I was going through a box of some old things that I inherited from my dad not too long ago, and I came across a real treasure. There amongst things that he had obviously cherished was his grandfather’s pocket watch. My great-grandfather had been a Methodist preacher of days gone by, retiring from ministry due to an illness in 1930. For me the watch is a beautiful keepsake of family history.

Part of what caught my eye, was the beautiful gold casing and the intricate etching. It was obviously a fine piece, much more than one would expect to find in the pocket of a Mississippi preacher in a country running headlong into the bowels of the Great Depression. Serving as the fob was a small gold mechanical pencil.

But alas, the watch no longer works.

Of course, first and foremost, it was designed to be a timepiece. But somewhere in the deep recesses of the watch’s inner workings of gears and springs there is something amiss that prevents this beautifully historic timepiece from performing its basic function, that of telling time.

The Inner Workings — Operational Cycles

If you open the back and expose the inner workings of the pocket watch (or any other clock for that matter), you see a complex system of gears which, if working correctly, transform the power of the wound spring into the precisely accurate turning of hands on the clock face. Some of the gears turn quickly, some of the gears turn microscopically slowly. Some gears complete a turn in seconds, for other gears it takes hours. But the intended end result is to complete the basic function – the accurate telling of time.

In some ways accomplishing the work of youth ministry is much the same. In a great combination of complex processes and movements, some which move quickly and some which move or operate more slowly, we accomplish the great work that God is calling us to do. I call these processes and movements the operational cycles of youth ministry.

Working in Operational Cycles

Every youth ministry has operational cycles. However, rarely are all of these operational cycles fully functioning. It takes real dedication and skill to turn a youth ministry into a “well-oiled machine.”

Most youth ministries do an adequate job with short-term operational cycles if for no other reason just to keep the lights on week-to-week. We’ll make sure that the weekly youth meeting happens – that there’s food, some fun, and some sort of devotional thought to make it worth everybody’s time. We do those things mostly out of necessity because they are the very apparent, exposed aspects of our ministries. If we’re not doing those things, we have difficulty justifying our own existence. That’s usually our starting place, particularly when we are new to youth ministry, that we seek to get our weekly operational cycles right. It’s a good place to start – youth fellowship meetings, Sunday School, Bible study or discipleship groups, etc.

More experienced youth ministers and higher-quality youth ministries, however, have learned to work with a wider variety of operational cycles, moving beyond a weekly cycle into longer-term cycles that have a deeper impact on the ministry.

For example, one of the best ways to take your youth ministry deeper is through training your volunteer personnel. But that is not generally something that you are going to do on a week-to-week basis. You need to employ an operational cycle that gives you the best opportunity to recruit, train, deploy, and thank your volunteers. Most youth ministries find that an annual cycle works well for this, and so they design an annual calendar with events, meetings, and processes for volunteers that prepare them, assign them, and express appreciation for them.

Another longer-term operational cycle that might be employed relates to the nurture of the ministry’s vision. And while a youth ministry might revisit its mission statement on an annual basis, it is also likely that the ministry would not take a more intense look at its mission more than perhaps every five years or so, depending on the pace of change within the ministry or its community context.

On the other end of the spectrum is the day-to-day cycle of responding to pastoral needs within the ministry, the daily look at where the hurts and needs are, where the investment of daily time can make a difference in the lives of ministry constituents.

There are so many aspects of a youth ministry, though, and each must have its own cycle – ministries with parents, youth leadership development, discipleship development, curriculum, annual planning, communications, staff development, budgeting, major events, and on and on. Each part has a cycle, and all of those cycles have to be melded together into a larger calendar whole.


Use operational cycles to help you flesh out the fullness of your youth ministry. The shorter-term cycles are the easiest; the longer-term cycles bring a great increase in depth to your ministry. And while I don’t carry a pocket watch these days, I think about all the cycles at work in our ministries, about the movement of the gears and about how, when they all work together, the job gets done, all in God’s good time.

If you want to talk more about operational cycles, contact me at I’d love to find out what time it is in your youth ministry!

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