The myth of life long student ministry

It seems like just yesterday that I was sitting in a hotel room at a Youth Specialties conference with my colleagues in ministry.  There were at least four of us staying in the Motel 6 down the road just to save money.  We didn’t mind sharing the room because we could not believe that we had gotten jobs as youth workers.  We were being paid to love on students and help them love Jesus.  All four of us had recently graduated from college, were friends from camp, and relishing the opportunity to take our place as the next generation of youth workers. The urban legend that shaped our views of success was the one about longevity.

We had all heard the statistic about the average tenure of a youth worker was 18 months, and most of had experienced that number to be a reality in our lives.  But this statistic would not define us.  We were in youth ministry for the long haul, not just 18 months, not even 3-5 years, were were going to be youth workers FOR LIFE!!

17 years later, I am the last of my four friends who is still doing vocational youth ministry.  And of the dozens of peers who are of similar age that I have had the pleasure of calling colleagues in youth ministry, I alone remain.

It seems like every young youth worker I talk with has a similar perspective to the one I had years ago.  And the truth is, that like my circle of friends, only a small percentage of them will continue on in student ministry into their 30’s, less into their 40’s, and none into their 50’s.

While this is the truth, this is not a sad truth.  I have no special honor for being the last of my friends who is still in youth ministry.  It is simply the way it is.  While it is ok for young men and women to speak boldly about things they do not quite understand, it is the implications of this false view that ends up limiting them in the long run.

Speaking boldly is part of the fun of ministry.  We love pontificating with our peeps, and really, anyone who will listen, about whatever the subject is.  We speak with great passion and conviction.  This should not be squashed, for passion and conviction are some of the important stones in a ministry foundation.  But sometimes this passion and conviction replaces wisdom and discernment and often proves to be a liability in the long run.

If youth ministry for life is your mantra, then my fear is that being open to all that God might have for your future gets put in jeopardy.  Calling is always seasonal.  Our lives unfold before us like a well written Choose Your Own Adventure book.  And because of this, the specifics of what sort of ministry we are called to do will always be in flux.

Today, in this time and place, you are called to youth ministry.  Praise God for being a faithful servant to your students.  But as you grow and develop, as life throws you curve ball after curve ball, as you discern your gifts and strengths, as you grow less and less patient with junior highers during a lock-in, it becomes apparent that God seems to often closes some doors, and opens wide others.  When that day comes, the one where God calls you away from youth ministry, you should be fully prepared for whatever that next thing is.

If we have not cultivated a view of life after youth ministry, unfortunately, we will find our options incredibly limited.  However,when we see our entire life as called into ministry, in the most general sense, then we will always be on the look out for ways to grow and develop.  For we are not called to one specific task in ministry, we are called to be servants of Christ, wherever and whatever that may be.  And if that is our calling, then we must be good stewards of all of our resources.

SO WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE:

If we have not cultivated a view of life after youth ministry, unfortunately, we will find our options incredibly limited.  However,when we see our entire life as called into ministry, in the most general sense, then we will always be on the look out for ways to grow and develop.  For we are not called to one specific task in ministry, we are called to be servants of Christ, wherever and whatever that may be.  And if that is our calling, then we must be good stewards of all of our resources.

As we all continue to strive to be faithful to our call into ministry,let us work hard to develop personally, scholastically, and professionally.

Personally:

Who you are when you are in your 20’s is different from the person you are in your 30’s, 40’s, etc.  Walk into church and look at some of those old people.  They were wild and got into trouble, they were responsible and made difficult decisions, both personally and professionally.  They have experienced all sorts of pain and heartbreak that we can not even begin to understand.  They are a clear reminder that we will be old soon enough.  Our life will not always look as it does.  And because of that we need to be people who are life long learners.

Many of us are from contexts where testimonies almost always look back to the time of our initial salvation.  While this is a glorious day, we must make sure that we are people who are continually leaning in to the Holy Spirit and have a testimony that is current.  Jesus is always inviting us into closer relationships and deeper intimacy.  He longs to heal our brokenness and set us on the path of life.

Part of this growth comes from trying new things, exploring new passions, developing hidden talents.  If everything remains constant we will miss out on al the colorful things that God has in store for us.  Showing up ready to explore all that God has for us keeps us fresh and growing.  The day we think we have it all figured out, our word begins to get exponentially smaller.

