how do you know when it’s time to move on from a youth ministry role?

i’ve really enjoyed being part of creating this year. the youth cartel picked the 20 primary contributors, came up with the 52 weekly questions, and worked with the contributors to select three for each question. but i’m also one of the contributors. this week’s slant asks a practical question that has been posed to me many times over the last decade or so: how do you know when it’s time to move on from a youth ministry role?

here’s my response:

I moved too often in my first bunch of years of youth ministry. Let’s just get that on the table right up front. I can easily explain or justify each move (the church couldn’t hire me full time; I got fired; there were budget cutbacks, and I was going to lose my job). All legit. All rational.

The problem is, though, I think my mess was too much a part of the decision-making goulash each time. I wanted more power. I wanted to be liked more. I wanted to be respected more. And, man, the grass is so freaking green at the church calling you. It’s like green food coloring green.

I’m not saying those moves were mistakes. But I’m definitely saying my process of deciding was faulty. Well, except maybe the time I got fired. I didn’t have much say in that. But my discernment process for the next job was just as faulty as the ones that offered more volition. It wasn’t until I left my fourth church, to go to Youth Specialties, that my process was patient and thoughtful and anything resembling spiritual discernment.

In church world, we are pretty good at masking this. We are quick with the “God is calling me” language because it just doesn’t sound that good to say, “I just don’t like you people” or, “Sorry, but that other church offered me way more money” or, “I ran out of ideas here and need to go somewhere else where I can repeat them all and have them seem new.”

Over my dozen years at Youth Specialties, and in the couple years since, I’ve had hundreds of youth workers ask me about leaving. I don’t think we have the space to go into a deep response about spiritual discernment. But let me take a swing at a couple other related issues:

Are you worn out? Youth ministry can be one of the more wearying jobs out there. There are plenty of other jobs that are more physically exhausting. But when you add in the emotional, mental, and relational strain, well, it’s easy to get toasty. So we all get worn out. The question is: Is this a worn out that, with some rest, you can come back from? Are you tired, or are you worn out to the point that you’re going to do damage if you stay?

You might need some extended rest or a sabbatical in order to figure this out. (Of course, that feels risky too. My friend asked for and received a three-month sabbatical to discern whether he was supposed to stay at his church. On the day he returned to tell the church he had a renewed sense of calling and was going to stay, they informed him they’d decided the opposite. Ah, churches. That goofy bride o’ Christ.)

The other significant question I think youth workers need to ask themselves is: Can I find something—anything—that I can respect about my senior pastor and leadership? In my experience, most people who are even considering a move at all are, to one extent or another, dissatisfied. Something is not great. And, more often than not, when I dig into these questions with youth workers, I find the core issue circling around an eroded trust in and respect for the senior pastor (or sometimes for the broader church leadership; but that’s tolerable if the youth worker feels like the senior pastor is honest about it).

Here’s what it boils down to for me: If you’re wondering about leaving, even flirting with the idea, there are some steps to take and questions to ask yourself:

    1. Bring a discernment team around for this purpose alone. Obviously, these need to be highly trustworthy people who will understand the confidentiality of the situation. Read up on Quaker Clearness Committees and give the group permission, even a charge, to ask you anything and everything.

    2. Ask yourself, Why am I less than satisfied? Be ruthlessly honest with yourself and journal about it.

    3. If your dissatisfaction is centered around a lack of respect for the leadership of the church, you have three options:

  • Leave. If you are bitter and stay, you will do damage. Hear this: Even if the church leadership really is wrong, it’s wrong for you to be a mini Godzilla.
  • Realize you’ll need to leave but not immediately. Set a deadline. Be optimistic and supportive of the church leadership, knowing there’s a light at the end of your tunnel.
  • Or, find something to respect about your senior leadership and pray for a softened heart and renewed passion.

read responses from adam mclane and lars rood here. and check in on every monday afternoon for a new question and three slants (or subscribe via email or rss here).

8 thoughts on “how do you know when it’s time to move on from a youth ministry role?”

  1. great post

    another reason to stay (at least for a bit) or question to deal with…

    is there any issue that needs resolution before you can leave?

