Are Youth Pastors An Endangered Species?

I stopped by Rob’s office on my way back from teaching a seminar at our camp.  Rob has been doing full time youth ministry in our diocese longer than the 15
years I have been in SC. In those years he has served just two churches.  Rob is a prime example of the longevity I have emphasized during my time here.  We need youth m
inistry folks to stay in one church for a while.  By “while” I mean 5 years at least. The 18 month statistic people bat around about how long the average youth pastor lasts is really about bad hiring. My predecessors taught churches how to hire the right folks, so the 18 month stat is not common here.  What I railed against in my early years here were what I call the “3 and outs”. These are folks that would do three or four years and move on - either to greener pastures or to seminary to get ordained. It delights me to see that we’ve had a good many long term youth ministers in our diocese.
Yet I arrived at Rob’s office and the title next to the door caused me to pause. Actually there were two titles, one made me chuckle as it was a bit of humor and the other was official.  The official title that he now works under is “Family Pastor”. Yet Rob is still the youth minister for the church. This is a growing trend in our diocese.  Folks who have been traditional youth pastors working primarily with middle and high school students are taking on a role that either includes young adults or adds the dimension of families and possibly children. We have several churches where someone started in children’s ministry and added youth and families and oversee a team who do the direct youth ministry.  Either way, the traditional youth pastor who worked only with teens seems to be a less frequent reality. What changed? I think there are several factors in play here.

1. Economic realities meant rethinking staffing at churches.

In the first several years of my work in SC, I did a lot of recruiting of potential Youth Ministers for our churches. We then started training our own through an apprenticeship program. However, when the economy tanked, two things happened.  One was that we had to phase out apprentice training due to budget cuts.  The other was that anyone holding a full time youth pastor job held on. It was h
ard to change jobs when the housing market had dropped.  Simply put, it was not a season to be job changing. In fact, several smaller churches eliminated the positions from their budgets once the youth minister left. Fast forward several years and we start seeing some movement among our youth ministers.  Positions opened up and we found ourselves struggling to find qualified candidates. I started asking around of people I know across the country and no one seemed to know where to find good candidates. I contacted an old acquaintance who teaches youth ministry at a college in NY to get his take on things.  He shared that there are about 100 Christian Colleges/Universities that have youth min degree programs.  Some (I suspect many actually) are now re-named Youth & Family Studies.  He also said his graduates are getting scooped u
p quickly.

2. An intergenerational shift has caused churches to restructure staffing.

I was not surprised by the trend toward Youth & Family Studies.  Several of our churches have changed from a full time youth pastor to this newer position. Some have a staff person over children, youth, and college and or families. Fewer churches are seeking the standard youth pastor who ministers to middle and h
igh school teens. Rob’s new role comes from such restructuring.  The other churches I mentioned already have done similar. We have a few youth ministers who wear multiple hats, which is part an economic decision and in part an attempt to connect the generations.  Over the past decade we have seen the Holy Spirit move among our churches towards more intergenerational ministry. The potential is great for long term effective ministry to youth and families by people who stay a good while. It actually looks like a role that a person can flourish in for longer than the average youth pastor’s tenure. It may or may not mean a pay increase but often raises the appreciation and support of the congregation.

3. Long term viability for a traditional youth minister is diminishing.

In our context, there has been an increase in what some call “clericalism”. We celebrate those who get ordained and put on the collar. It’s wonderful to celebrate God calling people to ordination, but we rarely celebrate a call to full time lay ministry. This leaves two realities.  One is the diminished felt value of traditional youth ministers, the other is economic.  Our full time lay youth ministers have generally not seen salaries rise in the past decade. For a bunch of those years, no one in the church was seeing pay increases.  However, as a youth pastor raises a family it becomes increasingly difficult to make ends meet.  So we see them struggle financially while at the same time feeling under appreciated.  Most of them know they have the skill set to get ordained and lead a congregation, so the natural thing to do is move on to ordained ministry.  A few years of seminary and their salary increases dramatically along with their status in the church. We have plenty of clergy in our diocese who are former youth ministers.  Some of them simply saw God calling them to a wider ministry. Others saw their career track as terminal and needed to shift or get out of ministry entirely. We don’t want churches to view youth ministry as a stepping stone to ordination. It does not serve the church well for people to come in and do youth ministry for a few years and then jump on the ordination track. An intergenerational position may alleviate the difficulty of being undervalued and underpaid. It’s also helped churches to shift their ministry focus in to that of connecting the generations.

So, where does that leave us for finding the traditional youth minister? By that I mean the guy or gal devoted to focusing on the spiritual needs of teens?  There remains a need in our larger churches for full time people to do this work and in larger congregations these folks need to be experienced. Are youth pastors becoming an endangered species?  If so, the only solution that I can think of is for larger churches to run apprenticeship programs that train and prepare younger men and women to step into these roles. If the need in other churches are people who work with multiple generations, we need to train those who are called to that ministry and celebrate their calling as well.