18 months and I’m out? part #3

If you are getting to this post then you need to read the two previous posts to gain some perspective on the issues we are discussing. Click here for part 1 and here for part 2.

In this final part of this blog series I want to try to give some encouragement and some solutions for the issue of the 18 month average tenure of youth ministers.

First of all, I want to make sure to let you know that right now (4.28.10) I am in a very good situation. I feel appreciated by our new pastor of 7 months who has been a staff member before and thus treats the staff with dignity and respect. He is also very supportive. I feel a great deal of support from the church family and receive kind words and notes of appreciation. I have been in very low places over the last two to three years with a former pastor who had a moral failure, went through a time of tough ministry, and had to grapple with some of the issues I felt concerning sticking it out. Therefore I speak from experience when I discuss some of the encouragements and solutions below. I know that ministry can sometimes be a lonely and hard place but the rewards of longevity are immense. Just today my wife received an amazing message from a former student that her and her new husband accepted a call to be youth pastors at a church. I also spoke to a student at the local high school who I have not had a ministry contact with in a few years and found out she is doing well. Over the last couple of years I have performed weddings for former students, seen former students babies born (not literally but afterward…we aren’t that close), and baptized 9 students on one Sunday. These rewards of longevity are precious and make the difficult times seem like a distant memory.

So…here are a few solutions. First of all I want to speak to pastors.
1) Support your staff. This support comes in many shapes and sizes. This does not ever mean that accountability is not required or you should be soft, but you should support them during difficult times. One way you support them is to listen to them. I appreciate that about my current pastor and other pastors I have had in the past. They value my opinion which validates my ministry which leads me to want to stay. Don’t be more demanding of your staff then you are of yourself. I have heard from other youth ministers that their pastor would take a regular day off but told the youth pastor he had to work. This leads to bad blood and a short tenure.
2) Befriend your staff. Many staff members I have talked to over the years feel that their pastor over them is distant and cold. They need to know you care about them. You are their over shepherd and the staff needs to know you care about their personal needs.
3) Enrich your staff. Make sure your staff is spending enough time at home. I had a former pastor who sent me home one day because I had worked too many hours and was turning into a workaholic and I am forever grateful. Make sure your staff gets to conferences. Fight for your staff in terms of salary, insurance, retirement, and the like. Many times the staff feels powerless and the youth minister is often low on the totem pole so they need an advocate. You as the pastor are that advocate.

Second let me speak to churches.
1) Your supportive words, cards, and love for the youth minister will mean the world to them. They will feel more at home and more willing to stay if they feel a general warmth from the congregation. I know that when I receive cards and words of encouragement I file those away in my “feel good” file and pull them out on rough days. I know of some youth ministers who see the congregation lavish gifts and encouragement on the senior pastor while ignoring the youth minister and the rest of the staff. Always remember pastor appreciation month which is in October each year. Remember those youth ministers during that time as well.
2) Pay your youth minister what he is worth. I can speak for myself when I entered the ministry I knew that I would never be “rich.” I also expected to be compensated fairly. I have been extremely blessed at the two churches I have been at to be appreciated and compensated to meet my families needs. I have no complaints. However I know guys who struggle mightily in this area. Before you think me or others greedy, note my advice to youth ministers further down this post about money.
3) Don’t expect your youth minister to abandon his own family for the needs of your students. I think we will agree you would rather have a youth minister with a loving wife and loving kids rather then one who has a wife and kids that despise the church because the youth minister is never home. Expect the youth minister to work hard (note further down) but also have reasonable expectations of his time. Don’t expect the youth minister to be at the church every night of the week to have an activity for the students.

Lastly, I would like to speak to my colleagues the youth ministers. Believe me, I feel your pain. I have been through a lot of different situations, some worse then yours and some better. Here are just a few encouragements.
1) Don’t be a wimp. Don’t give up too soon. Yes, the pastor may doubt your abilities and the church may have soured on your work but stay faithful to what God has called you to do. It may be hard but the grass is not always greener on the other side of the fence. If you have to leave, I understand, but 18 months is hardly long enough to get to know your students, your pastor, or your context. Hang in there.
2) Work hard. Many youth ministers find themselves in hot water because they are lazy. They don’t work hard and thus people question their work ethic. Visit the kids…plan good activities…meet with parents…greet ALL people in the church…and you will see some things turn around.
3) Negotiate before you go on the field. I learned this early that if you do not ask for a certain salary or benefits to cover your needs before you go, don’t complain afterward. Do some study on area churches, use the SBC compensation study, and ask for a decent salary and benefits package from the church. It may seem greedy in your heart, but if you enter the field and on day one you are trying to earn some extra money to make ends meet you are probably not going to last long. Don’t be a bad steward of money. You should have integrity with your money and not spend it foolishly. Stay within a budget and you will see that money stretch. Believe me I have learned the hard way on this one.
4) Know your circumstance well. Do some questioning about the church before you go on the field. Ask other staff members. Call the previous youth guy. Talk to area youth ministers. Talk to the Director of Missions or area representative. Investigate everything you can about the church so that when you walk in the door you don’t notice the big skeleton in the closet.
5) Act professionally. I have been guilty at times and know a lot of guys who are incredibly guilty of not acting professional with adults. With students you can talk about certain bodily functions and it is endearing, in front of the deacons it will get you fired. Dress appropriately for your context. The t-shirt, cut off shorts, and flip flop look may not be acceptable in the office. I have seen youth ministers in ties for work as well as the aforementioned dress code.
6)Draw close to Jesus. Make sure you are drawing close to Jesus. Don’t forsake your own time with God. Worship God deeply and get alone with Him. He is who you need to rely on during the difficult moments.
7) Go to good conferences that will give you encouragement and also practical tips.
8) Find a network. I have been blessed to be in two great networks of youth ministers in the two churches I have served full-time. I can honestly say that without their friendship and encouragement I probably would not have stayed in my churches as long as I have. These guys are prayer warriors for me and really make me know that I can make it through tough times. They also give very practical helps in times of need.
9) Support your pastor. Even if your pastor does not support you, you should support him. He is your authority. Trust him, listen to him, allow him to speak words of wisdom into your ministry. You will find a true friend if you treat your pastor with the respect the office of pastor deserves. If ultimately you cannot agree with him on deep theological matters or your personalities clash too heavily then try to remove yourself gracefully and keep his ministry going forward.
10) Preach Jesus. Never trade the fun of youth ministry for the call you have received to preach Jesus. You will frustrate yourself if you try to be something you are not. You will frustrate yourself if you try to outdo every other youth ministry in town with your incredible fun and games. Build great content into your ministry and see God’s hand and the Holy Spirit grow your students in the Lord. You will see those seeds you plant come to full grown fruit later on.

Overall I would just like to say that as a youth minister the rewards of staying somewhere for a long time is much greater then trying to hop from church to church because of being dissatisfied. You will cry with students in sad times, rejoice in good times, and see God use you to change lives.