REWARD: “Lost dog. Three legs, blind in left eye, right ear missing, tail broken, recently neutered. Answers to the name Lucky.”—from a newspaper classified ad
Ever feel like Lucky? Maybe your tail isn’t broken and you don’t have three legs, but you’re getting older. Aging is part of the deal. Oh sure, we do what we can to stunt its growth: We join health clubs, eat broccoli, sit in the sauna, drink decaf. We study magazines about medical discoveries. We even start paying attention to viagra and menopause commercials. Still, aging happens. Your back goes out more than you do. Everything hurts—and what doesn’t hurt doesn’t work as well as it once did.
Our culture, however, is youth-focused. Young is in, old is out. Almost every TV show and movie pokes fun at seniors. Even the psalmist laments, “We finish our years with a moan, the length of our days is 70 years—or 80, if we have the strength, yet their span is but trouble and sorrow, for they quickly pass, and we fly away” (
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. Youth ministry is viewed largely as a calling, a mission, a lifetime position for men and women. Youth ministry is taken so seriously that tens of 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 over 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.
The general assumption regarding what churches are looking for? Easy. Athletic guy in his early 20s who can play games and keep up with the teens and knows all about youth culture and Scripture—or a vivacious woman in her early 20s who can do slumber parties and keep the girls away from bad influences.
Yet 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 with 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!
Stages of Development
Whether it’s infancy, middle to late childhood, adolescence, or adulthood, life development stages are pertinent to emotional growth. Each stage contains biological, psychological, socioemotional and cognitive dimensions—and these dimensions are signposts for what individuals can expect during specific life periods.
Psychiatrist Roger Gould, in his seminal work on adult development, gives a description of seven stages. Stages four through seven are most relevant to youth workers:
Stage Age Development
• 29-34 Questioning self; role confusion; marriage and career vulnerable to dissatisfaction
• 35-43 Period of urgency to attain life goals; aware of time limitations; realignment of life goals
• 43-53 Settling down; acceptance of ones life
• 53-60 More tolerance; acceptance of past; less negativism; general mellowing
Many of you reading these words are middle adults—between the ages of 35 and 43 (and sometimes even into your 60s). According to researchers, you’re generally concerned with making a difference in the world, maintaining your careers and rearing children.
Daniel Levinson views midlife as a “crisis,” thus the term midlife crisis that gets thrown around so much. It’s a time when adults are suspended between the past and the future—and for some, it’s an intense struggle. It can be a time of stress, disillusionment and questioning. Levinson also likens midlife to adolescence (sound familiar?) when adults ask complex questions: Who am I? Where have I missed it? Is this what I want to do with the rest of my life?
Aging beyond midlife doesn’t have to be traumatic. Gail Sheehy—in her best-selling 1995 book New Passages—sees the 50s as a time of hope, optimism, freedom and new adventures. The “Flaming Fifties,” as she calls them, can be a decade of reminders, laughter, challenges and discovery. While you’re reminded of your mortality, you also can experience positive self-reflection and feel young again. It’s when many ship off the kids and enter an “empty nest”—often a joyous experience and a time for rekindling the marriage relationship.
Where do you fit into the developmental continuum? Again, it’s important to understand the typical patterns of your stage so you know what to expect as you go through your life and ministry.
Youth Ministry and Aging
What are the negatives and positives of being an older youth worker? Here’s what the men and women I interviewed had to say.
1. Lack of Presence. Almost everyone said that being a friend—being “with” teens—has become more difficult as they’ve aged. “I’m not as interested in hanging out with kids as I used to be,” says Craig, a 10-year vet. “I’d rather invest my life in a few teens and adults. I desire more to train these days. With a family of my own, going out to a movie with teens is getting harder to pull off.”
2. Lack of Relevance. Cheryl says, “It’s harder to stay in touch with kids and their music than it used to be; and when I have to work hard at keeping in step with their world, the kids think it’s humorous that I’m trying so hard!” Anthony, only 32, adds: “My students perceive me as old and outdated!”
