I started in the youth department. Well, I was the youth department.
I loved it and entered into youth ministry believing it would be a career. I wanted, if not all of my ministry career, most of it, to be spent guiding teenagers. Coming up on 20 years of working with churches, it doesn’t look like I’m going to make it.
As a full-time youth minister, I worked just a little over 12-years.
There are many reasons women and men transition out of youth ministry – some aren’t very good at it, others burned or bailed out, a few made huge mistakes, and still others transitioned into other ministry roles or went back to school. Regardless of the reasons, when a pastor transitions, more times than not, myriad opportunities get missed and there is almost always some kind of useless, avoidable disruption.
The majority of youth workers I know who have left youth work – even for other ministries within the church – might have held their ministry posts for longer had they and their churches been more adept at navigating a few crucial transitions. In most cases, both church leadership and youth workers failed to recognize and negotiate critical evolutions leaving youth worker feeling the need to move on in life and ministry.
What Are They?
- From College/Seminary Student to Working Professional: In my tribe, the local church ordains the minister, therefore many youth workers get jobs straight out of school. Problems arise as a young woman or man is hired straight out of school, thrust into oftentimes small and/or rural churches, young ministers experience something for the first time: No peers. Since birth, most folks spend a great deal of time with their peers, then they enter a local church and a young, twenty-something is predominantly surrounded by teenagers and their parents. Frequently, there are few, if any, church members in their age group. Both churches and young ministers need to understand and anticipate extreme loneliness for young ministers. In my early days of ministry, I left town every weekend I could during the first 4-months I was employed. A friend of mine put over 100,000 miles on his new car his first year of ministry. I hit my rock-bottom during my first year of youth ministry. It was a Sunday afternoon and evening, after everyone wished me “Happy Birthday” at church that morning, but then I went home and spent the entire day alone. Larger churches can offer a peer group for a young minister, but smaller ones need to be mindful that their new minister is undergoing an enormous life-transition and if they want a long-term ministry-partner, they will help guide them through the process.
- From Single To Married To Married With Kids. It’s not a universal, but many folks I’ve known in ministry have transitioned from one church to another after getting married or having kids. The simple reality is that youth workers don’t have the same kind of time for extra-curriculars and time with students as they did before. Before a youth worker has children, his/her students are the most important kids in his/her life, after their first child arrives, that’s over. Some churches fumble this transition. The minister’s lack of presence at soccer games and plays, the minister’s increased willingness to delegate responsibility’s to volunteers, and to not go on every retreat or summer trip, is interpreted by parents and leaders as a lack of care or engagement. Frequently, it’s not that important tasks and events are left undone, but rather the youth pastor is not doing them him/her self. Couple that with an inability of some minister’s to articulate changes in ministry style and structure to parents and church leadership, leaves many youth workers saying to their friends, “I just got tired of being out 4 nights a weeks.”
- From Young(er) to Old(er). “I just got tired of sleeping on gym floors,” one friend told me. Youth ministry can be a physical grind. When I was a youth pastor, I always wondered: Could I do this job from a wheelchair? My answer was always “no.” I could have, however, structured a productive and relevant youth ministry from one and delegate the physical aspects – games, climbing mountains, service projects, mission trips, etc… – of ministry to others. As youth workers grow older, twin adjustments have to be made. Riding shotgun with #2 above, youth workers should understand that they may not be able to keep the same physical pace they did when they were younger and churches need to understand it too. People always question whether or not a minister is “too old” for youth ministry, but that question emanates from an assumption that the minister’s physical presence is synonymous with significant ministry. A better question for churches should be, “What should our youth ministry look like given the life-stage of our youth workers?”
- From A Few Bills To A Lot of Bills. When I started youth ministry I was amazed by my paycheck, but at the time, the only expenses I had were my car, my apartment, and my food. I played a lot of golf and saw many movies, because a single man can live on very little. The same is not true for a married person with children. As ministers grow older, churches must deal with the reality of increasing compensation needs. I truth, most youth ministers I know, transitioned from one church to another for the pay. Rarely did they move on to bigger or richer churches, but rather they moved to churches more willing to pay a living wage. A few times the church’s leadership felt the compensation demands had grown too high and refused a minister a raise, only to pay their new minister more than what the previous one asked for.
- From Working With Kids to Being An Adult. This transition is the most frequent and perhaps the most deeply felt. It’s the most frequent because it happens every week as a youth worker walks from the youth room into an elder’s meeting. In the minds of too many youth workers – and other church leaders – the fact that a youth worker works with kids gets interpreted as s/he is a kid (a few youth ministers I’ve known didn’t help this by showing up at work in frayed cargo shorts and Goodwill t-shirts). Years ago a youth pastor friend became the Senior Minister for a church. When asked about the biggest difference between the two roles, he replied, “Now, when I say something in an elder’s meeting, they don’t always do what I say, but they listen to me.” Every good youth minister knows if s/he wants to get something done, they typically need to get one of the “adult” ministers on board first. Why? Often, church leaders don’t listen to the youth ministers. Again, working with kids is translated as being a kid. As I heard one elder once say of a children’s minister (as he waived his hand dismissively) “Well, she’s just here to kinda help out with the kids.”
Handling these 5 critical transitions well, creates healthy ministry and churches for everyone involved. Few people go into youth work determined to one day get out, most leave due to factors that can be easily managed, and when they stay, churches maintain focus, chemistry, and direction. It’s worth overseeing well.