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How to Stay in Youth Ministry, Part 1: Have a Long View

A couple weeks ago I was talking to a young youth worker in his early 20’s who said, “Kurt, I want to be a youth ministry lifer like you. How do I do that?” To which I responded, “Well, I don’t even know if I’m a youth ministry lifer! Track me down in another twenty years.”

While I may not know for certain that I’m a youth ministry lifer (who does, really?), I do know that I’ve managed to stay in it for quite a while and I think I’ve discovered a few things along the way that have helped. So whether you are a 20-something newbie hoping to be a lifer or a 50-something veteran hoping to last a few more years, I think I have some insights. And for the rest of the month, that’s what we’ll discuss in this little Wednesday series. And of course, for this to be a true discussion, we will need some of your input in the comments section. Add a thought, ask a question, push back…let’s talk about staying in youth ministry for the long haul!

——– | Students love these small group resources! | ———

The Long Haul Requires a Long View!

Other than the occasional pat on the back for a fun game or a decent youth talk, youth ministry has very little to offer in the short term; there’s not a whole lot of instant gratification. Think about it: Teenagers can be punks, parents can be a hassle, you don’t get paid much, your youth budget is one of the smallest in the church, the youth group gets blamed for every dent and scratch on the church property, people assume that you want to be a “real pastor” some day, endless pizza parties give you the cholesterol count of a 70-year old, and you constantly wonder how long you can pretend to enjoy lock-ins.

A favorite object lesson among youth workers is that life is a marathon, not a sprint. We use that analogy to encourage our students to hang in there, not focus solely on the setbacks and struggles of the here and now, but to have a long view in life…to see life as a journey.  I’d suggest we take the same approach with our youth ministry careers.  Here are three benefits of having a long view that will help you last for the long haul.

  • A long view helps you see past the current frustrations.

There is so much in the day-to-day world of youth ministry that, if you let it, will easily cause you to wonder how long you want to stay in the game. Fruit takes time to ripen, health takes time to develop and if you get out of the game while you are still planting seeds, you miss out on the harvest to come!

  • A long view helps you feel secure and confident.

When you determine that, if God allows, you are going to stay in the game for as long as possible, it settles all sorts of things that typically cause insecurity for youth workers. You settle on the fact that you won’t make a ton of money and adjust accordingly. You settle on the fact that you will always be viewed as the gym teacher of the ministry world, and decide to be the best gym teacher ever. You acknowledge that as you become a better and better youth pastor other opportunities to “move up” will present themselves but they won’t be tempting because you know what you are about for the foreseeable future.

  • A long view helps you pass the off-ramps.

Over the course of a twenty-six year youth ministry career, all sorts of “off- ramps” have presented themselves; moments when it would have been easy and perfectly understandable for me to transition out of youth ministry. Getting married, having our first child, my wife wanting to work less, having our second child, the desire to buy our first home, my 30th and 40th birthdays etc.  are all examples of “seasons of life” that were fairly obvious youth ministry off-ramps. Nobody would have faulted me for transitioning into a less frantic and higher paying role (think about it…who turns down EASIER and HIGHER PAYING?  Youth workers with a long view.). But when you are on a long road trip, you gotta pass some tempting off ramps to get to your ultimate destination. One of the easiest ways to stay involved in youth ministry for the long haul is to simply avoid the off-ramps!

There’s much more lasting in youth ministry, and we will discuss those for a few more weeks, but I think the best way to be a long-haul youth worker is to start by having a long-view.

Challenges are part of the youth ministry life; but you’re not alone and you can be prepared. For more encouragement and ideas for how to to deal with the challenges of youth ministry from fellow youth workers, check out “It Happens”  by Will Pener, on sale this week for $2.99.  Click here to take a look.

