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


A funeral, a U2 concert, and a new way of thinking about effective youth ministry teams

You may be wondering what this title means.   You just have to read to find out!

In the span of one week, my view of volunteers changed completely.

I have always appreciated my volunteers for their time committment and dedication. After all, I get paid to do what I do.  These volunteers do not.  They work long hours each day and then at the end of hard day or work they come to our church to hang out with students, play games, teach lessons, and lead small groups.  Even more amazing is that they willingly give up their free weekends at home to be with overly hyper and often annoying students, get little sleep and poor food options, only to get back late Sunday night and wake up at 5am the next day to go to work (while their youth pastor sleeps in).  They sacrifice a week of vacation time to go on missions trips and conferences, etc… You get the picture.

I also appreciate my volunteers for what they bring to our team. Each one is uniquely talented, gifted, and passionate about something that helps shape and form our team and youth group.  Some are great at administration, some love doing crazy games and skits, others can work magic with computers, and yet others love working behind the scenes to make sure our spaces are cleaned up when we leave.  Each person has a role and I realize that without their presence, we could get by each week, but the youth ministry would be a shadow of what it is and is becoming.  David Chow in his book, No More Lone Rangers, defines team centered youth ministry as “ministry with a diverse team of healthy, spiritually mature adults who share leadership and decision-making responsibilities, united by a vision to minister to young people and their families.”

Although I believed this in principle, the reality and beauty became evident recently.

We had a very big weekend fall retreat planned. I basically served as the program director and was doing one of the 3 lessons.  If you ever lead your own retreat, you probably know the amount of time, energy, and details that go into running one of these things.   The Thursday before we were supposed to leave, I received a phone call that my grandfather had passed away.  I was extremely close to him and lived in his house for the first twelve years of my life.  Shortly before his death, he asked me to do his funeral.   But there I was with this situation on my hands.  A choice between family and ministry.

I was torn.  I felt obligated and required to go on the retreat, but I knew I wanted to be with my family.  I also thought that i needed to be running the retreat as much as I was needed back home.

My leaders changed my thinking.

My former view of my leaders; their roles, potential, and importance…was radically challenged and changed at the same time

I was overwhelmed and humbled when my leaders all said, “Go home. Don’t worry about a thing.  We have it covered.”

I couldn’t believe them…well truth be told, I choose not to believe them because I still felt that I needed to be there. What about all those last minute details? Who will teach “my” lesson”.  What about going over the rules? What if this happens?  And perhaps the biggest questions, “What will the parents and church think if I am not there?”

What I had not been realizing was that over the years, the leaders had watched and learned from my leadership and example (and probably learned more from seeing my mistakes!) Not only were they willing and capable of leading the weekend, but the collection of them making group decisions and truly working as a team would be more effective than me!

Sometimes we just need to let go and trust our leaders.  Trust that God has been preparing them all along the way to step it when necessary and even take the youth ministries to new heights.  I need constant reminders that it’s not “my” program or ministry, and they are not “my” students.  Everything is God’s and he has and will always have the best interests of the students and group at heart.

You may be wondering what happened.  My grandfather’s wake and funeral were pushed back 2 days for various reasons, so I was able to attend. I left early on Sunday and my leaders took care of the rest of the weekend and return trip home.  But the entire weekend I knew that I didn’t have to be there, and since my leaders were prepared to lead, they ran most of it.

Three days later, U2 came to NY. My wife and I are huge U2 fans and when I had a chance to get some tickets over the summer, I grabbed 2 as soon as possible. The concert was scheduled for Friday night. For some reason that I am still unsure about, Friday’s show was moved to Wednesday (youth group night).

IMG_0957 IMG_0960 IMG_0949

You would think I learned my lesson.

I panicked.

I had a great lesson planned, complete with videos, interactive group discussion, experiential response, and small group questions.  I really wanted to be there and….to lead again!  But I also really wanted to go to U2.

I called one of my trusted leaders and was completely honest (even though at first I dabbled with the idea of a sudden illness coming over me!)

He said, “You and your wife need to go to the show.  Don’t worry about a thing.  We have it covered and youth group will be great!”     I also had a student mission committee meeting planned. One of my seniors said that she will step in and lead the meeting and the entire night went real smooth…in fact better than if I were there.

My students and leaders didn’t complain or question me not being there. They were happy for my wife and I (a little envious that they weren’t at Giants Stadium naturally), but they were happy for the chance to lead.  In the past, I would often include students and adults in leadership, but never really gave them ownership.

In the span of just one week, my views have changed and I have seen the light!

I am learning to trust my team, not just to fill in when necessary, but to be able to lead well.

One of my favorite U2 songs is  “Sometimes you can’t make it on your own”.  A powerful line in the song is this   “Listen to me now. I need to let you know. You don’t have to go it alone.”

When we do ministry alone, we communicate to others that their role is to watch ministry, not do ministry.  Instead of preparing God’s people for ministry, we are preparing them to be consumers and spectators.

They actually played that song live and I was struck by the profound truth whether in a relationship with God, spouse, friends, or our leaders.  We need each other and are connected in the beautiful web of humanity and relationships.

David Chow offers some wonderful insights that I will conclude with. Again, it is one thing to believe this in theory, but quite another to live it in our ministries.  I encourage you to make strong attempts to do so in the months to come.

“Behind every great ministry is a great group of co-ministers.”

Effective teams extend the ministry well beyond a single person

Effective teams raise the quality of ministry programs and events to a higher level

Effective teams expand the number and types of students being ministered to

Team-centered ministry produces new leaders

A team approach benefits the ministry long term.