The Challenges and Joys of Youth Ministry in Your Forties
I vividly remember my call to youth ministry. It was probably a pretty typical experience honestly: church kid goes to large conference, church kid experiences something he’s never experienced before in quality, size, power, and fun. Church kid feels moved by the Holy Spirit to go forward near the end of the conference and give his life to Jesus (no this was not my 14th rededication). Church kid senses a call to youth ministry.
The clarity of the call to youth ministry that I sensed as a seventeen-year-old has been an guide in times of doubt and times of drought. The way I do youth ministry has changed, not only as I’ve grown in experience and understanding, but as I myself have changed as a person.
As a twenty-something I was a generalist in youth ministry. I tried to do everything well and be all things to all people. I longed to see immediate and profound transformation in the lives of students everyday…and honestly I was mediocre across the board.
As a thirty-something I got more creative and tried new things. I worked to build stronger teams of leaders and be cutting-edge in the programs we created and how we engaged the community. I tried a lot of things. Some worked, some were a solid “meh,” and others failed gloriously.
As someone who is in his late forties and STILL working with young people I’m prone to all kinds of self-doubt and the temptations to be relevant, spectacular, and powerful in how I approach my work. But just as there are challenges of being someone who is in their forties and works with young people, there are some really exciting things to realize and press into also.
Embrace Your Strengths
Author Marcus Buckingham writes, “If you want to grow – if you want to be successful in your career, relationships, your life – you’ve got to focus on your strengths, and manage around your weaknesses.” This was a game changer for me.
This way of thinking about strengths and weaknesses is born out in 1 Corinthians 3. There is jealousy and strife in the church. Some like Paul, others like Apollos. Each had a different purpose, job to do, a different strength. Verse 9 says that we are God’s fellow workers and the Greek word used there is “synergoi”, which is where we get our word synergy. When there is “synergy” between two things, those things are not only working well together, they are better together than they are apart. So it follows that the greater we work on harnessing and cultivating our strengths, there will be greater “synergy” that God can then use to “grow” his church and young people.
Youth ministry in your forties is a fantastic time to identify your weaknesses and manage around them, but it is also a great time to cultivate your strengths (to borrow the farming metaphor that Paul uses) so that they can lead to even greater “synergy” in ministry in your fifties and sixties.
Work With The “Telos” In Mind
In my twenties I longed to see transformation in students every day. I was often disappointed.. In my thirties, I learned to see and strive for growth over 10 years…from grade school through high school and into college. In my forties, I still want to see both of those, but I’ve also been afforded the opportunity to see growth in young people as they now become adults and parents.
Not long ago I got a message from someone who was a student in a ministry I was a part of more than ten years ago. He was pretty involved but he always seemed a bit ambivalent and distant despite my best efforts. He wrote saying, “I am doing really well and doing work that is perfectly fulfilling my need to speak for those without a voice. A need that was cultivated in part during our trip(s) to NOLA. Thanks for being there for us and teaching us the value of service.” Currently working as a reporter/filmmaker for an independent, non-partisan, non-profit news agency, he’s married and starting a family.
In retrospect, maybe he wasn’t ambivalent, maybe I just feel into the trap of believing that God growing students “should look a certain way.” God reminded me that I could plant a seed, someone else could water it and God does the growing… and this process takes time.
As you get older the long view is all around you. It is the perfect decade to consistently remind yourself to work with the “telos” in mind. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 3:13 that “each one’s work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it.” I want to serve students in a way that won’t only get them to the end of high school with a growing faith; I want to serve them in a way that empowers them to get to “the Day,” the “telos” (the end), with their faith.
Minister To Youth By Serving Parents
By this time it’s also likely that you start to have your own kids in your youth ministry. This will profoundly shape how you are able to interact with a different group of people in the church: parents.
As my kids got older, parents shifted from seeing me not just as the youth pastor of their kids, but as a resource, partner, and ally. Maybe you’ve seen it already when parents talk to you. The look in their eyes shifts from “yeah, maybe you know something because you work with teenagers” to, “oh man, you know the joy and pain I feel as a parent of a teenager, teach me your ways.” I’m exaggerating a little bit…maybe. But your forties you are also afforded a unique opportunity to partner in profound ways with the people who will be with these teenagers for most of their lives: their parents.
Humbly Pour Into Those Who Are New
Why are there fewer youth pastors in their forties and beyond? The pay isn’t stellar…but when did we do this for the pay? (It’s the pizza, let’s be honest.) Seriously, economics are a consideration, but the typical reason for leaving is burnout. How many younger youth pastors might stay longer if those of us in our forties took seriously the call and example of Paul to mentor others in ministry?
I know you have a monumental list of things to do. I know there already aren’t enough hours in the day. I know you are tired and feel alone. But your forties can be a unique opportunity to speak into the lives and ministry of those who are younger in their vocational ministry.
In 1 Cor. 4:15 Paul writes, “For though you have countless (10,000) guides in Christ, you do not have many fathers.” Just like the Corinthians, we have access to an unlimited number of voices, opinions, and ideas about how to do youth ministry… but so many of us lack a voice of wisdom and experience. Google “how to do youth ministry” and you get over 269 million results with headlines like “7 simple ways to vastly improve your youth ministry” or “10 easy steps to guarantee a successful youth ministry”. If only it were that easy. We need good blogs, good speakers, good books, great resources (thank you Rooted Reservoir !!!), but those who are new to youth ministry also need experienced gentle voices who are willing to walk alongside us, a Paul to our Timothy.
Those of us lucky enough to be still serving young people in the church in our forties face many challenges, but we have many unique opportunities also. Let us not forget that while some have planted us, some have watered us, it is God who has grown us (1 Cor 3:6). We are God’s temple and his Spirit dwells in us (3:16). We are fools so that we might be wise (3:18), we are servants of Christ and stewards of the mystery (4:1), and we work for a Kingdom that does not consist in talk, but in power (4:20)!!
 Henri Nouwen’s book In The Name of Jesus, a reflection on Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness, is a must read for any Christ-like leader.