Mark DeVries points out that many youth ministries fail because they are not built in a sustainable way. Churches often look for superstar youth pastors to solve all their problems. But quickly the church will overload the superstar with expectations and responsibilities, leading to a gifted and promising young pastor burning out. So what can churches do to build their youth ministries in a sustainable way?

DeVries argues that youth pastors must focus the bulk of their attention on building the foundational system of the ministry. If the foundation is crumbling, no amount of ingenuity or programming will reverse the decline. So DeVries devotes much time to detailing systems thinking. Pastors think systematically when they focus their attention upon the foundational principles and structures of the ministry, rather than the outward trappings. For example, a pastor builds the system of the ministry when he recruits and trains enough volunteers. In contrast, a pastor works on the “facade” of the ministry when he devotes all of his time to finding just the right curriculum. A good curriculum cannot compensate for bad leaders, while good leaders can overcome a faulty curriculum. Youth Pastors must focus on the right things.

So what goes into systems thinking? The first ingredient is philosophy: What is the mission and goal of the ministry? The second ingredient is structure: Who is doing the ministry? The third ingredient is workflow: How do we get the right people in the right places doing the right things? These three ingredients will often consistent of written documents and procedures.

But a written system is not enough. Youth Pastors must also build the right culture within the group. Many scholars refer to culture as the DNA of a group, the vibe, or “the way we do things around here.” Youth Pastors can change culture a few different ways. First, they deliver results. They highlight the good things the ministry is doing. Second, they create a “myth” around the ministry. They tell stories which capture the imagination and illustrates the right beliefs and practices of the group. They also build traditions to “proceduralize” the culture. The things which are celebrated get done.

Youth Pastors also build sustainable ministries when their schedule is sustainable. They should include time for reflection on the ministry in a sustainable schedule. Work gets done also through boring consistency. Sustainable leaders focus on one issue to work through and consistently meet with appropriate leaders to work on the issue.

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