The Good (Leaders with Seven Cs)
According to those who know, the good stuff seems to fit seven leadership areas: Character, care, conflict resolution, change, creativity, credibility and commitment.
1. Character. Coach John Wooden—who led the UCLA Bruins to 10 national titles in 12 years—constantly preached character to his players. “Be more concerned with your character than with your reputation,” he once said. “Your character is what you really are while your reputation is merely what others think you are.”
Jill, a youth worker in her mid-30s, says, “I never really understood as a 20-year-old working with Young Life that students watched every move I made. I just didn’t get the fact that I made impressions on people, whether I liked it or not.”
2. Care. “I’m not sure I cared about anybody but myself when I was just starting out,” says Justin, “but as I grow and mature in Christ, I’m able to really listen and care authentically.” Eric says, “I needed so much affirmation and encouragement as a rookie youth worker that I didn’t know how to reach out without looking for immediate rewards and benefits. It was just hard to know how to care sometimes.”
3. Conflict Resolution. No one enjoys conflict and the process of resolving it. Nehemiah faced attacks while trying to do God’s will. Paul was criticized continually. Youth workers feel the fire from many fronts, as well—but older youth workers weather these storms better. “I think I handle this area better each year I get older,” says Jeff. “Once I was accused by a parent of being a poor administrator, and another parent said I was bad relationally! So then I am thinking, ‘Who’s right here?”
Cheryl says, “I’ve learned with the aging process that I don’t always have to react and say what I feel when attacked.”
4. Change. Getting older in youth ministry involves noticing change—how students change, how the church changes and maybe most importantly how you change. “I realize that change takes time,” says Ben. “The process can be really slow. Church boards get political. I didn’t learn in seminary how incredibly mean people in the church can be when it comes to money, staffing or resources. I’ve had to learn patiently that the process is just as important as the final product.”
5. Creativity. They might not know all the brand-new nuances of doing ministry, but older youth workers are learning more and more how to think outside the box, to paint outside the lines. As I look at most of the leaders of today’s major youth ministry organizations—Jim Burns of the National Institute of Youth Ministry, Mike Yaconelli of Youth Specialties, Barry St. Clair of Reach Out Solutions, Ron Luce of Teen Mania, Paul Fleishman of the National Network—none of them are in their 20s! But they’re very innovative, strategic leaders with a mission. They’re entrepreneurial. Intentional. They see the big picture. They resist the one-size-fits-all mentality.
6. Credibility. With age and maturity comes strength in the midst of pressure; a balance between grace and justice, input and output; a passion for ministry—but humility enough to take a weekly Sabbath from the tyranny of the urgent; a new respect for and from parents, contentment, honesty, stability: From all of that comes credibility.
7. Committed. The Apostle Paul fought the good fight. He finished the race. He kept the faith. He finished well. He was committed, “…beaten with rods, stoned, shipwrecked, in danger in the city and the country, labored without food, cold and naked” (
Perhaps we should rewrite the latter words for the aging youth worker: “I sat up all night and counseled a suicidal kid; got yelled at by parents; served the poor; went on many mission trips; put up with disinterested teenagers; got laughed at when I walked into the high school cafeteria to eat lunch with students in my youth group; watched a teen die of AIDS; did a funeral for a bulimic; led teens to Christ; saw students run from God’s love; preached; taught; laughed; sang my heart out to God; prayed over dozens going into full-time Christian ministry; cried; hugged; waded through a lot of junk; and when I look back, I’d do it all over again because of Jesus and the difference He makes in kids’ lives.”
The Middle Years: A Marathon Race
Hans Finzel writes about his experience running a marathon. “The middle years…are much like the middle of a marathon. Without question, the middle is the hardest. The beginning was euphoric, and the end was pure adrenaline as I saw the finish line within view; but in the middle I got tired and discouraged and almost gave up hope that I would have what it would take to finish. I felt like quitting…”
If you’re thinking of giving up, if you’re convinced you can’t do it anymore, if you don’t know if you can finish the race, here are some things you can do to refocus and reenergize:
1. Find a Paul, Be a Timothy. Few youth workers in their late 30s and 40s have older mentors. Two years ago I realized I had no clue about how to enter the middle part of the fourth decade. I needed wisdom, navigating. I needed a Paul. So I swallowed my pride and Lone Ranger spirit and got serious. I started praying and searched—and found one! We meet every other week, and it has blessed me beyond words. Find a wise, older person to walk with you.
