Youth Ministry: Are We Seeing an Exodus Out of Youth Ministry?

YouthThis is another article from a while back originally posted at “Jesus Creed” by Chris Folmsbee.

To me, it sure feels like there are more youth ministers leaving than what is usual.  Perhaps this phenomenon is only occurring in the view through my little window of youth ministry.

NOTE: I realize that there has always been a fair amount of transition among youth workers.  However, most of that transition has been from one church or ministry to another not a transition away from youth work altogether.

I have some thoughts as to why we might be seeing more youth ministers leaving their roles of serving youth and their families.  I’m hoping you can help me fill out this list.  Here are a few of my thoughts:

1.    Theology- it appears to me that today’s youth minister has a very different theological framework for approaching ministry than their supervising ministers and church boards [elders].  This results in youth ministers looking to other ministry opportunities and other environments in which to express their divergent theological convictions.

2.    Methodology – I have found that in the conversations I am having with departing youth workers one of the main issues contributing to the exit strategies has to do with churches operating with an attractional model of ministry when many youth ministers are resonating more with a missional model.  After a while it just becomes like two ships passing in the night and this leads to transition.

3.    Leadership – I have also found that many youth workers feel as though they are ready for greater leadership challenges and influence and their supervising ministers are either not in agreement or completely unwilling to step aside to give the youth worker a greater amount of influence.  I’m not saying the youth workers are ready for more or not, but one thing that is sure is that youth workers think they deserve more and unquestionably want more.

4.    Expectations – There are a growing number of expectations being placed on the youth worker by others (church leadership, parents, students, peers, etc.) and this causes a working environment that is inescapably overwhelming.  I’m not quite sure exactly what is causing the growing expectations but I have a hunch it has to do with the absolute disorientation most people feel as it relates to the most effective ways to make disciples of today’s youth.

5.    Calling – Sometimes God calls people to new vocations.  I get that.  I believe a fair number of the departing youth workers I have talked with are really being led to do something else.

6.    Schedule – Youth workers work their butt off and often without a healthy balance.  Some youth workers are just tired and the grass on the other side looks a whole lot more green, and often it can be.

Are you sensing a growing number of youth workers departing for things other than youth? What are your thoughts on why that might be the case?  Do you have any solutions to offer us?

Notice that the problem with differing  theologies and methods cited in points 1 and 2 largely result from elderships not having the benefit of the latest research and studies. One cure is better continuing training of elders. Of course, another is better communications between ministers and elders.

I would add to the list —

* We actually need leaders for church plants, and youth ministry is a great training ground. Men straight out of college aren’t going to be ready for such a task. As we plant more congregations, the demand for leaders will necessarily go up, and there’s already a preacher shortage. We just have to live with the fact that more church plants means youth ministers being recruited into the church plant field.

* We aren’t hiring enough women as youth ministers. The other elders and I met with an expert on youth ministry before our most recent youth-ministry hire. We asked him what we should be looking for. He explained that youth ministry is very relational, and women are, on the whole, more relational than men. He said that, in a perfect world, he’d hire a woman before he’d hire a man! (We were blessed to hire both halves a married couple. Few churches have that luxury.)

30 years or so ago, I asked my Bible class, largely parents of small children, whether they saw a theological problem with a female youth minister. Not a one did. After all, in our society, teenage boys are routinely subject to adult women. When women volunteer in youth ministry, we expect the boys to submit to them. Boys are not “men” just because they’ve been baptized. It’s not the Christian bar mitzvah!

Hiring women as youth ministers will greatly expand the pool of available (God-given) talent for ministry and will often provide better ministry. (And I bet it reduces the number of youth ministers fired for sexual impropriety.)

* We aren’t hiring enough single men as youth ministers. Elders evidently assume that a single youth minister will be more likely to commit a sexual indiscretion. Well, they’re wrong. I know several ministers who’ve been caught in sexual sin. All were married at the time. All …

Single men have more time to commit to the students and no competing family obligations. Again, hiring single men will expand the pool of available talent and will often provide better ministry.

(Those elders who try to get a free co-minister by hiring a married minister are usually disappointed. And it’s not fair to the wife to expect uncompensated work.)

* Many youth ministries fail to balance family life with youth ministry. Once they have that first baby, they often find themselves without enough time for both family and ministry.

I know some ministers who’ve packed up the babies and brought them along. They had very understanding wives who are truly part of the ministry. And the kids turned out very well indeed. But not all wives can handle that.

