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How Do You Know When it’s Time to Move on From a Youth Ministry Role?

i’ve really enjoyed being part of creating slant33.com this year. the youth cartel picked the 20 primary contributors, came up with the 52 weekly questions, and worked with the contributors to select three for each question. but i’m also one of the contributors. this week’s slant asks a practical question that has been posed to me many times over the last decade or so: how do you know when it’s time to move on from a youth ministry role?

here’s my response:

I moved too often in my first bunch of years of youth ministry. Let’s just get that on the table right up front. I can easily explain or justify each move (the church couldn’t hire me full time; I got fired; there were budget cutbacks, and I was going to lose my job). All legit. All rational.

The problem is, though, I think my mess was too much a part of the decision-making goulash each time. I wanted more power. I wanted to be liked more. I wanted to be respected more. And, man, the grass is so freaking green at the church calling you. It’s like green food coloring green.

I’m not saying those moves were mistakes. But I’m definitely saying my process of deciding was faulty. Well, except maybe the time I got fired. I didn’t have much say in that. But my discernment process for the next job was just as faulty as the ones that offered more volition. It wasn’t until I left my fourth church, to go to Youth Specialties, that my process was patient and thoughtful and anything resembling spiritual discernment.

In church world, we are pretty good at masking this. We are quick with the “God is calling me” language because it just doesn’t sound that good to say, “I just don’t like you people” or, “Sorry, but that other church offered me way more money” or, “I ran out of ideas here and need to go somewhere else where I can repeat them all and have them seem new.”

Over my dozen years at Youth Specialties, and in the couple years since, I’ve had hundreds of youth workers ask me about leaving. I don’t think we have the space to go into a deep response about spiritual discernment. But let me take a swing at a couple other related issues:

Are you worn out? Youth ministry can be one of the more wearying jobs out there. There are plenty of other jobs that are more physically exhausting. But when you add in the emotional, mental, and relational strain, well, it’s easy to get toasty. So we all get worn out. The question is: Is this a worn out that, with some rest, you can come back from? Are you tired, or are you worn out to the point that you’re going to do damage if you stay?

You might need some extended rest or a sabbatical in order to figure this out. (Of course, that feels risky too. My friend asked for and received a three-month sabbatical to discern whether he was supposed to stay at his church. On the day he returned to tell the church he had a renewed sense of calling and was going to stay, they informed him they’d decided the opposite. Ah, churches. That goofy bride o’ Christ.)

The other significant question I think youth workers need to ask themselves is: Can I find something—anything—that I can respect about my senior pastor and leadership? In my experience, most people who are even considering a move at all are, to one extent or another, dissatisfied. Something is not great. And, more often than not, when I dig into these questions with youth workers, I find the core issue circling around an eroded trust in and respect for the senior pastor (or sometimes for the broader church leadership; but that’s tolerable if the youth worker feels like the senior pastor is honest about it).

Here’s what it boils down to for me: If you’re wondering about leaving, even flirting with the idea, there are some steps to take and questions to ask yourself:

    1. Bring a discernment team around for this purpose alone. Obviously, these need to be highly trustworthy people who will understand the confidentiality of the situation. Read up on Quaker Clearness Committees and give the group permission, even a charge, to ask you anything and everything.

    2. Ask yourself, Why am I less than satisfied? Be ruthlessly honest with yourself and journal about it.

    3. If your dissatisfaction is centered around a lack of respect for the leadership of the church, you have three options:

  • Leave. If you are bitter and stay, you will do damage. Hear this: Even if the church leadership really is wrong, it’s wrong for you to be a mini Godzilla.
  • Realize you’ll need to leave but not immediately. Set a deadline. Be optimistic and supportive of the church leadership, knowing there’s a light at the end of your tunnel.
  • Or, find something to respect about your senior leadership and pray for a softened heart and renewed passion.

read responses from adam mclane and lars rood here. and check in on slant33.com every monday afternoon for a new question and three slants (or subscribe via email or rss here).

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moestreicher@churchleaders.com'
Mark Oestreicher is a 30-year veteran of youth ministry, and the former President of Youth Specialties. Marko has written or contributed to more than 50 books, including the much-talked-about Youth Ministry 3.0. Marko is a speaker, author, consultant, and leads the Youth Ministry Coaching Program.