Why 5 years is the ceiling for youth workers to be effective at one church

Everyone says that the longer the better for youth workers to stay in one church context.  And yes, there are all sorts of upsides to sticking around, but lately I have been thinking that 5 years might be ceiling for maximum effectiveness in your local context.

This is the pattern that I notice:

  • Youth worker shows up in a church context.
  • Spends the first year or so figuring out the context, dealing with the angst of the upperclassmen, and working overtime building relationships with students.
  • Youth workers kill it relationally!  They are masters at building relationships and winning students.
  • After 2 years there is a strong relational core in your ministry.  The new upperclassmen respect you and the incoming freshmen idolize you.  (in a good way)
  • Over the next few years this group of young kids become amazing upperclassmen.  They "get it," they respect and love you, and you love them with all your heart.
  • Youth workers then soak up, and rightly so, the fruit of their labor!
  • Then around year 4 or 5, this group of students who you have known since pre-puberty graduates and you weep bitterly.
  • When you look up you see that you have replaced a solid group of leaders and young adults for an immature and rowdy group of freshmen.  This is more then our weak hearts can often take.
  • The thought of having to re-build an entire youth ministry with these young and immature kids sends us packing.

It is at this point that we have three options.  We can realize that our time in student ministry is done and start dreaming of church planting, realize that your gifts and abilities are too much for this context and start looking for a bigger and badder context, or to settle in and settle for a below average ministry with minimal students and minimal excitement.

Ok, I get that those are total straw men and mostly unfair.  The truth is that I have seen this pattern dozens of times among my peers and colleagues.  I have even noticed this pattern happen within my ministry and within me.  The more I reflect on this pattern the more I realize that there are actually two real options to avoid flame out by year 5.

1) Realize that maybe student ministry really is a "season" of ministry you are called.  Now that you have 5 years of ministry and maturity under your belt, you realize that your heart's passion is to continue with that original demographic and lean into college ministry or beyond.  Everyone comes down on student ministry as a stepping stone, but every step is a stepping stone to somewhere.  Even if this was your mantra from day 1 (Mark) it is ok to allow God to lead you towards new horizons.

2) Do not settle for what is easy!  Of course it is easy to take this original group of students and love them well through their entire student ministry career.  The hard part is to every year pour intentional energy into the brand new students coming up from either children's ministry or middle school ministry.  You have to find some way to grow your heart and/or share the love with your volunteers so that you are just as intentional with the up and coming students.  You poured your guts into them at first, and you must continue to look up stream to pour into your future kids.  If there is a gap in numbers or some social dysfunction coming down the pike, then work hard now to head it off.

Pushing past year 5:

For me, I am called to longevity, to push past 5 years and beyond in student ministry.  If I am not careful, I will get swept up with the amazing relationships I have with my current upperclassmen and die inside when they graduate.  So, I regularly connect with my elementary school kids and middle school kids, I head off potential problems with numbers or personalities a head of time, and God willing, I will continue to have space in my heart for the students coming into my ministry as for the students who have come through it.

This is a challenging job and requires more forethought then many of us realize.  We are not be be blow around passively like reeds in the wind.  We are people who are sensitive to the calling of God on our lives and faithful to live it out to the fullest of our ability, partnered with the Holy Spirit.

As you wrestle with transition, may you rightfully discern a unique call on your life so you will know if it is truly time to move on, or to man up and own the fact that you have simply been harvesting for the past 3 years without continually plowing, planting, watering and weeding.

May God give you grace and discernment as you wrestle through this!