I remember the first time I heard someone describe himself as a lifer—not a right-to-lifer or a Miller High Lifer (come on…)—but a youth ministry lifer. I was finishing seminary, had just taken a job on an interim basis at a church as a youth pastor (thinking I’d be there for six months, maybe a year), and I went to a large youth ministry conference where a speaker passionately discussed how tired he was of those who considered youth ministry as something of a stepping stone. “We need people who are devoted to this as a calling, not just someone who uses this as a step along the way to something else.” I wanted to shrink back into my seat, because I knew I pretty much accidentally landed in youth ministry, that it was a good fit for me for a while, but I had no intention of doing it beyond maybe a couple years, certainly no more than five.
Fifteen years later, I’m still in the same job. When I tell people I’ve been in youth ministry that long, their eyes get big as if I’ve just told them I ate a 3-pound hamburger. So I must be one of those lifers now, right? No, actually I don’t feel that’s true.
Looking back, I see why that conference speaker said what he said. When you have devoted your life to something, it can feel offensive for someone to come along and treat it as if it’s something of a hobby or a means to an end. Having served in one church for this long, I am the first one to admit youth pastors should stay as long as possible in one place. There are things I am able to do now because of the trust I’ve earned in the church and community that would have been impossible had I moved on to a different position.
At the same time, I don’t know that I will be doing this job 10 years from now, and I’m not sure that matters. In fact, there was never a time when I felt called to youth ministry per se. I entered seminary believing I would be a worship pastor or church planter; and when I graduated, this job was open at a church up the road. That interim position became permanent, and I have seen God do things here that I never would have dreamed possible. It’s been an absolute joy, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything. If God has me here for another 15 years, it would be a double blessing.
Yet, I don’t think it’s necessary for me to identify myself as a lifer. I’m a pastor who has been able to evangelize, disciple and encourage youth and their families in one community for the past 15 years, but who knows? I might be here for another 15, but maybe God will call me to a different youth ministry position next year or ask me to step away from youth ministry entirely. Will that mean my time in youth ministry was a stepping stone? No. Was youth ministry a stepping stone for Bill Hybels and Andy Stanley, youth ministers turned mega-church pastors? Some might say so, but it clearly made a difference in the lives of those youth, as well as prepared them for the next step in their ministries.
To those who would proudly identify themselves as youth ministry lifers, I’d say: “Fantastic! The church is blessed by your unwavering commitment.” For me, I’ll only know if I was a lifer when the last chapter has been written; and honestly, that’s not the most important question. The most important question is: Am I being faithful to the calling on my life today?