Michele Ettinger is the FUEL Youth Coordinator at Clarkston United Methodist Church.
1 – How long have you been in youth ministry?
I began my official youth group career five years ago on August 1st, 2013. My original title was Children and Youth Coordinator, with the job responsibilities of leading the middle school youth activities along with assisting the current children’s coordinator with the children’s Sunday School, family programs and of course VBS. As things do in the life of the church and life itself my position and coworkers have changed and evolved over time and now I focus more whole heartily on the middle school youth and assist as a transition touch person for our children’s programs and our high school youth. Basically, I am the consistent face hanging out and helping, that the children and youth see from elementary through high school with my focus during their middle school years.
2 – Tell us about your program
FUEL, the name of our 6th through 8th grade youth group, went through a program revitalization starting in August 2013. Prior to this time there was only one youth director and that individual ran both high school and middle school programs. Now we have two part time children and family workers, and two full time youth coordinators one for middle and one for High school youth group. The four of us work as a team on sharing our program ideas and activities so that we can have as much intergenerational interaction between programs as possible. Example youth volunteers in children’s programs and young family awareness of youth activities. Our Sunday night youth groups coordinate with our church themes and programs which we carry over into our activities through a rotation of events that incorporate, fellowship, faith education, hot topic issues such as social media and mission opportunities. Our goal has been to have four to five large events on Sunday evenings that are easy for our youth to invite friends too. Example, ho down night, Community Room blow out and holiday parties. These events allow for highly hospitable activities for the churched and the unchurched youth to feel comfortable to attend and invite friends. A great entry way into the church. Our youth programs stress the importance of attending worship each Sunday. We have implemented many ideas over the past five years and currently landed on two programs that have been successful over the past two years. We offer a Sunday School for our 6th and 7th graders at 9 and 11 am and Breakfast in the Balcony for our 8th through 12th graders. Breakfast in the Balcony is a program in which our youth are encouraged to sit together in our church balcony during our services at 9 and 11 am. As an incentive for their attendance we provide breakfast that they can eat during both services. This program has shown to be very successful as an intergenerational program in that we have all ages that join us in the balcony each Sunday.
During the Summer months our FUEL Youth Group has a summer mission week that provides both overnight opportunities and day trips. Those entering sixth grade in the fall through those who just
completed 8th grade are invited to join in for all or part of the week of mission. The choice of deciding how much your youth can handle allows a nice stepping stone into the full, generally out of state mission week that is offered at the High School level. Also, during the summer our middle schoolers are invited to join us for a couple “Serve and Play Days” as well as a trip to Cedar Point. The “Serve and Play” days begin with a mission opportunity in the morning, lunch at noon and then a fun activity in the afternoon. These programs are generally helpful in keeping youth in connection with the church and each other during the summer months without over taxing their downtime during summer.
3 – What is your favorite thing about working with young people?
My favorite part about working with young people is they help keep me young. Their energy, constantly growing minds and ideas always keep me on my toes. I feel very blessed that I get to share Jesus with these amazing young people in a way that stretches me and them to venture out of our comfort zones. Plus, I get to play on all the blow-up slides, dance at Spring Hill and play laser tag and say “it’s all part of my job.”
4 – Can you talk about a challenge you faced and how you overcame it?
Much like child birth I tend to forget the challenging painful parts of working in youth ministry and remember more vividly the good parts. However, if I am forced to remember those challenges, and really that’s what makes our programs better, I would say it is getting the right ratio of male and female volunteers on our summer overnight mission trips. In the past my high school youth worker was female and her and I would both attend each other’s mission trips which generally covered our quota for female volunteers, but male volunteers were more difficult. The best way I have found to overcome this challenge was to make an in-person request directly to the potential volunteer and be as flexible as possible with how they could volunteer. For example, I needed male chaperones for our trip last year and I was able to split up the two overnights so that the two male volunteers could volunteer on opposite nights. Also, I was able to access the fact that there were male volunteers from other groups sharing the same sleeping quarters as our youth so the ratios of adults to youth in the room still worked out. I had flexibility with my program because it was local, this would not have worked on our High School Mission Trip that was out of state. The key lesson’s I learned that covers many events in youth ministry are be flexible, creative and don’t be afraid to bribe, beg and schmooze to get volunteers.
5 – What do you know now that you wish you had always known about youth ministry?
Have you ever said something and then a year or two later looked back at yourself and laughed at how your life had changed? I remember back before I took my position in the church saying to my Pastor, soon to be my co-worker a short year later, that I would never want to work in a church because you work so many nights and weekends. Oh fate!!!! I would have loved to understand beforehand that the three weeks’ vacation, the sick days, the vacation days on holiday’s etc. is just an on-paper thing and not a reality of how your real schedule works out in youth ministry. However, it is probably good that I did not find out the true work schedule until after I fell in love with all the good parts of the job. It is true that I have a wonderfully flexible schedule especially during the day on weekdays, not so much on evenings, weekends and holidays.
If I could give a new youth ministry worker a list of 10 things you should know before you start this job it would be the following:
1. Enjoy your weekdays
2. Make sure to schedule some adult time for yourself including adult Bible studies, book clubs and exercise
3. Youth at some point will not like you. Not because of anything you do or say but just because that is their age and developmental state that requires them to challenge adults. This can pass in a few years or a few seconds depending on the situation.
4. Learn everything you can about issues that impact your youth, drugs, alcohol, mental health emotional development, social media, the latest heart throb, slang words. Share this information with parents and youth and always lead with listening and love.
5. Embrace your inner child and make sure to play, be silly and be able to laugh at yourself
6. Education-Certification in Youth Mistry, Read, Read, Read, Educate yourself, your youth, your parents, your clergy, your congregation and the neighbor in the yellow house across the street
7. Keep your youth involved with the whole church, help them to be a part of the congregation
8. Be prepared to advocate for your youth. Make connections with adults that can help you with volunteering and meeting the needs of your youth and the program.
9. Be flexible and let God lead your program. Set down your preconceived ideas of what things must look like. You will be fighting a losing battle. P.S. This can be very difficult especially for people like me who like to plan. The one thing you can count on is that things will change.
10. Build your support network, God, co-workers, friends, family, Youth Networking Groups don’t be a loan wolf, burn out comes much to fast and you lose out on so many God moments.
11. Bonus point: Learn to budget your money and be a bargain shopper. You will never become financially rich in this job but spiritually you will be a millionaire!