For several years, as an adjunct professor teaching youth ministry courses and giving leadership to the Center for Church and Community at Campbell University, I have received requests that sound like this: “We are looking for help finding a youth minister at our church. Could you please share any candidate names with us and share the opportunity with your networks? Experience and a seminary degree are preferred.”
That led me to create a Facebook post on the Center page recently that expressed the following:
Can I be real for a minute? (1) Those who are in youth ministry for the long haul aren’t moving a lot because they’ve arrived in a place that values them, validates them and pays them fairly. Most youth ministry jobs are seen as entry-level (see the contradiction with experience and master’s degree preferred). (2) Those starting out are getting chewed up and spit out by churches that often aren’t patient through their mistakes, don’t pay them well enough to stay through their own life transitions (ex. growing family), or just get disillusioned with them when the group isn’t growing.
I’m not here to make an indictment, but rather to cite the reasons theological schools in many traditions are not seeing students come with the same zeal for youth ministry as years ago. These are broad brush strokes with which I am painting, and I intend this as a conversation starter. It also is a reminder to those churches looking that you aren’t alone in your frustration.
“Youth workers are currently in crisis and at risk of burnout.”
The response to the post revealed a beautiful passion from many who had served as volunteer leaders, called ministers and senior pastors. Youth ministers, volunteer and paid, are a resilient group whose work is at a crisis point, as demonstrated by a recent data collected by The Youth Cartel and Jeremiah Project suggesting “more than four out of 10 youth workers are considering moving on or have moved on in the past two years (away from ministry). Youth workers are currently in crisis and at risk of burnout.”
If this is the backdrop for where many youth ministers and ministries find themselves, I propose three topics for more consideration to create an environment where thriving is possible. They all begin from the simple question (to ask, not answer), “What is the ‘why’ of youth ministry at your church?”
This question is essential to each of the topics, not to mention how you measure whether a ministry is successful or effective. As an aside, ministers, this is a question you should ask when entertaining a call to a church to ensure your values of calling and the expectations of the church align.
Helping young people discern vocation and call
Why is the church seeking a youth minister? Is it because you’ve always had one? What is the purpose of that ministry and how will you support it?
The Lilly Endowment has helped fund and start High School Youth Theological Institutes to explore vocation and calling. Campbell’s program, like many others, helps students stand at the intersection of faith and vocation. This type of ministry invites young people to explore and expand their gifts to discern God’s call for their lives.
Krista Hughes, director of a similar institute at Newberry, frames the why question as, “Is it out of fear or desperation because youth are just not engaged? Or is it out of a genuine desire to create a space of true belonging where young people of all kinds can vocationally explore, practice, connect, heal, create, make a difference … ?”
“Rather than chasing culture, what if the church offers students that which enflames their passions as it engages their questions of belonging, calling and faithfulness?”
That latter question is a powerful one that is not based on numbers or church growth but rather on building the kingdom of God by engaging a generation of young people to experience deep community, flourishing lives and a theological understanding of who they are called to be and what they are called to do.
Rather than chasing culture, what if the church offers students that which enflames their passions as it engages their questions of belonging, calling and faithfulness? Vocational discernment and exploration of calling may be the most important work a congregation can do with their young people. This type of ministry requires not just rethinking the why, but also the how.
If a congregation values its youth, then how it staffs and positions its youth ministry must adjust accordingly. There is no perfect model, as each context varies in how they engage young people. It may be a vocational, bivocational or volunteer position. The point is the focus and investment, impacting salary, budget and a congregational commitment for the long haul.
A note about bivocational associate ministers is important. Many of these arrangements are chosen by the minister and are flourishing, but when a congregation expects this of its associate staff members and not the senior pastor, it sends a message of value and worth.
“There is a need for more creative efforts at reimagining what God could be calling our congregations and ministries to be when nurturing the spiritual formation of teenagers.”
Another model comes from United Methodist pastor Jason Butler, calling for youth-based community engagement directors of the churches they serve. A congregation doing this puts the youth in its congregation and community as central to their “why.” Community partnerships, events, space and even Sunday mornings take on a new energy and direction.
This doesn’t mean jettisoning your worship service but rather considering the hospitality of the service to welcoming young people and the community. With all the consternation over why the fastest-growing groups are the “nones” and “dones,” there is a need for more creative efforts at reimagining what God could be calling our congregations and ministries to be when nurturing the spiritual formation of teenagers.
If that is what is valued in our congregations, then a next step is to consider how we demonstrate those values through the commitment to our associate pastors and youth ministers.
The best way to express this is through the words of colleagues:
- “I never felt called away from youth and children’s ministry, but I felt called to positions that valued my time, expertise and growing family. Unfortunately, I was hard pressed to find youth ministry positions that honored those things.”
- “We have a mentality that associate roles are ‘mere’ steppingstones instead of unique callings unto themselves. It brings about a whole host of problems when it comes to support of calling, benefits and even respect.”
- “I feel like youth ministry is a ministry where everyone always feels like they can do it better than the person they actually hired to do the job.”
- “Other associate or staff ministers are seen as ‘less than.’ We often don’t feel included as part of a team approach, but rather as subjects to an authority.”
- “I would like to see the next generation be able to answer their callings and not feel discouraged, used up and ready to throw in the towel after just a few years.”
- “My experience in youth ministry was a constant navigation of looking for lifelines and support.”
In the search for youth minister candidates, I stated previously that part of the reason the pool is smaller is because people stay where they feel valued. But it is more than feeling valued personally, professionally and monetarily; it is also about a covenantal relationship being honored.
In traditions where infants are baptized or dedicated to the church, the litany includes the congregation making a vow to the family and child to help them grow, following Jesus and his teachings. Meagan Greene, co-pastor of First Baptist Church of Erwin, N.C., asks: “How would our ministries look if adults (not just the parents, but quality human capital) took those promises seriously? I wonder what it would look like if adults realized their influence in the lives of the youth makes such a big difference in the latter’s faith journey. One of the most important things we can do as Christians is to show and teach a child and youth how to follow Jesus. Somewhere along the way, our congregations have forgotten this or have chosen to outsource spirituality to the children’s pastor and youth pastor (even the associate pastor in a lot of congregations) because it seems like an easy choice.“
Preach, Meagan, preach!
Brian Foreman serves as executive director of the Center for Church and Community at Campbell University.
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