18 thoughts on “How to Stay in Youth Ministry, Part 1: Have a Long View

  1. David Bauer

    I have been involved in Youth Ministry for about 30 years. Part of my “long view” mentality is that I am already a “real” pastor. I have all the rights and responsibilities of any of the pastors at our Church. I consider myself to be a pastor with a specific job description. I act like a pastor, and the Church I am privileged to serve treats me like a pastor. While my Church may determine that my job description may need to change in the future, my role will still be that of a pastor.

  2. John Hagge

    Your series will be very interesting to read through. I really don’t think I had a long term view when I started. It kind of evolved into, “getting and having a job” to “hey these kids really need an advocate” to “I Love these kids and there gonna need the help of some adults to know more about Jesus”
    Having a thick skin also helps when you hear some of the things people say about the Youth and the Youth director. Ya gotta let it go and know you did the right things that God wanted you to do.

    • John, My hunch is that most of us had a similar journey….sorta slid into our calling and long-term commitment over time. I don’t know too many “lifers” who felt like they’d be in it long term when they first jumped in!

  3. As a 61 year old, 40 veteran of Youth Ministry, I would say you are on target with these comments. It also helps to have a thick skin and a short memory about some things. I can honestly say I enjoy it now more than before. It would be safe to say that I treasure my ministry now more than before too. I am not sure than is any higher calling than help students find God and grow up in Him. It is the best place in ministry to change the world.

    • FORTY years?! I think you are right…thick skin and short memory are key qualities for one to possess. Some folks will have to work harder than others to develop these skills/mind sets, but well worth the effort!

  4. Hey Kurt, I have been in student ministry for 31 years. Your words are spot on! I would also agree with John’s additions of thick skin and short memory (although my skin is thinner than when I was younger and you know what they say about memory…what was I talking about?) Oh yeah, I think it is important to remember that as youth pastors/workers we are only a part of the spiritual formation of our students. I used to get all bothered by the fact that “my kids” gave credit to others for some of their growth. I put a lot of pressure on myself to be the one that they could come to for help. Relying on others, partnering with others is one key to lasting a long time. I actually think being a distance runner has helped me to grow in that area…Thanks for the great words!

    • Sam,
      “one plants, one waters and another gets the harvest.” We’ve heard that somewhere before, right? But so hard to remember…especially in the early years of our career when we are convinced our effectiveness is measured by immediate results.

  5. Denise Totten

    Well I am a newbie! I started in June. I love it! No better place to be than in God’s will. The weirdest part has not been the kids, parents, my boss’s, or even our beloved janitor who sometimes thinks I’m the devil. Nope, the hardest part has been the other Youth Pastor’s in the area who saw that I was a 41 year old WOMAN! They look at me like I have two heads sometimes. I’d love to learn from them but to them I am an alien to be avoided at all costs. The weirdest thing I’ve ever seen! Never even thought of that when I said yes to the calling. But I think they may be beginning to lighten up. Our church hosted an event and invited all the youth groups and leaders in the area. We fed them well and tried not to appear proud.
    God Bless Us Everyone, even us alien women in Youth Ministry! 🙂

    • Denise, as a 41-year old woman you bring stuff to the table that no 21-year old hipster in skinny jeans and black-rimmed glasses ever can! Glad you said “YES”.

    • Hi Denise! I am a 21-year-old woman in youth ministry. When I was in high school, I felt called to ministry, but I was unsure that I had heard God right. It wasn’t until I met my friend’s youth pastor, a woman named Mandy (who was well into her 50s), that I realized women can minister to youth and be in it for the long haul, too! Thank you so much for answering God’s call and leaping into this ministry life. You never know how God will use the “alien woman youth pastor!”

  6. I love reading these Youth Ministry blogs, I find them really inspiring, raw, honest, and often quite comical – I am in the process of taking up my calling, and hoping that it will be for the long haul. I just wanted to say I think your “simply avoid the off ramps” is fantastic – don’t get married, try not to have kids, avoid buying homes, ask your wife (if you didn’t avoid marriage) to work as much as possible, and if you can, skip 30… 🙂

    On a serious note though, these are encouraging words. I have recently been wondering if I will be too old to be a Youth Minister (you know how sometimes people get a bit funny about old people with enough energy to keep up with teens?) and you have put me at ease. Bring on 40! Thanks.

