the coming era of non-professional youth ministry

a few weeks ago, i posted a short set of three “innovations im convinced are needed in youth ministry.” i had multiple people ask me (via phone, email, and other means) to elaborate more on the third one, models and practices for non-professional youth workers. i’d suggested that the era of paid, professional youth workers is going to wane, and that we need to be intentional about creating models for mid-sized churches who will no longer be able to rely on a hired gun.

here’s that bit:

sorry to be the doomsday guy, but the era of professional youth workers is going away, eventually. it might linger longer in certain denominations (like, southern baptist) or geographies (like, the south); but it’s on the decline, and it’s not going to return.

small churches, of course, have long done youth ministry without paid staff. but mid-sized to large white, suburban churches (where the majority of paid youth workers exist) have no idea how to even think about youth ministry without paid staff; and very soon, the money is just not going to be there.

since i was asked about this by more than one person, i thought i would elaborate a bit.

first, why do i think this is going to happen, and in what kind of time frame?

well, i don’t have a crystal ball. i’m only looking at trends and seeing where they’re headed (and the implications of those trends). but new realities could very easily pop up that will completely skew whatever “prediction” i might suggest. with that said, the churches that fill feel this pinch the most are mid-sized churches (say, 400 – 1000 in regular attendance). smaller churches already (often) do youth ministry without paid staff focused on exclusively on youth ministry. and larger churches will continue to have the resources, for a longer period of time, to staff a youth ministry. but the mid-sized church will feel the rub. already, i’m seeing this: churches who are cutting their full-time youth worker to a part-time role, or combining it with other responsibilities.

i think there are two major factors involved, and one minor one.

the two major factors are church attendance and giving patterns. other than the continued growth of some megachurches, the general trend in church attendance is, of course, downward. this will most likely continue over the decades to come. as mid-sized churches lose attendees, their giving usually goes down. they find themselves in the difficult place of repeated budget cuts. and my observation is that the youth ministry budget is one of the first to get cut, while the youth ministry position is one of the first staff positions cut (even if it’s not eliminated).

but even when attendance does not drop, churches are struggling with decreases in giving. people over 60 are often the ones who fund the church budget. much of this is because that generation still has a high degree of institutional loyalty, and a tithing pattern of giving most, if not all, of their tithe to their church. younger generations tend to give less; but even when they give generously, they’re much more interested in a connection to their giving. giving to a ‘general fund’ budget doesn’t float their boat. they want to derive meaning from giving, and they want an emotional connection to the recipient or cause. all of this is “bad news” for traditional church budgets that don’t offer meaningful engagement or designation.

the minor factor i see in play is the shifts that are starting in moving away from completely isolated youth ministry programming. this is still in its infancy, but there’s a growing undercurrent. even those churches who are not being intentional about this shift, in a healthy way, will start to hear about how “youth ministry isn’t biblical” or how the traditions of youth ministry programming are less in vogue (this isn’t really happening yet, but will within a decade, if not sooner).

bottom line: many churches (particularly mid-sized churches) will struggle to find or justify funding for paid youth staff. this is already happening in dramatic numbers, but the trend will increase over the next decade. two decades from now, we’ll have a very different landscape in the world of youth ministry.

so, what’s a career youth worker to do?

this is a question i was asked directly by one of my youth ministry coaching program participants, in response to that post. my thinking:

1. don’t sweat it
the change isn’t going to happen overnight. sure, your church might be struggling financially, but the overall shift is going to be gradual. and i think there are two very unhelpful motivators in how you might respond:

a. “i’m afraid!” i can tell you from first-hand experience that losing your job is a bit scary. but living in fear that you’re going to, or might lose your job sometime in the future is a debilitating distraction. do youth ministry where you’re planted, in the hear and now. have faith that god will take care of you (and your youth ministry). don’t expand an ounce of energy on fretting about hypotheticals.

b. “i want to be hip and cutting edge.” i run into youth workers all the time whose primary reason for considering what they see as a trend is just go they can perceive themselves as cutting edge. please, if this is you, pray that god will give you another place to anchor your identity than in hipness. if your only reason for thinking about reimagining your role is because you think it will make you cool, whatever reimagining you do will be highly flawed and likely to fail.

