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Youth Ministry Tenure: How to Survive in Youth Ministry Over the Long Haul?

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I remember my first year as a youth pastor. I was fresh out of Bible college, my wife and I just got married and we had moved over 500 miles away from any of our other family members. We moved into our first apartment, bought some furniture, and stood in line at the DMV to get our drivers’ licenses in this new state.

Yes, I had heard the statistics. The average youth pastor only lasts a year-and-a-half in a typical church ministry.

Looking back, I don’t believe that statistic was ever proven to be true[i]. But, that 18-month tenure number had taken on “urban legend” status even back then.

My “rookie year” as a youth pastor went great. I was almost the antithesis of my predecessor in the church where I was serving. His perceived weaknesses were my strengths. The kids seemed to relate well to us, and we worked hard to build positive relationships with the students. They loved youth group and responded with interest and even enthusiasm to my lessons and messages. Their parents seemed to appreciate us, and the senior pastor and other church leaders seemed to see me as the new “Pied Piper” of youth ministry success.

But, then year two rolled around.

It seemed then as if everything that was successful the first year was a total disaster the second year. It appeared as if the teenagers didn’t like any of the events that I planned and were quite disinterested during my talks. The parents began to complain about what I was trying to do – and then the senior pastor called me in for a meeting with the church board to confront me about the struggles in the youth ministry.

I was worried that I was about to become the poster child for that year-and-a-half statistic. Things were not going well in that second year; and it was time for a “gut check” of my commitment, resolve, and calling. I wondered if I had made a mistake when my wife and I moved so far away, and I began to doubt if a young youth pastor with only 18 months of experience would ever be able to find another ministry position.

Let me move to end of the story. That was over 40 years ago. I actually served in that church for about eight years before the Lord gave me the opportunity to begin teaching youth ministry in a Christian college. In one way or another my wife and I have been actively involved in youth ministry ever since. In fact, even though I hate to admit it, I am currently 66 years old and still serve as a vocational youth pastor.

I certainly don’t have all the answers but let me share with you some of the things God has been teaching me over the years about longevity in youth ministry.

How to Survive in Youth Ministry Over the Long Haul?

Here are a few questions every youth worker should ask themselves if they are interested in serving as a career youth pastor or as a volunteer youth worker for a long time.

  • What has God called you to do?

Friends, if the Lord has called you to serve Him as a youth worker, keep doing that as long as God provides you with the opportunity to do it. To relay more of my personal story, I sensed that the Lord called me to youth ministry the summer following my sophomore year in Bible college.

In one way or another, I have been actively working with young people in various aspects ever sense. God used His Word (I was studying 1 & 2 Timothy at the time), the life-changing experience of leading a young man to Christ, and the encouragement of influential, Godly adults as the catalysts for me to recognize His direct leading in my life. I began to recognize that He had wired and enabled me to work with teenagers – and I still believe that even now as a full-fledged senior citizen. I know that this is an adaptation of an old cliché, but if the Lord calls you to be a youth worker, don’t stoop to working with adults.

  • Do you have a clear vision of what you are trying to accomplish?

Humanly speaking, the most important contributing factor for long-term youth ministry effectiveness may be an uncompromising and unobstructed vision of your sense of mission and purpose. It is not nearly enough to just love kids – although I believe that is critically important! Youth workers, and especially youth pastors perhaps, must see their role as shepherding kids toward a lifetime of growing in Christ toward lasting spiritual maturity. And make sure to communicate what you are trying to do in every way possible. You will want to stick it out, and churches will want to keep you around, if your long-term objective is to see kids come to Christ and grow up to go on for God.

  • What significant relationships are you building?

Strong, genuine relationships may indeed be the key to long-term survival in youth ministry. Of course, this begins with building loving and caring relationships with young people. Almost everyone who has ever written anything about vocational youth ministry has mentioned the importance of relational youth ministry. But I’m talking here about developing strong relationships with the senior pastor and other church leaders, parents and family members of your students – and carving out time to network with your peers in youth ministry as well. My fellow youth workers don’t take this point lightly. Put some energy into building strong inter-personal relationships with others. Then if things start to “go south” you will have established and durable relationships to rely on for stability or comfort

  • How do you handle personal conflicts with others?

