Organized youth worker should not be an oxymoron, but for the same reasons people say all worship leaders dress like hipsters and senior pastors think your summer camp qualifies as a vacation, they also believe youth workers are the disorganized kings and queens of wing. Some of you just read that last stereotype and mumbled, “Amen, I’m so good at wingin’ it, I should get a medal.”
Before you go holding onto the ability to wing it as a badge of honor, let me remind you that while wingin’ it might be an admirable skill when the baptismal explodes and sends water all over your youth room an hour before youth group (been there) or you are forced to go from two buses to one in a foreign country mission trip fiasco (done that), it is also not a methodology by which to live. In other words, winging it is what you do when the plan falls through, not what you do because you fail to plan. Sadly, the reason we have the youth worker stereotype to begin with is because far too many youth workers believe planning is a nice idea, not a foundational skill.
How do you know if you’re stuck in winging it mode? Here are a few indicators: If you always are sending apologies to the church accountant for lost receipts and budget overtures, then you might be exhibit A of the disorganized youth worker. If you constantly are trying to run a game with missing supplies, then your students and staff know this describes you. If you’re being asked to calendar stuff months ahead, but you have no idea what you’re doing this Wednesday night…trust me, this is you. If you operate under the tyranny of the urgent, usually doing everything yourself because it’s too late to ask for help, then your soul is fully aware this is you; and it’s not without consequence.
Why Is Organization Worth It?
When you are disorganized, it doesn’t just show up in the piles of paperwork around your office or your trashed-out car. The domino effect of this character trait affects a lot more than personal space. Consider this: If you adopt a system of planning and organizing your youth ministry, you’ll encounter at least three benefits:
People Will Like You
For one, the parents of the teens you work with will like you a lot more. Sure, some parents still will be signing up for everything last-minute and constantly late to pick up their kids no matter how well-planned activities are, but the family that actually is trying to plan a vacation can’t navigate around your summer camp or spring break event without knowing when it’s scheduled. When you hand out a calendar for your school year, they’ll be so excited and shocked that they’ll rename you Youth Worker of the Year and tell the board that you should be paid better. You’ll also get better help from them because with an actual plan in place, it is a lot easier to solicit parent support and resources.
Increase Your Creativity
Planning infinitely increases your creativity levels. If you want to use a YouTube clip, you can grab that in 20 seconds. However, if you want to make a promo-video for your next event with three students rapping an announcement, then you can’t do that in 30 minutes. It’s going to take more time, more planning. Or maybe you’re leading a session on money and materialism and want a testimony from someone who swamped him or herself in credit card debt in college. For that, you’re going to need some time to find the speaker, and he or she is going to need some time to think about how to say that to a teen in the 8-minute window you have for them. You can’t just call on them at the last minute. The level of creativity many of our student ministries require means that planning ahead, sometimes way ahead, is the only way to make room for creativity.
Experience God’s Spirit
Planning ahead increases your sensitivity to the Holy Spirit’s leading and the likelihood that what you’re doing is exactly what God has called you to do. A lot of last-minute leaders like to think God guides us better in our 11th-hour moments, so planning is spiritually binding. I would argue the opposite is true. I’m a lot more sensitive to the leading of God’s voice when I’ve got time to pray about an event, consider what tradition to keep and what to ditch, and think about what our students really need to hear from me in our next teaching series. If I’m trying to be creative, purposeful and intentional about leading teens and involving volunteers in the process while constantly under the pressure to beat the clock, it’s almost impossible to hear God’s voice. In that case, I’m way less likely to be doing what God is calling me to do; and I’ll typically do whatever needs to be done under my own strength.
Practical Ways to Plan Intentionally
Maybe you’ve read all of this and are ready to do some intentional planning. Here are some ways to get started moving in the right direction.
Find a Mentor
If you’re not good at this organization thing, then simply admit that and go find one or two people who are. Think about those close to you who are planners. Tell them that you admire the way they have their stuff together. Take them to lunch and ask how they do it; explain your key problems; and invite them to help you take some practical steps toward organizing your life and ministry.
Create Space and Invite People
Planning happens best when we create a location to plan and when we invite people into the process of putting together the ministry calendar. You might need to do your planning in several afternoons after church. You can take a mini-retreat for a couple days. Creating a planning space can be done in a variety of ways just as long as you don’t assume you can do it in an hour. Planning ahead takes time, and it’s one reason people don’t do it. You have to make time to plan, and that seems counterproductive to the last-minute leader. At this meeting, invite some key people from your ministry: students, volunteers, pastors, parents, etc. Invite people with a variety of perspectives who all get it and are there to help you, not criticize you.
Organize Your Plan
Planning a calendar is great, but consider this: How are you going to organize the stuff you’re planning? Are you going to use a giant white board calendar on the wall? Are you going to get an old-school paper calendar planner? Are you going to use iCal, Google calendar or some other digital source? Do you need a filing system of some kind? It doesn’t really matter what method you choose, but you do need a plan for your plan, or all the work you do will result in more piles of good intentions that got lost in the rhythm of your normal patterns. As you consider which one to pick, ask who needs to see it, how you’re going to share it, and how far you want to be ahead. Then pick a method that works for your context.
If you’re going to be planning events, gather every calendar you can think of, including the dates for your local school(s) or school districts; the master church calendar; a list of national holidays; your personal family events, such as birthdays, anniversaries, and planned time off for vacations, etc. Once you have all that, start putting some of the on-negotiable stuff down first. For example, Christmas and Easter are not moving, so write them down and block out the space around them for the normal events your church does. Put down the stuff you know first. Then start filling in with other details for events and teaching as you go.
If you’re going to be planning a teaching series, gather your curriculum, Bible study, liturgy, or main Scripture texts—essentially whatever you or your church uses as a guide.
Delegate and Set a Plan to Revisit
Let’s say that in your meeting you came up with some really creative ideas. Maybe you decided what topics or texts you were going to teach from and when. Maybe you put some events on the calendar and have a plan for the next six months. That’s awesome! You should feel really good about that.
Now you need a plan to maintain the plan. Delegate who will be doing the teaching on which week and have each person start compiling ideas. Think about the events you put on the calendar and write down the date you want to start promoting them and when sign-ups start. Think about when you need to start putting ideas into action, and set a time to revisit this plan.
In our youth ministry, we do big-picture, long-term planning every six months, event planning three months ahead, a day-long teaching series planning before each new teaching theme, and weekly planning meeting for the stuff that’s coming up this week. Your plan might be different. The point is that you’re starting a process. If you want it to become a regular part of your ministry, you’ll need to repeat and revisit this process intentionally numerous times. So start delegating, and set a plan to revise your plan as you go.
As you dive in, remember this: We all agree as youth workers that our primary goal is to love teenagers and lead them to Jesus. To that end, remember what I said earlier: We don’t accidentally stumble into a great youth ministry that produces life-long disciples of Jesus. We aim for it with intentionality and planning. My prayer is that you’ll make the time to do that and that your ministry and soul are better for it.