2. look toward a reimagined role and reimagined funding.
however, if you do sense (or know) that your church is headed for financial crisis, and you feel called to stay (a very good thing), beging prayerfully considering creative alternatives to your role, your responsibilities, and how your salary is funded.

3. look elsewhere.
i’m not a fan of “move when things get tough.” so i’m not suggesting you bolt, or look for greener pastures. but it is certainly possible that, if you church cuts your salary, you’ll need to move on. again, this should be a question of spiritual discernment, not a reaction born out of hurt or desperation.

at the end of the day, however, the best posture is not one of constantly watching the horizon, or expecting doomsday. the best posture, the one that is the most fruitful for your own spiritual health and the health of your ministry, is a faith-filled, hopeful choice to let things play out. be faithful. be trustworthy. and don’t freak out.

UPDATE: fascinating timing that the annual group magazine youth ministry salary survey just came out (at least i just saw it today, after publishing this post!), and rick lawrence leads it off with this:

Average salaries are down, budgets are under a vise-grip, and many have been forced out of youth ministry or had their hours cut. Is financial hope on the horizon?

27 thoughts on “the coming era of non-professional youth ministry”

  1. I agree and disagree. :)
    yes- the role of the youth worker as the hub of the youth ministry will end soon. because the church will rediscover that they are needed in the spiritual formation of teens in their church…. and some will see that it’s simply not practical.
    I also agree that there will be a tremendous influx of new people into ministry who have less youth ministry education etc.
    youth pastors who insist on being central or controlling will find fewer and fewer jobs that they actually will want to take. (there will be jobs, but they will be cut-throat places to work or simply dying.)

    But the role of a youth pastor will change to a variety of forms within local churches.

    Also – the idea that youth ministries grow churches will die once and for all. (with good reason) for churches who are still interested in numbers and church growth models they will put youth ministry on the back burner and put childrens ministry front and center. youth ministry simply doesn’t grow a church (in the ways these churches define it) but childrens ministry does and so children’s ministry will spend the next 15 years in the spotlight youth ministry enjoyed 15 years ago.

    But there is a need for professional youth ministers. just not for what we’ve been doing.

    Youth pastors who need to be the center of attention will be weeded out and those who have the gift of hospitality will take their place.
    The youth pastor who can create space for adults in the church to use the people of God’s gifts, resources, passion and presence will be in high demand.

  2. mark, my friend. i love your comment. and, it reminds me why you and i always, always have such great and meaty conversations when we’re together: we agree on enough to find common ground, but you’re a relentless idealist, and i’m merely an optimistic realist. the stuff you describe is wonderful (for the most part), and shifts i’m pleased to see in isolated anecdotes. but i think there’s a big difference between what “can” be done and what “will” be done.

  3. love this.
    a couple thoughts:
    – great and meaty conversations is a wonderful way to describe our dialogue.
    -I’ll own being a “relentless idealist” if it means that I’m committed to possibilities more than problems.
    -you aren’t merely anything. :)
    – is an optimistic realist an oxymoron?

  4. I would suggest the biggest change is not necessarily a doing away with the paid youth minister position but rather a re-organization of what that position looks like. I think the day is hopefully coming when churches aren’t looking for someone fresh out of college to come lead the youth because they have a great personality. Instead, I think churches are going to be looking for someone who is theologically trained, perhaps ordained and who shares a passion for the entire church, not just the youth ministry.
    In a smaller church (attendance around 200+) with a youth group of around 20, I am constantly sharing the responsibilities of our entire staff, not because the church is trying to dump things on me, but rather because as a staff we recognize what needs to be done and that we all need to work together to make it happen. And when my pastor leaves on vacation he lets the church know that I will be around for pastoral care concerns. No, I don’t spend all my time leading mission trips, planning youth events and visiting schools, but I do get to spend a lot of time building relationships with adults in the church and I think these are just as important as the relationships I am building with the youth.

