John Elkins is the Student Pastor at First Baptist Church of Brazoria, TX.
The current reality of tenure in youth ministry is atrocious. I’ve see youth guys come and go at a rapid rate since I started in the ministry and have mourned the losses to my fellow churches. I have been at my church for almost 8 years now as the Student Pastor (official title). I serve at First Baptist Church in a small town south of Houston Texas. Last weekend I was privileged to stay with some great friends and through the course of our conversation it came to light that their church has not been able to keep a youth pastor for more than 2 years. They asked me why? Why is it that Youth Pastors leave so soon? What can they do to help them stay? How do we change the paradigm when the average tenure for a youth pastor is 17 months and 3 years for a senior pastor? (I know, you’ll find different numbers everywhere.)
Well, my church is awesome! So I thought I’d share with you 10 things they do that encourage me to stay. They are not in any particular order.
- Treat the youth pastor the same as all the other pastors. When my church looks at me, they see a pastor (or at least that’s what they communicate in their discussions with me). I am asked about theological issues and Biblical issues by youth and adults. I am asked how I would structure things and my input is valued as a premium. Church members listen when I give instruction and I don’t have to fight for authority. When I speak, the members grant me the same respect and gravity that they would my fellow pastors. So respect your youth pastor, he’ll stay longer.
- Make sure your staff gets along. As a congregation you can give them opportunity to get away together. This will breed fellowship among the leaders that is invaluable. Nothing will kill a youth pastor quicker than an unbalanced and contentious staff relationship. If your senior pastor micro-manages your youth pastor, he will leave. If your staff treats the youth pastor like he is second fiddle or a child and refuses to take what he is saying seriously, he will leave. Now, to be clear, there are youth guys who fit the stereotype mold and they might need to be kicked a little by their other pastors. But, most of us are hard-working, have some semblance of what makes a good leader, and we do what needs to be done. My church provides time for the staff to get away and enjoy each other and we are very connected as a result. I frequently feel as though I am serving with brothers who are laboring along-side me. I am never second fiddle and they include me in decisions. I am not treated as a child, but as a brother. We are colleagues and friends, and that’s what most youth pastors want and need in a staff.
- Help without being asked. Assume he needs you to do what you notice needs to be done and then go let him know you want to do it and do it without needing him. This doesn’t happen all the time, but my church is great about helping when it looks like I need help. One of my favorite memories was when some adults came to me and said, “we love your emphasis on teaching our students, we see this need, we’re going to do it for you.” That was an incredible blessing. Take note of what your Student Pastor does well and fill in the gaps without being asked. If we don’t want you to, we’ll tell you. While this is awkward it is far better than standing back and being upset at him for not asking for help. By nature Youth pastors tend to think that they are supposed to do EVERYTHING. When you come along-side them and just start doing the work, it frees them up to focus on what is important. My church is awesome at this!
- Pay him the same scale that you pay the other ministers. A horrific reality of youth ministry is the pay scale. I know of Pastors who make well over $100,000 serving with youth pastors who make less than $30,000 with no benefits! This is an atrocious wrong. My church pays me well and the rest of our staff is paid well too. Pay your youth guy equitably and you’ll see marked improvement in his attitude toward the position. I know a youth guy that makes $25,000 a year and is expected to work 60 hours a week (we counted them) under the supervision of a pastor who makes $75,000 a year, has less education, less experience in ministry, works a flat 40 hours a week, and has all benefits paid. Needless to say, I have his resume if any of you are looking for a hard working youth guy.
- Don’t ask your youth pastor when he is going to get a real pastor job. You may mean well, implying that he is a great leader or preacher and you think he should take a greater leadership position. But your complement comes with a devaluing of the position he is already in. We are pastors already. Value the position he is in as well as the job he does in it. Treat the position as a permanent one and do not assume a corporate ladder mentality. Most of us are not seeking to climb the invisible ladder of supposed success. Most of us are just happy to work in a church and genuinely feel as though God wants us where we are. So remember, he is called youth “pastor” because he is already a pastor. Complement his preaching or leadership, ask him about his future, but be careful not to assume he is only there to step his way up.
