How I (Almost) Failed at Youth Ministry

This year, I was asked to run the GOYA and JOY programs at my home parish, along with two of my friends as co-advisors. I wholeheartedly agreed to do so with a grand idea in my head of taking the summer camp model of ministry that I love so much and carrying that throughout the school year through this ministry.


Warning: That isn’t exactly what happened. This is not a story in which I bring everyone to Christ and am the perfect youth ministry worker. In fact, it is quite the opposite. It’s a story where I learn my shortcomings. On the bright side, I did learn very important lessons.


The first is: Plan ahead, but expect the unexpected.


I had no idea what would come at my first few meetings which made it difficult to create lesson and activity plans. I had no idea how many people would come or what they did or did not know about Orthodoxy. I thought, at the very least, I had a general idea of where I wanted the meetings to go. But I found that I should have been more open to the meetings not going my way.


For example, I had a plan to try to make a genuine connection with everyone there, but I slowly discovered that JOY and GOYA meetings are not like summer camp cabins, where these interactions are much easier because you spend almost every waking moment together for a week. These meetings are two hours or so a week, and with attendance at about 40 kids, connection like that is virtually impossible. So I had to amend my plan.


Second: Ask for help when help is needed.


As advisors, we were not only running all the youth programs, but we also had to build them up from virtual non-existence. I was extremely fortunate to get amazing co-workers in Christ to advise the group with me. But sometimes, we needed extra help, and we should have asked for it.


There is certainly humility necessary to ask for donations, or for a parent or a speaker to join a meeting. And I’m not saying that we would immediately get what we asked for, but putting our needs out there probably would have helped. Parishioners are not all-knowing, and neither are clergymen. How could I have expected them to know what I was struggling with if I never told them? At the very least, maybe they have had the same struggles and can lend you an ear and helpful suggestions.


Lastly: Appreciate the little things.


Did I introduce every one of these kids to Christ? Did I show them what an Orthodox Christian should act like through my actions, always? I think the answer to these questions, in any ministry setting, will always be no. It’s never going to be that magical. And, even though you know that that’s unrealistic, because as Christians we know we are imperfect, it’s something that we should strive for.


But, did these groups create friendships within a church setting? Yes. I don’t think that I’ve taken the time to properly appreciate the blessing that every individual there has prayed and laughed and perhaps even cried together (the JOY kids have cried plenty for sure). While I was trying my best to be the best example of an Orthodox Christian that I could be, I saw glimpses into lives and actions that quite unexpectedly inspired me.


If there's anything that I learned this year, it's that you need to keep trudging on despite sometimes feeling tired, or empty, and especially when you feel as though you haven't made progress that day. I mostly learned these lessons through my co-advisors, who were nothing short of unbelievable and helped push me through many lulls and ultimately closer to Christ.


The truest model of youth ministry isn’t something that can be taught. It’s about being an example of Christ’s light and love, which is something that I am still learning and will continue to learn. There is no surefire method that will bring people to Christ, but having the right mindset is supremely helpful.

If you’ve experienced challenges while doing youth ministry, please share them (in the comments section below, or on Facebook, but also with other youth workers that you encounter). How did you approach and solve those issues? How did everything turn out?


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Maria is the Administrative Coordinator of Y2AM. She is a New York native who isn't completely sold on the city's charm, yet has never left. A proud graduate of Fordham University and occasional runner, she is happiest whenever chocolate, a sale, or a good Gilmore Girls reference is involved.