4 mindsets for staying put in youth ministry

last week at one of my youth ministry coaching program cohorts, we were having a conversation about longevity in ministry (in other words, staying at one church for a long time). various peeps were sharing great thoughts on the benefits and challenges. in our little cohort of 10 people (plus me), one has been at his church for 15 years, one was at his last church for 14 years, and one has been at her church for 11 years. so we had a few who knew what they were talking about.

again, we’re not just talking about being a ‘youth ministry veteran’ who has been a 6 different churches for 4 years each. we’re talking about staying put — one church, many years.

i made some notes to myself, which i’ll call Four Mindsets Necessary for Youth Ministry Longevity (a.k.a. staying put)

1. the grass is usually not greener over there. sure, the other church looks bitchin’. seems like it would be an amazing place to become the uber-youth pastor, right? nah, probably not. in fact, you know how grass gets really green where a dog pees, then eventually kinda burns out because of the nitrogen? yeah, well — that other place might just look greener at the moment, because, well… (i’ll let you finish that on your own).

related to #1…
2. don’t compare what you know about your context to what you assume about another. this mindset is a rif on some advice i heard tic long (and others, maybe yaconelli?) give over the years, when talking about how to think about the amazing speakers at events: ‘don’t compare what you know about yourself to what you assume about that speaker.’ same thing is true about church and ministry contexts. you know the dirt on your current place. you know that sweet looking old dude is actually trying to make your life a living hell. you know the senior pastor, who seems so approachable and personable actually struggles like crazy to engage at a human level. then, you see that other church, and you make assumptions, sometimes through rosey glasses (glasses, btw, that are provided to you free of charge by that church who wants you to see them in that rosey hue).

3. tension is a great opportunity for growth, if you have the humility to flex and be wrong. marriages reach what has commonly been called the 7 year itch. the honeymoon is long gone, and things have settled into a rut of sameness. i think youth workers hit a 3 or 4 year itch with churches:

  • year one = wow, you really like me!
  • year two = yeah, let’s stir the pot and change some things!
  • year three = yes, things are starting to click!
  • year four = i’m out of ideas, and you people kinda suck.

but… if you want personal growth; well, then, staying is the best option. sure, there are times to leave. but you’ll likely experience more growth by staying — even though there’s tension and things aren’t rosey — than if you bolt.

4. you’ll need a localized vision and appreciation for the unique ministry opportunities and potential of your specific community and church. if your vision is vanilla — “i want to be big,” or “i want to have a national presence,” or “i want churches on the other side of the country to be like us” — you’re often forced to cater to the lowest common denominator. like, what if you end up creating and leading the MOST AMAZING MINISTRY EVER for redneck baptist teenagers in nacogdoches, texas? in order to make it translate or transfer to being the MOST AMAZING MINISTRY EVER for that african american catholic youth ministry in minneapolis, well, you’re gonna to have to shave off a good dose of the uniqueness. you’re going to have to vanilla-ize it. bleh. youth workers who stay at the the same church for a long time invent their own flavors that have very little to do with vanilla.

other thoughts? i’m particularly interested in hearing from you if you’ve stayed at one church for more than 10 years.

33 thoughts on “4 mindsets for staying put in youth ministry”

  1. I know a lot of young youth guys are constantly looking. Their looking for the greener grass or the career move or a bigger better city or better surfing or whatever it is that scratches their particular itch. And they are always doing it.

    “did you see first mega-church of metropolis is looking for a junior high guy?”

    “didn’t you just start at your new church last fall?”

    “I know, but maybe this is the opportunity God’s been trying to show me.”

    Or maybe they say, “I’m not considering it, I just like to know what’s out there.”

    In my marriage, if I’m always looking, even though I’m just looking, is it any surprise that I find myself jumping over the fence looking for some greener grass.

  2. None of which is what I meant to write when I started commenting. What I meant to say/ask is what do you do about that church board that fires you for “not enough financial growth coming from the youth ministry?” Or that senior minister who lets the board make a mountain out of a mole hill and he just sits back and watches it happen?

    I know a lot of times, even when it feels like it wasn’t our choice to leave, the real issue is submission or maturity. We think we have all the answers so we go against the authority. Or “this game is going to be so awesome…”. Oops. But as someone who was blindsided by politics twice at places I was prepared to spend the rest of my life (despite not being particularly thrilled by the cities God had called me to) it is hard not to sometimes feel discouraged. It is hard not to keep my eye on the fence, waiting for the other shoe to drop.

