From Calling to Career: 13 Steps for Becoming a Youth Ministry Professional

I sort of fell into youth ministry. It hadn’t been on my career path at all. Everything changed when I was offered a job at a summer camp and began to interact with amazing churches and leaders.

I was a teacher at the time—as were others in my family—and thought that was the direction I was going to continue, but God started tugging at my heart and showing me that where I was most gifted was in sharing life with students.

When I became an intern at a church in Pasadena, Calif., I didn’t recognize what an amazing opportunity this was for me. I was on staff with Kara Powell, Mark Oestreicher, Jim Marian and Jim Belcher—people who now are recognized as youth ministry experts.

It was a great first season of ministry and growth. As an intern or a regional director as we were called, I got my feet wet learning the ropes of youth ministry without having too much of the responsibility or the criticism. Those duties all were saved for my boss, the youth pastor. I wasn’t planning to stop teaching; but through a series of events the high school pastor position opened, and I was offered the chance to be the interim high school pastor.

I was at that church more than two years as the interim when they hired a new youth pastor, then I was in the job hunt. At that time, I had to decide if youth ministry was going to be my career. I spent a lot of time praying, talking to others and reading about this calling. Because I pretty much had fallen into it early, I felt at this time in my life I needed to make a conscious decision about whether I would continue.

That was 15 years ago. I’m still doing it. Now according to some people, I’m a professional youth worker! I learned many things along the way that might actually help you. YWJ‘s editor asked me to pass on some of these lessons.

Pursue Professional Growth
One area in which I’ve felt I have been helping youth workers for a while is knowing how to take steps to ensure the job they take can become a career and will allow them to grow into a professional youth worker.

Let’s be honest: Not all jobs can turn into careers. There are plenty of churches that seem to be OK with having a revolving door of youth workers. It might even be a good model for them. They pay little, expect a lot and rapidly cycle through people.

That’s not the kind of job you want. You want a position that pays you a living wage, takes care of basic benefits, comes with senior leadership that cares about you and is willing to mentor, coach or at the very least have your back.

You need a church that encourages staff members to care for themselves. This is important—you need to take steps toward taking care of yourself—but watch out. A particular church may not care for you very much if:
• It won’t send you to a conference at least once a year;
• It doesn’t give you money to buy resources to care for your soul, as well as your students;
• It doesn’t let you take a day off after a three-day weekend retreat with middle scholars or go home early after staying out late for a student function the night before.

Those are all red flags.

Here are other tips and advice I can offer as you transition into becoming a professional youth worker. Not all will apply to you, but I bet enough will that the list will be worth thinking through.

1. Becoming a professional youth worker is a decision, but it may not be your decision.
If God doesn’t make your calling very clear and if it isn’t confirmed by others, then maybe this is not the right decision or timing. Many people never take the step to a career in youth ministry because it’s just not what they are called to do. That’s OK. Do it for a season and love it, then do something else. However, if you are called to it for a career, embrace it and know that God has called you to something terrifyingly amazing.

2. Help your church view your job as a professional position.
Some churches don’t view their youth pastor positions as professions. They either see the role as a steppingstone to something else or clearly do things that make that role seem not as important as others. If you are at such a church, it is hard to be taken seriously and be treated as a professional. You have little leeway to mess up or flexibility to try new things.

On the other hand, if the church believes the role of youth pastor is a professional position you often will be treated with greater respect, be provided more resources and receive greater investment into you. If you want to be professional and have this as a career, make sure you are at a church that wants this, as well.

3. Grow up, and grow in your skills.
I started in youth ministry in my early 20s. Initially I wasn’t always organized, on time, a good communicator, solid with budgets or timely. As I’ve grown in these areas I’ve found that my church treats me much more as a professional. This took awhile for me to understand, but the longer I do it the more great results I see.
Figure out your weaknesses and work on them. Go to conferences where you can focus on specific areas. Read books. Ask for help.

4. Learn how to establish boundaries.
Most professional youth workers have figured out how to separate their lives from their ministries and how to appropriately say no to things. The truth is you either will learn how to do this, or you will burn out and likely quit or get fired.

Being professional means you know how to take care of yourself, your family (if you have one) and you don’t jump at everything everyone wants you to do. The truth is that your church will value you more if they know you love your job but also value healthy living.

5. Build relationships with other professionals.
I love networking because I love learning from people who have stuff figured out better than I do. If you are a young youth worker, find some older youth workers and ask them how they have lasted so long.