  5. Is this a micro of the macro problem though? you talked about theology behind youth ministry, giving and church size, thats a macro issue that has an effect on the microcosm of youth ministry.

  6. Mark and Mark, love this dialogue and wished I were as insightful. From my seat, I am already seeing much of this evolving. My thoughts:

    1. Youth ministry will exists as long as church leaders see the felt need of adolescence as a cultural phenomenon. I hope that the practice of youth ministry will change along with those needs, as they are in my situation.

    2. As youth ministry grows up and gets out of the ghetto, it will expand its view of what is possible. Instead of just keeping teens off the streets or giving them a safe place, it will start realizing the incredible giftedness of young adults and will invest in them accordingly.

    3. New leaders will lead the charge and become martyrs in the movement toward a more comprehensive view of youth ministry. They will be necessary casualties in the battle for spiritual health in churches and teens. Later generations will look back on them and laud their efforts.

  7. Steph, I am grateful you made the comment. About the fresh out of college youth pastor. I will be 40 in a week and I feel better then ever about God’s plan for my life and the students in this community. I think youth pastors are wise to think that the ministry they are in includes more then the students that are in the youth group or even have been or possible could be. Youth ministry takes on a more important role when we understand we are.ministers to the entire youth population and the families they represent. Mario, hope your are a little off because I feel God calling me to start a church with a demographic that is no where near the 60 year old age you suggest. Maybe the church will learn how to apply grant money to fulfill the calling God has place.on them.

  8. I’ve seen this on a macro level, Brit.

    -Large churches are doing YM as well, if not better than ever with their YM’s.
    – Small churches largely have combo positions and have tried to figure out a missional way to “do youth ministry” not defined by simply a traditional program.
    – Medium-sized churches are feeling the crunch. They want to “compete” with the big boys and aspire to be like them. But they can’t honestly afford the mulit-paid staff to run programs like their larger church peers.

    Obviously, Marko and I agree. I think we’re quickly coming to a place where people will continued to be paid to do youth ministry. Just not in the context they currently are.

    And I love Marko’s advice. Don’t panic. It’s all going to be OK. This isn’t an overnight change…

  9. Correct me if I’m wrong, but did this earlier post you’re referring to also touch on how many youth ministries are operating as “silos” or churches within a church? I think you talked about how important integrating young people into body life will be and that as of right now there isn’t a great solution. I think youth workers that think outside of the box and meet this issue head on will find that they could have a place on staff at a church. However, their job title, job description and philosophy of ministry will most likely change dramatically. Of course this assumes that church leadership also understands and believes in the need for this shift and responds accordingly.

  10. I left full-time vocational youth ministry nearly three years ago. It was a sacrifice because I had no job waiting for me; just a hope and faith that God would supply. One reason I transitioned out of youth ministry is because I saw this trend xiang down the pike, but that was only a minor reason. However, I believe this trend in youth ministry is only an indicator of what will happen with most midsize churches. Many churches have been stock piling the reserves for too long. As you said Marko, younger generations want their giving to matter and the Church has been a rather poor steward of the assets she has acquired. There is hope for this who choose to step out on faith and trust God with the career. I transitioned into hospice chaplaincy approx one year after I left youth ministry. God is faithful. If you would’ve told me during my youth ministry days that I would one day be working on a daily basis with dying people then I would have had a big laugh. The cool thing is that God has supplied not only my financial needs but also the desires of my heart to continue working in vocational ministry. What’s really awesome is that I now have the opportunity to return as a volunteer leader to the very youth ministry that I helped establish. God will work all things out for the good of those who love him and desire to see his will accomplished.