    • Speaking only for myself, Jodie, youth ministry in one’s 40’s is wonderful.

  7. So for me this series is coming at the perfect time. I am at the very beginning(est) phase of entering into Youth Ministry. I’ve felt the “tug” but not quite sure if this is where God is “pulling” me to. However, being able to hear stories and ideas from all of you just may stoke the flame of my calling. By beginning I mean my church has no current youth ministry and we are meeting on Sunday to discuss starting one…

  8. Great conversation here. As another 25+ year youth min guy, I would add that I am now in a place of trying to give away as much ministry as I can. I think early on in ministry we hold on to stuff. It’s funny now, because we really didn’t know as much as we thought we did! I am so over that at this stage in life. I think Jesus said something about this or maybe it was the red hot chili peppers? “Give it away now!” For me the years have finally beat the ego out of me. I find my passion in giving away the student ministry to younger leaders. Allowing them to make mistakes and walk with them through it. That’s where youth min lifers need to be. I don’t think we ever get too old to minister to young people. The question is “are we giving it away?

  9. Joyce Bradshaw

    I came into Middle School Ministry in 2006 as a youth worker and fell in love with the MS youth. We had a frequent turnover of directors when God called me to humbly approach our pastor about wanting to fill the director position. I am almost 2 years in as director, and still feel 100% sure that this is where God needs me to be. What an amazing joy it is to help MS youth understand their goodness and see them develop a love for Jesus Christ and His church! So thrilled that God gave me this opportunity to teach and love on these awesome kids and their families.

  10. Hey Jkosar,
    When you meet on Sunday some people may ask, “what will our youth ministry do?” or “what will our strategy be?”. A simple suggestion would be when you are starting out that a primary strategy is simply finding adults who love Jesus and like teenagers who are willing to spend some time with them! Start small….build a team…let God work!

  11. I, as John, have 40+ years as a Youth Pastor. Early on, I was worship pastor/youth pastor, but moved toward youth focus because couldn’t see myself doing anything else. There have been off ramps for sure. Fortunately, my wife never had to work outside our home (a gracious church taking care of needs) and she’s called to student ministry every bit as much as I am. Thus our children were right in the middle of ministry life from the start, and I know that is huge to staying the course. I was guilty of trusting in myself alone early on but then learned pretty quickly to build volunteer teams of leaders, from among parents, who had gifts that I didn’t have, loved their children and wanted to influence other’s kids as well. As I got where a full court game of B-ball was killing me I found it wise to enlist more college age volunteers, especially those whom I had grown up through our ministry…I’d play 5 minutes and let them have it from there. In one area, missions, I envisioned (long view) a total church committed to giving, sending and going, so short term student mission trips were really about the “long view” as much as the current project. Now, there are deacons, church leaders on our overall mission team who were on trips with me 20 years ago. And one of our pastors served as my first intern out of high school too. That’s really cool. Oh, I should mention that I am coming up on 33 years at the same church. So, the questions of when I was going to get a “real” job stopped in my 40’s. Having the kids of the kids you started with in your ministry now is incredibly rewarding personally and fruitful in the Kingdom. The “long view” requires hanging out with someone who has the “long view” or has, at least, lived longer in the pursuit. And, do it before you think you need it. They’ll let you know you will make it and not only will you make it but the best can be yet to come. I’m now with my fourth senior pastor, ( three interims) but that’s another story for another day as to how to move through those transitions. I guess I’d leave one more thought I found helpful with some youth ministry colleagues. This came to me many years ago as I observed youth leaders quitting youth ministry in the middle of struggles or moving on from church to church. “Never ‘leave’ where you are….always make sure you are ‘going’ to the next place.” That way you don’t jump on the wrong off ramp and find it’s a loop back to the same things you tried to get away from. I’ll quit now…have a blessed day all!

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How to Stay in Youth Ministry, Part 1...

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