Being a youth pastor at one church for the entirety of my ministry career is one of the greatest blessings of my life.
My first students are now in their late-30s. I’ve baptized them, married them, and seen them raise their own kids. My own kids (whom they babysat back in the day) now babysit their kids. Some serve as volunteer leaders in the ministry.
I feel like the Lord has answered the psalmist’s prayer in my life: “Even when I am old and gray, do not forsake me, my God, till I declare your power to the next generation” (Ps. 71:18). I’m just a few years away from being able to minister to the children of my former students. I never would have anticipated it, but I wouldn’t want it any other way.
I appear to be one of the exceptions.
Not My Plan
Youth-pastor turnover remains very real. The revolving door continues to spin at the churches all around me. People find out I’ve been a youth pastor at one place for this long and it’s like they’ve seen a UFO. But I never set out to stay at one place for this long. In fact, I never set out to be a youth pastor.
I fell in love with youth ministry accidentally. I needed a job out of seminary, and this random church up the road needed a youth pastor. Fine, I’ll do this for a year till something else comes along, I thought.
That was 21 years ago.
I can’t take credit for staying here as long as I have. In fact, I’ve tried to leave a couple times, but the doors I thought were opening elsewhere got slammed shut. Nevertheless, a number of key factors have contributed to my “unintended” longevity.
Four important factors have kept me around. If you’re reading this as a leader in your church, whether paid or volunteer, take these to heart. If you can help your youth minister in these areas, there’s a much better chance he’ll be around for more than a little while. These are four things my church did right.
1. My church validated me for choosing a career, not a stepping-stone.
My friend Jon Coombs wrote a terrific article that inspired this one. His message: Youth ministry is more than a stepping-stone; it’s a viable lifelong ministry. In the same way no one asks a high-school English teacher when he’s going to start teaching college students, we need to stop asking youth pastors when they’re going to leave youth ministry.
In the same way no one asks a high-school English teacher when he’s going to start teaching college students, we need to stop asking youth pastors when they’re going to leave youth ministry.
They may or may not, but it’s an actual vocation, not simply a training ground for becoming a “real pastor.”
2. My church helped me fight burnout.
In my experience, the number-one reason youth pastors don’t last long is that their pace is unsustainable. Most new hires are young, full of energy, and, Red Bull in hand, ready to conquer the world.
You want me to teach middle school on Sunday mornings, high school on Sunday nights; lead midweek Bible studies; visit students after school at their extracurricular activities; attend staff meetings; recruit leaders; plan the middle- and high-school lock-in, the middle- and high-school retreats, the middle-school summer camp, the high-school mission trip; and also be in a small group for myself? You’ve got it!
No wonder they only last 18 months. Youth ministry needs to be seen as a marathon, not a sprint—but churches like to hire sprinters. They look great in miles one and two. Yet running that hard out of the blocks, they’re never going to make it to mile four, much less mile 26.
Ideally, younger youth pastors will have a Jethro-type person in their lives (Ex. 18:17–23)—someone who can help them delegate, help them learn to say no to things that will burn them out, and who will have their back, no matter what. A youth pastor must be challenged to raise up leaders who can share the burden of ministry, rather than doing it all himself. Burnout is real and must be addressed head-on.
3. My church paid me enough.
I know former youth pastors who would’ve loved to stay in youth ministry, but as their family grew, they simply couldn’t afford it. A simple rule of thumb is to investigate how much a local schoolteacher is paid—and do all in your power to match that salary as quickly as possible. Then do all you can to help your youth pastor buy (rather than rent) a house, which will help him settle into the community.
There was a crossroads about four years into my ministry where it was time to either put down roots or move on. A group of families raised money on the church’s behalf to help us with a down payment on a home. We still live in that house 17 years later. That was an incredible show of support for us, and the roots that went in the ground have only deepened over time.
4. My church found opportunities for me to use my gifts outside of youth ministry.
Some youth pastors are content investing all their time in youth ministry. Others, especially as they get older, begin to look around and wonder, Are there other aspects of church ministry where my gifts and experience could be used? This isn’t always an option, but where it’s possible, give your youth ministers every chance to exercise and develop their gifts.
His Plans Are Better
I wish I could say I had this life planned for myself. Far from it. But it’s a good life.
Churches, do everything in your power to make this possible for your youth ministers. You won’t regret it.