Scholastically:

Many youth workers despise school.  They love to learn and to read and to grow in knowledge, but see school as a needless burden.  School is expensive.  Classes are irrelevant.  Who really cares if you know Greek or Hebrew anyway?

But the truth is school is very important.  Education is the single most important part of your resume.  Maybe not today, and maybe not in this particular context.  But when a group of people who don’t know you, evaluate your resume, your scholastic history is the first score on the pro and cons list that will ultimately determine if you have a shot at an interview.

Because most young youth workers can not imagine a life outside of youth ministry, school seems like a big waste of time.  But it is an awful tragedy when your youth ministry days come to an end, and the options that are available to you are few and far between because you lack the education.  Pursuing education keeps all of your options open.

The truth is there is never a good time to go to school.  There are always seemingly higher callings than jumping through hoops for the man.  But this view is short sighted.  If you don’t have your bachelor’s, then get to work and start taking night classes, whatever it takes but get it done.  In our world today, a bachelor’s degree is the starting point.

While a bachelor’s degree is the starting point, a master’s degree is the deeded degree for anyone who is called into ministry leadership.  Whether it is right or wrong, it is the way it is.  Instead of being bitter about it or thinking you don’t need it because you are happy where you are, remember that you are called into ministry and this season you are doing one thing, but who knows what season is around the corner.

Because we have not idea what the future holds, we should always make decisions that keep as many doors open as possible.  And this is especially true in picking master’s programs.  There are so many master’s programs out there now and many youth workers pick the path of least resistance.  When we are called to youth ministry, the choice seems easy, master of arts degree in leadership or christian formation.

While this is a great degree, I would encourage people at the beginning of their master’s journey to consider their life long call.

If their is any chance that their call might include long term service to the institutional church, then I would strongly recommend a master’s of divinity.  Again, whether right or wrong, this is the bench mark degree for pastoral leadership.  Whatever decision you make regarding school, the lens for examining our options needs to be our entire life long calling, not this short season.

Professionally:

Finally we must be developing professionally.  There are so many amazing resources available to us.  We must be wise to not settle and rely on our current skill set.  Our skills can alway be improved upon.  We live in a time where there are countless resources available to us, and we would be fools to not take advantage of this reality.

We must be reading books, attending seminars, meeting in cohorts, asking questions, seeking answers, continually evaluating ourselves and others.  Striving for excellence is a noble goal.  Many of us trick ourselves into thinking that we don’t care about worldly success and that terms like “excellence” are unspiritual markers.

It is a disservice to the Kingdom of God if we are satisfied with who we are and what we currently bring to the table.  As amazing as our current state s, we can always grow, always be stretched, and always become more effective.  In a world that is continually changing, and the task of youth ministry becoming exponentially complex, we must make our best effort to stay ahead of the curve.

Even the most amazing and gifted youth workers are that way because they have put in countless hours honing their skills.  All the natural ability in the world becomes dated in just a few short years.  But when we approach ever book, every article, every conference, every speaker with a teachable heart, we allow ourselves to grow and develop in new and fresh ways.

At the end of the day . . .

The sad truth is that there will be a day in the near future when your days as youth worker will come to a close.  And when that day comes, my prayer for you and for me is that we will have continued to develop into all that God has for us.

We will have a growing and current walk with Jesus.  A walk where we can hear his voice and a character that will be faithful in his calling.

We will have a growing scholastic resume.  As Jesus calls us into new forms of ministry, we want to be able to have as many doors open as possible.

We will continue to sharpen our skills and abilities as well as increase the number of tools we have at our disposal by developing professionally.  When we sharpen our old skills and develop new ones we have so many more ways to be effective in our current ministry context and in whatever context we find ourselves down the road.

Youth ministry for life is a myth.  We must be careful that this myth doesn’t unintentionally stunt our growth.  There are countless years of life and ministry ahead of us.  We must not sell ourselves short and limit all that God might have for us.  We are called to serve in this current context with all of who we are.  And as we serve we strive to continue to grow and develop to be even more effective now and be prepared for whatever amazing adventures are beyond the horizon.

May God truly bless us who are faithfully serving as youth workers, and may we give grace and blessing to our friends who God has equipped and prepared for a new adventure.  And may all of us strive to be life long learners who are ready for and prepared for every good work!

(This is a crazy long blog post, I know.  I am traveling this week and wanted to pass on an oldie but a goodie.  Thank you mom for being the only one to read this far!)