Guest Post: Start ready to walk away

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When I started in youth ministry, it was for a midsize church that didn't have the budget for a full time youth leader.  Even when they found the money, it wasn't much.  But, as an untested, inexperienced twenty-something, it seemed fair, and as a single guy, it was enough to support myself.  But, as sometimes happens with single guys, I met a girl, who made me a less-than-single guy.  We decided to get married, and then came the awkward conversation of finances.  By this time, I had been working at that midsize church for four years, growing their youth program from 6 teenagers into three ministries, serving middle school, high school and college-aged youth, with steady growth and community recognition, two things that I was told were priorities of the church council.  

I felt confident that I was a valued, essential commodity for that church, and after several practice conversations with myself in front of our bathroom mirror, I marched into my pastor's office to tell him that I would need a (modest) raise or I would have to consider finding another position, since I had a wife and future family to support.  He looked at me and breathed a sigh of relief, then told me that they were in a budget shortfall and there was talk of combining my position with another to create a new position, one I would no longer be qualified to fill.  He said that this made it an easy decision.  

This was not the outcome I was hoping for.

I spent the next year at that church preparing for my position to come to a close.  The only people to know that my position was ending was the pastor, my family and the church council, so much of what I did was behind the scenes.  To help maintain the program that I had help build and foster the same level of spiritual formation that we'd grown to expect, I had to begin to change how we did things.  

First I began to bring more people into the ministry.  Volunteers would be there after I left, so they would ease the transition to the new person and be a source of familiarity for the youth.  Up until then, I had been more of a lone wolf, teaching and leading all alone with a few peripheral volunteers to maintain appropriate ratios.  But now that I was planning this change, I found myself the leader of a team of volunteers that I empowered to lead, teach and manage their own events and projects.  This would of course keep some form of continuity between leadership.

I also began shifting how I taught.  Because of my personal teaching style and control-freak tendencies, I had created a pattern of leader-centered ministry.  But, as a leader that was going to be leaving, I had to shift the focus toward the group and even more toward Jesus.  It was little things like encouraging students to pray for the group after youth group rather than me, or beginning to utilize small group discussions that I was not a part of.  My solo sermon style was replaced with a rotating schedule of adults and leaders bringing messages and sharing the pulpit.  I still spent time building and maintaining relationships, there was still personal interaction and growth, and I still supported my youth in all the ways a leader should, but I made a point to make sure that the group knew that there was no one person that “was” the ministry.

Eventually we got close enough to my end date to share with the youth and we began preparing emotionally for the departure.  It was hard, as change and saying goodbye always is, but when I left the ministry, it was as ready as it could be.  The new leader stepped into a role that had been prepared for her, with volunteers who were empowered and confident, youth who were sad but unified, and a church that was supportive.  It turns out that because of how I prepared the ending of my time at that church, I was walking away from a ministry that had never been stronger.

As I reflected upon my five and a half years at that first church, it made me wonder what the ministry would have looked like if I had started preparing to leave on day 1?  I don't mean leading with one foot out the door; there are plenty of examples of how that doesn't work in ministry. 

Most people I talk to have a figure in their head that the average tenure of a youth leader is 18 months or 2 years or some other obscure number, but all I can speak to is the anecdotal research I have done in which I have spoken to the survivors of revolving door youth ministries.  Stories like a graduating senior who has had 5 youth leaders in their 7 years of teenage years, or the freshmen who doesn't come anymore because the last two leaders were people she “thought were her friends”, then just left, or the congregation who shared with me they've had 12 leaders or parents leading in the ministry in the past 15 years.  Quick turnarounds or leading until something better comes along is a dangerous and often destructive practice that usually leaves devastated ministries and heartbroken teens it's wake.  No, I wonder what would have happened if I had started building a ministry that could survive without me from the very beginning?  It has been that question that has shaped my ministry ever since.

It's been easy for me in the past to build a leader-centered ministry.  There are plenty of personable and charismatic leaders that form quick, strong relationships with the youth and thrive being the center of the ministry, and I was no different.  And it wasn't unsuccessful, really.  The ministries grew, youth came and brought friends, their friends brought friends, and we still were providing quality content to teach and inspire young people.  Teens were still growing in their faith and grew to be disciples.  But, the pressure and stress on that center axis leader is greater, and it manifested in my personal and professional life.  And the success and stability of that ministry falls too much on that singular individual.  If I had left my first ministry any earlier, that group of teenagers who were growing in numbers and in faith would have crumbled.  This is part of why there are these large scale youth ministry ebbs and flows at otherwise steady and successful churches.  When a great leader leaves, the group is devastated, and without the proper safeguards, it falters.  

As I learned in my own preparation, one such safeguard is enlisting and empowering support leadership.  Having trained volunteers to lead and teach in the interim as well as be a familiar thread in the new ministry was the safety net for the ministry.  The volunteers were able to keep the day-to-day going while the new leader found her footing.  Now, in my current ministry, I am constantly working to recruit, train and empower new adults for the youth ministry.  Bringing adults into ministry and teaching them how to do it successfully shows the youth that you don't have to be a minister or religious professional to get involved in ministry or be an active Christian.  In a lot of ways, my volunteers have been more successful at teaching this point than I ever will.  And, seeing others in leadership helps to communicate that other people can do what I do; I don't have the monopoly on messages or games or relationships. 

As wonderful as I think I am, there are others that do what I do and do it just as well.  With any luck, whoever takes over for me will be even better than I am.  If the teens can accept that someone else can be a leader, too, then they are more likely to accept someone who is not me leading the ministry.  Christianity is bigger than me, evangelism is bigger than me, the youth group is bigger than me, and the teens need to see and understand that.

Preparing the group to endure a leader change also changed how I do recreation at youth meetings.  I have always had a recreational component at youth meetings, which I still view as important, but what type of recreation we do has changed.  As fun as sardines and dodgeball might be for the teens, now I try to do activities that develop teamwork and foster student leadership.  Active problem-solving challenges have become a large part of my recreational repertoire.  If teens are taught how to band together through adversity, then when a leader leaves they will stand a better chance of leaning on one another for support, especially if the departure is abrupt or particularly difficult.

I don't know if there is an exact formula for success, but by trying to build a ministry that will continue growing and thriving after I leave has helped me to do just that.  Even though I am in no hurry to leave, my group will be ready when it's time for me to go; a ministry that is healthy enough for me to walk away from is a ministry that is strong.  After all, if a youth can't be a Christian without me by their side, I haven't really done my job.  Part of leadership is preparing those who follow to someday go on ahead without you, because even if I don't leave the ministry, eventually they do.  By preparing them for a time without my presence is preparing them for an independent spiritual life with all the tools and preparation they will need, and that's really what youth ministry is all about.

Bio: Kellen Roggenbuck has been a youth leader and ministry consultant for over a decade and is a regular contributor to the Youth Worker Journal and GROUP Magazine.   He went to college to be a Music Educator, but has found his calling in youth ministry.  Kellen lives outside Milwaukee with his wife and son, who both think his jokes aren't nearly as funny as he thinks they are.