Posted in Reading

Sustainable Youth Ministry: Pay no Attention to the Man Behind the Curtain

Youth ministry may be one of the only professions that has settled into the pattern of handing over total responsibility for running an organization to young people just out of college. Far too often, anxiety, not wisdom, drives us. – Sustainable Youth Ministry

Sustainable Youth Ministry was one of those books recommended to me by three separate people before I read it. I will admit when I got the third recommendation, from my boss-to-be, I had to stop myself from rolling my eyes. The issue is not the content, I am about to start a career in youth ministry, and I have experienced the incredible burnout rate of youth workers first-hand.

The issue is the author. I don’t have a problem with Mark DeVries, in fact, quite the opposite. Mark joined FPC Nashville, my home church, in the 90’s as the youth pastor, and only officially retired in the past year or two. He was the man I met when I was on my first youth retreat at 12, the one who coached me through my sermon on youth Sunday at 18, who was my boss when I interned at the church at 19, and who performed my wedding two months ago, at 24. I worked for, or with, all 3 of his children. He introduced me to International Justice Mission, the organization I used to work for, and founded the youth ministry training programming I’m in (the Center for Youth Ministry Training, CYMT). He is the one who first encouraged me to go into ministry in the first place.

Can you even imagine the “of course” laugh I had when my boss-to-be told me their youth ministry uses Youth Ministry Architects, the coaching service Mark started? When he recommended the book he said, “You should read Sustainable Youth Ministry by Mark DeVries, you know him, right?” Yes, we’ve met.

All of that is to say that I can, in no way, give an objective analysis of this book. I leaned a lot from it, but I was most captivated by comparing the pitfalls and successes described in the book to my own youth ministry experience, having not only crystal clear mental images of the leaders and programs he described but also understanding Mark’s behavior by hearing it describe his own why.

As a part of the youth ministry at FPC Nashville, my peers and I were always vaguely aware that we were always part of some experiment. By the time I was a teenager, Mark was rarely involved in the day-to-day of youth ministry, but often seemed much more like the man behind the curtain, the wizard handing down wisdom. Don’t take any of this as a criticism of the man, he is very wise and kind and has been a huge influence on me and many of my peers, but I have one pretty fundamental question about his ability to put what he wrote in this book into practice.

The whole concept of Sustainable Youth Ministry is that its a handbook on building long-term youth ministries that aren’t built around cults of personality, but can continue to build and thrive after the youth minister moves on. From an outsider perspective, Mark’s perspective on this issue seems well-founded, he made a fairly seamless, gradual, transition out of leadership at FPC Nashville. But I am not an outsider.

I did a summer internship in 2012 leading high school mission trips, and when people found out I was from FPC Nashville, the most frequent comment I got was, “that’s Mark DeVries’s church, right?” – never mind that not only was Mark not the senior pastor at our church, he was actually only working there part-time. I spent some time working as the receptionist at FPC Nashville early this year, and I got at least 3 or 4 calls a week asking for Mark DeVries, despite the fact that he hadn’t had an office there for over a year. And when I trained my replacement, an outsider,  I had to explain to her that Mark could reserve any space he wanted, no he’s not on staff, but he doesn’t need to fill out a reservation form, and no one needs to approve it.

While Mark was the youth pastor, his son, his son-in-law, his son-in-law’s best friend, his daughter, and at least three other guys who grew up in his youth ministry were on full-time staff. And when Mark finally phased out completely from being the youth pastor, his  son took over, having just graduated from the Institute for Youth Ministry at Princeton Theological Seminary, where Mark also went, where our senior pastor is on the board of trustees, and which is a founding partner of CYMT. I think its worth considering that Mark’s unspoken secret ingredient in the recipe for sustainable youth ministry is a pipeline of people trained in identical schools of thought as you, who want to work for you, and follow your lead.

Adam DeVries is a friend of mine, and don’t take his family connection as a knock on his qualifications. He is a gifted, daringly compassionate, wise man who I absolutely adore spending time with, and who has done amazing things for FPC Nashville’s youth ministry.  But I sometimes wonder if he could be an ever better pastor somewhere else, where he isn’t constantly surrounded by people who look at him and expect him to be his father. Mark warns against the pervading anxiety in youth workers. You try taking over for a legend in your field, and who happens to be your father, and see if makes you a little anxious.

You can imagine that its hard for me to look at our youth ministry and see how it serves as a model of a style of youth ministry that is not centered around the youth minister. While Mark is not there on the day-to-day level, the youth ministry, and sometimes the whole church, feels like it operates in his shadow. That’s not to say he’s not a wonderful, benevolent, influence, he definitely is, and he has built a great program that gets along fine without his management. But it still invokes his name. FPC Nashville’s youth ministry is sustainable in the sense that Mark has managed to establish the continuation of his legacy into the next generation.

So I don’t know. I love Mark, I think he’s a legend for a reason. There’s a lot I did learn from this book, Mark’s discussion of playful detachment in petty issues, and of emotional health and creating climates of friendship, are not only all useful advice but things I can point to as difference-makers in my own experience of youth ministry under his leadership, but the hand-off that is so central to this book? I’m just not sure it ever happened. Mark lays out his model for having workers, contractors and architects, and how shifting strategic responsibility to the architect provides continuity when the workers come and go, but doesn’t address the question of himself, the architect.

How does an architect leave?