    But until it does, or until God opens a door so big I can’t help but walk through, I’m here for life.

  3. I have been at my church for 8 years. 5 years as intern/volunteer and 3 years full-time. I still have a lot to learn about longevity. I need to grow. But, the thing that keeps me around are the people. I get most excited about ministry when I genuinely enjoy the people I am serving with. Now just like every other ministry, I deal with conflict on a regular basis. So, its not all dreamy. But, as I get to know the young families in my church that have 3rd, 4th and 5th graders, I get stoked! I think, “they will be my sheep in a couple years!” I am excited to shepherd them. And currently, I have a 6th grade boys small group. I couldn’t just leave them, I am way too invested in their life and they are invested in mine. Ministry is meant to be done in real community. When we forget that and think more about our personal loyalty to the institution itself, we find ourselves sidetracked pursuing shadow missions(ortberg).

  4. 12 years this month! I’ll testify all day long about the benefits of longevity at a church. I have kids in my youth group this year that I saw baptized as infants. It’s an amazing, humbling thing to make a church not only your employer, but your family.

  5. Six years at my church, (three volunteer, three paid), and I would probably leave the ministry before I left this church unless God does something amazing.

    My struggles with the day-to-day grind (differences with church leadership, parents, etc) almost always revolve around my inability to really listen to others. I want what I want, what I believe God is doing, but I need to listen to what others want, what God is doing in them. The Kingdom grows as we act on what God shows us.

    Also, you can get the most done if you do not need any of the credit for it!

  6. Been in youth ministry for 17 years. All at the same place. It’s a place that helps challenge me and my relationship with Jesus. It’s a place that loves my kids and gives them a safe place to land. I have lots of former students plugging into ministry and leading alongside me. I’m helping former students and their children (now in junior high) grow in their faith. Along the way I’ve had to humbly submit to authority and seen God prune me to be more fruitful. Not a perfect place but a place where the grace and mercy of Jesus rules over all else.

  7. I have been in the same church for 16 years. Another benefit I have seen is that the students we have invested in come back to do ministry with us after college. Often they bring their spouse with. It is incredible because they get the culture of our ministry, our style and most of all, they get the heart of what we do and multiply what was invested in them.

  8. I whole heartily agree with Becky. Church is a family, not just an employer. 8 years today!!

    Humility and being teachable has been key for me. I popped in and out of 2 churches (2.5 years each) before the one I am currently in.

  9. I spent my first 5 years of ministry volunteering at my home church, then the next 4 vocationally at another church before my position was eliminated, and to be honest, after the first 6 months there- I was ready to walk out the door. I was immature as a leader, I took everything personally, and I assumed that everyone agreed with my “things are wrong, so let’s change them!” attitude. Working through the growing pains of church leadership shapes you in a way nothing else can. You realize that everyone is human and capable of error (including yourself). You learn to appreciate the importance of a church’s roots, as well as how necessary they are when it comes to new growth. And the best part of all- you see a broader perspective of God’s movement within a community.

  10. I was in ministry at the same church leading jr hi kids for 17 years (10 volunteer, 7 paid). The advantage of youth ministry is that the problem kids and problem parents won’t be there forever. There is always light at the end of the tunnel.

    Staying in one place for ministry is an amazing blessing. You have the joy of watching kids grow up and become adults and see some of those seeds you planted begin to grow and produce fruit. I would think that only planting seeds and moving on before seeing the harvest would be a valid reason for burnout. We need to see that what we do matters. In youth ministry, we often don’t see how much it matters for years.

    Staying in one place gives us a bigger picture of the Church and community. It gives us the opportunity to love deeply and be vulnerable and be loved. It makes the hurts more bearable and gives us the chance to make close friends. All those things take time.

  11. I have been in youth ministry for 39 years, 17 in my current church and 6+ in the church before that, plus 11 years at that church earlier on. If done well, longevity produces continuity as youth come and grow through those years, and their young siblings look forward to doing the same, etc. It also usually means you have become deeply trustworthy and truly tuned in to what your church is all about. You have probably taught youth to become responsible persons and leaders in the church and beyond. You have been through the best and the hardest times with the families of your youth. And you are still there. I am honored and blessed by the trust and opportunities my church family has given me. I never intended to be a youth pastor, but here I am and I can’t imagine being anywhere else.

