How many of you are permanent youth directors working in churches or other ministries right now?
I was a permanent youth director in Nashville for about two years…until I moved. Then I was a permanent youth director in a suburb of St. Louis for four years…until I was called to another church.
I’m coming to realize I’ve never been a permanent youth director. I’ve always been an interim…
And that there is no such thing as a permanent youth director.
Most of us spend our time learning to run and actually running our youth ministries. And most of us spend almost zero time learning how to transition well.
It all starts with understanding our role.
We’re all interims.
When I started in youth ministry, my husband was in medical school and residency in Nashville, TN. We moved to Durham, NC for his fellowship, then to the St. Louis area for him to start his first practice, and just two years ago we moved again.
Transition has been the name of my ministry game, on staff at three different churches (a volunteer at three more), five transitions in youth ministry, averaging less than two years in each position. And in my coaching work with youth directors, I’m seeing more and more how crucial it is—for us and our churches—to transition well.
Over and over again, I see youth workers make the same mistakes, forgetting that they really are interims (whether they stay two years or 20). Here’s how these mistakes come out in conversation.
- When someone says, “It’s all about relationships,” it’s often code for “I don’t need to do anything in administration.” It’s also code for “It’s all about me and my relationships with students.”
If you have been hired by a church to do youth ministry, they are looking for you to do the load-bearing work of creating the kinds of systems that can run without you—trying to get administration and volunteer development off your desk may just result in your transitioning much more quickly than you expected!
- A second mistake we see youth workers make when they forget that they are interims is what we have called the Superstar Mentality. It looks a little something like this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eKI63tWSFyg
If you’ve been around youth ministry for more than a few weeks, you know that when a superstar leaves, the carnage can be huge.
Let me tell you a Tale of Two Churches:
Six months after she left as the youth director, on the wall to the youth room, you can read in big letters “We love you ‘Beth’!”— six months after she left. I heard students, parents, leaders say that they USED to have a great group of youth coming. But now that ‘Beth’ is gone, they can barely get even a few youth to show up. Why? The youth are gone…because ‘Beth’ is gone.
Contrast that church’s story with another church we’ve worked with for the past ten years. They are on their 4th youth director in those 10 years—including one who stayed six years and two who stayed two years each. Despite the transitions, the ministry continues to thrive. The ministry didn’t walk out the door when each subsequent youth pastor did.
How can your transition look more like church #2?
Lead by Stepping out of the Center
Look for ways to celebrate volunteers, parents, youth, and other staff.
Put volunteers in leadership roles that allow them to shine.
Tell stories about the great things that were happening in the youth ministry before you arrived.
Redirect the comments about how things will be so much better now that you’re here to how grateful you are to be working with such a great group of kids/leaders/parents.
We worked with one new youth pastor who compared the “growth” in his ministry to vague estimates from the people who ran off his predecessor. We don’t know if his numbers were inflated, but we were absolutely clear that the numbers from his predecessor were dramatically deflated. There will be those who will try to encourage you by putting down the person who came before you. Don’t take the bait. Take the high road.
Let me ask you this: What would happen to your ministry tomorrow if you left right now for a three month sabbatical? Would the volunteers know how to run your programs? Would the youth feel connected to other adults or would your absence leave a huge void?
If you haven’t already, take stock of how much of the day-to-day needs of the ministry revolve around you—and only you. Take stock of what volunteers could be equipped to do. You don’t have to want to be a superstar to be put in that role. Step out of the center and lead from there.
Here’s another picture for you: We’ve got a youth pastor who more than doubled his youth group attendance in one year, from 15 to 35 or so. That’s great, right?
Beneath the surface, there were more than a few red flags. They didn’t have nearly enough volunteers for a group this size. And when I talked to the youth director, he said he didn’t have time to recruit volunteers because, among other things, he was running around the church looking for extra chairs each week as youth group is about to begin. He was running off to the copy machine during youth group because more youth showed up than he expected.
He said it’s hard for him to give up the teaching/planning piece of youth group because he has seminary training and is concerned about the quality of the content if he hands it off. The last time I checked, you don’t need to have a seminary degree to set up chairs or make extra copies!
Over-functioning in leadership puts your youth ministry in a very fragile position when not if you leave. The good news is that this youth director got it eventually. He has grown his volunteer team and has equipped them to carry more of the load so that he doesn’t have to be the one to set up chairs.
- The third transition blunder we’ve seen so many times is trying to leave a blank slate for the next youth director.
You might think that the greatest favor you can give your successor is to leave the ministry with almost nothing planned so that he or she can “make it their own.”
The best thing you can do for a church you are leaving is exactly the opposite. In a sustainable youth ministry, a new youth director doesn’t mean a huge shift in the programming, events, and model of youth ministry. The best gift you can leave a new youth director is a ministry that is in full swing, one that they can jump right into and observe in action. Your successor can make changes, of course. But it’s just a lot easier to steer a vessel that’s actually moving!
Leaving well means being deliberate about doing the things you would be doing/should be doing if you were going to be there another year, things like…
-Recruit volunteers a year out
-Determine the calendar of events a year out
-Select the curriculum a year out
-Have a youth directory updated with youth, parents, and volunteers’ information
-Encourage and equip the volunteers to be prepared to continue in the roles they’ve agreed to, knowing that transitions are not always as smooth as we’d like.
We all know that the best way to lead a youth ministry through a healthy transition is to give it away.
Sustainable ministries function with three types of people or teams (the architect/visionary, general contractor/manager of the ministry, and laborers/teachers/leaders). Sustainable ministries recognize that a staff person (or two) cannot be all three of these types of people.
You have an opportunity to create a sustainable ministry in which you play a more specific role that matches your skills and talents and allows other adults in the church to use their talents as well. So think about where your sweet spot is. Are you a creative, visionary that loves to dream up new ideas? Are you an organized, structured person who loves to use excel for all your ministry needs? Do you love to teach or lead small groups? Wherever you think your gifts lie, there are ways to compliment your gifts by empowering others around you.
The world and work of youth ministry is undergoing seismic change and will continue to do so for at least the next few decades. Transitioning well starts from the moment you say yes to a church and it continues on until you’ve said your last goodbye before moving on. Transitioning well is a stance of ministry as much as any specific actions.
Let’s leave a legacy where youth and adults name a multitude of people that have impacted their faith, not just us, and where our volunteers feel like superstars too.