Long-Term youth ministry

long haul

Are you in it for the long haul?

National statistics indicate that the average term a youth pastor stays at a church is 18 months. I am not very good with math, but that appears to be more than one year and less than two.

I hate to do this, but I must ask you these questions?

Are you youth ministry  for a paycheck, for some good ministry experience, or as a “stepping stone” ministry?  Really meaning you can’t get another job as a “real pastor”…so why not youth ministry?

I have had to ask myself these same questions during my time as a youth pastor:

Did I really go into youth ministry for the right reasons?

Am I still in youth ministry for the right reasons?

And by the way…what are the “right” reasons?

Even after serving as a youth pastor at the same church for seven years, I can easily fall into complacency and comfort and stay in youth ministry because it has become “easy” for me.

However, I contend that we all should go into youth ministry (and stay in to) in order to develop real, authentic, and life-long relationships with students.

We should be more about the “youth” than the ministry!

Think about what it says to students for them to experience a new youth pastor every few years?

The statistics mentioned earlier really bother me. Especially now.

Especially since in my ministry, life-change and trust only really starting happening about five years into my time with these students. They too had experienced a number of transitional youth leaders before me.

Especially since we are facing the reality that what really matters and makes a difference to students now more than ever are relationships. The kind of relationships that are genuine, sincere, authentic, and long-lasting.

And to be brutally honest, that is kind of hard to do in a year and a half!

Now, I understand that sometimes change must take place. Often, youth pastors are forced out by external circumstances, pressures, financial worries, and a different calling from God. These can all be very valid reasons to leave.

But I think too many youth pastors use these as lame excuses to leave a difficult situation.

Because after a year or two, youth ministry was not as fun or easy as they thought it would be (they probably read that in some book)

So I say, stick with the students during the messy, confusing, and troubling times of life.

Relationships + Longevity= Transformational Ministry

Celebrate with them through the fun, joyous, and wonderful moments.

See them grow and mature from wacky, 2-minute attention span Middle school kids, to college students, husbands and wives, and future parents.

Remember, our goal should not only be to convert a 15-year-old teenager and get him or her to attend our meetings. Rather, it should be to encourage them to continue following Jesus as adults.

We aim for 40-year-old Christ followers, not just 14-year-old ones.

If you build a ministry around yourself and your personality, then its likely that we you leave, so will your ministry.  But if you build a ministry around a team, the ministry will continue on even if you leave.

David Chow in his book, No More Lone Rangers writes, “Success is more about what happens after students leave the youth ministry than what they do while they’re in the ministry.”  Rather than asking the question, “how many students are in my ministry?”, the question should be, “Where will these students be ten years from now?”

But..will we even be in their lives when they reach that age?

Again, I realize that sometimes you must leave for the betterment of the church or your family or a different calling. I may not be in my current position or church forever either. Although if my calling changes, part of me really hopes to be able to stay at my church so that I can maintain these relationships with my students for years and decades to come.

But, no matter what happens with your career and calling, please stay involved in the lives of your former students. I remember talking to a friend and colleague of mine a few years back as he was heading out to Chicago for a wedding. When I asked whose wedding it is, he informed me it was a former student from his first youth group that he and his wife had stayed in contact with over the years. He had not “officially” been her youth pastor for over 15 years, and he was still invited to her wedding.

Needless to say, that inspired me because that is what youth ministry is all about.

It’s about the youth and not the “ministry”.

So even if you don’t stay at your particular church forever, or leave the official title of youth “pastor”, you can and should always been a minister to youth…your former ones. That way, you can be in it for the long haul.

I once heard a youth ministry veteran say that youth ministry only ceases to exist when the relationship stops.

This simply means that as long as we are in relationships with students/young adults, we are still doing youth ministry.  Remember, being a youth pastor is not just a title, but a calling. I firmly believe that this calling can and should continue even when the title disappears or the position morphs into something else.

At my particular church, I think we have done a good job in student ministry up to the college years.  However, we are at a place now where we really have little for the continuing spiritual formation of 18-30 year olds.  These are young men and women who have come up through the youth ministry, but a lack of ongoing mentoring and ministry in their post-YG years can often take away and diminish the growth that occurred while they were under our leadership.