  2. One might also contend that the view of lack of respect for the leadership (pastoral, board, or other) may be a lack of maturity in one’s own spiritual growth. It’s far too easy to cast blame and not take responsibility. As one friend of mine used to put it, “My mistake; your fault.” Or as Murphy’s Laws put it, “When in doubt, mumble; when in trouble, delegate.”

    In reading 1 & 2 Samuel I’m always humbled by David’s respect towards Saul. David had been anointed as Israel’s next king by Samuel, the Spirit had been taken from Saul – and yet…David submitted. Though he may have lost respect for the person of Saul, he always had respect for his position, to the point that at the news of Saul’s death he and “all the men with him took hold of their clothes and tore them. They mourned and wept and fasted till evening for Saul and his son Jonathan…” (2Sam 1:11-12).

    When we’re faced with these issues to the point of considering moving on to greener pastures (we always forget all the “fertilizer” it took to get them that way), we need to ask ourselves: “What is going on in me? What is my part in this?” Sometimes we need to ask God to remove the scales from our eyes to see what God is doing through the pastor and senior leadership.

  3. Great post.

    About two-three months ago did a polling that asked “Would you go to the church you are on staff at, if you weren’t on staff?” I was surprised and saddened by how many responded, not only negatively, but also expresses severe disdain and volitility towards leadership and pastors over them. It was also interesting to me that when i responded that I didn’t believe anyone should stay at a church where they couldn’t back the leadership, pastor and vision, they should look elsewhere… some church leaders got very defensive (and i can see why). But most responded with: “well, I’m still called to the people, just can’t stand the leadership” or “well, it’s not like i can get a job anywhere else”. Sad state of affairs for the church in my opinion.

    I have been on both sides, though… i was at a church I had to leave because i realized i couldn’t support the vision (and would do more harm than good) and I am at a church now where the staff is on board with each other and the sr. pastor (with the occasional, normal head-butting, but we always come out unified)…. it’s awesome! I don’t know why anyone would stay in the former?

  4. This is exactly the process Marko took me through in a transition I recently undertook. It was fantastic in what it revealed about what I was going through, both from the standpoint of things I needed to have change to raise my level of satisfaction – and maybe even more in revealing things about my heart that needed to be different. What God did through Marko to help me make a decision that has been great, both because I was able to discern a better landing poit, but also because the new place got a better me.

  5. I wanted to add two things. (1) What is my staying doing to my family? Many times in a battle we don’t realize how beat up we actually are. This is impacting your family. If you are lucky enough to have an honest spouse you must include them in the discernment process. EX: How have you noticed changes in me since ______? How is this impacting my relationship with you, children, or other family? Would we be better off picking up our loses and moving on? (2) There is a tendancy to over spiritualize these things. We think it all depends on us and we don’t want to leave students with the burden of loss. Well, I have come to learn that sometimes it takes more faith to leave than to stay. Trust the deep work of God through Christ. Maybe, God is asking you to leave and students will step up, grow in faith and quite relying on YOU! May peace fill your decisions…

  6. Great post, thanks for the thoughts.
    I’ve been blessed to be able to be a youth pastor in the same church for going on 9 years now, and my great relationship with the lead pastor and church leadership is certainly a part of that.
    There will always be rough patches in ministry and the suggestions you bring are excellent. One other suggestion I’d like to add. If you are going through some tough times, part of the discernment process should be to help someone move. Not just show up to move a few boxes, but really help them move. Take the freezer, the washing machine, the piano. And then at the end of the day, ask, is the rough patch that I’m going through worse then moving my entire house somewhere else? Just a thought…


  7. This article has been a confirmation for me. I am a youth minister and have been really suffering where I am. I love the members, serving people, and spreading the good news. I just have difficulties with my pastor. I have done everything suggested in the article and comments and have even gone to christian therapy. I ‘ve just been hesitating telling her because I don’t want her to go off or try tell me that I shouldn’t move. It’s so bad than i’m planning on moving to another state. But the comments posted have really helped to reassure me.

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