The Graying of the American Youth Worker

By David Olshine | Director, Youth Ministries, Columbia International University, Columbia, S.C.; Co-founder, Youth Ministry Coaches. | December 21 2009

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" (Psalms 90:9-10).

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.

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