  11. Great post, and great comments..I think youth pastors and churches have to shift from youth ministry that serves one church to youth ministry that is a partnership of several churches with multiple staff members focused on the city. When that happens we make disciples, serve many churches, and work TOGETHER. When we are together we get to pump the need for church, what church is about, and remind everyone youth ministry is not the church we serve the church. We will see what happens.

  12. I am a former professional lay youth director who lived through what this post talked about. Thank goodness that I had kept alive skills in graphic and web design; I had a two month runway after the position I held was cut to make it or break it.

    This comes from a very personal place, so I don’t want to claim any sort of objectiveness. But I think another thing churches need to be thinking through is how they handle employees and position cuts. A two month severance might be generous in a secular position, but when you factor in that churches are not required (and thus the vast majority do not) to contribute to programs like unemployment, then things get very tight, very fast.

    There is a lot more I could share from my experience of living through this growing trend, but I’ll keep it contained for now.

    Thanks, Marko, for the work you continue to do!

  13. Ah – I love the dialogue between Mark and Mark. In my home town, we’ve been facing this for a number of years, more out of necessity than any major shift. However in my own church, it’s a bit more intentional. We’ve been without a fulltime youth pastor (or any youth pastor) for at least 7 years now. But we have a growing community based youth programme (ergh – yes it’s a programme, but it’s done well with intentionality) and plenty of youth adults around. Previously it’s been entirely run by volunteers, there’s now an ‘intern’ who’s studying at bible college leading the team. It’s weird for me – I’m a trained youth pastor who would love to be bi-vocational in my youth ministry praxis again. However – I’m WAY more useful working as a supervisor and coach to our intern.

    We’ve also just employed another pastor (again only part-time) who has a brief of working to create some discipleship opportunities and effective ministry to young adults. If that sounds like a vague job description – well, it’s pretty vague because it needs to be. But again, I’m working with him and the development of the young adult ministry.

    When I got made redundant from my youth ministry position – I was gutted, but I could see the practicality of the choice. My vocation might change in response but my calling to youth ministry hasn’t changed. I’m just lucky that I live in a place where I can be as proactive and involved as I want, and I’m not necessarily relying on youth ministry to pay my wages.

    Something to think about: In the early 2000s, we had a major problem with our education system. We had over-trained students in law. There were just too many of them graduating and not enough positions. Yet, there was massive demand in the trades – builders, electricians, plumbers. Schools had to proactively tighten the requirements, limit the intake of students and shift to meet the demand of the market.

    Seems that if youth workers want to have the same employment rights as the general populace, then it has to be across the board. We have to face the reality that the changing market has created, then work within it. Meaning that there just aren’t enough jobs to go around.

  14. This seems like an area where if the American church humbled its self it could learn a great deal from the Latin American church. As many Latin American youth workers aren’t on salary at churches and never have been.

  15. I’m only in my second year of youth ministry, but I didn’t start until two years after graduating from Taylor University. From the start I’ve felt like youth ministry has been missing the point a bit. Kids are being entertained, and even meeting Jesus, but they are not being shown how to be long term Christians by the church, leaving them lost as a young adults with a faith they aren’t sure what to do with.

    I would love to see churches move to a more multi-generational form of ministry. One that promotes inter-generational relationships that teach students how to be a part of the greater church community. I also think that doing away completely with the youth director will backfire on most churches. Someone needs to be focusing on students, and more specifically, outreach to students. I see outreach falling through the cracks in a non-youth worker world. That could easily mean the youth director has a multifunctional role within the church. I currently am assistant student ministries director and director of contemporary music for a church of 700+ weekly attendance and a youth ministry around 100 weekly.

    I think somewhere in between our current youth director driven model and this idea of a non-youthworker model is where it’s at. Either way, the church needs to step up and invest more in it’s youth.

  16. I agree with Joe that churches are still going to need a youth ministry staff member to be responsible for outreach, and to that I would add ministry to the families of students. It’s just not reasonable to expect to find volunteers who will give students and family members the attention they need outside of church activities.