Youth ministers should be upfront with their elders about these problems and seek a solution — more volunteers, more help from the staff, lowered expectations from the kids and parents as to availability. I mean, rather than burning out and quitting, the key is communication.

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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8 Responses to Youth Ministry: Are We Seeing an Exodus Out of Youth Ministry?

  1. Trent Tanaro says:

    Great post. This has been a challenge for myself. I was in campus/youth ministry for about 8 yrs and then I switched to pulpit work two yrs ago,it was a good switch for my family. Yet, the problem of consistency within ym is still there. I don't think a lot of our yfm graduates from Christian colleges take it seriously and they burn out, mess up, or give up within their first two yrs.

    I understand one is young at that age coming out of college into the ministry, so we need a balance.
    What kept me in it for the 8 yrs was an internship/mentorship I did for 3 yrs to get my feet wet. So maybe that is an option, focus more on stable and effective internships.
    Anyway, thanks for the info and the research.


  2. Trent Tanaro says:

    I do have a deep respect for veteran youth ministers and their hard work!!!!

  3. JdB says:

    I enjoyed this post. I, along with Trent, have a deep and abiding respect for men who can continue in youth ministry over the long haul. I did it for four years and, looking back, wonder how in the world I didn't pass out/burn out. The energy level demanded to minister to teens could be one reason that there is a turnover among ym's. The expectations are and should be high…unfortunately, sometimes they are unrealistic.

    I can't speak for others, but the youth ministers I know who have stayed in it over the long haul have been the ones who are talented at bringing others in to help carry the load. Secondly, they are the ones who are able to work with their elderships and who have understanding elders. Too many times there is a disconnect between the culture/language of ym and elders. A good dose of, "This is what I hear you saying, is that right?" would go a long way in helping the long term ministry.

    Another thing I didn't see mentioned (and I may have just missed it) is the jealousy factor. Sometimes staff members are "pushed down the throat" of existing staff without any thought of how the staff will function. In my opinion, the wise eldership consults with the existing staff before bringing a new person in. In one congregation, during the interviewing process, the elders said, "We are bringing you in to be a minister to youth. You will have equal access to the elders, but you are not coming here to be the pulpit minister or the pulpit minister in training." The stay is longer when expectations are spelled out up front.

    Again, I enjoyed this article.

  4. Alan says:

    I can't help but see the parallels between the observations in this post and the history of the Crossroads movement in the 1970's and early 1980's: Campus ministers with a strong missional approach to campus ministry; congregational leadership with a different vision of ministry; young leaders who thought they were ready for more, and older leaders questioning that; campus ministers leaving campus ministry to plant churches; increased role of women in leadership…

    I think there was a lot right about the first ten or fifteen years of these ministries. But let's not forget where it led. We need to keep our eyes wide open, remembering the lessons of history, so we can keep the good and avoid the bad.

  5. Royce Ogle says:

    One thing is for sure. Youth ministers earn their keep.

    Kids are not bad at all….but their parents are something else. I have had more than a few guys tell me their largest problem in youth ministry was immature parents.

    Are youth ministries and ministers necessary? They are a pretty recent invention. When you think about the theology of it, and the theory, it makes little sense. The idea that kids who will soon be in college and voting in national elections can't understand what adults are taught is odd to me.

    In my view, if what is happening with the adult population of the congregation is relevant the kids will be fine. The major reason they tune out is that going through the religeous motions is boring. It is to me too.


  6. Jay Guin says:

    I know some church planters. They are much more grace oriented than Churches of Christ in general. The independent Christian Churches are struggling with their planted churches not participating in the denominational institutions — universities, lectureships, conventions, etc. We may find our own plants abandoning our institutions. But if they do, I'm confident it won't be in the direction of the Crossroads movement.

  7. Trent Tanaro says:

    I wanted to share this with you,
    You want an example of immature adults? How about a leadership putting a deacon "over" a trained ym and having the ym answer to him. The deacon has had NO ym training or experience and had very young children, and was barely 6 yrs older than the ym. Talk about putting a brother through the fire. An interesting experience it was though…I left very soon afterwards.


  8. Joe Baggett says:

    If I had a dime for every youth minister that has left in the last 10 years I would be rich. Burn out is occurring so fast because the glorified baby sitter is still the norm model. It's like being a teacher at a public school the parents always know better and elders analogous to the school board won't back you up when you need them. Until the paradigm of youth ministry is changed as a whole it will continue to be a disaster.

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