In the past decade Hollywood has produced a spate of superhero movies.  And, while the storylines and superpowers vary from character to character, there are a few themes that play in all of these films. A concept of Good vs. Evil is always present, as is the challenge of overcoming great odds or finding the strength within.  But certain heroes, like Spiderman, Batman and Superman, have hidden identities.  Their superpower identities are revealed only when they are needed. Increasingly, ministry is also being defined by identity—those characteristics that set one apart from others or “brand” one’s focus and service.  Youth ministry is shaped by identity, too.

Consider, for example, the many needs or possibilities that are presented to any youth leader.  Today, one could easily shape a ministry around the contexts of family, or friendship, or faith—the bedrocks of any ministry.  But now ministries can also be shaped by the contexts of their social surroundings—such as poverty, drugs, racial bias, hopelessness, violence, or the vast entertainments that are available through the smart phone and the ubiquity of the internet.

As many youth leaders are discovering, no ministry can do everything or meet every need—and so identity if essential to the vision and the outcomes one is hoping to produce.  No ministry can be the hero to everyone and overcome all of the odds. Discovering, sharpening, and revealing a ministry’s identity is essential.  Here are three ways to uncover your ministry identity and grow in the process.

 Concentrate on Gifts Instead of Deficiencies

How often have you been in a planning session when someone has challenged the organization to “improve the deficiencies” or “focus on needs”? This approach to meeting needs or shoring up weaknesses will never produce the results.  Every ministry has weaknesses, yes . . . and the needs of our world or endless.  But this is not the point. 

Growth comes from identifying our God-given gifts and using them all the more.  Every ministry and organization has a need to focus on the people, resources, and talents that are strengths.  Every ministry has gifted people, gifted opportunities, and an abundance of talents that, once identified, will reveal the identity of the organization (1 Corinthians 12:1-11).

Not long ago I was talking to a friend who was pasturing a very small youth group in an economically-depressed area—just four or five teenagers who were unable to draw other teens into their group.  But after some soul-searching, the group identified that their gifts were more oriented around providing care to the elderly. This small group began offering a program for older adults—providing relationship and care to the lonely and poor in their community.  Dozens responded—and the youth the ones leading the ministry!

Identifying gifts is key.

What are the gifts you see in your sphere of influence? What are the relationships and connections and talents that can impact your community? What are your strengths and how can you use them?

Be Who You Are

Not long ago, during a lunch break at leadership seminar, a colleague told me that he was frustrated by his congregation’s attempts to copy a singles ministry that had been successful in another local congregation.  “Why do you think your congregation is being unsuccessful?” I asked.

“Growing a singles ministry . . . nothing wrong with that goal.  But it’s not who we are.”

For the remainder of the lunch, my colleague made a list of the identifying characteristics of his people and their potential.  “We have to be who we are,” he kept saying. Indeed, once the gifts are identified, there needs to be an awareness of one’s core values and goals.  Any ministry that tries to do what it cannot do, or live outside of its source of gifts, will most often fail. This is not to say that ministry comes easily, or that results are produced overnight.  No, even successful ministries are difficult and there are struggles. But these struggles will no doubt be exacerbated if a ministry is trying to be something it is not or trying to reach people who are too distant from the community and the influence of the organization.

Consider your ministry.  Who are you?  What are you about?  What is your identity—hidden or otherwise—that your community doesn’t know about, but needs to know?  How can you tell your story?  How can you invite others to join you?

Brand Your Identity

Branding has become a by-word in our modern culture.  It is used to identify everything from the food we eat to the books we read to the towns we live in.  But a brand can be a powerful tool when it comes to sharing the core identity with a larger audience. Brands don’t have to be fancy or expensive to be effective.

A brand can be a simple slogan or scripture, a keyword or a graphic, that can quickly communicate your identity to a wider audience. The brand is who you are and what your are attempting to share with your world.  Your brand is unique—it is different from the ministry down the road.  The brand draws you back to your core values and your gifts—those aspects of ministry that you are going to share in your community.

Keep in mind that your brand won’t reach everyone . . . it won’t appeal to all.  But your brand may have a profound impact on those who are looking for the relationships, the authenticity, the service and care you are providing.

Think about it.

What is your brand?  What does it communicate in your setting?  What are the core values and vision driving your ministry?

About The Author

Todd Outcalt is the lead pastor of Calvary United Methodist Church in Brownsburg, Indiana and is a thirty-year youth ministry veteran. He is the author of twenty-five books in six languages, including the youth ministry titles: $5 Youth Ministry (Group); Last-Minute Meetings (Abingdon); Ready to Go Youth Meetings (Abingdon); and The Youth Ministry Encyclopedia (Kindle).