  17. I guess this means youth min consulting like Marko’s will no longer be sustainable either. No more $. I’ve read two articles today, one about youth pastors being lazy and now this re-edition of how theyll be out of a job. I can’t say I’m encouraged.

    It’s time like these that I’m glad I don’t have a job, but a calling. 17 years ago God called me into youth ministry. Will he ever have a new calling? Maybe. I seek to be faithful to this one as long as possible.

    -Erik

  18. Youth ministry simply must become more organic and local. Of course, your practice of youth ministry is local, but I’m addressing the whole engorged body of thinking and resourcing and modeling in the world of youth ministry.

  19. So many interesting notes here on the future of youth ministry for the United States. It certaintly is going down hill in various parts of the North East. Working in youth ministry for 15 years I see the importance and know the essentials of making an impact on the young people from elementary age-high school. We have to continue to build our programs from the bottom up, and people have to be okay with the fact that we are getting other people from our parish to help run the program. Using the gifts of so many in your parish is really the fruits of a successful youth ministry program. However, sometimes people wonder what we as those who are tools of Christ to lead our church in Youth Ministry” are doing if our core teams and staff members are doing a lot of the work. People have to accept those being called to be in charge of the youth ministry can’t do everything and we need help from our volunteers who filled called to the youth of our church.

    I couldn’t agree more with fact that people over their 60’s are the abundance “foundational Beams” both financially and spirtually to help keep our churches a float and maybe another reason youth ministry is still present in the new millennium. However, a lot of points come up from all these responses.

    1) How can we get people to see the value in youth ministry and the impact it has on elementary-High School. Its hard to put the results on paper when sometimes they are impacted years later from what they experienced or learned.
    2) How will we sustain our youth ministry, when in most religions, youth ministry is the first area they look to cut?
    3) What are we doing now, to help our financial needs when those over the age of 60 start to go on to be with the Lord? How can we get those to give who aren’t giving?
    4) How can all the youth ministers, youth pastors, Youth directors etc., come together to have a forum to give guidance in an ecumenical forum on youth ministry. By doing this we can have all of the best youth pastors/ministers/directors in the world come together to try and tackle the hurdle of declining youth ministry in parishes. Like a youth ministry Council of some sorts.
    5) Is combing churches/congregations in the area and having one youth minister in a particular city or cities really the best answer and can it work?

    Thanks to all of you who responded, its been an interesting forum to say the least.

    -Mike Clauberg-

  20. I, personally, love what the church I am a part of is doing. While still doing well financially, the lead pastor had felt that the church was not being a good steward of that money. What if, instead of paying the salaries for many staff members (a multi-site campus of nearly 1000 attendees), that money could be invested more into the actual ministries. So myself, the children’s pastor, and assimilation pastor all work “secular” jobs, and get paid a monthly stipend for what we do as pastors. What this has done is freed up money to provide scholarships for kids to go to camps, as well as fund countless programs for outreach. I believe this model could become the norm in the future. I can speak from experience, as well, this carries far more freedom to succeed than the traditional full-time staff youth pastor model.

  21. I think this may be one of the most important issues facing the future of youth ministry. We live in a society that is constantly changing and evolving and yet we continue to cling tightly to “glory day” youth ministry models.
    I really appreciate Shawn Deal’s previous post. He raises a great point. “Secular” working church staff opens up a whole new realm of possibilities for razor thin church budgets.
    I was a youth pastor for 5 years. Towards the end of my time I really began to question youth ministry as a job, even though I still believe it is my calling. I ended up going back to nursing school and currently work in an ICU and help lead a HS youth ministry. I work with a team of 3 other people who also have “secular” jobs and together our youth ministry runs about 100x smoother than with just myself. We still have a voluteer team. We get reimbursed for our expenses and thats about it, but we have plenty of budget space freed up to provide our students as many opportunities as possible.
    This is definitley a different way of doing youth ministry and many people will have ill-feelings towards it but I really believe this is the future of youth ministry (gasp!).

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