Now, some churches have great young adult pastors and there is a wonderful transition of trust between the youth pastor and young adult pastor.  But what happens when a church does not have that structure in place?  Often, the youth pastor steps in by default to continue that spiritual formation, but is extremely limited due to all the other expectations, demands, and needs of the current students.

Personally, I wrestle with this dilemma, because in my mind, I committed to the spiritual development of specific students (and that must continue well beyond their middle school and high school years).  I did not commit to “middle school students” in general.  To me, bouncing from church to church doing “youth ministry” has very little to do with ministering to actual teenagers.  If I am committed to my students (more aptly stated the students that God has entrusted me with), then I will be committed to them for as long as the relationship can continue. And in many cases ( and I think in ideal situations) these relationships will continue for decades.

What a priviledge it would be to watch your former middle school students graduate college, get married, and maybe one day perform their baby dedication as they now serve as committed members of your church body!

That vision often keeps me motivated and inspired. Just last week I attended a wake and as I looked into the tear filled eyes of one my high school girls, I prayed to God that one day I would be able to stand with her in great joy on her wedding day!  I don’t know if that will happen of course, but to me, that is youth ministry in its fullest sense.

Listen, more than likely, we will not be serving at our same church for the next 20 years. It may happen (and hopefully it is your heart’s desire and the desire of your church), but to be honest it would be rare if it did happen. I do encourage you to really move in and take root somewhere. Develop a passion for your area, community, church, and students.  You will be less likely to want to keep moving from place to place and your effectiveness in transforming teenagers and your influence on their spiritual formation will greatly increase.

u haul

But, if and when the time does come to move on, we must be prepared and have our ministries prepared.

If we truly believe in the importance of life-long relationships, then train those who will continue to be there at your church.

Develop your adult volunteers. More than likely, they are the ones who will be around the longest.

Andy Stanley writes, “One day someone else will be doing what you are doing.  Whether you have an exit strategy or not, ultimately, you will exit.”

Therefore, having this team approach benefits the ministry long-term.  Too often we worry about how many kids are coming to youth group tonight and rarely think about what shape the ministry would be in if we were no longer around due a move, career change, or other circumstance.

“If you build a ministry around yourself and your personality, then its likely that when you leave, so will your ministry.  But if you build a ministry around a team, the ministry will continue on even if you leave.”

Teach and train them to do what you would do if you could be there for 10 more years to come. That way, your students will have caring adults in their lives for the long haul, even if it is not you.  I started working towards replacing myself within the first three years I arrived.  Now, almost eight years in, I am still working hard to leave the ministry in a better place if and when I leave.  I sincerely hope that my leaders, interns, and any staff I would bring on would grow and expand the ministry well beyond what I was able to.  Now, I don’t plan on leaving anytime soon, but I still believe working towards this end is healthy and effective.

Remember, youth ministry is about them (youth) and not you (ministry).

I have included a short post by my friend Jeremy Zach offering some helpful and healthy tips about staying in youth ministry for the long haul.

The Longevity of Youth Pastors


4 thoughts on “Long-Term youth ministry

  1. I’ll never forget, in Youth Ministry 101 Cannister asked us to go around the room and tell the class why we were there. Half of us said we were planning on being youth pastors, the other half said they wanted to be volunteers (which is soooo awesome they were taking a class to be better volunteers, btw). Then it got to this one guy, and he said something like, “I want to be a senior pastor but everyone knows you have to do your time as a youth pastor first.” You could have heard a pin drop. I’m still shocked he said it in front of Cannister!!!
    I remember Cannister saying the same in class. He really challenged me personally not to view YM as a stepping stone. thanks for your comment

  2. Not sure about the 18 months statistic, can you cite that? Len(youth ministry prof from Nyack) is adamant that that stat is false. He did his own study in his YM Survival Guide that put the number closer to 3 years. I found this to be eerily true with my experiences in my first church(3 1/2 yrs). Either way, not sure it changes the thoughts, it still takes a long time to build that trust.

