2.15.2012

What’s Wrong With Youth Ministers? Some Common (and often Legitimate) Criticisms, Part 1

Disclaimer: I have been involved in youth ministry in some fashion for almost ten years now, so the statements below are based on observations I have made during that time. That being said, I am in no way claiming to be an expert on youth ministry, and I am certainly not suggesting that I am a perfect (or even particularly good) youth minister. What I have written below is simply a collection of opinions and suggestions based on personal experience.

Typically, youth ministers don’t get a lot of respect. Many members of the congregation largely consider them to be glorified baby-sitters who come for a couple of years as hired hands, hang out with teenagers and then move on, unworthy of the salary they receive (“What do you do all day, anyway?”).

I think that’s unfortunate, because I believe that (good) youth ministry is an important part of a healthy church. However, if I’m honest with myself, I have to admit that we (youth ministers as a whole) have done a lot to warrant the criticisms and generalizations that are often directed at us:

(1) Youth Ministers don’t stay very long.

In a very good article on ministry, Lynn Anderson suggests that it’s hard to be really effective as a minister until you’ve been at a congregation for at least seven years.This might seem shocking since a lot of ministers don’t stay in place for that long, but it makes sense when you think about it: it takes time to build deep, genuine relationships with people, and most people aren’t really going to trust you with their spiritual well-being until they know you well.

The problem is, as often as ministers tend to move from one congregation to another, youth ministers seem to do so with even greater frequency. I’ve been working with the teens at Farmington continuously since May 2006 (since then my title has changed and my responsibilities have evolved and expanded somewhat, but still, my foremost priority has been working with the young people). That’s a time period of a less than six years, but of the 12-15 Churches of Christ that I am aware of in Northwest Arkansas, only one has employed the same youth minister for that entire time.

Now that’s just one person’s anecdotal evidence, but it certainly seems to support the generalization. So why do youth ministers leave congregations so quickly?

Of course, there are a lot of reasons, and youth ministers shouldn’t be blamed for some of them. Sometimes clashes with an eldership or an “important” family will lead to a job transition that is entirely out of the youth minister’s hands. Sometimes a youth minister will transition into a different ministry role at the same congregation because it is what the church needs most. Sometimes youth ministers just get completely burned out and need a career change.2

But often, reasons for leaving aren’t as good. A lot of times youth ministers show up on the job with big plans and new ideas, and then get frustrated when things don’t quickly turn out exactly as they planned. Rather than stay, put down roots, and work to gradually make things better, they are enticed by the greener pastures of a higher salary or a larger congregation.

I don’t claim to know what the answer is, and I don’t know if Anderson’s figure of seven years is appropriate for youth ministers or not. I do know it is difficult for those teens who have to adjust to 2-3 youth ministers in their 6-7 years in the youth group, and that they feel somewhat abandoned each time they have to deal with a youth minister leaving. I also know that remaining at the same congregation for as long as I have has reaped rewards for me, as I am more trusted by the congregation now than I was when I first came, and as a result, am more able to implement new programs and ideas.

(2) Youth Ministers are never in the office working.

I know this is an idea that a lot of church members have, but really, I hear this said (or more often, implied) most by commonly by other ministers. A lot of preachers who spend hours and hours in the church office each week studying for Bible classes and sermons get frustrated when the youth ministers they work with are never around.

Certainly, I think it’s true that youth ministers spend less time in the office than pulpit ministers do, and I know from personal experience that if I call a church office trying to get in touch with a youth minister, it is more likely that I’ll end up speaking to a secretary who has no clue to the youth minister’s whereabouts than to the youth minister himself. But like a lot of areas in life, I think it’s important to avoid extremes when thinking about how often a youth minister should be in the office.

On one hand, if youth ministers are supposed to focus largely on mentoring, teaching, and working with teenagers, it doesn’t make too much sense for them to spend 40 hours a week in an office where no teenagers are present. Besides, it’s not like work can only happen in an office: just because youth events can be enjoyable doesn’t mean that they don’t also require a lot of work, and it doesn’t seem fair to require a youth minister to be in the office for 40 hours if you also expect him to spend a lot of nights and weekends at youth events.3

Fortunately, most churches (including, thankfully, my own) realize this and allow their youth minister to have a relatively flexible office schedule. Unfortunately, some youth ministers take advantage of this, gradually spending less and less time in the office until they reach a point where you never know when to expect them.

I think it’s important for a youth minister to work out a regular office schedule where, barring some unusual occurrence, other people can expect to find him there. The number of hours may vary from church to church, but it’s important for people to be able to get a hold of you, and since, as a minister, you are a visible part of the leadership of the congregation, it’s important for people who stop by to at least occasionally be able to see you.


This post has quickly become longer than I originally intended, so I think I’ll divide it in half and post two other criticisms later. In the meantime, what do you think? I know these are criticisms that are made, because I’ve heard them myself…do you think they’re valid?

• • •

1Lynn Anderson, “Why I’ve Stayed,” Leadership 7, no. 3 (June 1986): 76-82. Anderson goes on to talk about good and bad reasons for leaving a particular ministry but maintains that, as a general rule, ministers do their best work after they have been working with the same church for at least seven years.

2Youth ministry is difficult for a lot of reasons, but in particular, seeing teens in whom you’ve invested years of time and love make bad decisions and sometimes even abandon their faith is tough.

3For example, going to church camp each summer is hardly a vacation. Instead of working from 8AM-5PM, I get up at 6 in the morning and am responsible for the boys in my cabin all day (and all night) in addition to teaching class, preaching, coach, coordinating recreational activities, etc.  I always have a good time because I love working with young people, but if you’re comparing the level of stress involved, I’d take 40 hours in the church office any day. Same goes for for special trips that I am in charge of.

2 comments:

Kevin Burr 2/15/12, 5:35 PM  

I like what you've said so far, Luke. Do you think some youth ministers are doomed from the start because many church members view them as sort of "mini preachers" despite the inherent differences in youth and pulpit ministry? That may shed some light on the issue.

Luke 2/16/12, 11:08 AM  

Kevin,

I think it's certainly true that some churches/members view youth ministers as preachers-in-training (kind of like a lot of times deacons are viewed as elders-in-training). That might not be an entirely terrible thing as there is a certain amount of related skills and overlap between the two, but as you pointed out, they are definitely two distinct types of ministry.

Overall, I don't think that youth ministers get a ton of respect as a rule, but as I've pointed out, I think at least some of that is deserved.

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