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.