  12. My youth pastor has just “moved on” to something else after 39 years in youth ministry between three places the last 20 in the same place. Because of his longevity we, his former students, know where to find him and are able to seek him out. He is now doing premarital counseling (in the same place) which functions as a continuation of youth ministry because he is counseling former students and helping establish a solid foundation in families of future youths.

    One of my lasting memories that I’ll never forget was being at his 50th birthday party nearly ten years ago. By that point I was interning with him and was on a trajectory of going into youth ministry vocationally (currently 8 years total the last 6+ at one place). What stood out to me is that there were students in attendance going as far back as 30 years because of his longevity in primarily two places. It has inspired me to being committed to staying in one place as long as I can.

    However, even with that desire and commitment still in place, after six years the obstacles to that are becoming more clear.
    1.) Finding others who have done it from whom to glean wisdom and insight from

    2.) Putting up with the inherent lack of respect if you stay in youth ministry, especially if you are the Jr. High guy. My youth pastor would often be asked “so when are you going to grow up and get your own church?” Not that people didn’t appreciate and value what he was doing but as you all know we are not taken as seriously as other ministry positions, even when we model responsible adulthood.

    3.) How to grow and expand in your role without having to change title and position

    4.) Need for patience to out wait the financial tension of being at the bottom of the totem pole in position and or seniority of staff. I’m hoping that the needs of my family never force me into something else. The Sr. Pastor has been here 30+ years and the Exec has been here 22 years. The reality is that they eat up a lot of what has been budgeted for staff salaries, but when they retire 10-15 years from now those that have been here the longest will reap the benefits. With children to save for that is important, and why so many leave youth ministry all together. They can’t make the money long term to provide for their families in the present much less the future.

  13. loved two things in particular
    – you just made “I want to have a national presence” a vanilla goal even though so many of us have that as at least a secret goal
    – nacogdoches, texas

    I’m almost to 14 years (end of summer), the kids who were born the year I arrived are in my JH group and I’m looking forward to having my first student’s kids as students in the next 2-10 years

  14. It will be 20 years on staff at my church , there is no doubt the many benefits. Duffy Robbins recently did a seminar through SYMC that addresses smart ways to deal with growing older in youth ministry. I think he did it in 2011, and they should have the recording.

  15. I’ve been in youth ministry for 32 years and 28 at the same place. Growing up as pastor’s kid, moving every couple of years I never would have dreamed of being at the same church for this long. When people ask me about tips for making this work in their ministry I list them under the following categories:

    *I am very intentionally, a youth PASTOR. While I love youth the most I want to be a pastor to all the people of the church. I spend time with senior citizens, children and every age in between. I do funerals, weddings, make hospital visits and seek to be a great team player on our our pastoral staff.
    *I work hard to be teachable. Years ago while leading a regional convention I recruited some of the best youth pastors I could find to provide leadership. One was a long-term guy who proceeded to shoot down or minimize almost every idea we had. I have told several people “slap me around” if I ever act like I know it all.
    *I searched far and wide for long-term youth pastors to be mentors. These people are not easy to find but I have found a few and let them speak into my life.
    *After three decades of youth ministry I still like middle school and high school students.
    *I keep my relationship with God first, my family second, my ministry third.

    *My senior pastor has been here for 36 years. One of our other associates has been here for 15 years. Long-term seems to be in the DNA of this church.
    *This is a very healthy church. It is not perfect but is a place where communication is clear and encouragement abounds.
    *This church loves youth ministry. They brought me here to begin a youth ministry. How often does that happen?

  16. This summer I will have been at my current (and first) church for 5 years and Marko’s 3rd point really rings true with me. Over the past 2 years or so I have received a few phone calls from congregations looking to call a new youth worker or pastor. Even though I was experiencing some struggles in my current ministry, I told them all that I wasn’t interested. I told them that I was in a great place right now because the kinds of challenges I was facing are the type of challenges that you can only experience after you’ve been somewhere for a few years. I knew that, not only my current ministry, but any future ministry I serve in will benefit from me working through these challenges.

    Fortunately, I am at a wonderful church. I’ve got a great relationship with my senior pastor. The whole staff has a great group dynamic. And, for the most part, the people here like me a lot and treat me very well. This has really helped me with Marko’s 1st point. I know this place isn’t perfect. I know that other churches might have a better “this” or “that” than my current church. However, I’m pretty sure that I will not find a better senior pastor/church staff combo than I have now. This doesn’t mean that I am going to stay here forever. But it will help me overcome many hurdles along the way and remain here until God calls me elsewhere.

