Dumb | One Little Mistake

I’m in the middle of a blogging series called Dumb.  These posts are all about the dumb things I’ve done as a student pastor.  My hope is that you can learn from my mistakes instead of making your own.  My overall point is this:  Student ministry is hugely important!  What we do to invest in the lives of students and lead them into growing relationships with Jesus is amazingly powerful We can’t screw it up!

I’ve broken my mistakes into three categories:  burned out, disqualified, and ineffective.  You can check out my posts on burn out here.


One Little Mistake

It was 10 pm.  The event had been long and exhausting and here I was waiting for a parent.  Of course.  Why are we always waiting for parents to pick up their kids?!?  I care about my volunteers so I let them all go home to get some rest.  That was 30 minutes ago.  That was my first mistake.  Here I was, alone with a female student, waiting for her parent.  Waiting, waiting, waiting.  11 pm.  That was my 2nd mistake.

I finally got her parent on the phone.  He’d fallen asleep and for some ridiculous reason, he didn’t have a car tonight.  You have to be kidding me!!!  I’m so tired!  Forget it!  I’ll bring her home myself.  11:30 pm.  I’m driving alone with a female student in my car.  That was my 3rd mistake.

Here’s the thing:  Nothing happened.  There was no weirdness, no attraction, no nothing.  There wasn’t even a conversation because I was so annoyed and tired.  But, that’s not the point.  This girl was an incredibly broken girl.  The thing about broken people is that they do broken things.  I’ve heard many stories of youth workers being accused of inappropriate behavior with students.  How many ministries and churches have been discredited by inappropriate behavior or even the accusation of inappropriate behavior.   Like I said, in this situation, nothing happened, but that’s not the point.  In the case of an accusation, how could I have defended myself?

Broken people do broken things and we all know of several instances in which youth workers got caught in the mess.  What I’ve learned is that one little mistake can destroy a career, a ministry, a family, a church.  And, sometimes it doesn’t matter if you did something morally wrong or not.  One slip in judgement at 11:30 at night, when you’re utterly decimated by fatigue and frustration can bring the whole thing down.  It’s not fair but it’s absolutely true.

One of the most important lessons I’ve learned is that dumb isn’t usually intentional.  It’s usually not malicious.  Dumb happens when we’re exhausted, frustrated and when our guard is down.  Boundaries, accountability and policies protect us when we’re exhausted.

These days, my philosophy is that anyone is capable of a lapse in judgment, or worse.  I recognize that I am a fallen and broken human being and everyone that I work with and serve is in the same boat.  The wise thing to do is create boundaries, to accept accountability and to work and serve within clear policies.  Student ministry is too important for us to be dumb.


image credited to Kyle May via Flickr


Dumb | Speak Up!

This week I’m blogging about a presentation I gave to West Michigan area youth workers about the top ten dumbest things I’ve ever done in student ministry.  Last week, I posted about being over scheduled, the dangers of being a student ministry rock star and trying to be amazing at everything.   I’ve broken my dumb mistakes down into three categories:  burned out, ineffective and disqualified.  Here’s my #7 dumbest mistake:


Burned Out

Speak Up!

I don’t know about you, but I like to get along with people.  I’ve always been very accommodating.  As a teenager, I was able to float between all sorts of social groups because I never rocked the boat.  I knew how to make everyone happy.  Whenever conflict came I buried it. I always kept my hurts and anger inside because I discovered early in my life that to let them out was dangerous to relationships.

I know what you’re thinking:  “Well, that’s not very healthy!”  Hey, slow down!  I didn’t know that yet.  Besides, you’re ruining my punchline.

Anyway, I carried this understanding of conflict and relationships into college, marriage (which is a whole other blog series!) and ministry.  The thing about ministry is that it is loaded with conflict.  I mean, it is just riddled with it.  I once heard a seasoned senior pastor say that ministry is a “series of difficult conversations.”  I think that sums it up pretty nicely.

So here’s the thing, in my early years of student ministry, I skirted around conflict.  I chose not to confront co-workers or superiors when I had been hurt and I surely didn’t have conversations with volunteers who weren’t meeting expectations.  In short, I didn’t rock the boat.  I kept everyone happy.  And the thing is, everyone was happy.  I was getting glowing reviews, regular raises, and the student ministry was growing quickly.  The only thing was that I wasn’t happy.

The problem is that people disappoint and hurt each other.  This is normal in friendships, marriage and church work.  It’s the nature of things.  When volunteers, co-workers and superiors disappointed and hurt me and I said nothing.  I thought it was best to keep the peace.  What actually happened is that over years this disappointment and hurt grew and evolved into something dark and incredibly heavy.  In fact, it became something so big that I lost control of it.  I became bitter and jaded.

We all know that person in ministry who is jaded.  You can hear it in their tone of voice and in words dripping with bitterness.  Their boss is an idiot.  Their elders are out of touch.  Their church is dumb.  The church across town is has sold out.  So and so author is a heretic.  Don’t become that person.  How do you become that person?  Easy.  You simply don’t speak up when you are disappointed and hurt.  When you choose to keep it inside, you choose to drink the poison of bitterness.

