After 16 years in fulltime ministry to students, I can still hear my professor-turned-friend-turned-ministry-partner-but-still-friend Dr. Len Kageler say, “Make every effort to stay at your current ministry position longer than you stayed at your previous ministry position.” Through all the lectures in youth ministry class at Nyack College, and even through all those casual conversations, it was obvious that Len had (and has) a heart for longevity in youth ministry. And he was more than successful in instilling that same passion within me.
I’ve been more than “fortunate” in the ministry positions I have held to date. Since my graduation from Nyack College in 1995, I am currently in only my 3rd position. My first position in Winchester, VA was 2 years and 1 month, start to finish. Quick, but I packed a lot of learning in. And heck, 25 months is still a chunk over the national average for length of stay for youth pastors, which is an 18-month stay. My second ministry position was in Nyack, NY. I stayed there from July of 1997 to August of 2004. For all you non-pencil-pushers out there, that’s over 7 years. Not too shabby. And at this writing, I am less than a year away from being at my current position longer than I was at my previous position–a dream come true for both me and my beloved Len.
But as I stare down this milestone, I have to look back and take stock in just what makes a youth pastor last at any given position. Now, I know there are a lot of “yeah, but’s” that youth pastors could spew at me, and some rightfully so. But I’m not going to get into all the external factors that often bring about the conclusion of a youth pastor’s stay; those things we can’t control. I’m going to instead focus on the internal factors–the things I/we DO have control over–that help me stay where I am longer than where I’ve been.
First, I’ve gotten over the fact that I’m never going to do it all. When I started in youth ministry I had the proverbial cape on my back and chip on my shoulder, thinking that I was God’s answer to youth ministry as it had been. I hit the scene kickin’ down doors and eradicating every existing notion that “Chubby Bunny” was ever a good idea. However, my first ministry position taught me that I’m not impervious to being damaged in ministry. So the principle here would be to “get over yourself” as quickly as possible. Know who you are and be that person. After all, we only need one Jesus.
Secondly, I’d say that striving for excellence in every area is a non-stop journey. As I’m sitting here typing I can think of how things I’m currently doing in ministry could be done differently or even–gasp–better than they’re being done. I truly desire everything I do in ministry to be dripping with excellence. I fall woefully short of that mark many times, but the desire is still there and that desire drives me every day I hold this position.
Next, I would fly the flag of rest. There will be some weeks that seem endless due to the overwhelming needs that surround you as a youth pastor. But if I don’t keep an eye on my disciple of rest, I’m not going to last very long at all; not at this church or at any church. Leading from a rested spirit is essential to long-term effectiveness in student ministry. There have been many times that I’ve counseled fellow youth leaders with this advice: “Ministry is a lot like working on an assembly line. There will never be an end to the work coming your way. You have to have the guts to simply step away from the line for a while.” Inevitably, I get the response, “But what about what doesn’t get done?!?” And I say “Yep.” If we base our schedule on what needs to get done in ministry, nothing will…at least not for long. Rest is vital in youth ministry. Unapologetically disconnect from your office, from your task list, from your students, and from your expectations. Any senior pastor who tells you differently should be a senior pastor you leave in your rearview mirror.
The next principle is to cultivate the ability to be flexible. A couple years into my ministry here at my current church, I boldly told the Executive Pastor, “I could be the last youth pastor you hire.” I wasn’t trying to be cocky, and I definitely wasn’t trying to be God. It’s just that I made a conscious decision early in ministry that I would be willing to do what the ministry called for. Anything less is a “Yes, but…” to God. I’m committed to skill development, character growth, continual education, and any maturing that needs to take place in me so that I can be the youth pastor this church needs. There may come a day when–despite my greatest attempts–it becomes clear that God is done with me here, but until that day comes you better believe that I’m committed to doing what the ministry here calls for.
(I should have mentioned that this list would be in random order, as evidenced by the next thing I’d like to share. It would definitely have been placed near the top of the list!)
One of the most critical principles I can give to my fellow married youth pastors is to constantly date your spouse. Flirt, woo, romance the pants off the helpmate God has blessed you with. Not only is that some of the most fun you can have as a human being, but it will safeguard your marriage and ministry in ways you’ll never fully know. As much as you can help it, never let your spouse feel like they’re in competition with your ministry. There are obviously times when you must be away at conferences, on mission trips, for speaking engagements, etc. but those times are more than bearable when you have a spouse who already knows that all you want to do is get back home to be with them. In my own ministry, I’ve had more students and other adults make comments on my marriage than on any message I’ve delivered or event I led. Everyone who cares to look knows that I am 1000% head-over-heels crazy about my wife. No joke, I’m one of the happiest married men you know. There’s simply no way around this truth: The investment of your marriage will spill over positively into your ministry and the people you’re called to lead. Don’t make the mistake of thinking it’s the other way around.
This next one is one that I’m just now coming to grips with. I’ll put it this way: “Look for the blessings more than the bookings.” For many of the years I’ve been in ministry, I’ve had a bit of an ache in the back of my mind. It’s something I don’t readily share with many people (yes, I know this is a blog on the internet). It’s the idea that the farther into ministry I go, and the more “successful” I become at it, the more invitations I should receive; invitations to come and speak, to write, to share advice, to take a stage, to be more “known.” And while there is more to divulge than that, I’ll suffice it to say that God has shown me that He is much more interested in His fame than He is in mine. Years ago I gave a gift to my Mom. It was a potted plant that said on it, “Bloom where you’re planted.” I have to admit that I’ve been guilty at times of thinking grass was greener somewhere else. Well, it’s often the case that the grass is greener because of all the “fertilizer” over there! Be thankful for where you are, welcome opportunities for God to expand your influence, but be so careful about prying doors of notoriety open.
Next, you need to remember that nothing will do for you what humility will. Now, humility is like a wet, slippery bar of soap. Once you say you have it, you don’t. Humility isn’t something you put on a resume. It isn’t something you decide for yourself, and it isn’t something that comes naturally to most people. But if you want to stick around longer than the church van, you’d be wise to seek a heart of humility. It’s been said that “humility isn’t thinking less of yourself, its thinking of yourself less.” Humility will be the stabilizer that keeps you from bitterness, from resentment, from defensiveness toward criticism, and from many other ills the enemy wants for your ministry. Humility begins with a deep heart recognition that God is God, God is the potter, and you are the clay. It’s not cliche’, its Scripture (Is. 64:8).
Finally, and really the greatest piece of advice for youth leaders who want to stick around is this: Don’t teach theory. Lead from who you are, where you are, and from an authentic spirit. Get in, be in, and stay in love with Jesus your Savior. Don’t let anything come between you and Him. Let people see that you’re not leading/teaching/preaching from a textbook or from some idea book; let them see you walking hand-in-hand with Jesus Christ, the love of your life. From that relationship will flow every resource and supply you’ll ever need, no matter where you find yourself in ministry.
Whether you’ve been in youth ministry for half a century or half a day, I pray that these few tidbits might spark a desire within you to, God-willing, send down your roots right where you’re at and stay put for a long, fruitful ministry.