“How have you lasted for more than 30 years in youth work?” one of my students recently asked me.

It hasn’t been an easy road. I was as green as could be—a real rookie—when I first started. I had little knowledge and no experience, so my learning curve was very high. I was teachable and soaked in as much as I could, and my willingness to learn from others proved valuable.

As I aged and developed wrinkles and gray hair, people started telling me I was called to youth ministry. I have to agree.

What are the ingredients needed to do the job with excellence for the long haul? As I look back at my 35 years of youth ministry, here are five tips for  moving from green to gray.

1) Nurture Your Relationship with Jesus
I know this seems obvious on the surface, but too many people in youth ministry tell me that fostering their souls is usually last on their daily checklist of things to do. Soul care deteriorated into just another task to accomplish. Until we realize that our souls will wear out without refreshment from the Spirit of God, we have little chance of feeding others—not to mention ourselves—for the long haul. An ongoing daily connection with Jesus is what will feed your soul and give you wisdom for the journey.

2) Find Your Sweet Spot
One of my early mistakes as a greenie was assuming the role of generalist. For some reason, I thought I needed to be good at most everything, sort of like a utility infielder. As I gained wisdom and insight, I realized that most of us are only good at two or three things. Being a generalist is not the way to go. It causes burnout and frustration and is not a way to sustain your ministry. My advice: Find your niche. It will give you clarity for the journey.

3) Rethink and Define Your Mission and Job
I am neither suggesting that those who are deficient in counseling never take on the task, nor am I implying the only thing a youth speaker should do is communicate. There is a balance. Grays understand that being a specialist is the way to succeed. Respond to these questions: What are the areas that make you feel alive? What do you enjoy doing that comes with ease? What pains you in ministry? What do you hate doing and work to avoid? What are your strengths? Rethink your mission. If you are spending 85 percent of your time on administration when discipleship is your passion, you will be miserable. What kind of specialist has God wired you to be? Redefine your job. It will give you joy for the journey.

4) Listen to Your Internal Thermostat
In my 20s, I loved hanging with teens and college students. I sensed a change in my 30s for something new and more in tune with my gifts of discipleship, communication and counseling. When we enter new life stages, sometimes our interests change, our paradigms shift and our perspective on life realigns.

My interests have changed through the years. In my 40s, my heart moved toward empowering the parents of the youth. Now, in my 50s, I am more excited than ever about walking with the next generation of leaders. Pay attention to your heart; it will help you navigate.

5) Greens Seek Out Grays
To move from green to gray, we need outside perspective. We all need someone who has gone before us so that when tough times come we have friends and mentors who can ask us hard questions, listen to our fears and concerns and pray with us. Make sure you have people in your life to watch your back. As you move from green to gray, an older, wiser leader can be brutally honest with you—and that will help you confirm your journey.

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About The Author

Dr. David Olshine is the director and professor of Youth Ministry, Family and Culture at Columbia International University in Columbia, South Carolina. He's the author of Studies on the Go: James, 1-2 Peter and 1-3 John (Zondervan/Youth Specialties) and the founder of Youth Ministry Coaches.

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