Youth ministry is not a science — it’s an art that helps youth workers become more loving towards youth, parents and themselves, said youth worker and retreat leader Mark Yaconelli.

He was speaking Aug. 1 at the Youth Worker Conference here. The conference is part of the National Evangelism and Church Growth Conferences (ECG 2012), which also includes conferences on church transformation, evangelism, collegiate ministry and new church development.

“Youth ministry is your spiritual practice,” Yaconelli said. “It’s the place where we’re going to get healed.”

We often try to create programs that follow a formula and play to our strengths, leaving no room for vulnerability. But youth ministry is designed to break us open, Yaconelli said.

Youth are very observant and can see when adults hide their problems. Youth then learn to follow this model and suppress their own feelings or difficulties, he said.

“Your greatest gift to your kids is your weakness, actually,” Yaconelli said.

Holiness doesn’t equal perfection, he said. Holiness means vulnerability. People feel comfortable around others’ vulnerability. Jesus displayed this, and children and those on the margins felt safe flocking to him.

“Youth ministry is the place where we’re working to allow that to happen,” Yaconelli said.

God is working to help us be free, and the freer we are, the more we are able to give to youth, he said.

Yaconelli spoke about a program at his former church where adults sat and talked with teens, sharing about the struggles and questions they’d faced in their own lives. The youth realized that adults don’t have all the answers and are figuring it out just as teens are. Yaconelli saw that the best gift adults could give to the teens was to be real.

“My vulnerability invites the kids to be vulnerable,” he said.

But there is a balance in sharing vulnerability. Youth ministry isn’t group therapy, and leaders must discern what is appropriate to share, Yaconelli said. One way to do this is to look at one’s motivation for sharing a struggle — is it to unburden oneself, or is it to help minister to youth?