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

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Why Youth Pastors make the best Senior Pastors

Here is what I personally think.

Youth pastors make the best senior pastors. ( I know I am bias!)

As youth pastors, we spend our time doing a host of things that spam the gamut of ministry.

We are constantly meeting with students and parents, counseling, talking, listening, praying, and mentoring.

Youth pastors are about relational ministry.

We also spend time actively involved in our local communities, finding creative ways to bless our area and make a difference. From community blood drives, free car washes, serving at food pantries, or park clean ups…

youth pastors are about engaging our communities

We spend time preparing lessons, teaching bible studies, and preaching. We try very hard to make the Word of God relevant, understandable, and practical to our students. We desire not only for them to learn more (obtain more knowledge) but to live more (follow Jesus).

Youth pastors are about the proclamation of God’s word in real, relevant, experiential ways

We spend time assembling volunteer teams to help our students grow spiritually. We find people to complement us and fill the voids where we are weak.  We see the value and need for shared leadership and accountability and utilizing others gifts, passion, and callings for the blessing of all.

Youth pastors are about team building and shared leadership.

We spend time trying to connect with other youth pastors, going on retreats and mission trips with other youth groups,and trying to get our students to see they are part of a much bigger family than simply our group. We (hopefully) don’t compete with other youth groups, nor try to monopolize a certain area or demographic. We partner and join together with youth groups of all denominations, seeing both strength in number and the rich value of diversity.

Youth pastors are about networking and kingdom building across denominational lines.

We spend time in God’s word and in prayer with others, because we realize we have no clue what we are doing, and realize the enormous task which we are called to. We never fully “arrive’ as youth pastors and are always looking for new ideas, casting vision, and finding creative ways to increase the effectiveness of our ministry.

Youth pastors are dependent on God’s strength for everything we do, and are not ashamed to be life-long learners.

We often get criticized and reprimanded for speaking our mind, pushing the envelope, and asking tough questions that ruffle feathers (usually of the old birds!). However, we do so because God is stirring us to think differently, think of those who do not yet know Jesus, and because we are attempting to discern where God is leading the church in the future.

Youth pastors think big picture and are not afraid to rock the boat.

As Mike Yacconeli advocated, youth pastors are not afraid to get fired for the glory of God!

But things seem to change when the title “senior” pastor gets slapped on someone.

Of course, none of us are perfect youth pastors. I continually fail and fall flat on my face in many of these areas. But as I continue to meet and dialog with youth leaders around the world, I see these things resonating and permeating our ministries.

Please, don’t let time or a change in role or title change your passions and callings.

I have seen it too many times. There should be a TV series called “Youth pastors gone bad”, documenting the unfortunate changes so often accompanied with transitions into lead pastors.

Now, for many of us, youth ministry will be our career. But for some, God may be preparing you for an eventual transition to lead pastor. But don’t be alarmed or afraid, because I do believe that youth pastors can be the best lead pastors.  The emphasis of course is on the word can.

My hope and prayer is that the things we strive for now will remain consistent over the years. May the worries and stress of “big church’ and ever increasing demands of adults not squelch the fire the burns within us.

I hope that this generation of youth pastors (future “Senior” pastors) will work together to redefine those roles and break apart some, if not all of those stereotypes.  For those who will eventually make this transition (and possibly the number will decrease with each new generation), make the transition with hope, courage, and faith.

And even if twenty years from now, we are wearing loafers and don’t understand the newest technologies, may we still be about the things we are about today.!

transition