Youth Ministry: Success vs. Failure

by Tom Hoegel

Tom Hoegel

One great advantage of working with young people for over 40 years is the perspective it gives on success versus failure. I find that authentic relationships are rooted in the ability to celebrate victories and walk alongside each other in the challenging times that don’t go well. One of the reasons that I love working with youth is their willingness to do just that.

Now, I’ve had plenty of what you call “failures.” They include money-losing fundraisers, leaving kids behind at gas stations on road trips, discussions that have fallen flat, hiring speakers who pushed Gathering sponsors over the edge, caving to the unreasonable demands of parents and so many more.

One “fail” that started off as well-meaning was a time that I was asked to help clean up the apartment of a lifelong hoarder.  For some reason I didn’t have access to my truck, so I hooked up my dump trailer to the church van, and off I went to lend a hand. Fred’s hoarded items of choice included waist-high stacks of newspapers, old food, unsanitary items, weapons and pornography.  One of my friends dealt with the weapons, and I proceeded to load up a 5 x 10-foot trailer full of the latter.  After a couple of days of work, off I went to the dump.  It happened to be an unusually windy day at the dump, and when I raised my trailer, hundreds of books, magazines, and tapes—including the pornography—went blowing all over the dump.  After quickly lowering my trailer, I stepped back, and as I watched dozens of workers running toward me, all my eyes could see was “Bethel Lutheran Church” written clearly on the side of my van.

Partially in horror, dismay and a sense of stupidity, I drove my church van and contraband trailer out of the dump as fast I could. Maybe because I “learned my lesson,” I never took my church van back to any dump. As I reflected on the day’s event and after telling my pastor, an odd sense of irony and bad planning changed to a long-lasting reminder to never, ever, ever take myself or my intentions too seriously. I’m a big believer that God must have a huge sense of humor. I continue to be proof of that.

GraceWinsOn the “successes” side of the ledger, I would say that after thousands of discussions, mission trips, Bible studies, Easter breakfasts, musical tours, work days, sporting events, hospital visits, juvenile court appointments, ski trips, etc., the greatest success of our ministry has been the total, 100% commitment to “being with” the youth I get to encounter. I long ago learned that I fall short in plenty of areas, but what young people are longing for more than anything is to be loved and included.

How many times do we charge forward with great lesson plans and spiritual revelations that we want to impart on the kids we work with? How many times do those fall flat? Now, I’m not saying to not be prepared or have plans.  Quite the opposite—I’m a huge believer that the more we are prepared, the more we can go with the flow. But the plan and end goal aren’t the finish line. It is the process of being in the journey that community and growth happen.  It’s practice, not perfect!

I’ve been blessed the past decade to have several students who have stretched my ideas and taught me to be more inclusive. We have an extremely diverse youth group based on gender and sexuality. I continue to hear from young people who visit with their friends that they can’t talk honestly about the things we discuss with their church groups. I believe that is tragic!

Our youth mission statement is, “To provide a place where youth are loved and accepted with Jesus as our example.”  We embrace the concept to love people for who they are right now, not for who they should be. Not only has my group shown me how to be a better leader, but we continue to have the opportunity to guide the adults in our church and beyond on the journey to become more loving and accepting.

Do we still make mistakes? Plenty of them. We are awkward at times. We are insensitive and sometimes just ignorant as we forge forward and do life together. Life and ministry are a beautiful mix of successes and failures that allow us to celebrate remind us how much we don’t have the right to judge others.

Each of us has gifts and God promises to use them. I think a huge part of success is relaxing into acknowledging and using those gifts. Kids sniff out authenticity better than any other. Be yourself and love them for who they are. We’ve got lots of time to continue to become the peeps God wants for us. Oh, yeah, never take yourself too seriously!

Tom Hoegel has been the Youth Director at Bethel Lutheran Church in Cupertino, California for the past 35 years. He is also the Tech & Talent Team Director for the ELCA Youth Gathering and is getting ready to serve his 13th in Minneapolis. One of his passions is having youth bands lead at Gatherings and in churches. He also serves as owner/operator of Big Dog Sound and loves working to support the church.

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