Let’s face it, conflicts with people are going to happen. Some of the teenagers might not like you. Some of their parents may not appreciate what you are trying to do – and the leadership team in your church may even want you to leave. No matter what, it is important to handle conflicts in a Biblical, loving, and respectful manner. It is probably true that if we handle conflicts in an adult-like manner with maturity, kindness, and wisdom, we are much more likely to win over the objections of others in the church. I admit that is not always the case, but people conflicts tend to be much more vocal and heated if we allow our personality traits and human insecurities to get involved in the disputes. Without a doubt, it is always best to not allow human conflicts to get heated and confrontational in nature. My years of experience in ministry have taught me that those who last over the long haul are usually the people who can avoid or manage conflicts with others in the church.

  • Are you committed to faithfulness?

In what must have been a moment of insanity, as a high schooler I decided to try out for my school’s cross country team. My one-year fiasco as a long-distance runner revealed that successful runners are those who are committed to finishing the race – no matter what. That observation undoubtedly applies to the tenure of youth pastors as well.  I have found that youth pastors who last are usually those who are committed to long term ministry. They are not continually searching for a position in a different church, nor are they looking to do something else. The ones who stick it out are they ones who are committed to sticking it out over the long haul. They realize that it takes time to build an effective youth ministry.

As someone who has spent a long time in ministry, I have also observed that most veteran youth workers who are leading profitable ministries with students, and who are reaching out into the households where their students are from, are usually also faithful in their own walk with God and in their personal relationships with their own spouse and family.

On a personal note, I’m not buying that 18-month tenure statistic. I do not believe it was true when I started in youth ministry and I’m positive that it is not the norm today. I know many youth pastors who have spent 10, 20, 30, and even 40 years in very profitable ministries.

By the way, I lived through that meeting with the senior pastor and the church board. In fact, they encouraged me in some very specific areas of my ministry, and they helped me focus on a long-term vision of what church youth ministry should accomplish. By God’s grace, our ministry turned the corner and we began to see Him do some amazing things in and through the lives of many of our students.

After all these years I still have that God-given focus on the lasting mission of youth ministry, to see young people grow up and go on for God.


[i] For example see: http://youthministryforum.blogspot.com/2005/10/18-month-myth.html.

Mentoring During the Pandemic: Making Inter-Personal Connections in a Time of Social Distancing

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In the early days of this current Coronavirus situation, the World Health Organization suggested a plan to help thwart the spread of what became a world-wide health crisis, the contagious proliferation of COVID-19. Their plan was to limit person-to-person contamination by what is known as social distancing,  or “to slow down the spread of infectious diseases and avoid overburdening healthcare systems, particularly during a pandemic… by closing schools and workplaces, isolation, quarantine, restricting movement of people and the cancellation of mass gatherings” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Social_distancing).

Of course, the practice of social distancing is really nothing new. The Bible, and especially the Old Testament (Leviticus 13 – 14, and other places), teaches about the terrifying disease of “leprosy” – where infected people were placed in literal isolation away from the general population of society.

It’s important to remember that the current instruction to segregate from other people is not accurately “social” distancing in today’s technological world. It’s probably more like “physical” distancing. We are being told to stay at least 6’ away from other individuals, not to gather in large or even small groups; and in some areas, we have been instructed to “shelter in place”, to stay in our homes, and not go out at all. 

But we still can make connections with other people. Ours is not really a matter of total social isolation. We can communicate – and that provides the opportunity to minister to other believers and to share the Gospel with people who do not know Christ. It’s probably just a matter of intentionality, effort, and creativity.

Ministry leaders have had to answer a key question about what is becoming the new normal for believers, churches, and other ministries during the current practice of staying away from other people.

How can we do outreach and ministry in a culture of social distancing?