2. Be a Paul, Find a Timothy. Pour yourself into a handful of people in whom you can invest your knowledge. They might be students; they might be volunteers. These are good choices. but there might be even better choices: How about 20-something, paid, youth workers who need your discernment and experience? Pour yourself into them and it will bring about high dividends.
3. Discover a Barnabas. I meet weekly with two men close to my age who are also in ministry. We’re accountable to and pray for each other, but the majority of our time is spent doing what Barnabas did for Paul—encouraging. (Barnabas means “son of encouragement.”) We not only focus on going deeper spiritually but also talk about our marriages, our kids, school, ministry, why pro-basketball players make so much money and our golf games!
4. Don’t Try to Be God. The need to fix people’s problems and hurts is a sign of youthfulness, according to Steve Bradley: “Now I believe the Holy Spirit is the Comforter and Helper, not me. That doesn’t mean I don’t care, because I do; but I must get out of the way and let the Spirit have His way.”
5. Define and Reframe It. If It means hanging out with kids 24-7, you’re right—you can’t do it. If It means changing the focus of your ministry, you can do it. You can change your season and style of ministry. It may mean going from program-driven to discipleship-intensive ministry, from Lone Rangerism to more delegation, from peer groups to family-based models. Consider your options. Richie has moved from a “buddy” model of ministry to “shepherd” model; Rick has slowed his drivenness and focused more on training adults; Suzie has chosen to delegate; Seth has left parachurch ministry to do youth ministry consultation; Archie is moving from a megachurch to start a nonprofit ministry doing youth missions. Define and reframe It.
6. Be a Proactive Learner. Stephen Covey speaks of being a “lifelong learner.” As American youth workers get grayer, they need to listen and learn—and look for those opportunities. That’s what mature leadership is all about. Read, ask questions, engage people in dialogue. Too many youth workers never read. Start small—but start soon.
7. KISS (Keep It Simple Sweetheart). Love the Lord with all your heart and love your neighbor as yourself. Do a prayer retreat. Get silent before God. Take communion. As Gordon McDonald’s best-seller indicates, order your private world.
8. Don’t Believe the Lie. Former Israeli prime minister Golda Meir once said, “Old age is like a plane flying through a storm. Once you’re aboard, there’s nothing you can do.” She’s wrong; that statement’s not true. Many youth leaders have bought into the lie that you have to be young to be fruitful and effective. Nothing could be further from the truth. Tell that to Chuck Swindoll, Elizabeth Elliot, Bill Bright, Billy Graham. Tell that to yourself! There is something you can do. Keep on keeping on. Working with students is not wasting your life.
9. Prepare Practically for the Future. This week I’m meeting with Gary, a financial planner, to help me assess my family’s portfolio. Because I’m not good with understanding investments, I need help. My daughter is two years away from college; and with an infant coming, we need guidance. We need to look at our 403 and 401, and possibly switch to better markets. We have redone our wills and remortgaged our home with a better finance plan. These are issues every youth worker needs to consider.
10. Be a Team Player. I’ve been praying about starting an organization, but I have come to grips with one fact: I can’t do it alone. Watching the NBA, I’m amazed at how Shaq needs Kobe…and Glenn Rice…and A.C. Green. Like basketball, youth ministry is a team game. I need to surround myself with good people who have diverse gifts. Think “we.” People who allow others into their worlds—weaknesses and all—will win. Besides, Bob Buford says the game of life is won or lost in the second half of life—not the first.
Survivors: Finish Well
Rhonda, Rachel and I went to Europe four years ago. In addition to eating lots of pasta and gelato, we saw the Vatican and St. Peter’s Basilica. We visited the site one afternoon 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.
“Survivor” was the hot TV show this summer. 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. And I want you to be one. 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!