I was in my late 20s when I attended my first National Youth Workers Convention. Everyone there looked as if he or she was 20-something.
No longer. The heads in the last few youth ministry conventions I’ve attended have been looking a lot grayer; or maybe I’m just aware of them now, having aged with them.
No Fountain of Youth, But…
A sense of grace and calling from God can renew a fatigued person and restore a measure of drive and commitment—and sometimes, even spurts of explosive energy. Wasn’t Abram called to leave Ur at 75? Wasn’t Moses called to lead Israel at 80?
Calling has little if anything to do with age—yet we are often too quick to let age determine our calling. Of course, people eventually should retire, whether from youth ministry, bus driving or banking. All I’m saying is that whatever your age—regardless of the number—follow your calling whatever it is.
God’s grace and calling can surround your aging process, as well as your profession Here, too, it can produce contentment.
We know aging can lead to contentment or discouragement. On the other hand, growing older can lead to growing contentment. Older leaders are content with who they are (that is, their strengths) and who they aren’t (their limitations).
In Front Porch Tales, Philip Gulley writes, “When I was younger, I was consumed with the idea of being known. I aspired to a big pulpit in a big city making a big name for myself. What I’ve gotten instead is a small pulpit in a big city, making a lot of friends. Sometimes what we think we need isn’t what we need at all.”
Face it: Sometimes we don’t know what we need. “I’ve learned by now how to be quite content whatever my circumstances,” said the apostle Paul, who when he wrote this to the Philippian Christians was alone, growing older in prison, his physical body showing the years’ wear and tear. Yet the apostle retained a profound degree of contentment—of being OK with himself, with who he was and whose he was. “Whatever I have, wherever I am,” he wrote, “I can make it through anything in the One who makes me who I am.” Paul never forgot that he was connected to Jesus Christ, who would power him through his own aging.
The Costs of Staying in Ministry as an Oldster
“What are the disadvantages of being an older youth worker?” I asked the middle-aged-and-still-in-ministry attendees at a recent National Youth Workers Convention. Their responses focused on their diminished physical and mental energies.
“I’m worn out. I’m tired,” confessed one of the forum participants. “Constantly, frankly,” he added, “my love for the church has waned during the past few years.”
Other youth workers articulated their fatigue:
• “Lock-ins wear me out. Anymore, my limit is 11 p.m.”
• “Repelling and rock climbing just plain hurt.”
• “My energy level isn’t what it used to be.”
• “I can’t sleep on the floor.”
• “My creativity has gone down the drain.”
It was clear that many in the room felt that their drive and passion were gone, their energy depleted; and what they really wanted was a long nap now and then.
“The financial stress is driving me crazy.”
No one goes into youth ministry to get rich. Still, many in the forum complained of a poor financial status, due primarily to being undercompensated by their employing church. Just about everyone could relate to economic hardships, low cost-of-living increases and few incremental raises. Many at the forum hadn’t seen a raise in two years.
“I’m not as focused anymore.”
Yes, clarity often comes with age; but the youth workers at the forum spoke about losing the clarity of purpose they once had. This resembled burnout more than mere boredom. In fact, the way many described it leaned toward mild depression: “Is there anything I do with teens anymore that really matters?”
“I’m not enjoying ministry as I once did. All I want to do is have some fun.” These youth workers could sing that right along with Sheryl Crow. The fun isn’t fun anymore. Church is a drag; meetings are dull.
“What are my options?”
Few at the forum felt they had any marketable skills outside youth ministry. “Who will hire me?” asked one full-time male youth pastor. “I have a bachelor’s degree and a decade and a half of local church ministry. How does that translate into the mainstream job market?”
“I feel like I’m always frustrated.”
Though this is hardly unique to over-40 youth workers, 20 years of it can wear on you. Chronic problems: budget crunches, tension with parents, little supervisorial encouragement, etc. only reduce one’s threshold for frustration.
What You Gain: Six Benefits of Staying in Ministry as an Oldster
Forum members also offered more than 45 advantages of staying in youth ministry while growing into middle age—advantages that could be bundled into six general categories.
