For about two years, I was a “permanent” youth director in Nashville. Until I moved. Then, for four years, I was a “permanent” youth director in a suburb of St. Louis. Until I was called to another church. I’m coming to realize that I’ve never actually been a “permanent” youth director. I’ve always been an interim.
Transition has been the name of my ministry game, as I have been on staff at three different churches (a volunteer at three more), gone through five transitions in youth ministry, and averaged less than two years in each position. I now work for Ministry Architects, and in my work coaching youth directors, I’m seeing more and more how crucial it is—for us and for our churches—to transition well.
A truly “permanent” youth director is not actually as common as we think. Although statistics about the duration of the average youth director tenure vary, the high end average is only four years. This figure suggests that the majority of youth in our churches have at least two youth directors during middle and high school. Given the high turnover, and the possibility of God calling youth ministers into new positions, I’d like to suggest that success starts with understanding our role: we’re all interims. This mindset helps youth directors transition well both into and out of their positions.
Over and over again, I see youth workers make the same mistakes because they forget that they are really interims (whether they stay two years or 20), liable to be called by God into new and different opportunities. As a result, two of the biggest mistakes that surface in my conversations with youth directors are 1) the “superstar mentality” and 2) the “blank slate.”
First, the “superstar mentality.” If you’ve been around youth ministry for more than a few weeks, you know that when a superstar leaves, the fallout can be huge. This is illustrated by a case study that I witnessed.
At a church with which my organization worked, six months after the former youth director, Beth, had left for another position, there were still big letters on the wall of the youth room that read: “We love you Beth!” Six months after she left. Students, parents, and leaders would all say that they “used to have a great group of youth coming.” But now that Beth was gone, they could barely get even a few youth to show up. The youth were gone because their director was gone.
To be called by a church to do youth ministry is to be called to do the load-bearing work of creating the kinds of systems that can run without you. Youth directors are more likely than others to leave a church sooner, yet oftentimes, the volunteers they recruit are not any more likely than them to be around for the long term. So, finding ways to delegate tasks and broaden volunteer development can be a way to transition well. If this is done, then a congregation will look more like another one with which we’ve worked. This congregation is on their fourth youth director in 10 years—including one who stayed six years and two who stayed two years each. But despite the transitions, the ministry continues to thrive. The ministry didn’t walk out the door when each subsequent youth pastor did.
To make your church look more like this one, lead by stepping out of the center. Look for ways to celebrate volunteers, parents, youth, and other staff. Encourage more engagement and put volunteers in leadership roles. Tell stories about the great things that were happening in the youth ministry before you arrived and redirect any comments about how things will be “so much better” now that you’re here. There will be those who will try to encourage you by putting down the person who came before you. Don’t take the bait.
To avoid the “superstar mentality,” here’s an important question to ask yourself: what would happen to your ministry tomorrow if you left for a few months? Would the volunteers know how to run your programs? Would your absence leave a major void? Take stock of how much of the day-to-day needs of the ministry revolve around you. Step out of the center and lead from there. Over-functioning in leadership puts youth ministry in a very fragile position.
The second common mistake that youth directors make is trying to leave a blank slate for the next director. It might seem like the greatest gift that you can give your successor is to leave the ministry with almost nothing planned (so that the next person can “make it their own”). But the best thing you can do for your church is exactly the opposite.
In a sustainable youth ministry, a new youth director shouldn’t mean a huge shift in the programming, events, and ministry model. The best gift you can leave a new youth director is a ministry that is in full swing—one that she can jump right into and observe in action. Your successor can make changes, of course, but it’s a lot easier to steer a vessel that’s already moving!
Transitioning well out of a position means being deliberate about doing the things that you would be doing if you were to be there for another year. Keep recruiting volunteers, setting the calendar of events, and selecting the curriculum. Also, encourage and equip the volunteers to be prepared to continue in the roles they’ve agreed to, knowing that transitions are not always as smooth as we all might like.
You have an opportunity to create a sustainable ministry in which responsibility is distributed and volunteers play a big role. This will leave a legacy where youth in your church can name a multitude of people who have impacted their faith, rather than just one “superstar.” And this starts with transitioning well.
Jen DeJong began working in youth ministry in 2002 as the Youth Program Coordinator at First Presbyterian Church in Nashville, TN. She currently serves as Vice President of Innovation for Ministry Architects, overseeing the work with many of their churches.
Jen graduated from Vanderbilt University with a B.S. in Cognitive Studies and a minor in Communications. She also earned a M.S. at Vanderbilt in Developmental Psychology with a special emphasis on parental involvement in teenagers’ extracurricular activities.
She currently resides in Springfield, Illinois with her husband, Marc, and their two daughters, Maria and Rose.