What I’ve learned, the hard way, is that it is far better to speak up in two ways.  First, seek to clarify hurtful conversations.  Most of the time, when I get disappointed or hurt, it is because I misunderstood something someone said or something they said came out in a way they didn’t mean.  By simply asking clarifying questions releases 90% of my disappointments and hurts.

Secondly, I’ve learned that careful confrontation is crucial to healthy relationships.  We’re all broken.  The thing about relationships, whether a friendship, marriage, or working relationship, is that they gravitate toward chaos.  It’s the nature of trying to relate in a fallen world.  You have to fight for healthy relationships.  I’ve learned that in order for a relationship to work over the long-haul, it must involve calling each other out when we get disappointed and hurt.  Ignoring this truth will inevitably lead to either a superficial or broken relationship.

In the end, I left my first church, in part because I had become frustrated, bitter and jaded.  What I’ve learned is that if I had clarified hurtful conversations and carefully confronted when necessary, I’d probably still be there.  It is a great church, with great people but because I functioned in relationally unhealthy ways, I allowed myself to become jaded.

What we do in student ministry is far too important and life-changing for us to become bitter and jaded.  We must choose maturity and maintain healthy relationships so that we can serve and lead for the long-haul because that’s what it takes to grow a great student ministry.  Don’t be dumb.  Speak up.



image credited to ceratosaurrr via Flickr


Dumb | Over Scheduled

This week I’m blogging about a presentation I gave to West Michigan area youth workers about the ten dumbest things I’ve ever done in student ministry.  Over the last few days, I’ve posted about the dangers of being a student ministry rock star and trying to be amazing at everything.   I’ve broken my dumb mistakes down into three categories:  burned out, ineffective and disqualified.  Here’s my #8 dumbest mistake:


Burned Out

8.   Over Scheduled

When I began my first student ministry job, things in the high school ministry weren’t exactly firing on all cylinders.  They guy who was the youth pastor before me is a great guy but for whatever reason, he and the church didn’t click.  To put it bluntly, the high school ministry was basically dead when I was hired.  I felt an enormous amount of pressure to revive the ministry, so I went all in.  We’re talking three programs a week–all year long, two fun events a month, three retreats a year and 3 mission trips a year.  Oh yeah!  Maybe that doesn’t sound nuts to you, but it is.  Trust me.

Did my approach work?  You bet!  The attendance jumped up, the church leadership and parents were pumped, it was a huge win…for a while.  Then, I completely fried.  I exhausted myself.  The truth is, no one can maintain a schedule like that.

I distinctly remember the moment when I realized how over-committed and exhausted I was.  It was a Sunday morning.  I was sitting at my kitchen table in a panic because in a mere two hours, I would stand before 100+ students and preach a sermon I didn’t have.  I had no plan whatsoever.  I had been so busy during the week that I hadn’t studied, written or practiced anything.  This was bad.

Needless to say, that Sunday morning sucked.  In the aftermath, as I came to terms with the fact that I had neglected my most important duty, I finally realized that I needed to cut back.  I had created a monster I couldn’t maintain.  Yes, the student ministry was rocking but the pace and schedule had crushed my soul.

The thing about profound exhaustion is that it doesn’t go away overnight.  When you are exhausted on a soul level, you need a season of rest.  Sadly, I couldn’t recover in the role I was in.  In the end, I quit and took a new job that had a much smaller focus.  My new job was team oriented and specialized.  Also, the student ministry wasn’t schedule heavy.  The sad thing is, the church I left is a great church, with solid leadership and great people.  I was the one who created the problem with my unrealistic expectations and over-committed schedule.

If I could do it all over again, I would use one word to govern my student ministry practices;  sustainability.  A sustainable pace and schedule is absolutely crucial to longevity in ministry, and longevity is crucial to effective ministry.  I firmly believe that great student ministry takes years to grow.  Our students desperately needs pastors and volunteers who will commit to them for years at a time.

Is your schedule sustainable? Are you sprinting toward exhaustion?  Cut back!  Slow down!  Great student ministry takes time to develop and what we do is far to important for us to burn out.  Take the long view and run at a sustainable pace.


image credited to Dafne Cholet via Flickr

Dumb | Amazing at Everything

This week I’m blogging about the dumbest stuff I’ve done in student ministry.  It’s my sly way of talking about what really matters.  I’ve broken down my big mistakes into three categories:  burning out, becoming ineffective and disqualifying yourself.  Yesterday, I posted about the dangers of becoming a student ministry rock star.  Here’s my #9 dumbest mistake…


Burned Out

9.  Amazing at Everything

I’ve always been a bit of a control freak, and I love the spotlight.  Because of this, in my early days of student ministry, I did everything.  I was the teacher, worship leader, volunteer coordinator, keeper of the budget, leader, event planner, strategist, counselor and basically everything else.  I guess I just thought that a youth pastor should do all these things.  Maybe you’ve been there.  Maybe you’re still there.

It took me a while to learn, but eventually, I discovered that I’m not awesome that all of these things.  Shocker.  I’m a little slow, I guess.  Let’s just say, I was one of the last to learn what was obvious to everyone else.

