Awkward Conversations and Stale Coffee: Networking with Youth Ministers
I sat down at on an old couch in the youth room at a neighboring church.
I was only 21 years old and my pastor “encouraged me” to attend our area gathering of other youth ministers. He said it would be “good for me” and that I could “learn a lot.”
And I listened to him, but only because I believe in obedience to authority and he was my pastor. I found myself in that stale room with bad coffee and old couches surrounded by other youth pastors from all walks of life. Some were married and others were single. A few were divorced and remarried. Some of those youth pastors were closer to my age and others were much older. It was a diverse group that brought decades of experience and insight into a vital ministry that I was starting.
We had some social time prior to the meeting – and I spent it on my phone trying to appear cool and unapproachable.
During the meeting, youth pastors shared about their joys and struggles – and I spent that time judging them.
As the meeting ended, another youth minister approached me and offered me his card and a listening ear in case I needed anything during my first year – and I spent the ride home cynically assessing his intentions.
I know, right now you are wishing we could’ve been friends back then.
I really was a stellar person. When I reflect on that situation honestly, I realize how rude I was. Most of those behaviors weren’t meant to be rude. They were defense mechanisms that I put in place because I was scared and awkward, I didn’t know what I was doing and I wanted to appear confident and collected. A part of me was also prideful. I was 21 and just out of school. I thought I knew everything there was to know about ministry, after all (if you’ve done the math) I graduated early. I had a really high GPA, that translates into stellar ministry right?
The odd pairing of my pride and lack of confidence caused me to miss an important opportunity. I had a chance to network with other youth pastors that could’ve mentored me, supported me, prayed with me, and journeyed with me. Instead, I chose the path of cynicism and apathy and missed great opportunities.
Whether you are a new youth minister or a veteran, opportunities for networking either evoke excitement in you (hello, extroverts!) or malaise and antipathy. When we get together with other youth pastors all kinds of emotions come to the forefront. Some of those emotions can hinder us from really getting what we need from those interactions.
Networking in youth ministry is critical. We have a responsibility as veterans to impart the knowledge we’ve gained to new youth pastors and help them along. As new youth ministers we need to draw on that experience and set pride aside so we can grow quickly. As veterans, we need to remember that we will always be learning and we need to share what we have learned with others.
Above all, everyone needs the prayer and support of a community.
That simply cannot happen if we refuse to network. The devil attacks us when we are isolated and alone. Networking isn’t simply about professional development, it is spiritual protection.
4 Ways to Make the Most out of Networking Opportunities
I learned how to make the most of networking opportunities by remembering four very simple strategies:
1) Be Approachable.
Standing in a corner on your phone doesn’t scream, “Hey! I would like to have a conversation!” Our fear that no one will talk to us drives us to our phones and becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Put away your phone during networking opportunities (unless you are taking down someone’s contact information – see number 4). Being approachable isn’t limited to thumbing through Instagram during a gathering. Smile as you enter a room, avoid crossing your arms, keep your feet turned into the center of the room rather than at the door – these body cues invite a conversation rather than discourage one. Being approachable doesn’t stop in person, though. How are you with your voicemails and e-mails? Are you caught up? Failing to return a voicemail from three weeks ago or an e-mail from last month makes you just as unapproachable – it sends the message, “You are not important and I am not interested” without saying anything at all.
2) Initiate the Conversation.
Don’t wait for someone to start a conversation with you. Be bold and find someone to talk with when you are having social time at your next gathering. Maybe you don’t have a lot of gatherings in person, but you are in luck. Social media has made it easier than ever to connect with someone. Reach out via e-mail or a tweet to start a conversation, then follow up over the phone or in person. Find someone you think would be a good mentor or a person you could mentor. Find a person that can walk with you as a peer. Don’t wait for someone to reach out, though – you make the first step.
3) Listen More, Talk Less.
People want to be heard. The problem that conversations encounter is that two people that desire at the same time. The result is two (or more) individuals that are waiting for their turn to speak rather than simply listening. When an opportunity for networking arises, make it a point to listen more than you talk. John Maxwell recommends asking questions to start conversations that involve people’s passions, family, and work (read more about becoming a great communicator in his book, “Everybody Communicates: Few Connect”).
4) Follow Up.
Networking only works if you get connected and stay connected. We’ve all experienced the exchange of information that never bears fruit. We swap business cards, phone numbers, or e-mails and then we never see that other person ever again. This is where you need to be proactive and make the effort. Reach out first and schedule coffee. Follow up on the conversation and ask how things are going. Ask for prayer requests.
Networking doesn’t need to be a chore; in fact, it should be one of the most vital parts of your ministry. Connecting with other people who understand you, can walk with you, teach you, and that you can teach and pray with is critical. Don’t be that person at the next event acting like you know everything or that has nothing to give.
JOEL STEPANEK has been actively and passionately involved in youth ministry for over ten years. What began as a simple internship in a parish youth ministry office evolved into an incredible adventure that led him on numerous middle school lock-ins, high school retreats, and ultimately to meet his wife, Colleen, who is a campus minister. Joel is the Director of Resource Development for LIFE TEEN INTERNATIONAL where he creates engaging youth ministry resources for middle and high school students. Joel is a sought after speaker and has traveled across the world training youth ministers and speaking to teenagers. He is the author of two books, “THE GREATEST JOB ON EARTH: SEVEN VIRTUES OF AWESOME YOUTH MINISTERS,” and “TRUE NORTH: A ROADMAP FOR DISCERNMENT.”
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the YS Blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or position of YS.