Of course, we can champion the amazing ways some churches are utilizing technology to accomplish their mission right now. Watching the ingenuity of innovative ministry leaders to apply Google, Facebook, Zoom, Go-To-Meeting, Instagram, and other media platforms to communicate God’s Word, to minister to others, and to reach out to our communities is absolutely incredible.

But we must not forget that “low tech” ways exist to reach out and encourage others too. We must keep in mind that there are practical ways to make personal connections with the people we want to mentor even during times of social distancing.

Here are some basic principles of mentoring during a pandemic that may be worth considering:

  • Mentoring relationships may mean more during times of crisis and difficulty.

There’s something quite special when a mentor reaches out during a difficult time. It means they are thinking about you – that they are concerned and that they care about what you are going through. Mentors should do whatever they can right now to connect in any way possible with those they are mentoring.

  • Mentoring is not necessarily a commitment of a great deal of time.

I don’t believe that effective mentoring necessarily requires a commitment of “extra” time. It is basically, doing what you do, just doing that with someone younger than you, or with someone who needs a mentor. As everyone is saying, these are weird days right now – and a Godly mentor can have an incredible impact by even taking small action steps to keep in touch with others.

  • Mentoring relationships require taking the initiative to connect.

Any healthy relationship requires effort. Mentors are the ones who should take the initiative to make intentional connections. As I mentioned above, this does not necessarily require a commitment of a great deal of time, and it certainly does not require technological expertise. But it does demand a certain degree of purpose.

  • Mentoring can use “low tech” instead of “high tech” methods.

I gladly applaud the efforts of so many church leaders who are demonstrating their knowledge and creativity during these days of the pandemic. I am not very talented with technology, but I’m thankful for how today’s communicators are utilizing technology to make a global difference for Christ in these days of social distancing. But friends, let me emphasize to you that mentoring does not require a degree in computer science from MIT. Nor does it mean that you have to learn how to use Zoom or even Facebook Live. In fact, it has been my experience that “low tech” methods are often seen as more valid and more genuine. We can always get some envelopes and some stamps, or make a quick phone call to keep in touch with the people we are mentoring.

  • Mentoring is probably more effective with “high touch” methods.

There are so many simple things we can do to make personal, yet intentional connections with those we are mentoring. I am not trying to “blow my own horn” here, but just this past week I made several personal phone calls, wrote and mailed a couple of dozen of “praying for you” notes, mailed a bunch of small care packages, and sent some McDonald’s gift cards to kids from our church.

Readers, we are not living in isolation. We have ways to make connections with others. But, it’s important to remember that key principle from Proverbs 18:24, “The one who has friends, must show themselves to be friendly.” Let’s all take the initiative to make connections with others – especially those we are mentoring. Blessings to you.

5 Suggestions of Things To Do During an Extended Time at Home

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I confess that one of the hardest things for me to accept during these days of “social distancing” is that the sports world has almost literally shut down. There is no professional basketball. No March Madness. No Spring Training baseball games, and “opening day” has been suspended. What’s a guy like me supposed to do? I told my wife the other day that we’ll probably have to actually talk to each other. I’m kidding about the last sentence, of course.

It’s important for all of us to readjust our lives and our schedules during these days when many of us feel trapped at home. Let’s face it, many of the regular things we do have been canceled, and the places we go are closed. The felling of isolation may be especially true for our oldest family or church members. They may feel more secluded and alone than anyone.

I have listed below some practical suggestions for those of us with extended time at home.

  • Maintain a disciplined schedule.

During times of crisis it is especially important to maintain our regular individual time with God. Followers of Christ should discipline themselves to spend some time each day in God’s Word and in prayer. Practicing this habit is very important during a time when people are inundated with negative and fearful thoughts. God’s Word can provide hope, encouragement, comfort, and Godly motivation during times like this.

  • Guard your thought life.

This suggestion is complimentary to the last idea, but a bit more specific. God’s people should learn to limit their consumption of digital content. This is also really important – Christian parents should help their children and teenagers limit their time on digital devices. Why not take some time to read or to journal?

  • Get outside as often as you can.

