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.
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.