Honestly, no one is amazing at all of these roles.  I discovered that I’m only an A+ at one or two.  In some of them, I’m a solid B and a few I’m an F–I mean just turrible.  The trouble is that because I was trying to be amazing at everything, I was amazing at nothing.  My Fs were Fs, my Bs became Cs and my A+s became Bs.  In other words, the student ministry wasn’t as strong as it should have been because I was trying to do too much.

Where were the volunteers you ask?  Good question.  They were there, patiently waiting for me to give them something meaningful to do.  I kept the volunteers, and many of the students on the sidelines for too long.  When I finally woke up and began handing off meaningful roles, our student ministry became stronger, and my A+ strengths reemerged.  I admit it.  I was dumb.

Sometimes, the most important leadership lessons are hiding in plain sight, right in the Bible.

“So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up…” (Ephesians 4:11, 12)

Student ministry, or any ministry for that matter, will always be better when leaders equip others to do the work.  Also, when we focus on our A+ skill areas and empower gifted people to do the roles that we are weak in, everyone wins!

Why is it so difficult for many of us to learn this lesson?  I think there are two main reasons.  First, we too often find our identity and worth in our work.  When the spotlight is on us, we feel that the credit is clearly ours.  When our work defines us, we aren’t free to delegate and empower because to do so would mean that we are less valuable.

Secondly, we aren’t inviting feedback.  Many of us simply don’t know what we’re terrible at because we haven’t been told.  Honest feedback always makes us and our ministries better.  Who is giving you honest feedback?

If I could do it all over again, I wouldn’t be dumb.  I would focus on my two A+ roles, and empower others to do the work I struggle with.  The ministry would have been better and healthier much sooner.



Dumb | Rock Star

Recently, I spoke at a gathering of student ministry pastors and volunteers about what really matters in student ministry.  The thing is, nobody likes a “know it all”, so instead of talking from a pedestal of expertise or success, I talked about the top 10 dumbest things I’ve done in student ministry.  Let’s be real, people would rather hear fail stories than success stories.  Also, using your mistakes as a platform to talk about what really matters is a brilliant strategy.  Just admit it.

Anyway, I began with this idea:  What we do, as student ministry pastors and volunteers, is far too important for us to become burned out, ineffective, or disqualified.  Students deeply need good student ministries that connect them to Jesus and meaningful relationships with spiritual mentors.  We can’t screw this up!

So, thought I’d spend a few days sharing all the dumb things I’ve done.  Who’s pumped?!?!

Burned Out

10. You’re Not a Rock Star

Being a student pastor is a little like being a rock star.  Sure the stage is small and the audience’s brains are still developing, but being a rock star, even a small one, is exhilarating!  In fact, I’d go as far as to say that it’s intoxicating.

For me, my first student ministry role very quickly became the Aaron show.  It was all about me–my singing, my speaking, my events, my wisdom–me, me, me.  In a shocking twist, this wasn’t good for anyone, particularly me.  For one thing, I began to gauge my success in ministry based on claps and compliments.  Did they love my worship set?  Did they tell me afterward how amazing my talk was?  Was this the best event they’d ever been too?  If these things didn’t happen, then I would feel like I bombed.  And, if they did happen, then I felt like a rock star.  I’m telling you, this quickly led me to a bad place.

Now, I may sound like a horrible person to you right now, but this is a very real thing, especially for those of us who are natural entertainers or performers.  We don’t need any more examples of egotistical pastors falling from grace in American churches!  One common theme among all these fallen pastors is that they became rock stars.

What gets lost in the pastor as rock star phenomenon is Jesus.  Wait, isn’t this whole thing supposed to be about Him?  Well, yes, of course, but I found myself in a place where I was more interested in students falling in love with me than with students falling in love with Jesus.  I would have never verbalized this, but looking back, I know that it was true.

I know that some of you, who are serving in or leading student ministries, know exactly what I’m talking about.  The danger in all of this is that students would miss Jesus.  As good as it feels to be needed and esteemed, we need to be very careful here  What’s the solution?  Well, in my opinion, it’s community.  Invite your community into this conversation.  Give them the freedom to tell you if you are slipping into rock star mode.  Also, lead in community.  Invite others to serve in the rock star roles.  Don’t be the worship leader, teacher and game leader, and host.  Give a few of these roles to someone else.  Share the spotlight.  In doing so, you’ll take the focus off yourself an help put it back on what students really need, Jesus.  Besides, being a rock star, when you’re supposed to be a servant, does bad things to your soul.  Trust me on this one.


photo credited to Lloyd Dewolf via Flickr

You Don’t Have to be Terrible at Dating

Dating isn’t for the faint of heart.  It’s difficult and usually ends badly.  Recently, I did a teaching on how to win at dating. I hope you find it helpful.

Two quick things:

1. We break halfway through the video and have students read Scriptures together…in case you were wondering why it’s sort of Scripture empty.

2. The best line in this video was stolen from Andy Stanley.

Awkward Series: Gauges from Lifeline Student Ministries on Vimeo.