I believe in youth ministry. In the same way we are called to minister to senior citizens as they make the transitions of old age and help those living in poverty find ways to live with dignity and help young families with the challenges of modern parenthood, the Church has an opportunity to serve young people as communities of elders, parents, singles and professionals who can usher young people through the transitions in their lives.
For many churches, the pivotal accomplishment of youth ministry is hiring a youth minister: An individual with the skills, faith, experience and, most importantly, “gifts with young people”. Unfortunately, for many, hiring the youth minister becomes the end, not the beginning of an exciting ministry.
I work with and support many fantastic youth ministers serving God faithfully and, through a lot of hard work and prayerful support from their parishes, are doing some great, creative ministry with young people. I have also sat with too many others who have felt caught in a “bait and switch”. They were excited to accept an opportunity to serve in youth ministry, expecting a community that would support them, only to find that they were expected to create a youth ministry from scratch with no financial, prayer or volunteer support. Not only that, but after a year when they have done some important foundation building but there is no increase in the “bums and pews”, the rumours are now starting that, in next year’s budget, their position will be cut.
You can expect a follow up post about when to know you are ready to hire a youth minister but, more urgently, many churches need to consider the possibility they are not ready. The good news is that none of these are final. These are not signs that you will never be ready to hire a youth minister, but things to start working on within your community before you start writing up that job description.
1. There is no long-term congregational development plan or, worse, hiring a youth minister is your long term plan
If you get nothing else out of this post, read this: youth ministry does not happen on its own. A common solution is, “if we just get more young people, then we will grow.” Any sentence that starts with “If we just…” is oversimplifying and simply isn’t going to work.
Youth ministry is too vulnerable and unpredictable in its early stages to pin an entire community’s hopes on. The pressure of being your only congregational development strategy will stifle any possibilities out of fear that it will not work. A healthy youth ministry exists as part of a longer plan which includes faith development of the whole congregation, stewardship and reaching out to the wider community.
2. The lead cleric has said, “I am not gifted with young people”.
Speaking as a priest, I know I am not fully competent in many areas of running a church. None of us are. Hiring a youth minister does not replace the vocation of every cleric to care for every member of the congregation, “…old and young, rich and poor.” A good youth minister can support leaders in building relationships with young people, as long as they are willing to learn and grow. In the meantime, seek opportunities to learn more about relating to young people. I don’t mean learn how to use the latest technology; I mean learning how to listen to and support them through their transitions and challenges of adolescence.
3. You have calculated the salary based on minimum wage
You may not be hiring an ordained person, but you are hiring a minister; a professional with training, experience and qualifications. Whether or not you have a payscale system, there are many guidelines you can use. Consult with other churches in your area. Start with the average income in your parish, then consider the education level and experience you expect. And do not forget to budget enough in the long term for raises in cost-of living and merit based on increased experience.
4. You have enough funding for salary (more than minimum wage, even) but not program
We can talk about relationships being the foundation of youth ministry all day. I can also talk about the dangers of relying too much on program (in short, without relationships they do not nurture lifelong faith in Christ) but every youth ministry needs a program budget. Mark DeVries of Youth Ministry Architects suggests, between salary and programming, you should budget $1,000 per student. The lower the income of the families in your parish, you want to invest more per student to cover the costs of outings, retreats and supplies.
Another part of programming is continuing education for your youth minister. Make sure time and money is available for her/him to attend conferences, network with other youth ministers and keep up with the latest research.
5. Parishioners and lay leadership express no interest in getting to know your young people
Let’s be honest. Teenagers can be intimidating. They insist on dressing in their own style, they stick their heads into devices we don’t understand and, according to what we see on TV, know way more about sex and drugs than we ever will (this is not true, by the way, but it feels that way). Wouldn’t it be easier to hire someone who already understands all this to deal with them?
Well, maybe easier, but not effective. The Christian faith has survived for over 2,000 years because it is lived out in community. Jesus was always drawing his disciples into relationship with those who made them uncomfortable. As isolated as they sometimes appear, teenagers need community. They need mentors. They need nurturers. They need to be invited to help with dinners and taught how to use the 40 year old coffee urns. They need to know they are loved.
Do you have a prayer team? Ask them to start praying for your young people daily. Try a secret grandparent where older volunteers are paired up with a teenager to pray for them and write them letters. If you start to build relationships across generations, you may even find you don’t need a youth minister at all!
6. You do not take Screening in Faith or your safe church programs seriously
I am getting dangerously close to blaming and shaming churches who are trying to find ways to get around these requirements. I would go so far as not recommending such a church to a family looking for a church to call home.
Every time you try to cut a corner with insurance or screening, you are putting everyone at risk–your youth, your volunteers, your staff and your new youth minister. Youth ministers are not contractors. They are staff. Youth ministry is a community responsibility. Do not look for ways to not have to deal with your insurance broker or police background checks. Don’t think of it as going through the motions. Imagine your church as a place committed to keeping people safe. And don’t make your youth minister solely responsible for the safety of your most vulnerable people. Make it a community responsibility.
7. You expect young people to fit seamlessly into your way of doing things
I remember serving on a parish council as a young person. When I would ask a question or make a suggestion, I was often told, “We already dealt with that months/years ago.” It was suggested I refer to the minutes from years before I was even capable of sitting on a parish council. The other line I heard a lot was, “Are YOU going to do it?” In other words, we’ll let you screw it up so we don’t need to take any responsibility for it’s failure. It seemed no one thought I had anything new to add to that conversation, or maybe what I am suggesting could be worth the risk.
Youth are not the church of tomorrow, they are part of your church…today. The Holy Spirit is speaking through them. Rather than building a church where our older folks are comfortable to hand down to our young people, Christian community means everyone has a voice and an opportunity to serve God with the gifts we have at this moment.
Don’t hire a youth minister if you are not interested in hearing what young people want to create with you in your church.
8. You think your worship is just fine and doesn’t need to change
By hiring a youth minister I can only assume you want to open up your worship to a whole new demographic. You don’t need to immediately invest in guitars, drums and screens. But have you considered what it is like to come to your service for the first time for someone who has never been to church? How easily can a young person understand why you worship God the way you do? You may be surprised to find young people have few complaints about your service except that they are not really a part of it. Can they hear their language and concerns at all in the liturgy? Do you expect them to come just because it is Sunday morning? If so, hold off on hiring a youth minister until you have listened to your young people’s perceptions of your worship service and your leadership is ready to take them seriously.
9. You have not consulted with wider church youth ministry structures
Most churches that are part of a denomination will have some staff or wider network of youth ministry. There is a wealth of resources for your parish at this level. I can’t count how many times I have heard regional youth ministry staff say, “If only they had called me sooner, I could have helped them avoid this.” With only a few exceptions, I’d be willing to bet your denominational authorities who take calls about money and buildings all day would be happy to share some ideas about how to build a ministry with young people.
Don’t be discouraged
If you have reached this point and are beginning to think you have to go back to the drawing board, don’t be discouraged. Just like a new building, a youth ministry needs a solid foundation. Dealing with these issues before you start on that job description will give your youth ministry a much better chance to grow.
Finally, consult, consult, consult.
Talk to your neighbouring churches. Talk to your denominational structure. Most importantly, talk to your young people! And if you are ready for the possibility that they already have all of this figured out, they are just waiting to be asked, then you are even closer to being ready to hire a youth minister.