A Letter to Youth Ministry: On Growing Up

Youth Ministry, you have come a long way. Over the last 13 years of my adult life, you and I have been helping teenagers connect to the transforming love of God. In that time, you have changed a lot, Youth Ministry. You have continued to grow up, and as an older relative might say, you are getting “so big.” But unfortunately, even with all your change and growth, one of the things that has remained constant is the high rate of turnover in your leadership. Youth Ministry, the vast majority of my colleagues from the early days are no longer invested in you, and many have gone on to careers outside of the church walls.

When I see another youth worker pack up their office, I am always left with questions: Why is another youth worker leaving? Was it an amicable shift in calling or was the church unwilling to invest in the lives of young people? Was it burn out, disillusionment, neglect or mistreatment? What can we as the church do better to support youth workers? While there is no easy answer to these questions, there are strategies we can utilize to begin thinking about them differently.

If we continue to affirm youth ministry as a professional function within the life of the church, both youth ministry leaders and congregations will have healthier expectations and boundaries that guard against disillusionment, neglect, and mistreatment.

First, we need to accept that turnover will always be part of youth ministry. Unfortunately, some people understand youth ministry as the lowest rung on the church ladder and see it as an opportunity to start a career. Others are surprised by the amount of mistreatment a youth worker receives from the church. (How many youth workers are the first ones emailed when something is broken or goes missing!?) Others get into youth ministry thinking it is fun and games until they are rocked by the responsibility of the ministry or the theological prowess of a self-aware 15 year old. Still others sense God calling them to a new and different ministry. This turnover is just a natural part of the youth ministry landscape, and if our expectations leave room for this reality, we may experience less burnout-causing stress and pressure on our youth ministry leaders.

Second, to help with the turnover, we need to continue lifting up youth ministry as a professional calling within the life of the church. Over the last several decades the prevalence of youth ministry programs within the church has lead to the deepening understanding of youth ministry as a profession. I have had the joy of mentoring dozens of undergraduate students into the field. One of the things that always surprises these students in the transition from youth ministry participant to youth ministry leader is the discovery of the professional mindset. Several years ago, I was conducting interviews at a university for a yearlong paid youth ministry internship program. I had about a half-dozen interviews lined up for the day. My third interview of the morning arrived about 10 minutes late for a 30-minute interview. I immediately asked him if he had car trouble or an emergency, and he admitted that he was just running late. I then explained to him that he would be out of the running for the internship because of his lateness and he that should look at this as a learning experience. At the time, he thought this was harsh, but he took the lesson to heart and we can now laugh about it. If we continue to affirm youth ministry as a professional function within the life of the church, both youth ministry leaders and congregations will have healthier expectations and boundaries that guard against disillusionment, neglect, and mistreatment.

Third, as youth workers and youth pastors, we need to better understand the true nature of youth ministry. It is about people, not programs; qualitative relationships and growth, not quantitative participation numbers. Understanding youth ministry in this light frees us; old patterns and models of youth ministry no longer have to bind us. Youth ministry becomes less about entertainment and more about cultivating experience. The goal becomes about helping teens experience the love of God and to experience the support and care of the community of believers. Lifting up memories and experience forces us to ask questions about the deeper theological impacts we have on our teenagers. Focusing on the true nature of youth ministry as qualitative, experiential and relationship driven allows both youth ministry leaders and congregations to shift their focus away from the purely quantitative measurements, which tend to lead to burnout, pressure, and anxiety.

Youth Ministry, as you continue to grow up, you’ll find that even if you insist on continuing to shift toward a professionalization and qualitative memory based focus, it will not stop the turnover. However, you will help those of us who still sense a calling to work with you and to stay with you for the long haul.

 

Josh Gill has been working with Youth and their families for over a decade.  He is currently the Associate Pastor for Youth and Their Families at Doylestown Presbyterian Church, in Doylestown, PA. Josh holds a B.A. in Youth Ministry from Eastern University, an M.S. in Non-profit Business Management and a M.DIV from Palmer Theological Seminary. Josh has taught at several conferences including CAPS-East, Messiah Youth Workers Conference, and the Parish Resource Center. He has also been published in Youth Worker Journal, Youth Ministry 360, and The Journal of Youth Ministry. Josh loves spending time with his two boys and his amazing wife Vicki.

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