    I really did think this was an excellent post and one that I think will resonate with most youth pastors. I think the main issue I can see is that students and youth ministry newbies need more training in choosing the right situation to jump into. I wish I had chosen more wisely and seen the signs of dysfunction early on in my first church. Sticking around for the long haul has as much to do with what church you decide to stick with as the resolve of the youth pastor. I have known more than a couple of martyrs in my day who went down in flames sticking in at churches that they needed to move on from. Conversely, I have seen plenty of youth pastors hit a patch of turbulence and jump ship way to early and at the expense of all involved(especially students).

    For the sake of all who are involved, we should endeavor to remain until God moves us and not just use God as an excuse to move when times are tough. Moving hurts us, our students, our church body, our spouses, our families, volunteers, etc. It is certainly not about just us.

    I also wonder about the evolving call of the youth pastor. How many of us start with a crystal clear call to work with youth and then slowly are pulled into another call, one step at a time. The call to plant a church, the call to work with families, the call to follow the generation we were originally called to work with up through the ranks. My pastor was the youth pastor at our church for 20 years, associate here for 10 years and now is the head pastor! Imagine a place where your call can grow and you can be faithful to the students you minister to at the same time! I know of another youth pastor who planted an emergent church within the church he was serving at as the youth pastor and just kept ministering to the same students in a different context. I hope that if our calls morph over time that we can be so lucky as to stay in our context.

    Great thoughts man, thanks for sharing.

    Yes, this original post was written awhile back. Just recently, I saw two statistics upping the national average to around 3 years (still very short). However, since most churches do not have full time paid youth “pastors”, the average stay of a youth worker is still between 1-2 years. In many situations, churches uses volunteers to take over the program during the search time or simply because they have little money to actually hire and pay a “professional”. In these cases (which are very common), individuals’ schedules and the burn out factor contribute to them staying in leadership the average of 18 months.
    I also completely agree with the evolving nature of youth ministry. I don’t think it is just a label anymore and really appreciate your shared examples of those who “just kept ministering to the same students in different contexts.”

    just read a statistic in Sustainable Youth Ministry that the updated average is 3.9 for full-time youth pastors. FYI

  3. DUDE this is bogus. What is WRONG (show me biblically) with only staying somewhere 3 years? JESUS ministered for 3 years than skeedaddled. Check your walk bro.

    1) First, my name is Dan and not Dude. no worries through bro.
    2) Examples from the Bible: Timothy, Titus. James, Peter (from what we know), most definitely the early church fathers; the whole idea of the Old Test community as well
    3) As I mentioned, I give exceptions (rare) for specific callings away from a place for various reasons, but I stand by my view that it is not the ideal…for the sake of the students.
    4) We are not Jesus. I think his calling was a little different than ours
    5) Unless you are a church planter, then maybe…maybe going somewhere for 3 years or less is a good plan and healthy, but more and more church planting research also affirms 3-5 year minimum stay
    6) My experiences have been that many (not all) but many youth pastors simply have lame excuses for why they want to leave after such a short period of time . They may give lip serve to God’s “call” but usually its for more money, bigger groups, burn out, not being successful, too many challenges, not a perfect fit, not enough personal affirmation, etc… (the list unfortunately goes on and on). It ends up being all about them and rarely about the students they were called to love, serve, and minister to.
    often these are the same people who end up at 4 different churches in the span of 6-8 years
    7) I still contend that this model is no way healthy or beneficial for the actual students involved in your ministry unless there is a very good strategy in place for continual involvement, discipleship, and relationships; even then its a bit dicey
    8) Lets never be accused of Love em and leave em’ youth ministry.
    9) I do appreciate your honesty and comment. I must say that (from those who have read and responded) you seem to be in the vast minority, but your comment is valued. We may agree to disagree on this one.

  4. an FYI on the average stay for youth pastors. Please see my response to the comment from Mark Allen.

    A new statistic offered in Sustainable Youth Ministry has the average now at 3.9 years for full-time youth pastors. The average does drop significantly when you factor in part-time and volunteers (especially those who take over during transition periods)

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