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How to Stay in Youth Ministry for the Long Haul

I had the chance this weekend to visit with a church plant that has just recently revived their youth ministry. They are an awesome group of folks, and I enjoyed the opportunity to chat with them about what they were doing. They are about six weeks in and have laid a great foundation. I think they are on the road to growing a healthy, meaningful youth ministry.

Near the end of our time together, someone asked the question, “How do you stay in this for the long haul?”

Realize, these are all volunteers. They each have jobs, families, etc. We had been talking about how spiritual and relational fruit doesn’t happen overnight. To see a strong relationship grow with a student, or to see students grow spiritually, just takes time. I think many of the volunteers were feeling what we all feel from time to time: the pressure of investing in youth ministry and teenagers when we already have so much else going on.

I thought about their question a lot. “How do you stay in youth ministry for the long haul?” Here’s how I answered, plus a few additional thoughts I had since then.

Own your identity as a youth worker.

This may seem esoteric, but I actually think it’s pretty practical. If we see ourselves as moms or mechanics or lawyers or teachers who happen to volunteer at our church, there’s a certain level of detachment from the task. To succeed at sticking around, I believe we have to see ourselves as youth workers and start acting accordingly. Start reading youth ministry books and blogs. Join or start a local network for youth workers. Join a Facebook group for youth workers. Attend a youth ministry conference in your area. Owning our identity as youth workers goes a long way toward developing the attitude it takes to stick around.

Recognize that the calling is to “long haul” kind of work.

Relationships. Spiritual formation. Both of these are the heart of what you do as a youth worker. And both take time. The task is a long-term task. The call is to long-term work. There are no shortcuts. Accepting this up front will go a long way toward helping you stick with it.

Healthy habits fuel longevity.

Burnout is a longevity killer. But burnout doesn’t happen overnight. Burnout most often comes as a result of unhealthy habits chipping away at your resolve over time. Healthy habits will keep you in the game and help you avoid burnout. What kinds of habits? Making sure that whenever your family can be involved in your ministry, they are. Making sure you are setting aside personal time to pray and meet God in the Bible that doesn’t have anything to do with lesson or sermon prep. Making sure you have consistency in your programming, communication and any other area of your youth ministry. And so on.

Don’t do it alone.

Parents are your friends. Other adult volunteers are your friends. Your pastor is your friend. Older students are your friends. There are so many people who are willing to help (or would be if you asked). I know very few youth workers who are able to go it alone long-term. The best youth ministries and youth ministers I know have a great team of people surrounding them.

Divorce isn’t an option.

What the heck does that mean? Simple. When I married my wife, divorce wasn’t an option. It wasn’t an option that was on the table. Nowhere in my mind did I think, “OK, if this doesn’t’ work out, we’ll just call it quits.” When I married my wife, from that day until this one, almost 15 years later, I have been in it for the long haul. I’d challenge you to take the same attitude as a youth worker. Don’t get in it thinking you’ll be in it for a while and maybe move on. From day one, take the position that divorce isn’t an option; you’ll be the last person standing if need be, but you’re going to be here for a while.

I’ve been doing youth ministry for 14 years or so. I’ve been with a current group of small group guys for five years. It hasn’t been easy, but I have managed to stick with it for the long haul, and I don’t plan on quitting any time soon. It’s doable.