This may be the ideal opportunity to spend some time outside in God’s creation. Plus, it will probably prove essential to get some exercise each day. Even with all of the current limitations we can still enjoy and appreciate the beauty and simple majesty of nature. Even if the weather is bad – we can put on our winter coats and grab an umbrella. The important thing is to get outside each day, look around, and thank the Lord for the wonder His creation.

  • Connect with others.

We all need to figure out how to make connections with others every day. I know that meetings and group settings are to be avoided, but we need each other. It’s really important for us to be intentional about getting together with other people. Of course, we need to be careful, but we can call our friends and fellow church members. We can talk over the fence with our neighbors. We can utilize technology like Facetime or Facebook messenger. Plus, we can’t forget to get help (medical, physical, emotional, or spiritual) if we need it.

  • Think of ways to minister and serve.

While we are thinking about connecting with others, let’s not forget about ways to minister to other people. We should all check in on the vulnerable people we know to make sure they are okay. We can still utilize our spiritual gifts even during times of crisis. Undoubtedly there will be people around us that have needs and this may prove to be the ideal time to reach out to them. It may be as simple as going to the grocery store for someone or baking chocolate chip cookies. Plus, we can certainly pray for each other!

We don’t have to feel isolated, but our strategy must be intentional and purposeful.

Use What You Have! Ministry in the Days of Coronavirus

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Have you ever read about Shamgar in the Bible?

He was one of the deliverers of Israel, and although only one verse in the Bible is given to his major accomplishment, his story is told to us in Judges 3:31, “Shamgar the son of Anath, who killed six hundred men of the Philistines with an ox goad; and he also delivered Israel.”

We’ll get back to that victory a little bit later. But there is one other passage in the Bible that gives us some more background information about him. Later on, the book of Judges cites “the Song of Deborah”. In one stanza of that song there is also a brief reference to Shamgar. Notice Judges 5:6-7, “In the days of Shamgar, son of Anath, in the days of Jael, the highways were deserted, and the travelers walked along the byways.  Village life ceased, it ceased in Israel…”

Certainly, there are some parallels in that narrative to life today. Highways were empty, travelers had to sneak around, and their sense of community life “ceased”. In this time in the history of the nation of Israel the people were hiding due to what one commentator called “raiders” or thieves.

The nation needed a deliverer – and God raised up Shamgar. His name was probably Egyptian in origin and the text tells us that he was “the son of Anath”, which meant that he was perhaps from that lineage and may have been somewhat of a “mercenary” who changed sides to help protect the children of Israel.

This is where the story of Shamgar gets interesting. His weapon of choice in this incredible victory was an “ox goad”. Shamgar used what he had in his hand. The ox goad was a familiar farm implement, which means he was probably employed as a farmhand, working for someone else at the time. This tool was usually a long, pointed stick with two basic purposes. One was to “goad” or prod the oxen into moving through the plowing fields and the other was to sometimes clean the plows from the clumps of dirt and perhaps manure that tended to build up around the blade when plowing.

Shamgar had an ox goad and he used what he had in his hands for God, and God used him to accomplish something very special.

We are living in interesting times. Almost everyone I talk to uses the word “weird” to describe our world’s reaction to the current Coronavirus crisis. Churches have canceled their services, schools are closed, and grocery stores are running out of basic supplies. Church leaders and youth workers are certainly wondering what to do now. What do the times demand of us?

My advice is to do what Shamgar did. Use what you have!

Today we have computers, cell phones, and other means of technology. We have some tools we can use. We have the means to communicate with others – and we can do things with individuals, and we can meet in small groups. We can still minister, and we can still reach out. So, we should utilize what we have to accomplish what God has called us to do.

We don’t need to hunker down. We don’t need to retreat into our homes in fear. Ministry now will demand some creativity, some initiative, and some new looks. But it can still be done.

I’m sure that no one expected Shamgar to win with his ox goad, but he accomplished something great for God.

Like the ending of the Song of Deborah says in Judges 5:31b, “…let those who love Him be like the sun when it comes out in full strength.”

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