  17. ok, LOTS of heroes commenting here: becky, shane, neil, ruth, marcey, pbj, chris, doug. i raise my coffee mug in honor of each of you. i officially declare today “national becky/shane/neil/ruth/marcey/pbj/chris/doug day”.

  18. In my 7th year and I think for me the hardest thing so far has been dealing with the major life transitions. When I started I was single, now I am married with 2 kids… It has taken a lot of adjusting to stay in youth ministry and that is something I didn’t realize when I got started. The other struggle I have had is making ends meet in my role, I have had to be creative to provide.

  19. I have been leading youth at my current church for 23 years – 15 as a volunteer and the last 8 on staff. I have been through some rough times and at one point even begged God to release me but looking back quitting in the midst of so much controversy and turmoil could have been devastating for the church and its people. I love wroking with youth, I love the trust I have from parents, I love the small amount of wisdom I have gained over the years, and I love my job.

  20. Its a beautiful thing to hear about people lasting in ministry for such a long period of time. I did 5 years of camp ministry, and have been in either a volunteer or paid capacity at our current church for 4 years. I am hoping that I can make it 20 years.

    I think every one of you who has made it such long period of times deserves an award. You have created a legacy that has lasted in that church that will reap benefits for years

  21. I was the youth minister at one church for 21 years. It was great. When you stay, your family becomes connected to the community, schools, etc. You build an amazing network of local resources you can use in student ministry. Imagine what it is like to be around and see preschoolers grow through high school. Parents , elders, and senior ministers respect your opinions. The second 10 years are better than the first 10 years–you know the community, you know the people and you develop a confidence in what you are doing. As long as you keep learning, reading, going to conferences, and are willing to try new things, staying can be very possible.

  22. So glad I checked back for more comments. First of all, I totally would have missed “national becky/shane/neil/ruth/marcey/pbj/chris/doug day” (and add Nick and Tammy in there, too!).

    Second, it’s really awesome to hear from other long-term youth workers. There have been days when I’ve not been sure whether to think it’s stupid or awesome that I’ve been at the same church for 12 years. Most of the time I KNOW it’s awesome, but there are days when I doubt my call. All of your words help me turn from that doubt today and will stick with me in the future. Thanks!

  23. cedric – i know quite a few around the country who have been in JH for well over 12 years. heck, i’ve been working with JHers for more than 30, but not in the same church. 12 years so far at my current church, though, as a volunteer. i think of people like kurt johnston, scott rubin, heather flies, alan mercer, and many more (many of whom will be at the middle school ministry campference, btw!), who have been at their current churches, in JH ministry, for more than 12 years.

  24. Doug Ranck

    “pastor” and “teachability”

    Both are so true. Can’t isolate yourself and can’t build your own little mini-kingdom in which you’re untouchable.

    28 years! So cool.

  25. I’ve been at my church for 16 years, and I can’t begin to tell you what a blessing my longevity has been to me and to our church. I started as an immature, arrogant college kid who has made every mistake in the book, and then some. But my church and the local youth directors helped me through those mistakes with intentional relationships (instead of giving up on me). My understanding of God has drastically changed and deepened through the years which I am so thankful for. (I sometimes look back at some of the things I used to teach because of my own lack of knowledge and understanding and cringe….)
    I totally agree that each of us have such a unique context. When I first started it was tempting to be jealous about the popular youth group of the month (which wasn’t ours), or of my buddy whose numbers were way bigger than ours. But we had different groups with different needs, neither was better or worse, just different.
    Some of the benefits of longevity have been as others mentioned holding kids as babies who are now in Sr high, ministering with families for the long haul through good and tough times,, seeing youth who never connected to Jesus as a youth come back years later and the seeds that I was sure had fallen on dead soil grew beyond my wildest imagination! Another result of longevity is that I have earned a lot of trust that I never take for granted, but is so helpful when we take new risks or when we hit tough issues we need to work through. Another joy is that I also have many former youth who are now leaders who I get the joy of walking through life with as young adults (which is where I honestly see some of the most amazing growth and transformations).
    Yes there are always tough challenges and tough days that make it tempting to see if others have it better. There are tensions I’d rather not deal with because they are painful and messy and involve people I care for deeply. There are also times when it is tempting to be complacent and sit back and enjoy past successes and stop dreaming about the future and what God might be up to next. There are times when it is clear that God is up to big things in me and in our group, and there are times when I’m not sure what God has in store for us next and I wish I did. But to be honest I wouldn’t trade my calling here for anything!

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