Last weekend, I was half of the support crew for a 6-man canoe in a 260-mile-long, non-stop race from San Marcos to Seadrift, Texas. My team finished in 43 hours 15 minutes, good enough for 3rd place. Like the paddlers, I was awake for about 50 hours straight (two days after an all-night lock-in!) and worked pretty hard. But I do it because it is so amazing to watch these athletes (ages 12 to 70+) push beyond the pain and weariness to accomplish something truly special. The Texas Water Safari is billed as “The World's Toughest Canoe Race” for a reason.
There are days where youth ministry feels like “The World's Toughest Calling.” And just like the canoe race, endurance is a vital skill if we are to successfully carry out this calling.
We have to navigate church staff world, parent world, and the teen world, areas that have differing and often competing expectations and needs. We have to grow spiritually as an adult while cycling through the familiar needs of adolescent spirituality (the seminary class that blows you away is usually as far beyond adolescent readiness as algebra is beyond a 5th grader). Similarly, we stay put while the young people we love grow up and move on; no one told me how much grieving we experience by the very nature of a ministry that is so relationship-intense and yet transient.
This is why endurance is key. I hope you’ll be inspired to stay in youth ministry and a specific church setting for a long time. A lot of what we read in magazines or hear at youth ministry conferences challenges us to stick with it. This blog has several good articles about this too. This is all good stuff. We all need a support team on the banks of life shouting encouragement while we are paddling as fast as we can.
At the same time, recognize that competing demands—low salaries, apathetic youth, time conflicts, and lack of support—are deeply troubling and demanding. (I’d need to track down my source, but I recall reading that something like half of the folks that leave a youth ministry position are forced out or fired because of staff conflicts . . . been there, done that.) Though we hate the idea of youth ministry being a “stepping stone,” the truth is that it’s one of the few entry-level positions in ministry, and can be “outgrown” from a variety of perspectives including waning interest, lower energy, and improved skills that can be used in other areas of service.
And yet, youth ministry is a calling, one with some of the most rewarding results you could ever hope to experience. Sticking it out can be tough, but it’s worth it.
If you find yourself struggling to stay afloat, talk to someone about it. Staying when it is tough because you’re called and know it’s what God is telling you to do is simply part of the journey. (This is different than staying longer than you should out of guilt or fear or just because you don’t know what else to do.)
I'm 52 and am still engaged in youth and children's ministry full-time. I value endurance. But, I can't begrudge my youth ministry friends, and even former interns, who are now pastors, or ministers of education, or selling insurance, or teaching school any more than I could say something negative about a team that quit the Water Safari after 130 miles.
Youth ministry is extremely rewarding, but it’s pretty tough. But then again, you already know that.