It has been one year since you hired your youth minister and you are wondering what went wrong. Or, you are a youth minister completing your first year and you are thinking you made a mistake. The Youth Ministry Institute has helped over 50 churches in their search for a new youth minister. Having worked directly with churches for nearly a decade and observing churches and youth ministers at work together for another two decades, I have a few observations which may be helpful to you at this point.
1. Beginning optimistically. When a youth minister is hired, churches are ALWAYS excited about the new possibilities. Optimism is strongest here. As the year progresses, optimism fades to realism. I tell youth ministers (and churches when I conduct pre-hiring focus groups) that youth ministers get hired for who they are and fired for who they aren’t. After a year the church has a pretty good handle on the shortcomings of their youth minister.
2. The testing period. For most youth ministers (and other church employees) the roughest period of time is between 12 and 18 months. The church typically is struggling through one or more of the following issues.
- Will the youth minister stay? If there has been a history of frequent turnover, the church is probably in the habit of distancing itself from the youth minister at this point. While not purposeful, church members are preparing themselves for what is inevitable (in their minds) based on their most recent experiences.
- This person is not like the last youth minister. Living in the shadow of the past is always difficult. If the past youth minister was popular (or at least popular with some), then this testing period is meant to coerce the present youth minister to give up. The next one might be more like the popular one. Or, in some situations, the popular one may still be available (or involved in the church in another capacity).
- Expectations don’t match skills. Expectations are not aligned with the skills of the youth minister. The youth minister may lack experience to handle the complexities of the job. Anyone in their first seven years of practicing youth ministry hasn’t yet learned all of the tools needed to navigate the complexities of working in a church with as many bosses as the sum of youth in the group, parents, staff and church members. The Youth Ministry Institute has a great training and coaching program for people in this situation (editor’s bias).
- Who is in control? Unfortunately, there is always a battle of power, or, more accurately, a redistribution of roles. This is a natural part of transition and is often overlooked. It is magnified in church work because there is a pervasive feeling that “everyone should just get along.” During the first year, everyone is feeling out their roles with little push back. It is new and people want to “wait and see.” At the year mark, it is real. And, if there is significant role change, confusion or distrust, things will become worse before it gets better.
3. Persevere!!! Romans 5:3-5 says, “Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us.” This is my Go-To Scripture. I believe in calling. And, I believe in process. If the church and youth minister do a great job of discerning calling and are committed to a process that observes the employment “fit” from multiple angles, we should trust it and persevere. The benefit of fully committing to one another is greater than starting all over again.
4. Don’t just persevere. You may keep doing the same thing, getting the same results. Recognize the season of employment you are in. In fact, own it by identifying the possible dysfunction. Address the reasons for the testing period first. For example, claim the fact there have been many youth ministers with short tenures and the church intends to correct that with this hire. Or, celebrate the past successes and allow people to dream about future successes. Or, talk about the roles and responsibilities while recognizing the emotional outcomes that might possibly result. Or, get the youth minister the training and coaching he or she may need to navigate challenges.
5. Practice intentional strategy building. Involve everyone (or as many as reasonable). Get everybody on the same page, moving the same direction. This will take time and be painful as not everyone will want to move the same direction. The key is giving everyone input and valuing opinions while at the same time allowing people to process and appreciate the opinions of others. Be sure to include helpful evaluative tools to insure you are moving in the correct direction. For youth ministers and clergy with strong opinions: This doesn’t mean you take a back seat. This means you listen well and share your opinions equally. Chances are good, given your position in the church structure, your opinions will be given the proper weight.
6. This is a great time to grow. Youth ministers have more to learn when times are difficult than they will ever learn when times are good. This testing period is an opportunity for great growth and should be approached in that manner. There may be bad habits a youth minister must first unlearn before he or she can learn new approaches to ministry.
7. No one stays in a job forever. Everybody quits. There will be an end to this employment relationship, too. Obviously, if there is gross misconduct, the youth minister should be terminated immediately. However, in most cases, misconduct is not the issue. Rather than leaving during the testing period, leave when the youth ministry is going great, placing the church in an optimal position to hire the next person.
If the fit really is bad, it is nearly impossible to fully evaluate that in the first two years. Doing the hard work before a church hires and during the inevitable transition and testing period will pay dividends to the ministry. More importantly, more youth will understand the love of Jesus and the grace afforded to everyone. They will see it lived out in their own church.
Steve Schneeberger is the Executive Director of the Youth Ministry Institute. Beginning in 1985, Steve began a vocation as a youth minister serving churches in Kansas and Florida. He is a 1981 graduate of Shawnee Mission West High School in Overland Park, Kansas, has a business degree from Baker University (1985) and a law degree from the University of Kansas (1988). He is married to Carol, an elementary school teacher and former counselor. They have three children. Steve consults, coaches and teaches Visioning, Organizing and Planning for Success, Budgeting, Helping Youth Over Developmental Hurdles, Beginning Leadership – Mastering the Core Competencies, Conflict Resolution and Expecting Great Behavior for the Youth Ministry Institute.