Youth Ministry Is Not Just A “Young Man’s Game” | UMC YoungPeople
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January 2017

Youth Ministry Is Not Just A “Young Man’s Game”

By Chris Wilterdink

Stereotypes that seem to be as old as youth ministry in itself:

  • You’re young, you’ll be great at youth ministry.
  • Guitar-playing is a pre-requisite
  • Youth ministry is a stepping stone to get into “real” or “grown up” ministry
  • The average duration of a youth minister on staff is between 18 and 24 months
  • In the US, if you’re paid to do youth ministry, anything having to do with youth is your job.

None of those are true. In fact, there are significant numbers of folks who have been in youth ministry for the long-haul and have served their true calling in ministry by caring for and shepherding young people. They’ve done it without playing guitar and at various ages. They’ve done it without needing to be male. Resources like Sustainable Youth Ministry and Growing Young have highlighted the value of consistency and care in the role of a youth minister. Those in it for the long haul have much wisdom to share, and I was fortunate enough to video chat with Teri, Sam, and Julie – three people who entered youth ministry at various points of their lives. Each has been involved in youth ministry for at least 20 years. Here are some wisdom gems that came from our conversation.

Q: What is it like if you have your own kids that age into a youth ministry that you lead?

  • I actually found my calling in ministry because my kids were in the youth ministry at our church and I got fed up with how things were organized.
  • My kids were in youth ministry even as children. The schedule meant they came to lots of events. It was both great and tough on them because they were always known. Even if they wanted to fade into the background, they really couldn’t.
  • I took things personally when my own kid would talk to me about what they hated about their experiences in youth ministry and my church. If I couldn’t get it right for them, how could I possibly get it right for any other kids?
  • How do I draw the line between my role as a parent and my role as a youth minister? That line is different for everyone I think. Am I paying the right amount of attention to my kid? Too much? Too little?
  • I’ve had my own kids not want to bring stuff up with me because they’ve seen the time and energy it takes for me to respond to other family’s needs.
  • It is very neat to watch them grow and explore. At the same time, it can freak me out when they follow my own advice. I love saying that it is ok to explore doubts about faith, talk them through. Yet, when it’s my own kid doing it, my response feels different than any other time.
  • Sometimes it is a real roller coaster. Sometimes I would think to myself “If I can’t get my own kid to behave or pay attention during youth activities, how can I guide others?”
  • The big thing is this: our kids need other adults to serve the role of youth minister. Find that other trusted adult or friend who can do for our kids what we try to do for others. It may even mean that our kids need to find a group or ministry that I’m not in charge of, so that they can just be “one of the kids” instead of “the preacher’s kid.”

Q: What is it like to have relationships with youth as they age? How do your interactions change as they become adults?

  • Some stay strong and others fade. Some of the most memorable moments are when someone walks away from organized church or their faith.
  • It is awesome when former youth have kids and you get to be in ministry with their kids.
  • Bringing back youth as volunteers has been so neat to watch. A big part of that transition is the education about what it takes to be an adult in the group rather than a youth.
  • Some of my best volunteers were youth that were always busy doing something else, like working in the nursery. The kids who were active in my youth group did not come back to volunteer very often. The ones who stayed active in church found other groups that would serve them, instead of them developing to the point that they wanted to serve and give back.
  • I remain very close with several of my first youth. Maybe some of that is because there was a gap, or breathing period when I didn’t really talk to them. They had some college experiences and then I would get to learn about what they became during those years.
  • I’ve been around long enough that social networks and the internet weren’t a thing. So the difference between pre-Facebook and post-Facebook relationships with former youth is huge. Now I keep seeing lots of posts from lots of people and I ask myself when it is appropriate to chime in. It used to be easy to feel out of touch when someone moved away. It’s not “out of sight, out of mind” any more.
  • I keep lists tagged “under 18” and “over 18” on my Facebook account. When a youth graduates, they graduate up my list and get to discover a whole new set of posts from me!
  • I’ve found that the longer that youth are treated as teens, the longer they act like teens with you. When I fail to recognize their maturity in adulthood, our relationship stays static. I could be talking with a 25-year-old just like I talked to them when they were a freshman. Likewise, I could be talking with a 25-year-old just like they were one of my peers.

Q: What do people need to know about those who are in youth ministry for the long haul?

  • If you (and your church) really want someone who can share their gifts and experience over a long period of time, you have to pay a living wage and offer benefits.
  • No matter how long we’ve been in the game, we need the support of the church to set up boundaries that are conducive to us having a personal life and a family life. Everything can’t be work!
  • We’ve learned that the youth pastor shouldn’t automatically have to do everything that nobody else in the church wants to do.
  • We know that senior pastors and church leadership will ask us to do things that are not directly related to youth ministry. We’ve learned that when we are asked to do those things, it actually does us a favor by connecting us more completely with the body of Christ that is expressed in our local church.
  • Holidays have never been easy for our family. I think about Christmas and Easter, and what my family gives up for me to do what I need to do at church. Sometimes I feel ok about that, other years I feel like I’m giving up too much.
  • We exist and long-term youth ministry leaders happen! We are not as rare as you think!
  • Youth ministry is a vocation and calling in its own right, not just a stepping stone.
  • We live in a culture that begs youth to connect with older adults. There used to be many more opportunities for intergenerational contact in communities and extended families. The church can be on the leading edge of rediscovering those meaningful connections between generations.
  • The way we do ministry changes and evolves. I would not do some things that I did as a 27-year-old leader. If someone is concerned about staying in youth ministry for a long time, I would tell them “You don’t have to always be what you are now. You don’t always have to do things the way that you do them right now.” Change and development are healthy things.
  • Being older has helped me recruit older volunteers, develop skills among my other long-term volunteers, and I experience a respect factor now that I didn’t get when I was younger.
  • There is “ageism” in the hiring process. As part of a hiring process over 50, I can tell you that it was an uphill climb to convince my interviewers that I was not “too old” for youth ministry.
Chris serves as Director of Young People’s Ministries for Discipleship Ministries of the United Methodist Church. Chris has a BA in English Education, and an MS in Project Management, and over 15 years of local-church youth ministry experience. He is passionate about leadership and faith development in young people and helping ministry leaders understand their value in the lives of young people. A Stephen Minister, Chris is a native of Colorado living in Franklin, TN with his wife Emily, 2 children, and sausage-shaped beagle.