I felt God calling me into youth ministry when I was in college. And although it was a profound spiritual experience, it also made a lot of sense practically. My freshmen year I had started a small group Bible study. Then sophomore year I began meeting friends for coffee and one-on-one mentoring. And the next year, several roommates and I started a house church to unite our friends each week in the name of Jesus.
So continuing on to full-time youth ministry felt pretty congruent with how I’d been living. And my assumption was that full-time youth ministry would basically just be more of what I had already been doing. More time to mentor, more small groups to lead, more time to study and teach the Bible, etc.
Needless to say, my transition into full-time youth ministry was crazy. And of course this is natural. Transitioning from college to the “real world” is a big leap for anyone. However, there was one HUGE misunderstanding that caused more frustration and anxiety than anything else. It boiled down to this: I didn’t know the difference between “direct ministry” and “indirect ministry.”
Let me explain. Prior to my job at the church, all ministry I had done was directly impacting the lives of people, and it was these efforts, which I’ll call “direct ministry,” that got me really excited about being a youth pastor. But soon after starting at the church, I realized their expectations went way beyond the “direct ministry” which I loved (and felt pretty good at).
I remember the first rude awakening. My boss asked to look at the weekly calendar with me to ensure that my work hours were being used efficiently. We got to Tuesday afternoons, and I proudly revealed that this was the weekly time I spent with a small group of freshmen guys. Then my boss informed me that those hours didn’t count as “work” hours. I was confused, even offended.
“What do you mean these aren’t work hours? I’m the high school pastor and I’m hanging out with high school students. It doesn’t get more ‘work’ than that.” He went on to explain that my time with the small group was volunteer hours, just like it would be volunteer hours for any other small group leader that wasn’t paid by the church.
And that’s when the paradigm shift began. I started to (slowly) realize that my primary job was not to hang out with students. In fact, my primary job was not to do “direct ministry” at all. I was being compensated for something different, which we’ll call “indirect ministry.”
Indirect ministry is about empowering other leaders to ultimately reach the students of your youth ministry. It includes recruiting, training, and shepherding leaders so that they can make the direct impact in the students’ lives. It requires vision, execution, and more planning/logistics than I ever wanted to embrace. Indirect ministry is about creating environments for others to be used by God and contribute in His greater work.
Many youth pastors run themselves to death meeting with students, answering every text, and responding to every Facebook message. They start one small group, then another, and perhaps another. The heart behind these efforts can be great, and their natural charisma and gifting can be through the roof.
But this approach will not cut it because it builds youth ministries around the individual leader. When he or she leaves, the youth ministry falls apart. Which statistics tells us this happens about every year and a half.
Indirect ministry, on the other hand, is the way to make the most sustaining impact. Sure it’s hard. It requires behind the scenes strategizing and keeping your “leader radar” on at all times. You’re making ongoing relational investments into leaders. But indirect ministry brings long-term growth and transformation, which is what we all (should) want.
For us, it boils down to a few essential questions:
1. Who are the students we are called to reach? (example: high school students)
2. Who are the volunteer leaders we can empower to reach them? (example: college students and adult volunteers)
3. How are we going to consistently pour into our volunteer leaders? (indirect ministry)
4. How are our volunteers going to consistently pour out into the students? (direct ministry)
The answer to these questions will vary from church to church and ministry to ministry. But the foundation of indirect ministry can run through every effort we make. And trust me, the hard work of empowering others (both students and adults) is always worth the effort.
Brian Burchik is the author of #LiveFully (livefullybook.com) and serves as the Director of Generation Empower, exporting student ministry resources and training leaders across the country. Brian is also a youth ministry coach with Wayfarer.