1) A decreasing learning curve: “You keep learning from your mistakes,” said a female participant, “and the older you get, the faster and easier it is to process those issues. Just having lived longer counts for a lot in ministry,” she said, adding, “These days, I work smarter, not harder.”
2) Thicker skin: Aging youth workers don’t wear their feelings (or their principles) on their sleeves as novices tend to do. “I know I’m no longer cool,” said one, “but unlike 10 years ago, that fact doesn’t bother me now—or my students for that matter.”
3) Credibility: Older youth workers usually are perceived to have been around the block enough times to be trusted. Forum members overwhelmingly agreed that such credibility is due mostly to gradually becoming peers of students’ parents—simply a matter of passing time.
4) Authentic counseling: “I’ve become a better listener and counselor as I’ve gotten older,” said one of the forum participants. “I think I’m more tender, but I don’t believe in giving easy answers anymore.”
“I have more extra time now,” a volunteer youth work said. “I’m more available to be a surrogate parent to teens with absentee or divorced parents.”
5) Trend tracking: Many thought they could spot youth trends more easily as they age; though most of them confessed they had trouble keeping up with all the music groups, they were able to familiarize themselves quickly with trends (most commonly the Internet).
6) Approachability: Most of these over-40 youth workers believed they were safe to talk to and confide in. “I’m amazed how many more students were willing to share their hurts and problems with me now compared to a decade ago,” said one, reflecting a consensus in the room.
Older Is Better than You Think
In the course of the past four decades, youth ministry has become a legitimate, professional vocation. The stereotype of the immature youth worker who loves Jesus and seeks out kids until a senior pastorate opens up has faded away in America.
Instead, youth ministry is viewed largely as a calling, a mission, a lifetime position. Youth ministry is taken so seriously that thousands of youth workers across the country attend seminars and conferences dedicated to the profession.
In addition, an academic model for training youth leaders has emerged during the past two decades. Many colleges and seminaries offer bachelors, masters and doctoral programs in youth ministry. Many classes at this level include adolescent development theory, techniques on counseling youths and families, theology and models of evangelism and discipleship.
What does all this mean? Youth workers are staying in the field longer, and the average student majoring in youth ministry is getting older.
What’s the general assumption regarding what churches are looking for? Easy. An athletic guy in his early 20s who can play games, keep up with the teens and knows all about youth culture and Scripture—or a vivacious woman in her early 20s who can oversee slumber parties and keep the girls away from bad influences.
Still, surveys for the southern states show that most organizations want older youth workers—usually early- to mid-30s, married with families. Some churches even want 40-year-old youth pastors—those vets who’ve tried walking on water, sank through the waves a number of times, got back into the boat and are now stable and wise.
It’s apparent that churches and parachurches are becoming more concerned about their youth leaders’ longevity and are willing to pay to get them and keep them. Some southern denominations want their youth workers to have seminary degrees before they’re hired. It seems experience is welcomed over youthful passion.
Why? Because younger leaders are more prone to frustration with the system and due to inexperience leave prematurely. Therefore the church, justifiably so, goes after the gray hairs. Older youth workers know the grass isn’t greener elsewhere. Plus, they know that wherever they go, the grass has to be cut!
Survivors: Finish Well
My family traveled to Italy a few years ago. In addition to eating lots of pasta and gelato, we saw the Vatican and St. Peter’s Basilica. One afternoon, we visited the site where some believe the apostle Paul was imprisoned. It was perhaps in this cold, dark, damp cell that Paul etched his final, powerful words: “I have fought the good fight; I have finished the race; I have kept the faith.”
In America, “Survivor” was the hot TV show during the summer when we visited Rome. A number of men and women were stranded on a deserted island, and each week someone was voted off by the group. The last person left got a million dollars. Even though Paul didn’t get that kind of money, he was a true survivor.
I want to be a true survivor, too. I want you to be one, as well. May you finish well—gray hairs and all. Your heavenly Father has been with you from the beginning and will be with you to the finish line.
Run the race, and run to win!