6. Find the right job.
There are plenty of youth ministry jobs out there, but many of them are not professional jobs. You probably can get hired for one of these lesser positions easily, but keeping it for the long haul may be tough.

My advice: Look on a few of the good jobs online at places such as Youth Specialties (YouthSpecialties.com) and Church Staffing (ChurchStaffing.com) or on other job boards operated by your seminary, college or denomination. When you find a position that seems to fit, network like crazy. You will be better off being referred to something than cold calling, and you likely will find out more about the church from a trusted source than a job posting.

7. Interview your employer.
During an interview, you always will be asked, “Do you have any questions for us?” I suggest you prepare a big list of questions. Better yet, when they send you the questionnaire they send to candidates, send them one of your own. The more you know about the church, the better off you will be. Ask history questions and future questions. Find out if your potential employers know what they really want and what their vision is.

8. Negotiate the right compensation package for the long haul.
This is probably the area where youth pastors are taken advantage of the most. Interviewing, negotiating and knowing what to ask for can be difficult. That’s why you shouldn’t do this alone. Have some people in your life whom you can ask about what to do.

A $30,000 salary may sound great when you’re just out of college, but if your employer doesn’t cover your medical benefits and you don’t receive any cost-of-living adjustments or conference costs, it’s probably not that great a deal. You only have one shot to negotiate, so you will want to do it right the first time. If you negotiate well, you will be in a solid position that you can feel good about for years. What you don’t want to do is to say yes then find out you can’t live on the salary you accepted.

My advice is to have the conversation early in the negotiating or interview process. Don’t wait until the very end when you’ve interviewed multiple times and have been selected as the final candidate to find out they’re only going to offer you $25,000 a year. At that point, you already may be emotionally invested in the position and might not make a good decision.

At least get a salary range first. Group magazine regularly publishes youth ministry salary surveys. The 2007 survey can be found here.

9. Get a raise.
In current economic times, it’s tough to get a raise. However, there are still some things you can do. First, do your job well and exceed expectations. I don’t mean work 80 hours a week, but do it well. Second, ask for a raise at life transitions. Examples include: graduating from school, having a baby, being ordained, being licensed, completing a certificate program.

The more transitions you can move through, the better for your chances of receiving raises. What that means is you have to be growing professionally and show your church that you are growing for its benefit.

10. Be respected and liked.
Many times in the youth ministry world we are overly concerned with how students perceive us, but not so much adults. It’s great when students like you, but I would argue it’s sometimes more important when janitors do. What you don’t want to do is neglect relationships with the rest of the church.

Make sure you are not a blur in the parking lot, moving from one place to the other with no time to connect with people. I’ve been guilty of this before, and it has not helped me. Take the time to interact with the rest of the church and thank the staff members for how much they do. Let them know how what they do impacts students. There was a season when we would take the janitors out to lunch once a year just to thank them for all they do to clean up after us and so they would know how much what they do matters.

11. Be treated as a professional.
I’m tempted to say, “Act like one,” here, but I think that’s not quite so helpful for youth workers. The best way I know how to do this is to understand fully what your role is and make sure others do, as well. Youth workers are advocates for teenagers, but you are not a teenager. That means you speak to the world of teenagers and translate that to the rest of the church body, but you don’t act like a teenager. You can act like one sometimes when you are with them; but with the rest of the church, if it thinks of you as a teenager you lose.

12. Pursue the senior leadership.
If the only time you meet with anyone in senior leadership at your church is when there is a problem, you already are fighting an uphill battle. You need to foster relationships proactively with leaders at your church.

Make sure they know your heart for students. Tell them what’s going on in the ministry—good and bad. Let them ask you questions and give you feedback. They will feel as if you value them and that you are on the same team. They likely will have your back if issues arise.

13. Grow in your relationship with the Lord.
My pastor likes to say he was called to his job and God never has called him away from it. He’s also one of the most disciplined people I’ve ever met. His daily reading and prayer time is a huge part of his life. I’ve learned by watching him that the only way to stay in this thing for the long haul is to continue to grow your faith, your love for God and your desire to serve Him and His people.

Following these steps will be a good start for you, but you’ll need to figure out what being a professional means in your particular church context. You should ask a lot of questions and try to discern the culture of leadership within your church. Slowly work on growing yourself, and you will be on the right path.

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Lars Rood

Lars Rood has been working with students and living a fun adventure for many years. He lives in Washington with his family and loves coffee, dreams and memories. He's realized writing this article that he needs more adventure. Lars is the author of a series of youth devotional books from Simply Youth Ministry/Group Publishing, which you can check out on his website at LarsRood.com.