An Open Letter to Senior Pastors

I’m writing today in the direction of any senior pastor who’ll listen.  If you happen to not be a senior pastor, then by all means please read and pass this on.  Who am I?  I’m someone who’s been in youth ministry in some capacity for 20 years and who has worked with and seen/interacted with a wide variety of senior pastors.  I’m a huge fan of senior pastors.  I’ve seen your job and I don’t want it.  I’m an ally.

Before I dive in, I want to confess that I know there is always a behind-the-scene situation few people see.  And you may not hear a lot of sympathy for those details, but rest assured I know there’s usually lots there that most people don’t see and won’t know about.

I recently heard about a church just a few miles away from the church I serve at that has had six different youth pastors in the past six years.  SIX.  My stomach sank to hear those numbers.  A year in youth ministry is barely enough time to get unpacked and settled in, let alone make any kind of real and definitive impact.  My immediate thought when I heard about this church’s youth pastor turnover rate was this (and I confess this may be unfair): “I wonder what that senior pastor’s problem is.”  I know. I know.  You may just think I’m just another youth pastor who doesn’t care about the details and is just reacting by jumping to the defense of his fellow youth pastor.

Maybe I am.  Or maybe there’s more to the well-known stats that say the average stay of a youth pastor at a church is 18 months.  Maybe instead of considering the student ministry pastorate as synonymous with gypsies and nomads, we should step back for a bigger picture.  Maybe instead of simply reckoning student ministry pastors as ill-equipped, irresponsible, overgrown teens themselves we should take a look at the way student ministry pastors are viewed, hired, and even dismissed.  And why.

My good friend and mentor Dr. Len Kageler wrote a book a while back which has since gone into revision and reprint for the simple fact that its just that good.  It’s called “The Youth Ministry Survival Guide” and I recommend it to any potential or current youth ministry leader AND to any senior pastor who wants to be a better leader to his staff.  Grab a copy here.

revolving-doorOkay, senior pastors.  Listen up.

You will gain immeasurably more in the long haul of your church’s ministry by sticking with your youth pastor.  Unless there has been some gross negligence, chronic irresponsibility, or moral failure, let me implore you to stick with this person you’ve hired.  I completely understand that it might seem easier to toss them to the curb and find their replacement (some people consider youth pastors a-dime-a-dozen), but if that is your habit you are ultimately damaging the overall impact of your church as a whole.  While its true that I haven’t been to a new ministry post every few years, the churches I have served in (including internships) have been in such varied contexts that I’ve gotten a taste for different ministry styles found along the gammut.  Reformed church with 98% senior citizens where you can literally smell mothballs & death in the air? Been there.  Neighborhood church with an older pastor focused on young parents and community impact? Been there. A young church plant with a young, insecure pastor at the helm who was flying solo before hiring me? Been there.  A medium-sized church with a steady rotation of staffers filing in and out? Been there. A large church with a large dynamic staff and a senior pastor who’s heart is for people and for me? There now. Going on nine years. NINE.

Here’s what happens when you go the easier route of the firing/rehiring cycle:

You forfeit the impact of a long-term student ministry leader. You should know this better than anyone else.  If you’ve been at your church for 5+ years, you should be able to see how its just now that you’re starting to get traction.  Student ministry in that regard is not much different.

You create a culture of instability.  This is especially true if you have more than just you and the youth pastor on staff.  Others on staff (admins, children’s ministry, worship ministry, etc.) don’t ever get the chance to feel settled with that position and consequently may feel unsettled in general.

You gain a reputation as undesirable to other potential youth pastors.  Surprise! Youth pastors talk to each other.  We ask around.  We call the last person that held the position and find out why they’re not there anymore.

Your congregation may start to wonder what your problem is.  Remember those childhood report cards sent home with the “doesn’t play well with others” comment?  If you go through youth pastors like you go through spare ribs, you not going to be able to escape your congregation eventually wondering what your deal is that won’t let you keep someone on staff long enough to make a difference in their kids’ lives.

So senior pastor, before you reach for that pad of pink slips and peel the next one off the top, ask yourself a few questions:

1.  What can I do to strengthen my relationship with my youth ministry leader?  Am I spending enough time connecting with them? Do I see, understand, and embrace their vision for our student ministry?

2. How can I become their #1 support?

3. How much stronger could our youth ministry be if we had the same person in place investing in and loving students for the duration of their middle school and high school years?  What would longevity in that position produce for our overall church body?

4. Am I feeling threatened by their giftedness to lead? What insecurities are alive within me that I need to do away with?

5. How can I lead the culture of our church in order to create a place of stability among our staff? Are there power-players on my board that are undermining the potential for longevity in our youth ministry?

Screenshot_2013-05-11-10-22-02

I’m sure there are other questions to ask and I’d love to hear some of our feedback and input, but let me close by sharing a text message I received this past weekend that really reminded me of the power of longevity in student ministry.  This text is from a former student of mine who I’ve seen through middle school and high school and who was about to walk across the graduation platform at Christopher Newport University.  Keep in mind that this text would never have been possible without a senior pastor who understands the power of allowing their youth pastor to leave a legacy in students’ lives.

That, my friends, is the sheer power of longevity in student ministry.

Let that be a driving desire for student ministries everywhere.

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8 thoughts on “An Open Letter to Senior Pastors

  1. Whatever church has you as a youth pastor has a gem. I know how you love those kids and how your desire is for them all to be more Christlike. I love how you love them. They are our future and you are a great leader and imitator of Christ. I love you.

  2. I totally agree with most of what you have said, but, there does come a time when a senior pastor should let some youth pastors go and they don’t and the church suffers from this greatly.

  3. Hey! Good Post! The relationship between a senior pastor and a youth pastor is incredibly tough, often wrought with “he said” claims. Thank you for instead highlighting the advantages of a long term youth pastor situation! We actually created a resource with this tricky relationship in mind! Including activities, application, evaluation and great content! Check out “The Disconnect” http://www.leadertreks.org/store/the-disconnect/

  4. Jerry, Thanks so much for this well-thought out & written article. I’m passing it on for encouragement to others who are “doing ministry right” & those who “are trying to get there”! Ron & Bev, You should be very proud of Jerry & thankful to God for helping you raise him up in the Lord! He is certainly a great example & encourager to many others! Dave

  5. Great stuff here. Thanks for your willingness to write words that take courage to communicate to leadership. I often say that youth pastors get a lot of the blame for only sticking around for 18 months (and certainly some of the blame is on them), but how many churches create a culture where longevity is truly fostered? Have we created realistic expectations of their ministry and their time? I think this plays a bigger role than most people realize. In other words, if you want a youth pastor to stick around (and you give us plenty of reminders of why you should), then create a culture that allows for this, even encourages it.

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