Behind The Ministry: Brian Pengelly
Jared Elrod started this great blog series called “Behind the Ministry” to highlight youth workers who are doing some amazing things in their church, youth ministry, and in their communities. If you’d like to share your story in a Behind the Ministry post, email us HERE and we’ll connect you with Jared.
Brian Pengelly, Youth Ministry Lead at North Bramalea United Church (Brampton, Ontario, Canada).
GIVE US A BACKSTORY OF HOW YOU GOT INTO YOUTH MINISTRY.
When I was 16 years old I complained to my Senior Pastor that we didn’t have a youth group (our youth group had fallen apart after our youth pastor quit when I was in grade 9). My pastor challenged me to do something about it and mentored me to be a leader for the new junior high group that he was starting. I got my first taste of youth ministry, and never looked back. It was in my bones and I didn’t want to do anything else.
WHAT ARE YOUR STRENGTHS AS A YOUTH PASTOR? WHAT DO YOU LOVE MOST ABOUT YOUTH MINISTRY, AND WHAT AREAS DO YOU STRUGGLE WITH/IN?
My strengths in youth ministry have always been my speaking skills and building relationships with the youth that I work with. I love one on one time with my youth and live for long talks after midnight on retreats. I picked up a Master’s degree in counseling along the way and many of my former youth continue to call me or get together for coffee when they are working through issues in their life. What I love most about youth ministry is getting to speak the love of God into the lives of youth when they are at one of the most awkward insecure times of their lives, and sticking around long enough to see them grow and mature into amazing adults.
What I struggle with the most is administration! I have always struggled with it. My current position has really challenged me to grow and stretch by forcing me to set goals and work towards them instead of winging things. The problem with being good at thinking on your feet and being flexible is sometimes you get lazy and start doing it even when you don’t need to, and now I am really pushing myself to grow in my areas of weakness and plan more.
WHAT ARE YOUR THOUGHTS ON THE HIGH TURNOVER IN YOUTH MINISTRY?
It is a real tragedy. If there is one thing I have learned in the last 20+ years, it is that all the best fruit happens after at least 4 years of investment. I lasted 2 years at my first two churches, and 7+ years at the next two. God willing I will be at least 7 at my current church. (just celebrated my first year here). 7 years seemed to be the sweet spot because it gave me time to take a group of kids from grade 6 to graduation, and set up my replacement before I left. That said, the secret to lasting a good amount of time at one church is picking your churches well. I took the first church that offered me a job the first couple times and they had a huge amount of issues that I was blindsided by. Now I have learned to really do my research and make sure the church and I are sharing vision and expectations, which makes life much easier for both of us.
WHAT WOULD YOU SAY TO A NEW YOUTH PASTOR WHO WANTS TO GIVE UP, OR IS QUESTIONING HIS/HER CALLING?
Somehow we get the idea that if things aren’t going well it must be because we got our calling wrong. But that isn’t true. The one thing that has remained true for me is my calling. Sometimes I have worked at big churches, others at small, sometimes things go well, and sometimes not. Sometimes I have been paid, and other times I have worked other jobs and done this on the side. But none of that has anything to do with my calling.
WHAT ARE YOUR FAVORITE YOUTH MINISTRY RESOURCES?
IF YOU WERE STARTING OVER TODAY AS A YOUTH PASTOR WHAT WOULD YOU DO?
Start saving for retirement right away. I am not making much more at 40 than I was at 20, and the earlier start would have helped a lot.
STORYTIME. SHARE SOME STORIES FROM YOUR TIME IN YOUTH MINISTRY. GOOD, BAD, OR FUNNY.
So. Many. Stories! But I think the most important one I can tell is this: You never know what your youth are learning. About 15 years ago I was working at a church and I honestly felt I was getting nowhere. Sunday morning I taught the youth class and they all sat slumped in their sofas with hoods or hats pulled over their eyes not making eye contact or answering questions. I felt I was talking to a wall. During the summer I was director of our denomination’s summer camp and one of my jobs was walking around doing night checks. One night I went by a cabin and the lights were still on. As I approached the cabin to yell at them I heard one of my youth (who was a leader in training that summer) leading devotions with his cabin. I listened to this kid answered question after question about the bible from the kids in his cabin, and when they asked him where he learned all this stuff he told them, “Pastor Brian taught me so much in Sunday School!” Now I swear this kid slept through the 4 years I taught him, but he not only heard me, he could recount it years later.
