In the article Rob talks about 2 lies and 2 truths:
1. You should be a lifer in youth ministry.
2. You should never think of youth ministry as a stepping stone.
1. Not everyone is cut out to be in youth ministry forever.
2. Youth ministry is a great place to start
When I look at these initially and on the surface, I have no problem with them at all. In fact, I agree. I know people who shouldn't be in youth ministry, let alone be a lifer. I also know folks who started out in youth ministry, did a great job, but then moved on to planting a church or doing whatever. But again, that's just a surface response to the article, because below that surface, there is a larger unfolding narrative in the church. Rob, whether he knows it or not, is bumping up against a historical precedent.
Historically, youth ministry wasn't even a legitimate career path at all. In fact for the most part, churches didn't really have paid youth workers until the 1970's. But after churches saw the success of YFC, Young Life, and others in the 1960's they wanted their own clubs and youth rallies. They were liking what they were seeing and so they offered positions to YFC people to come and work for them. See, these awesome volunteer youth workers thought, "You mean you'll pay me to do this?!" and off they went. But of course they'd also have to be the janitor (this is still a thing in the church today all over the country by the way), but hey, they were getting paid to do what they loved, minus the mopping of bathroom floors. This began the professionalization of youth ministry, but it didn't at all make it a legitimate career option. What it did do was create a construct and a system of training for the someday "real" pastor who would get their training in the children and youth departments with the promise that, one day, they might be ready to take their own congregation. This is the stepping stone training model Rob mentions that is still alive and well today and one in which he sets to espouse.
Real Pastors versus Real Teachers
I remember getting the opportunity to speak in the main service as a young youth worker in southern California. I relished the opportunity and I gave it my all. Afterwards people were very complimentary and affirmed the message I gave but I'll never forget when a woman asked me, "Brock, you did an amazing job this morning, so when are you going to become a "real" pastor?
Later that day we were having a youth leaders meeting at our home and one of our volunteers was a history teacher at one of the middle schools in the area. I asked him if anyone had ever asked him when he was going to become a principle. He smirked and said, "Why in the world would I want to be a principle, I'm a teacher, I love history, and I love the day to day grind of working with middle schoolers."
That conversation happened twenty years ago and this volunteer leader is still teaching middle school history. Has he failed? Is he underachieving? Has he not become a "real" educator? How could he make a career of this when the natural, or might I say, the legitimate progression is to use teaching as a stepping stone to move up the ladder?
This is ridiculous... right!? Of course it is - teaching as a career is not only honorable but it's also a norm. But for youth pastors, this doesn't seem to be the case, it is not the norm, even though many of us have given our lives and our careers to bringing legitimacy to the profession.
Longevity and the Widening of Influence
I remember getting in an online argument (so lame) over the question concerning if older youth workers are better at youth ministry than younger youth workers. I'm still not sure how I stumbled into that ridiculous exchange, but there I was, giving my two cents. The funny thing is that it got a little heated (not from my end of course =) But my point was this, when you're first in youth ministry, your audience is pretty narrow - you have the ear of teenagers but not much else. You get a little older, maybe get married and have a child and then all of a sudden college students are listening to you. You live life a bit more, raise your children and all of sudden parents are leaning in, taking notes. The problem with this stepping stone concept is that, just when parents start listening, many get out, many move on, or just quit all together.
My heroes have always been 60 something year old youth workers. Students listen to them because they know that they love them and have wisdom and knowledge to give them, but parents are also listening because these veterans have raised kids and have so much to offer in the way of first hand experience. At that point a beautiful partnership is established. Parent and youth worker working together in a way that only a veteran can fully understand. But unfortunately, this isn't the case in most settings around the country. I even know churches who have fired youth workers based on their age. Ugh! Clueless!
I remember applying for a youth pastor position at a church and I asked them what the salary was. They said that they try to keep it right at a first year teaching salary. Now, in most churches around the country this is basically the norm. The problem though is that teachers get raises, they get a masters degree and then get a huge bump in pay, eventually they receive tenure... But for many, maybe not Rob's church, but for most churches around the country they keep that salary right there around a first year teacher pay (or worse), often with lesser benefits than the other pastors on staff. It's very difficult to stay in it long term when the singles pastor is making twice as much as you (I experienced this first hand).
Youth Ministers and Starter Homes
Rob writes that youth ministry is a great place to start. The problem is that the position is much more weighty than that. If we affirm what he's saying, then youth ministry is like a starter home that needs just a little TLC, so you can resell it and make a profit. If this is the continuing attitude, then our students get a miserable youth worker, or at the very least, a dissatisfied one who longs for the head pastor position, and ultimately does not feel called to them. The youth worker who is longing for a position further up the food chain find themselves detached from their assignment. I could not resell a starter home unless I kept it at an emotional distance, not putting all my time and effort to make it my dream home. I am saving that for later, for my "real" home. Unless there are people willing to push for equal pay for equal work, Rob is right. It's a good place to start.
Now I do want to pause here and let you know that I'm guessing Rob and Youth Specialties and I agree on most things. I bet there would be points of great affirmation and agreement and I don't want to take what was written and blow it out of proportion at all. He's a youth worker, he's giving his life to students and parents and Youth Specialties has encouraged my longevity more than any other organization. I honor and respect that. We just have a different slant on this. And that is all this is.
Trust me, I've Tried it
One thing to know is that I'm not speaking without some experience here. I've taken a shot at hiring people who knew they weren't ultimately called to youth ministry. Now maybe Rob has had a better experience with this, but for the most part, I have not. Youth ministry is really difficult, its not for the thin skinned or for those who wish they were somewhere else. When I've made those hires in the past, it was like pulling teeth to get them to do the consistent, everyday, in the trench grind of youth work. I was constantly having to motivate, constantly riding them to get up and get out there. The adolescent journey is such a roller coaster ride - one day they love Jesus and then the next they are a buddhist and are grinding with a stranger on Saturday night. Its not for the faint of heart. Calling is important. It's everything!
From Within The System
I think ultimately why I struggle with the article is that its promoting a system that has handcuffed and limited youth workers all over the country for as long as I can remember. And Rob and YS are arguing from a place of power - its an argument that supports the current and constant system that we live in, a hierarchal archaic system. For example just this month a friend of mine, who is the youth pastor at a church that is a multi-site church, has been approached to go and oversee one of their sites. He's doing such a bang up job with the youth ministry that he's being recruited to leave youth ministry and go and oversee one of these video venues. This is the mindset. Youth ministry is a stepping stone, only in this case, to a situation that I believe actually has less impact, less teaching opportunity, and away from his calling.
Is there truth in the article? You bet! But I take pride in living and arguing from the other side. I've been in youth ministry for over 25 years and I can tell you, it has not been easy to stay and mostly, that is because of systemic issues that we are touching on here.
But ultimately, despite the pay or the lack of respect or authority, I've felt called. Calling trumps everything! So it really all boils down to calling. And yes, you can go start a business and be a volunteer youth worker, you can be a pastor and an advocate for youth. But when you sense a strong calling like I have felt, you don't let anything keep you from it. Does calling change? Of course, and when it does, go at it! But if you feel called to be a head pastor, then go be an associate, go run a multi-site venue, go sit under someone who is a head pastor... and get your butt out of youth ministry. Just saying.