From Prison to Youth Ministry


From Prison to Youth Ministry – An interview with Gabe Dominguez


Few people have life stories like this one.  My conversation with Gabe reminded me that God has plans for even those kids that seem completely lost.  How can we in “traditional” youth ministry better reach the hard-to-reach youth? – Erin


Gabe Dominguez is not your ordinary youth pastor.  Sure, he owns the same youth ministry books you’d expect to see on the shelves in any youth minister’s office.  He joins the thousands of youthworkers that are big fans of Doug Fields’ Purpose Driven Youth Ministry.  (In fact, if you ask Gabe, Doug is “his homeboy,” and the feeling seems to be mutual on Doug’s blog )


Gabe’s background and Gabe’s youth ministry field set him apart. 


Youth ministry at Mission Waco goes way beyond the traditional “Sunday Night Youth Group” model.  There are afterschool programs, music therapy ministries, art therapy ministries, small groups, job training for teen dropouts and teen parents, mentoring programs and an extensive food program in partnership with local restaurants.  Gabe understands from first hand experience the struggles his youth are facing – and he is passionate about keeping youth on a path to God.


The background. Gabe can tell you that he had a rough background…and that almost scratches the surface.  At the age of 11, his uncle asked him to begin selling drugs…turns out he was really good at it.  He spent his teenage years getting into trouble with gangs, selling drugs and firearms in his hometown of Waco, Texas.  He witnessed more than his fair share of murders and gang violence as a teenager.  At 18, he was already a father.  At the age of 22, he arrested for machine gun possession.  Before being sentenced to prison, a toughened, suicidal, gun-carrying Gabe reluctantly attended church with a cousin.  Through the testimony of a guest preacher who had turned his life around (“He actually made it!”), God began the change in Gabe’s heart.


In the years since prison, Gabe’s heart and life have completely turned over to God.  After his release, his daughter reminded him of a prison letter promising to take her to church.  Around this same time, his brother-in-law introduced him to Christian Rock/Hip Hop.  Much to his surprise, Gabe liked it.  The positive messages in the music really helped him to move forward and continue to be a driving force in the Music Therapy part of his ministry today.  He is passionate about reaching young people who are living rough lives on the edge and getting them to turn their lives over to God. 


The ministry field.  Gabe is the director of youth ministry for Mission Waco. (  You may already be familiar with Mission Waco, it is well-known for the Church Under the Bridge worship service held literally under Interstate 35 near Baylor University in Waco, serving the poor and marginalized of Central Texas.  (  Likewise, the youth ministry of Mission Waco, is reaching young people who might otherwise be turning to drugs, gangs or violence.  Young people who are not only hungry for God’s love but also physically hungry or homeless.


Gabe is most passionate about the MDub Music Program in his ministry.  Through MDub, young men and women get the opportunity to turn their real-life stories into professionally recorded hip-hop/rap music.  The lyrics about real struggles and finding hope bring healing to both the songwriter and listener.


Questions and Answers with Gabe Dominguez


Q. What do you see as the biggest challenges facing his youth today?

A. Developing coping skills.  Without enough mentors helping young people to realize their options, the youth he serves look around and see only a life of drugs, crime and gangs as an escape.  These young people may be coping with witnessing a murder or having a mom in prostitution, they may be coping with not having a home or not being able to sleep. 


We need transitional homes for youth – and there are not enough people to help when a young person is trying to turn their life around.  Teenage brains are not fully developed and they need help.  There is a desperate need for adult mentors who will love youth exactly where and how they are now, with all of the bad habits and problems, people who will be there to help youth have real life change.


Q. How can youth workers best help the poor?

A. Churches are not the hospitals for the hurting that they used to be.  Realize it doesn’t matter if you have 50 or 100 youth coming to your youth programs.  What matters is that you know what is really going on at the homes of your youth.  Are basic needs being met?  Is their home safe, loving, with food?  Are parents involved?  You need to be intentional about really knowing what’s going on and doing the best to meet real needs.