A couple years back I was speaking at a youth event with over 2,000 youth in attendance. After my talk, I came offstage, and as usual, there were several people who wanted to talk or pray with me. I was dead tired and just wanted to crash, but after I had prayed for each of the youth that were waiting, I noticed a knot of 12 adults standing waiting for me. It took me a while to recognize them since it was outdoors and quite dark by then, but when they came up I realized all of them were former youth of mine, and all of them were there as youth leaders with their own groups of youth they were mentoring. That moment of seeing your legacy pass on to another generation is the absolute best thing ever in youth ministry.
WHAT IS YOUR PHILOSOPHY IN YOUTH MINISTRY?
More and more I believe that 9/10ths of youth ministry is simply about being present. God uses relationships to change the lives of young people, and relationships take time and persistence. I have done ministry among very rich and privileged youth, and no program I could put on could ever compete with the entertainment opportunities they had available to them. But whether rich or poor all the youth I have worked with had a shortage of caring adults who were willing to be actively involved in their lives. It takes a long time to earn their trust, but when you do, God uses you in amazing ways.
Our current youth group isn’t rocket science. We hang out in the youth room, then play a couple games, I do a talk, and then we break into small groups. The hardest thing for me to learn in making this system work was that I needed to spend as much time developing my leaders as I did my youth. Once your group grows beyond about 20 kids you can’t have a relationship with each one of them, so I personally mentor one small group, and now try to spend most of my energies developing volunteers who mentor the other groups. I do the teaching every week, but the teaching comes alive in the small groups, and for that to happen you have to have good leaders. That adjustment was hard for me to grasp.
GIVE AN EXAMPLE OF HOW YOU OPERATE IN YOUR STRENGTH. FOR EXAMPLE, IF YOU ARE SUPER ORGANIZED, WALK US THROUGH HOW YOU SET UP YOUR CALENDAR, OR WHATEVER YOU ROCK AT. IF YOU ARE GREAT AT COMMUNICATING BREAK DOWN YOUR PROCESS.
Speaking is one of my greatest strengths, but as I said sometimes when you can do something well you get lazy about it, and I have been working to be more intentional about how I speak.
One of the best exercises I was given in Bible College was coming up with a 3-year teaching plan that made me think through everything I needed to cover. But that plan gets shaped differently in each church I have worked in, so then each year I try to plan out a rough guide of what I need to talk about, then I do week by week plans for each semester.
Preparing a weekly talk means taking the time to prepare. When I do the semester plan I choose passages for each week, so the week before I try to go over those passages and really understand the passage I am teaching from. I set time aside on Monday to reflect and pray over the passage and try to have my hook and main points done Tuesday so that my team can put the slides together of our Prezi. But I have found I get my best results when I don’t write everything out, but have my hook and main points, but also leave room for the Spirit. I know other people work differently, but when I am too scripted I get distracted by the script and do much worse. I also set a timer for myself for 20 minutes, and have a beep remind me when I have 5 left so I don’t go too longs. Small groups are the heart of our ministry and it is too easy to have me steal time from them by going too long.
For those of you who see speakers at conferences and wonder how you can be like them, let me give you this piece of wisdom: I used to be near full time on the speaking circuit but decided I preferred talking to the same 30 kids every week to having thousands of different kids each week. When you are speaking at conferences it is really easy to be a good speaker. You develop a handful of talks and then you polish them through practice. You learn exactly when to tell a story, and when to tell a joke to lighten things and when to get serious. When I would speak at a retreat often youth pastors would come up to me afterwards and say they wish they could speak like that at their churches and I would say…”So do I!” My youth will tell you that when you have to come up with new stuff every week no one is a good as they are when they are doing their “A+” material on the big stage.
I will also say this: many of the talks that youth later told me deeply impacted them, were the ones that I felt I did the worst at. I was less prepared than I wanted to be and flubbed things…but the Holy Spirit is the one that really changes the hearts of young people, not my skill, and he has a perverse way of working through weakness. So as much as I strive to do my best each time I speak…ultimately I know any change is from God not me!
JARED ELROD is a Youth Pastor, Online Marketer, and part time YouTube video maker. He has been involved in youth ministry full time since 2009, and spends most of his free time studying the latest trends in both youth ministry and Online marketing so he can try out what works best (and what completely flops) then writes about it at YOUTH FACTOR.
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.