- Have his family to your home for dinner and/or go to his house. Relationships are incredibly valuable for youth guys. We don’t have many deep relationships because our career is built around relationships with 12-18 year-olds. Believe it or not, hanging out with a bunch of 16 year-olds on your free nights is not as fun as it sounds. The only adult fellowship most Youth Guys get is the staff at the church. Student pastors need adult fellowship beyond the staff. You can accommodate this need by providing a small group opportunity for him and his family or you can just be intentional and eat with the guy. Invest your time in your youth pastor as a friend and he will be much more likely to rethink leaving. Another positive to this is that he will take your advice more readily. We are much more likely to listen to people who know us and who we know well. So, love your youth guy and he’ll stay longer. There is a particular man at my church who took me aside when I got here and said, “what do you need in ministry.” I told him I needed a friend. It is partly because of him I have turned down some positions, so that I could maintain that friendship.
- Submit to his leadership in public and discuss disagreements with a humble heart in private. By nature of the position, youth ministry is filed with leaders who are self-conscious about their abilities to lead and insecure about their authority. We are very aware of the criticism of others and are extremely sensitive to disrespect for our position. If you have a disagreement with your youth pastor, model humility for him. He needs to learn humility, model it by submitting yourself to his leadership, even if it seems unnecessary to do so. In doing this you will show him what humble leadership is, and will encourage him to learn well how to lead well. He will stay longer. My experience at FBC has been loaded with people who will submit to my decisions even if they think I am wrong. They will respect my position and give me latitude to make mistakes. As a result, I am still here.
- Forgive his mistakes; he will make a lot of them… especially if he is good at his job. Let me explain. If you’re a youth pastor who loves students, you’re going to take some risks. You’re going to over-plan, under-budget, and offend EVERYONE in the process. (if you’re a youth guy reading this and you haven’t offended someone yet, you must be young or dense.) But these mistakes are done out of love for the students and a deep desire for Jesus’ name to be made great. He is not intentionally offending anyone, unless he has stated that offense is his objective (lol, sometimes it’s necessary.) So, he is going to make mistakes. He is going to be obnoxious. And he is going to fail you. He needs to know, failure is ok. He needs to have the freedom to do so. Let him run with abandon after a new idea and let it blow up in his face! Let him fail and you will have a much stronger youth guy in the position. He needs the freedom to exercise his creativity and the tenderness to be taught when he fails.
- Don’t give him pointless tasks that are unrelated to his passions and/or job. I remember my first weeks at FBC. I was incredibly nervous I was going to upset my senior pastor because I was unaware of some unknown task I needed to do. I was sure that I was going to be asked to set up tables, organize a party, fix some problem. I was very concerned and was even getting jittery about it. I walked into my senior pastor’s office and asked “Jim, what is it you want me to do!?” Jim Doyle sat back in his chair and said, “Teach our students the Bible and run a comprehensive youth program.” In a rather irritated tone I asked, “when are you going to ask me to set up chairs, or plan a party!?” Jim smirked, “I’m not… I want you to teach the Bible and run a comprehensive youth program.” After clarifying my job description, I left his office before any tasks could be added. It was then I realized how much FBC values this position. I’m not asked to do menial tasks. FBC asks me to do things that are related to my job and I’m not asked to do things that are inconsequential. Often I am told that I don’t need to do certain things because they would take time away from the teaching of the Word or the Students. Find your youth pastor’s passion and assign him any extra tasks that may relate to that passion, otherwise, let him work without any additional weight.
- Overlook offenses. Youth pastors can be extremely busy dealing with students and are incredibly emotionally involved with their students. Further, good youth pastors are much more concerned with your holiness than your happiness. As a result, we will often offend and sometimes forget that we need to shepherd adults as well. We may be inconsiderate, callous, or just plain unaware of and toward offenses. Forgive them without having to be asked. Model humility and mutual submission by forgiving and forgetting offense without having to bring it up. He will feel the love from you and you just might be what keeps him there. I cannot tell you how many times I have been forgiven offense without having to be asked. It is probably why I am still here.
So, I hope that helps… If you’re a youth pastor, what are some things that your church does to encourage you to stay?