Q.  If you could teach one message to the youth of the church, what would it be?

A.  To the youth: Jesus loves them right where they’re at, with their messed up thoughts and everything.  It’s okay to wrestle with God (Jacob did).  It’s okay to have doubts.  God is the hope of the world and the healing of their hearts.


Q. If you could teach one message to the youth workers of the church, what would it be?

A.  Be balanced and healthy.  Don’t be overcommitted.    If we are not doing okay personally, we will not be a good role model for the youth.  If you are overcommitted in your ministry, you’re not gonna make it long term. 


Your priorities need to be in this order: God, Family and then your Job/Ministry. 


If you are a youth worker called into youth ministry, remember that God provided your passion and call to ministry, everything is going to work out.  The passion for young people is there, God will take care of the ministry.


Q.  How can we help Gabe Dominguez’s ministry at Mission Waco?


Pray for the MDub Music Therapy ministry. 

Reality Bites And Some Churches Have Fangs

Reality Bites And Some Churches Have Fangs

By Len on Sep 17, 2010 in Articles

When I began my first full-time youth ministry position, I had a utopian view of what it’d be like working in a church. I believed that since everyone loved Jesus it’d be an ideal work environment; I expected to hear “Kum-Bah-Yah” in the background as we closed our staff meetings. Reality hit me soon after the last book went from box to bookshelf.

A few years ago, Your Church magazine ran a series about “Forced Exits” (Mar/Apr 1996). They reported that almost one fourth of senior pastors had been fired, forced to resign, or pressured to resign. They also discovered that 91 percent of senior pastors knew three to four pastors who’d been forced to exit. I personally know four youth pastors who’ve lost their jobs this past year.

Bob Long, the national youth ministry director of the Baptist General Conference, shared this: “A high dose of cynicism is sadly normal in veteran youth pastors as a result of seeing the church in action over the years.” I wanted to hold on to my naivety and deny what he observed, but I knew it was true.

Originally appeared in Youthworker Journal June/July 2003

An unspoken theme I’ve sensed at national youthworkers conventions is this deep need for healing and rest for those in youth ministry. There seems to be a desperate cry for hearing that things will be okay, this deep need for encouragement to keep pursuing the call. It’s heartbreaking to know that so many people called into youth ministry feel beat up and hurt by their church. I appreciated Len’s honesty in this article.

Spending time sharing the Christian journey and loving on youth should be a joy. Here are a few joy killers I’ve observed for youthworkers:

Fatigue – too many of us neglect to rest (see earlier post on sabbath). A wise youth worker friend pointed out that the church will gladly let you work 50-60 hours a week and miss taking any of your vacation days if you let it.

Isolation – youth ministry is a quirky area….who really understands the unique challenges you face of serving youth, parents, future youth, expectations? When the pastor is also your boss, who do you talk to when you need pastoral care? A supportive network of Youthworker friends and/or mentors can be a joy saver.

Expectations – so often expectations are unclear, implied, unrealistic or uncommunicated. When the focus shifts from making disciples to counting heads, joy can be lost. Sometimes the performance expectations are from the church, just as often they are self-imposed.

Prayerfully, we can remember this is God’s work. If we are called to ministry by God, He will be faithful to use us as we are to do the work He has set for us.

Maybe we all just need a hug and to be told it’s all going to be okay. Be encouraged! It’s worth it.

YouthWorker Movement » Is it still a Sabbath Sunday?

Is it still a Sabbath Sunday?

March 30, 2011 |

Administration, Featured, Parents and Families, Program, Spiritual Life

Sundays in a large church with an average worship attendance of about 1100-1400 people begins at approximately 7:30 AM.  The preaching pastor prepares for the first service and spends some quiet time in reflection with God.  A group comes in and prays for him/her and then begins the marathon of three worship services; 8:30 – 9:45 – 11:00.  Following the services, prayerfully, the afternoon is open.  But for a youth minister, the day has just gotten warmed up.  Sometimes there might be an afternoon meeting, but mostly the time is spent in preparation for the evening activities.  In this church, the students arrive at 4:15, a few minutes before youth choir and then off to Youth Group Fellowship (AKA: U.M. Youth Fellowship, Youth Group Time, etc.)  By the time that ends, staff members are exhausted and we wonder why on earth we call it “Sabbath.”

