going to have some years of famine,” and the churches that are going to be able to sustain their youth ministries are those that are going to be prepared in these next 10 or 15 years to create endowments that can fund ministry to younger generations, or other ministries, whatever it is. Because I think we’re going to have to rethink how we do stewardship in the church.