Youth Ministry: Transitioning to the New Guy

YouthI’ve noticed something, and I’m wondering if this is generally true or if maybe I’m just imagining it.

Let me try to explain. When a church hires a new youth minister, there’s inevitably a difficult period of transition. The former minister likely formed some close bonds with many of the kids. He may be the only youth minister some of the kids have ever known. Letting go is difficult for the kids — every single time.

This is true whether the old guy quit, retired, or was fired. It’s even worse, I think, when he continues his relationship with the kids — by remaining a member of the church, or through Facebook, or such. For the older kids, juniors and seniors especially, they may even graduate and leave the program before they can bond with the new minister.

Meanwhile, the volunteers — young couples, parents — will have been heavily involved in the ministry and (hopefully) the lives of the kids. They’ll have taken ownership of their work and programs. They’ll likely want to keep doing things “the old way.” They’ll have bought into the former minister’s philosophy, programs, and calendar. They’ll want to do the spring break trip just like last year because, well, they know how and they think it went just great.

I think these are inevitable facts. So how does the new guy (or gal) deal with these facts? What are the wisest strategies?

Well, this is what I’ve noticed — and I’ve been watching youth ministers a long time. I even had one grow up in my house.

Most ministers seem to make a point of bringing in “their” volunteers, “their” parents, and putting into effect “their” ministry. And they generally focus on the younger kids — sophomores and younger — because they’ll have time to bond with them and have a real impact. And it’s my impression that some schools and some older youth ministers counsel the new guys to do exactly this.

Thus, new ministers will, within a year or so, try to recruit a new staff of volunteers and will concentrate their efforts on the younger kids. And they’ll generally change most elements of the program. I think some will change a recurring event, such as a mission trip, they have no complaints with just to put their own stamp on the ministry.

Obviously, sometimes you have to run off the old volunteers because they aren’t right for your program or they do lousy work. And obviously some programs need to be changed to suit the minister’s philosophy. But I think sometimes they change things because they’ve been trained to do so as a means of taking control of the ministry — perhaps so that old traditions don’t control them down the road.

And my questions are —

* Am I right?

* If so, are these practices wise?

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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3 Responses to Youth Ministry: Transitioning to the New Guy

  1. Bob Harry says:

    I was raised in a very tough neighborhood and if you mentioned Christ or God it was through cursing. Sunday school and church was a joke.

    The youth of today are very spoiled and have too high an expectarions of what a "youth minister " should be. I would have been content with a "lousy worker" or someone who showed any interest at all in my salvation.

    My wife would not have been a good youth minister at the time but she explained a simple message called the gospel. Then she raised 5-6 kids all who are Christian.

    Our youth need to be a little more inspired on their own to study and share.

    With all respect to anyone who tries to teach no matter how horrible the method. It's the heart that counts..

  2. Brad Sullivan says:

    As a youth minister coming in to the church I am at now I dreaded the very problems you mentioned. The minister before me was staying in the church and continuing to follow a new job path while remaining an active part of the church. I was afraid that there would be constant comparisons and hard feelings. Thankfully that was not the case here. The old YM was happy to have me here and chose to keep his distance from the ministry until I asked him to act as a volunteer a year or so later.

    As for changing things – I did not immediately make drastic changes to the schedule. I did change some trips (from one college to another for instance) when it became clear that these changes could serve our youth better. But as a whole I started where the group was and grew from there. On the other hand, it seems that in instances where a YM is following a fired YM there are expectations that the program should change because the last minister's attempts were not met with approval.

    The college I attended (LU) did not encourage us to make drastic changes upon entering a ministry. In fact we were taught the opposite. Drastic changes to a ministry can be harmful to teenagers who are still processing a change in their church life. In response to the deeper connections new ministers make to the younger teens- that is a part of the job. Older teens are more likely to feel betrayed or hurt by the former minister's exit and will take more time to grow accustomed to, and comfortable with a new minister.

    Perhaps in some situations the search for new volunteers reflects the old volunteers preference for the former minister. It is not easy to enter a job under constant criticism and comparison to an absent rival. Churches should do a better job at preparing themselves for a new minister – no matter what their role is (YM, pulpit, etc.).

  3. Kyle says:

    As a youth minister following a guy who was very well loved and skilled at youth ministry, transition is difficult. I have been very slow to make any changes and the even after 2 1/2 years, making those changes is not coming as easy as one would hope.

    Its hard to make changes because there's always an assumption that these changes are being made because the old way was "bad." But what if the old way wasn't bad, why do I have to be motivated by brokeness of a project to change it? Why can't the motivation for new discovery and new experience be a good enough one?

    Three things I am discovering about transitions: 1) Communication is vital. Perhaps we make our changes and assume people will just understand why these changes are being made (at least I make the assumption they'll just trust me…because hey, I'm 26 who wouldn't trust a 26 year old grad student?!) and 2) Patience….on everyone's part. Mistakes will be made by both sides, relationships will be formed and broken and need to be healed. In any event, it just takes time. 3) The ability to admit mistakes have been made and the fortitude to try try again.

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