Unfortunately, that is not a unique schedule for churches or families today.  Genesis 2:1-3 tells us the story of God resting after six days of laboring over the creation of the world.  God blessed the seventh day and set it apart as a holy day of rest.  It has even been commanded upon us to rest on the seventh day and keep it holy, as God is Holy. (Exodus 20:8-11; Deut. 5:12)  Yet, it has become just another working day for families, churches and communities throughout the Christian faith.

There once was a time when nothing but church was scheduled on Sundays.  Sunday was a sacred day and communities, schools, businesses and people made a covenant to honor this day and allow people time to worship God.  In those days, the church was the biggest gig in town on Sundays, and so, youth groups sprouted up and became the place for teenagers to come and hang out in a safe place, while worshipping and learning about God.  Every youth in town, usually, made it a priority to be at youth group on Sunday nights.  It was fun and fellowship with Jesus!

But, once again, time shifted, the world shifted and priorities shifted and people began opening businesses on Sundays, in order to make a few extra bucks.  Then, in an effort to improve the skills of students playing sports, coaches started scheduling practices on Sunday afternoons to enhance their teams.  Next, community groups got on the band-wagon, and scheduled more and more activities on Sundays, moving the culture away from the sacred Sabbath of Sunday.

Today, youth leaders bemoan a decline in their Sunday evening youth programming.  Students, who work all week in school, spend all day Saturday in sports or other community activities.  They squeeze in a little bit of worship Sunday morning, find themselves by Sunday evening exhausted and overwhelmed by the fact that now homework needs to get done, too.

This isn’t a new question, but I wonder where the church fits into this picture of life.  Do we continue to add to the stress put on families by mandating, encouraging, pressuring, youth to be at youth group on Sunday nights?  After all, we are fighting for their souls to be dedicated to Jesus, right?  Or do we succumb to the pressures of the culture and the world and set aside Sunday nights for families, for rest (or for homework) as a community of faith?  Are Sunday mornings the only sacred space for the church?

As a mother, a youth minister and a community member, I grapple with balance.  If God is supposed to be our #1 priority, I wonder why families don’t emphasize time with God the same way they emphasize time with sports, or friends, or work?  If God is lucky, in most of our busy lives, God will get an hour a week.  Is God satisfied?  Or have we said to God, “I’m going to do the bare minimum to continue this relationship with you, Lord.”  Goodness knows, that’s what our world is telling us to do, and so far, we’re responding really well.  What will it take to change the culture today?  I’m certain, God isn’t satisfied and it’s time for us to shift again.  Prayerfully, we’ll be shifting towards more time with God.

(What are your ministries doing to help youth prioritize God during the week?  What are your communities doing to support the faith community?  If Sundays are no longer sacred in your church community, how are you responding?)

Rev. Amy Valdez Barker
Minister of Families with Youth
Athens First UMC

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Are you taking time to rest? No one needs a burnt out youth pastor.

Self-care is too often neglected in professional youth ministry. I know in my case, I love what I do and I hate to miss what’s going on. That works until something adds stress to the schedule and adequate rest time hasn’t been put in.

The baby step I’ve taken is to figure out the number of days I should get off each month to make up for working on the weekends…I block off a minimum of that many days for the month on my calendar with stickers & I spend those days not working. Rest and family time is so important!

So this is me.


My name is Erin. About me… I do my best to follow to follow Christ. I am a wife, mom, daughter and many other things including a certified United Methodist youth minister. I am happily married and a mom to three amazing kids. I have been serving in youth ministry in various capacities for about 15 years. I love to learn.

So, this blog is designed mainly for fellow youth workers. I will share my heart and welcome conversation. Would love to create a forum for sharing youth ministry ideas, successes, struggles and failures. Youth ministry can be tough and it can be glorious. It’s worth it.

If you are also on the wild ride of youth ministry, welcome and bless you. Feel free to jump right in and tell about yourself.

More soon.